Everyday entropy: narrative arc

Plotting a ballistic arc with drag


Fig3PointNames_474 copy
Note that the narrative arc is a set of points that can be plotted as an arc, while the ballistic arc is a continuous curve that can be plotted as a set of points.

Entropy has no narrative arc; no birth, no crescendo, no death.  It is unlike energy.  Energy is born in fire, builds to its denouement in heat and motion, then dies in ash.  Entropy, on the other hand, was always already there, increases without growing, and evaporating into thin air.  There is no way to tell the story of entropy, and the math misses the point.  If you think about the great stories about entropy – Pynchon’s “Byron the bulb”; Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; Faulkner’s “The Bear”; O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”; Sandlin’s “Losing the War” – they are arc-less, meandering travel logs of disaffection and dislocation.  Entropy is the anti-narrative.  The comfort and clarity of narrative stories is possible because they cherry-pick details from the real world and fit them into the form of an information system, so that each bit of detail results in a clear change in the condition of the characters.  A narrative arc follows the form of the binary logarithm, not the natural logarithm of physical entropy.  Narrative works for the mind, but not so much for reality.  This has been evident since at least the ancient Greek Zeno’s paradox.

It is not only possible to break every transmissible message down into binary bits, it is necessary to avoid ambiguity in those parts of the message that are inherently binary.  If you code the message in trits, there will be two possible values for either yes or no, and no particular reason why the value should be coded one way or the other.  “Maybe” does not convey information about the source.  It does conveys information about the knowledge of the transmitter or translator, but it does nothing to increase the knowledge of the receiver.  It’s tempting to think of the spoken language as analog rather than binary, but only the meaning is analog.  The information in transmission comes from the vocal cords in a specific set of sound waves, each at a single frequency (with harmonics), each of which is only heard if it induces resonance in an individual cochlear hair cells.  In this way, both the sound impulse and the sound reception are quantised.  Building up to the level of language, every message may be broken down into a set of yes/no questions, although the meaning and the understanding in the physical minds of the sender and receiver are analog and cannot be reduced to a binary set.

Meaning and understanding cannot escape from spontaneity, and spontaneity, as opposed to causality, is the defining feature of entropy.  Something will only happen spontaneously if entropy increases in the process.  If something will only happen through a decrease in local entropy, then you know it will need maintenance – energy and waste elimination.  People always underestimate the maintenance cost of their solutions, often because they look so clearly right and morally sound that they should just take care of themselves.  This also accounts for the cognitive dissonance that comes from the news, where specific stories about heroic individual efforts solving great problems sit above the fold while general stories about society’s failure to solve the same problems appear below the fold or shunted back into the magazine.  Personal news stories focus on the thin tendrils of active force while surveys observe the billowing clouds of entropy.  The Shannon measure of information for a binary system increase faster than the physical entropy of the system.  This may or may not matter, but it may imply that there is more information than substance in the universe, and may explain why the internet is dominated by fantasy.

The narrative arc of energy also explains why the master-slave relationship is so compelling.  Mutual respect and arms length transactions are boring.  Money is abstract unless somebody has enough of it to buy people.  The power to compel another person’s actions is much clearer than the diffuse bargaining of an open labour market.  In this way, the transition from manufacturing to service in industrial economies may reflect something more fundamental and sinister than progress beyond physical work.  Given the choice between buying things and having servants, the market is choosing servants.  The service industry is not slavery, but that’s not the point.  The point is that slavery speaks to us in a language below the frequency of communication.  It makes sense and feels real in a way that mercantile exchange does not.  People just feel richer when something is done for them than they do when buying a finished product.  We feel compelled by stories of slavery and subjugation much than by stories of fair exchange and free action.  Energy is a matter of domination, while entropy is a matter of interrelation.  It even sounds dull.

But when you look at the predictability of the narrative arc, it looks a bit dull too, and prescriptive.  See Plotto: the master book of all plots.  When you look at history, remember that what remains are the narratives, not the entropy, and take a moment to ponder the popular narratives of this moment, and whether they reflect reality in the slightest.  24, Deadpool, LaLaLand.  The demands of the narrative arc are such that history is almost certainly misunderstood, and archeology falls into the same constraints as narrative.  Information without a story to hold it together is like a cloud of steam disintegrating into the cold air.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s