March 4, 2013
“Greed, Capitalism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics”
By Emanuel Pastreich
Many lament our consumer culture and the ruthlessness and selfishness of today‘s people. The phenomenon of blind consumption is undeniable, and its damage to the ecosystem and to humanity itself is increasingly the primary threat we face. But the ultimate cause of such consumption is far from clear. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes that people make is to assume that because a trend is manifest that it necessarily has a single cause. Simple trends can be generated through the interference of complex factors.
There is great enthusiasm for employing the word “capitalism” to describe the run-away quality of contemporary consumer society, and increasingly that term is used by groups that we think of as both left and right.
But the word “capitalism” is rather ambiguous and its use obscures as much as it illuminates. To start with, that term suggests that the problems we are facing today, from climate change to the destabilization of markets and the disruption of economic systems through the globalization of production and distribution, are somehow just a repeat of the industrial revolution that socialists and communists denounced as “capitalism” in the nineteenth century.
Yet, although there are some similarities, the process today is quite different from that of the nineteenth century, or the twentieth century, and although we may see the spread of consumption as an indication of a loss of virtue on the part of citizens and leaders, perhaps that greed is the result, rather than the cause, of massive structural changes in our economy.
Consumption is driven in part by technology itself. As computer power increases exponentially, we find ourselves in constant race to produce devices that are faster and faster. But what is it that drives that race for a faster product? Is it the need of consumers for faster and faster smart phones and computers that compels us to make them? Is there truly such universal demand for faster devices in order to increase efficiency? Does the demand for new products actually originate with the individual?
Or could it be that these technologies are evolving following some hidden order that has little or nothing to do with consumer demand or the needs of society? Could it be that Moore’s Law, which suggests that the number of microprocessors that can be placed on a chip economically will increase exponentially, is in itself a force that drives the economy and increases consumption far beyond the needs of people in the face of economic disaster?
Of course the exponential increase in computer capability dictated by Moore‘s Law does not in itself form a force that drives the economy. But if increasing automation and the use of computers itself drives up the use of energy globally (and consumption as a result), then we can consider that the machine has in a real sense become a consumer-perhaps THE consumer-for global markets.
You see, computers do not have to think with the same nuance and complexity as humans before they can develop desire. Computers simply have a desire to increase the amount of electricity circulating. That is to say, they want to have more electrons spinning around between them.
So what is behind this “robot desire?” The answer is nothing more than the Second Law of Thermodynamics: more automation and more computers and computer networks, means more electrons in circulation and greater entropy.
Of course, ideology, markets, human greed and globalization are all legitimate tools for analyzing out of control consumption and the breakdown of society. The word “capitalism,” however, may keep us from perceiving the true nature of the overwhelming challenges we face and perhaps slow down our efforts to formulate a solution.