For years since is realization, the Second Law of thermodynamics has been viewed as a curse, placed on us by this wretched Universe. The Inevitable monster that is increasing of Entropy over time. It’s the rule that things will fall apart, that decay is inevitable. More scientifically, it is the law that all physical systems are more stable when they have the least amount of energy, when they are in what is known as ‘The Ground State’. Typically the more energy you put into a system, (such as gravitational potential energy when laying bricks for a house), the more ordered it is, and the less stable it will be. (The more unstable it is, the more ordered it will be, the more ordered it is, the less entropy it has.) This is why a glass will shatter upon impact with the floor, but broken glass wont reassemble when hit together. It takes more energy to create something than it does to destroy it.
Don’t think about this too poetically or you’ll end up like W.H. Auden in ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’: “All the clocks in the city, began to whirr and chime. Oh let not time deceive you, you cannot conquer time. In headaches and in worry, life vaguely leaks away, and time will have his fancy, to-morrow or to-day.” I hope you can see why it appears a curse to some. However I think The Second law has gotten a bad reputation. When you really start to think about it, as you’ll see in a moment, you realize this ‘Existential bummer’ as Jason Silva calls it, allows for so much. From new art forms, & new information to possibly even free will. Allow me to start with the Art forms, more specifically, electronic art.
The grand fingerprint of entropy on technology, is indeed, the glitch. There are a growing number of artists (In music, dance & aesthetics) that have begun to focus on Glitchy media or ‘Glitch art’. Maybe to some, it’s a sort of nostalgia, because unlike the ‘Good ol’ days’, as technology becomes more advanced, broken becomes more defined. It is increasingly rare that a naturally occurring error appears in your laptop or Blue-Ray player that causes it to malfunction in a similar style to that of a VHS or magnetic cassette tape. These types of errors occur in just about everything pre-dating the MP3 player and post-dating the Colour TV. Think of the way an old toy makes a slower demon-ized sound when played, only somewhat resembling the way it worked when you were a child. This is what the Second Law does to electronic’s, it increases their disorder. It increases their entropy. However those old defects that send you, or at least me, rearing back to child hood aren’t the same on every old broken toy or VCR. That is where the Art of the glitch lies. Sure it’s nice when Technology works the way it’s supposed to, but it is far more interesting when the system is broken, because there is no such thing as total control over a piece of broken technology; it is just going to do what it wants.
Glitches are interesting and beautiful because they subvert our expectations. Despite being a carefully devised system, to be ran entirely by you, when it’s broken, it does whatever it wants. Like a scratched CD or a corrupt Video file, YOU expect the song or video to go one way, but the media can play in multiple different forms, all ‘correct’ to the machine. This is especially fascinating because it creates a creative authority separate from the Artist. Even if the glitch is an explicit consequence of an action taken by the author, the machine still plays its own part, and shows something of its self. In some ways, a glitch is to a machine as a piece of art is to a Human. In the way an art piece can allow you to glimpse into the creative mind of the artist, the Glitch allows you to see the inside processes happening in the machine. The glitchier it is, the more you are looking under the hood at the machines processes. There is also a strange artistic satisfaction in pushing a machine, & seeing the machine struggle when you force it to do something it really wasn’t meant to do. It may have to do with allowing the machine to achieve feats it couldn’t possibly have completed while in regular use, extending the machines expression of its self to new heights. I say this not to anthropomorphize the machine, but to enhance the artistic power of the phrase glitch.
But do glitches really encompass this powerful ability to subvert our expectations, or are they just subverting our ignorance? Are glitches entirely unpredictable? To answer that question, we are going to have to start much broader, beginning with asking, is anything unpredictable? I mean, the universe as we currently model it has 12 Fundamental Particles which interact with each other in 5 predictable ways. Let’s say, you knew the position, velocity, momentum, spin etc. of all the individual particles in the universe at one time, would you be able to predict everything? In Philosophy, this view is known as Causal Determinism. Pierre Simon Laplace, (Astronomer and Mathematician) wrote about this very scenario in his essay: A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. Laplace writes:
“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”
If the view of Causal Determinism is correct, that means nothing, not even Human behaviour, would be unpredictable. Because we are made up of the same material as everything in the rest of the universe, if you knew all the information in the universe, about the universe at any given moment, you could tell me exactly what I will write about in my next post. However this view implies there is a constant amount of information in the universe. To confirm if there is or isn’t a constant amount of information in the universe, we first need to define what we mean by information.
