Grinding Engines


The mechanical sciences attained to a degree of perfection which, though obscurely foreseen by Lord Bacon, it had been accounted madness to have prophesied in a preceding age. Commerce was pursued with a perpetually increasing vigour, and the same area of the Earth was perpetually compelled to furnish more and more subsistence. The means and sources of knowledge were thus increased together with knowledge itself, and the instruments of knowledge. The benefit of this increase of the powers of man became, in consequence of the inartificial forms into which mankind was distributed, an instrument of his additional evil. The capabilities of happiness were increased, and applied to the augmentation of misery. Modern society is thus an engine assumed to be for useful purposes, whose force is by a system of subtle mechanism augmented to the highest pitch, but which, instead of grinding corn or raising water acts against itself and is perpetually wearing away or breaking to pieces the wheels of which it is composed.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Philosophical View of Reform, 1819-1820 

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it — the silence meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won. 
He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way. Or was it peculiar to his peculiar biological identity, a freak generated by his inept sensory apparatus? Interesting question, Isidore thought. But whom could he compare notes with? He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin.  Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here in his stricken living room atone with the lungless, all-penetrating, masterful world-silence.
- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Entropy is a concern of science-fiction as a whole.

SF - with its concentration upon imagined future history, the elision of past technology with future technology, encounters with alien species further down the road of technological advancement than us and, last but not least, time travel - seems especially concerned with historical transformation, particularly with regards to technology.

Humans seem to have a tendency to imagine future disaster, or at least future decay, as a way of expressing our perception that our own world is winding down and wobbling on the brink.  This may be an inherent human feeling (like the seemingly inevitable perception that younger generations are worse than our own, which Plato was banging on about thousands of years ago).

We’re all time travellers, in a way. We all travel from ‘the old days’ into uncertain futures. This feeling has become especially acute for humans living in the modern era, when the forces of production unleashed by the capitalist mode have achieved things which previous generations would have considered to be impossible except through sorcery. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, as they attempted to express the way the emerging capitalist system was changing all human experience:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

Capitalism began to revolutionise human life to an unprecedented degree, in unprecedented ways and at unprecedented speed, through the arrival of mass production, the factory system, technology, etc. The level and speed at which things changed massively increased.  Technology is a platform from which more sophisticated levels of technology may be attained, just as every scientific advance stems from earlier discoveries… moreover, since the economic basis of the technological revolution was industry, i.e. capitalism, the constant need to revolutionise the system was built into the system. Capitalists must always increase production, invest in new techniques and methods of production, pioneer new products, lower production costs, expand into new markets, etc. Capital breeds capital… and capital must be fed back into the process of expanding the productive forces. Every capitalist does this, for fear of being outstripped and put out of business.

Nevertheless, despite the dynamism of the system and the incredible material progress that it has brought, capitalism is inherently entropic.

Capitalism gave rise to the concept of entropy in the first place.   Thermodynamics (of which entropy is, as we know, the 'second law') - and with it much of modern physics -  was a scientific notion arrived at because of the Industrial Revolution, because the engineers wanted to know how their engines worked, why they didn't work, why they wound down, how they could be stopped from winding down and how they could be made to work better, stronger, faster, harder, longer. The connection continues: the application of entropy to Information Theory came from within the Rand Corporation.

Capitalism generates technological commodities which gradually run down, either in relative terms (i.e. becoming less efficient than new technology) or in absolute terms (i.e. in that they gradually get worn and used and tired) or in both.

This process generates wastage of technology. We’ve all been to the tip and seen those piles of old TVs, cookers, microwaves, freezers, etc. These are phenomena of modernity. I don’t mean that nothing decayed or fell apart in the Middle Ages or the Ancient world (of course it did), but the speed at which we produce more and more technology also increases the speed at which our world fills with technology that has become obsolete, decrepit, malfunctioning and abandoned.  The lives of humans in pre-modern, pre-technological societies are/were fundamentally dominated by endlessly repeating cycles embedded in nature.  The lives of humans in modern, technological society have many of the same cycles, but are increasingly dominated by the onward rush of change that comes with the continual revolutionizing of the productive forces.

Modernity has fundamentally reversed the old relationship humanity used to have with its creations, tools and machines.  For most of human history, the technological creations outlived the creators, both in general and often in particular.  The concept of the waterwheel would outlive the miller; often the particular wheel with which he worked would outlast him.  Now, humans outlive almost all their technological creations, except the most basic and/or monumental, like buildings... and even they have been changed, in both design practices and materials, almost beyond recognition.  The surgeon outlives successive generations of up-to-the-minute surgical tools, the web-designer outlives the most advanced hardware and software every year or so.  They even live to see the fundamental principles revolutionised.

