Reflections on Entropy: Dai Williams to RJ Parsons

Dear Robert,

Now 18 hours past a critical business deadline, I have wasted the last 90 minutes after my state-of-the-art wireless keyboard started hashing my password log-ins and erasing my in-box.

Two months ago, I had to take a second mobile phone contract in order to use an old but rugged and reliable phone as backup to my almost state-of-the-art smart phone. The new phone has fabulous features, but is increasingly temperamental, frequently loses signal and the battery lasts less than six hours.

The old phone battery lasts six days.

The amazing hi-speed broadband system tells me I have to upgrade to a higher tariff because I am using too much data. How and why I don’t know. But I am told that the leading edge communications systems apparently offered for free – Google and Skype – are now constantly harvesting my computer and communications for marketing intelligence and global security surveillance.

Hey ho – there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The smart phone takes stunning photographs and videos, even time lapse. But Apple has issues with Microsoft and so I am unable to download my photos or videos to my own computer, though I can send them to family and friends around the world in seconds. Deleting them takes hours. Memory full.

All these systems require digital backup – once on floppy discs, then CDs, then DVDs, then eternal drives. The backup system has a life of its own and consumes ever larger slabs of storage. Upgrade from 120 to 500 GB, then to 1TB (terrabite!) but still not enough room for the next backup, so, upgrade to 2TB. I suspect the same data ad photos are backed up several times.

I have no idea what half these data are. But put them all in The Cloud, the corporations and systems urge, at first for free. But once everything is there, they will no doubt hold it to ransom with massive rental fees.

Technology is breeding complexity in human interactions – economic and social. The world is addicted to technology, complexity and data. But with complexity comes entropy – the tendency for all systems to eventually clog up, wear out, break down and finally stall and crash.

Friction is a critical entropy factor in engines – without lubrication they heat up, melt and seize up. Paper is an entropy factor in administration. Bureaucracy is an entropy factor in organisations. Data overload is anentropy factor in our digital economy.

“Because we can” is the cult of the 21st century. But, although we can link everything to almost everything else, it is a hazardous conceit to do so at every opportunity.

Complexity increases vulnerability. As the digital world becomes more complex it becomes more vulnerable – not to Jihad or oligarchs, but to itself.

Perhaps it is my age – that as I struggle to keep up with technology by buying more and more “stuff,” I have less and less time to do anything productive. Everything is maintenance, insurance, backup, passwords, documents, endless contracts – a labyrinth of complexity. Now system after system fails – the smart phone, the rugged camera, the accounts system, the website, as software and hardware fail or are superceded, abandoning earlier versions. Earlier backups are useless
because there is no compatible software to run them. Where files are recovered, their dates are over-written with the recovery date.

Smart? Not very.

I have more Information technology in this room than my former employer had to run an entire oil refinery 35 years ago. But now it creaks and groans, fails, corrupts, and clutters almost everything. Once I had more IT experience than 9 out of 10 of my friends and neighbours. But I still relied on two brilliant IT gurus to see beyond complexity and into the finer technical mysteries. Tragically, they are both beyond reach now. Fred died of a tropical virus. Ian’s wonderful mind has been frozen by a stroke.

Entropy creeps up slowly, unnoticed, like a flood rising – until it reaches a critical level when the sea walls and the levees break. It arrives softly, it crashes hard.

In large populations, the vulnerable will suffer first – the pensioners who cannot afford to upgrade, or cannot understand new operating systems. Then the old businesses, and public services that cannot keep up with the data revolution.

But ironically it may be the ultimate complexity addicts – the global corporations, stock markets, and governments ever chasing change and total control – that may be most vulnerable to complexity crashes and entropy overload. Entropy may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, not a bomb.

Such is the inter-relatedness of global systems that once one major sector starts to fail, others will collapse too. The warning signs of entropy are the rising tide of inefficiency, falling productivity, and the social and economic exclusion of those left behind by “smart phone” technology – or totally pre-occupied by it.

But mega systems failure is likely to come with a crash – as with global finance markets in 2008 – or more likely a series of inter-related crashes like the 1998 Far East finance crash, or the struggles of some euro-zone states.

Mega IT failures could start with a solar storm disrupting global data networks. Or simply a new computer virus that locks out all passwords, or loops backup routines until all processing and storage capacities are overloaded, stall and crash.

Perhaps governments and corporations should revisit their Millennium Bug scenarios and contingency plans? Large area systems failures can affect power supplies, traffic management, communications and computer-optimised operations from medical care to air transport and food logistics.

In fact, in 2000, there were no serious contingency plans in the UK for national or international digital systems failures. Communities now – as then – would be left to their own resources for days or weeks without external food, fuel or communications. Urban populations already struggling to survive could experience social breakdown.

A softer scenario for digital entropy may see essential utilities continuing, but progressive collapse of commercial and government systems and processes, many now computer-optimised and de-staffed.

Different regions and nations will be affected in very different ways depending on their levels of digital dependency. Ironically, less developed nations and regions will be more resilient than densely populated, high technology societies, which may face a period of economic and social burnout.

Perhaps the really smart rats are already leaving the sinking ship of the digital economy, opting out of the smart phone culture, minimising reliance on computer systems and communications including social media.

This rat is balancing on the ship’s rail, not sure whether to battle on with the digital race against risingentropy or to throw the dysfunctional hardware and software overboard, abandon ship, learn to sail and catch fish, and seek like-minded souls hoping to find calmer seas and safer shores!

Squeak … splash?