The most common examples of information are data flowing through the internet, Language and Video. It is the order of one’s and zero’s within WordPress’ servers that define the information in this post. It’s the order of letters that define a word and the order of words which define the information within a sentence and so on and so forth. It is the order of the colour of the pixels on your screen that display the information contained on or within your computer. So the common link here, or so it seems, is that fundamentally Information is about Order. But that is assuming that each letter carries the same information as the next, the same string of binary has as much information as any other string of the same length; and this is just not true.
Say you have 3 binary strings as follows:
The first contains no information, it is the state of a blank memory. The second can be compressed into: repeat; so it contains more information than the first, but still only 4 significant values. The third string can not be compressed because it does not have any patterns or repetition. It is completely disordered, and carries the most information, because it cannot be reduced.
Wait a minute, didn’t we just say information was order? Now it appears that the most disordered string has the most information. Interesting… Lets see how this rule applies to the English language.
If you have a word that starts with the letter ‘Q’, it is almost certain that the next letter will be a ‘U’; The ‘U’ is redundant. Similarly in most if not all cases, having both a ‘c’ and a ‘k’ to produce the same sound one of them could make, is redundant (as in Sick can be reduced to Sic or Sik). This is the reason you can make sense of a non nonsensical string of letters like this:
Th Qik Brn Fx jums oer te laz dg.
So now it appears that a system with the most information, with no extraneous data, is when the system has no patterns; when the System is incompressible, when it is the most disordered. Now it seems, pure information, is disorder; otherwise known as entropy.
Going back to the string: 1001101011000101…
it has the most entropy out of any of the other strings because you couldn’t be able to figure out the value of any of the other digits based on knowing a few of the other digits. It has no order.
The problem is that systems with the most information contain little meaning to us humans. (For example, a video with maximum entropy, maximum information, would just be a colourful white noise.) While at the same time we are bored with completely ordered systems because they have no information, and therefore are equally meaningless. Somewhere in between we find the complex patterns and extract meaning from them, in our art, music and ideas. It is this search for meaning which leads us to propose scientific theory’s, which are essentially our way of compressing the universe.
Take for example Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity:
This simple three term equation accurately describes how an apple falls from a tree, how the planets orbit the sun, how the sun orbits a super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, how the Milky Ways’ approximately 26 satellite galaxy’s orbit it, how stars and black holes form and behave, as well as how the whole universe expands outward from the Big Bang. Because of this genius equation we can predict eclipse’s, transits, and returning of comets thousands of years into the future. The Future is now more predictable. So does that mean Laplace was correct? If you compressed all the universe’s laws and rules into a single equation, would everything would be predictable? Well for a moment lets assume this is true. Going back to an earlier statement, Laplace’s Model requires there to be a constant amount of Information in the universe. However, we know that information directly proportional to disorder, to entropy. So Laplace’s model requires there to be a constant amount of disorder, a constant amount of entropy. This does not appear to be the universe we live in.
So that means, because of the Second law, this constant increasing entropy of the universe, New information must be being created all the time. This makes sense because it would take much more information to specify the state of the universe now, than at a moment right after the big bang. So Laplace was wrong! Now the question is, where is this new information coming from? My guess? Quantum Mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is the Theory of how the Twelve fundamental particles interact. It is probably the most well tested accurate theory’s we have ever come up with. Despite its success, however, it is still only probabilistic. This means you simply can not Predict where an electron will be at any given time, you can only find the probability density of where you might find it. So when you do make a measurement and interact with the electron in some way, you have created new information by finding the electron. This happens not only when humans make a measurement, but any time 2 or more particles interact; they create new information. Einstein famously said “God does not play dice with the universe.” when referring to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. Maybe, the reason we cant compress quantum mechanics further is because of this new information. You cant predict something that doesn’t yet exist. So it could be these quantum events that are driving up the entropy of the universe. All this new information is forcing disorder into systems, and this is what we observe as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Maybe it is only in a universe where this law is obeyed that we could actually have free will. It could very well be the quantum interactions inside our head that allow us to think spontaneously and freely. To have true free will, you need some Probability, you need the curse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
It may seem that these quantum events are too small to have any meaningful impact on something like ourselves, but there are physical systems in which are so sensitive to change, that even the slightest difference in initial conditions can lead to astonishingly different outcomes later on (See double pendulum). This is known as Chaos, in laymen terms as ‘The Butterfly Effect’. It could be that you and I are such physical chaotic systems, so sensitive to initial conditions inside our brains, that these quantum events allow us our free will.