The world that Plato died in was more or less the world he was born in, at least in terms of technology, and at least compared to us. To him, computers would have seemed like magic.  In 1980, Christopher H. Bidmead was able to write a script in which the Doctor expresses surprise that a computer retains information even when switched off. When the people who watched that episode as children (i.e. people like me) die… well, who knows?  Computers themselves may be obsolete by then.  But the undreamt-of advances of the future will leave the increasingly rickety state-of-the-art-circa-2012 standing... or more likely rotting.  Every new mp3 player or mobile phone or digital camera entails older models thrown in the scrap. DVD and Blu-Ray entailed piles of discarded old VHS tapes.  Every newly-purchased gadget means another of those little plastic-coated wire things that tie the brand new cables and leads into a neat bow.  Every DVD or CD bought means adding to the mountains of cellophane in which they come wrapped.

This is just the tip of the shitberg. From the earliest days of the industrial revolution – long before what we know as the green movement - people had been noticing the way that industrial technology generates wastage, pollution and rubbish as by-products. The railways were themselves the result of a staggering development of the productive forces of society, and their effects fed dialectically back into the system, contributing to yet more staggering development. But the combustion engine produced an enormous need to tear energy from the earth in the form of coal, it belched smoke, produced grease and dirt… and all its component parts were subject to all the wear and tear of shoe leather or flint hammers or any other tool. The gears and wheels and tracks wore away, stopped functioning properly, needed replacing, were torn out and discarded when superior innovations came along.

Time has always been, as Ovid put it, “the devourer of all things”, but it is only in the modern era – the era of capitalist industry and mass technology – that we humans have seen such impermeable and ubiquitous evidence of decay, wear and tear, abrasion, clutter and accelerating obsolescence. It surrounds us now. It demonstrates the impermanence of the things we make.  It lurks behind the latest innovations, waiting for their time to come.  And it is our creation.

It was one thing to see the natural world wither every autumn and regenerate itself every spring… these days we watch our own wondrous creations fall apart all around us, all the time, everywhere, no matter what we do. And unlike dead leaves, spent batteries don’t pass back into the soil from which they came. They sit on rubbish heaps. They engorge landfills. They float in canals. If we don’t trouble to do anything about it, they fill our drawers. And every time we open the drawer, they’re still there. Pooled in entropic uselessness. Production and consumption culminating in static malfunction. Recycling is an attempt to fend off industrial entropy as well as environmental devastation… but even the recycling collection vans belch out fumes; even the engines and crushers and pulpers and sievers of the recycling plant eventually run down.

That other great product of the modern age - world-scale, technological, industrial warfare - also creates entropy in massive doses.  All the machinery of modern war is industrially produced and industrially used.  The tanks, the machine guns, the planes, the bombs, the drones, the smart missiles, the body armour, the computer guidance systems, the depleted uranium-coated shells, the armour piercing rounds... they're all subject to the same pressures as all other industrial commodities.  Just like the mp3 players, the war machines are mass produced for profit.  Just like all machines, the military hardware wears down.  The newer model is designed and produced and sold.  A new missile system is bought by a government and all the old warheads are obsolete.  The unused weapons degrade and become useless.  The weapons that are used get bashed and battered, get sprayed with bullets or blown up (like the men who are sent to fire them).  Either that, or their gears grind and shread as the desert sand gets into their innards.  War is often said to lead to technological innovation, what with necessity being the mother of invention.  We might want to wonder how we define "necessity" in this context.

 And we might want to remember, alongside all the innovation, how much destruction war creates.  It leaves not only piles of expended and exhausted weapons, but cities reduced to rubble, the technological commodities that filled them turned to so many smithereens.  The wars that smash the wonders of the modern age to fragments are themselves products of the modern age.

The system that created the drive for hegemony, control of resources and markets which lead to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, also created the materiel which made the invasion possible... much of which was smashed, pulverised and incinerated in the process (to say nothing of the people who were turned to mincemeat or vapour).

But the loss of materiel simply refreshed the market for their products.  The debris piles grow, constantly refreshed by the engines of modernity.  In this sense, warfare is just the fastest, most extreme manifestation of the tendency inherent in capitalism towards the creation, circulation and consumption of commodities.

Modern warfare is industrial, technological... and it is like a frenzied, violent dramatization of the boom and slump cycle - the irresolvable and unreformable contradiction at the heart of capitalism.

This is where we loop back to the start and find the most basic reasons and ways in which capitalism is entropic.

