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Entropy We Can Believe In


As I alluded to in this silly little post, a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than someone living in the 18th century would have been likely to come across in his or her entire life. Also: in 2009 an estimated 4 exabytes of unique information was produced worldwide, which is more than the previous 5,000 years combined. Clearly we live in times that are changing at breakneck speed, and for that we can in large part thank technology. Technology makes Obama look like a glacier.

The 21st century promises to be frenetic, breathtaking and disruptive. The problems we face as a society are staggering in scope. We’ll need to be highly adaptable both as individuals and as a civlization just to stay afloat.

Maybe technology can help with that.

Technological determinism is the idea that technology is the primary catalyst of social change. I don’t subscribe to it. I think cohesive groups of motivated individuals can effect change just as well. But maybe the most radical change occurs when such a group puts technology to work.

Like Wikileaks. In 2006 Julian Assange & Co. started using the Internet’s powerful capacity for distributing information in order to widely publicize governmental and corporate abuses. Several similar organizations quickly emerged, and now this practice can never be stopped. That large organizations could misbehave without jeopardizing their bottom line was once a given, but now news of these offenses can potentially reach the desktops of the world in a matter of minutes.

In my post about Wikileaks I mentioned an article by Noam Scheiber, who argues this new culpability imposes a tax on all large organizations, since at that size they all have skeleton-filled closets. He predicts this will gradually raise the price of doing large-scale business until it’s no longer feasible. We will find ourselves, according to Scheiber, living in a world in which there are no organizations with more than a few hundred members.

In A Short History of Progress, which I reviewed last week, Ronald Wright discusses how our ancestors in the Upper Palaeolithic Period overhunted large mammals until they disappeared from several continents, rendering hunting void as a way of sustaining large populations. Luckily, agriculture was discovered around this time–virtually by accident. It is our mastery of agriculture that now allows us to maintain a population of billions. Unfortunately, it also allows us to ravage the environment. We are on the brink of destroying the Earth’s capacity to support us just as our ancestors laid waste to their food source thousands of years ago.

Might information technology constitute the push we need to reform?

One way or another, we are going to stop abusing the planet. Hopefully this doesn’t result from our extinction, or near-extinction. Hopefully it’s brought about instead by human ingenuity and foresight. For that to happen, we need to realize our vision of sustainability, and use information technology to hold governments and large corporations accountable to it.

What are your thoughts? Do you think the existence of organizations like Wikileaks will reduce our environmental impact in the long run? Or will it make society so fragmented that we are unable to organize and solve our problems?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Candice Pinsent permalink
    03/07/2011 12:50 AM

    “One way or another, we are going to stop abusing the planet. Hopefully this doesn’t result from our extinction, or near-extinction. Hopefully it’s brought about instead by human ingenuity and foresight. ”

    Highly, highly doubt it.

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