It is the very necessity of accumulation to capitalists that causes crises.  In order to win in the market, the capitalist must invest in productivity.  He must produce his goods or services better, faster, cheaper.  He must drive down prices.  The primary way he can do this while continuing to turn a profit is to make workers more productive by investing in the machinery and techniques they use in the workplace.  But, in doing this, the capitalist changes the ratios.  The worker becomes more and more swamped by, integrated in and subordinate to machinery and systems.

The labour power of the worker is the source of exchange value, which appears in the market as price.  Human labour power is the only commodity that creates new value.  A worker spends only part of each working day creating the amount of value needed to perpetuate their own existence, the rest of the day is spent producing surplus value which goes to the capitalist.  The machinery used in the production process transmits some of the value embedded in it to the products, but cannot produce new value.  By itself, it can do nothing.  It must be set in motion and controlled by human labour power.  And even the value that the machinery does transmit (depreciating all the while) was itself created by the human labour power that created the machine.  When the capitalist pours surplus value back into the system, when he invests in machinery, he invests in that part of the production process that cannot create new value.  This is, ultimately, why prices drop: because the value (i.e. labour time) embedded in the product decreases.  This is all fine and dandy for the first capitalist to make the technical innovation, buy the better machine, automate more of the factory, develop the new and better software, etc... and, in the first instance, it helps him succeed against his competition.  But, over time, more capitalists invest in the same or better innovations, techniques and machines... they must, in order to accumulate in order to compete... and the level of profit across the entire system falls.

This is a tendency that asserts itself over time.  There are, as Marx readily allowed, countervailing tendencies than can retard or offset the falling rate of profit.  But, overall and over time, the tendency shows.  This analysis has been controversial but is readily and convincingly defencible.  Moreover, empirical data bears it out.  The current global recession was caused, at the most fundamental level, by just such a long term decline and stagnation of profitability.

Capitalism drives itself into chaos and crisis even as it accumulates.... because it accumulates.  It’s an inherent aspect of the system, to grind the engines until they burst apart.

Crisis leads to the wastage and destruction of excess capital.  Firms go bust.  Factories and offices close.  People are laid off.  Warehouses stagnate filled with unsold and unsaleable goods.  Town centres empty of going concerns.  Increasingly penurious ex-consumers walk past vacated shops and stare through the dirty windows - the 'Everything Must Go' posters growing faded and tatty; the sellotape holding them up turning yellow and dry - into haunted rooms occupied by nothing but worn carpet and unopened mail.  Empty facilities sit rusting in stasis.  This decay and waste reduces the amount of capital in the system, thus opening up the possibility of a restoration of profit to the average.  It was the accumulation of capital that lead to the fall, remember.

Eventually, the limping casualties that are still viable are gobbled up by the predators big enough to survive the recession.  These leviathans heave the system back out of crisis and the cycle begins again.  But capital becomes ever more concentrated and centralized into the hands of the great predators.  Their power becomes so great that their interests merge with that of the nation state.  Competition and accumulation are played out at the level of global imperialist competition.  Nation states squabble over access to, shares of, control over resources and markets.  They squabble because their existence is ever more bound up with increasingly concentrated and centralized capital.

The system generates entropy at every level.

It even generates entropy of different kinds at different levels of the concept.

Slump generates stasis and dereliction.

Boom generates depreciation and the proliferation of technological clutter and decay.

War generates massive destruction and wastage.

Peace generates the hegemony of huge capitals that standardize and homogenize everything into a vast stream of indistinguishable, banal, bland cultural porridge.  Even without the hyper-consumerism in which we now live, photography and mass production created the stripping away of the aura of the individual work of art, the vertigo of endless reproduction.

If capitalism manages to raise the productive forces as far as some think it will... if it one day creates nanotechnology that will alter matter at the ceullular, or even molecular level... there is a mooted possibility that such technology will result in the reduction of all matter into an undifferentiated mass of shuffled, randomized, unpredictable, informationless, apocalyptic unstuff.

This is the ecophagic apocalypse of the 'grey goo' scenario.  It has fascinated writers of science fiction more than it has genuinely worried scientists.  This is because it ties directly into something that we all know and feel and see about the world of technology, industry and modernity (of capitalism): that it has entropy woven into its fabric.

The world of the machine is - from certain angles - a world of monsters; monsters that champ and chew and digest and excrete human experience.

We live in the shit of Moloch.  And nothing is more entropic than shit.


To recap:

Modernity, which is the age of mass industrial technology, is thus also the age of science, whence comes the concept of entropy.  The scientific concept of entropy, besides addressing concerns of industry and science, also expresses - or lends itself to analogies which express - longstanding human anxieties about time, decay, death, etc.  In the modern age, which is the age of capitalism (and hence of mass production and overproduction of commodities), such anxieties are ramped up beyond any level before known in human culture because the modern age is an age of omnipresent wastage, rubbish, obsolescence, clutter, malfunction and destruction.

To expand a bit:

In the past, anxieties about time and decay were not exacerbated by technology and industrial production (for the simple reason that they did not yet exist, or predominate).  Such anxieties were about age and illness and death.  They were treated in myths, legends, fairytales, etc., with their seemingly endless concern with young girls and crones, fertility of land linked to human fertility, death and rebirth, imprisonment, eternal guardianship, etc.  Myths and legends and fairytales endlessly riff on order turned to chaos, chaos turned to order, potential wasted, youth lost, age consuming youth, youth banishing age, fertility banishing barrenness, and so on.

Science fiction is, I think, the reiteration of myth and legend in the age of modernity, hence in the idioms of technology.  There's a definition of sci-fi as being "about the relationship between man and his tools"... yet the "tools" that concern sci-fi are robots, spaceships, computers, etc... all of which are recognisably projections of trends or possibilities within modern industrial technology.  That's why it isn't sci-fi when ancient legends tell of magic swords, but it is sci-fi when writers in the 19th-21st centuries tell of advanced machines that can fly people between the stars.

Therefore, the preoccupation of science fiction - or at least certain strands of science fiction - with entropy is hardly surprising.  SF is the literary/cultural form that is more a product of modernity than any other.  It might be the said to be the adaptation of the most basic forms of storytelling to the landscape (or culturescape) of a world dominated by modern capitalism.  SF is the mythic expression of frenzied technological innovation, general commodity production, overproduction, overaccumulation, obsolescence, re-investment and re-innovation, more production, more obsolescence, more rubbish tips, and so on.

Entropy might just be a key link in this chain.  It is an idea that arose from, and is of great utility to, modernity.  It is an idea expressed in and by the industrial machine, the technologeme.  It expresses something inherent and unavoidable within all technology.  It refers to something that is more visible and intense in all our lives because of mass production.  It also provides a link to older forms of discourse that express ancient human concerns.  After all, anxieties about age, illness, infertility and death have not gone away... they have just been supplemented by anxieties about the aging, malfunctioning, failure and threatening behaviour of technology and industrial products.

Entropy might just be the missing link between myth and science-fiction.

It might just be why the quintessential modern literary/cultural genre of the machine age also became - so often and on so many levels - a reiteration of myth.


Anonymous 2 years, 6 months ago

"And nothing is more entropic than shit."...
Nothing is more entropic than a mass(m)* at a temperature(T) of 0.000...001 kelvins, where dT/dt tends to 0 actually. I'll mention this because I'm not overly happy to hear classical thermodynamics misdescribed. Entropy isn't decay or rust or piles or trashed computers. It's energy which exists (because energy cannot be created or destroyed), but has become completely useless. Just a little bit higher than abolute zero

Shit is just about the best fertiliser available. Because large organisms in the ecosystems we understand are capable of only very incomplete combustion (because digestion is just another form of combustion), shit contains very large quantities of thermal energy and chemical-potential energy. This also makes large quantities of shit into small but perfectly viable ecosystems in their own right. Not entropic.

The expression you are looking for is not entropy but Energy which has degraded to such a state as to make it unprofitable to exploit for commercial gain in the current conditions of market. Make no mistake; early Industrial Revolution slag heaps were made of anything up to 60% recombustible carbon, which could be reburned in modern combustion systems, and then stored again until such time as a second-reburn system becomes available.

Science-fiction is anxious about obsolescence because sciemce-fiction was born to be obsolete. Think about the pejoratives that always go along with science-fiction: 'disposable', 'pulp', 'immature', 'adolescent'. The solution to this is not to try to make science-fiction into a slave's flattery or child's copy of some bourgeois idyll of a 'timeless classic', or even into an environmentalist's idea of a nice overcoat or good pair of boots that you can repair or patch up for decades and decades. There is nothing wrong with ideas returning to the nothing from which they came. There is no law of conservation of ideas. There will never be a shortage or an excess of ideas, and they don't have to be responsibly disposed of or go into landfill. When their function is rendered obsolete, ideas leave no entropy at all. It's myth we have to dispose of: dismantle, tear to bits, recycle and melt with fresh pig until there is no trace of it left. And ephermera is one of the best weapons we have to do it.

*because molecular density is so high, gravity is incredibly high in this condition, and so any discussion of 'weight' is meaningless.

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