Teilhard and the Information Revolution

Teilhard and the Information Revolution
by Michael McCullough
February 1977
The Teilhard Review: An International Journal of Integrative Studies concerned with the Future of Man
Published by The Teilhard Centre for the Future of Man, London
President: Dr. Joseph Needham
Vice Presidents: Prof. Theodosius Dobzhansky, Prof. Roger Garaudy, Canon David E. Jenkins, Dr. Robert Jungk, Dr. Margaret Meade, Dr. Raimundo Pannikar, Prof. William H. Thorpe


Mr. McCullough is at present studying for a master’s degree at the Center for Latin American Studies, Stanford University.  He is also engaged in writing a book about Brazil where he lived for three years.

Some computer scientists now confirm the technological feasibility of the unified, consciousness-expanding world envisioned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  If they’re right, politics in the next millennium could look something like this: All governments of the world today will have given way to full participatory democracy on a global scale. Centers of power like national capitals will disappear. All power will be decentralized. Seats of government will have shifted from executive swivel chairs to living room sofas. All decision-making matters which concern the public will take place in public — right on TV!  Neither closed door politics nor big business as usual will be possible. The living room public will not only monitor but, by highly advanced teleconferencing techniques, will participate in all decisions that matter.  Computer-assisted public communication networks will make governmental privacy obsolete. Big Brother won’t be able to watch us because we will constantly be watching out for him and exposing his ugly face to the public eye whenever and wherever he dares appear.

This may sound more like counter-Orwellian science fiction than anything within the grasp of human experience. But, believe it or not, this scenario of the future is already conceivable in terms of the present potential of information technology.  Some information scientists identify futures of this sort with the maturation of the noosphere, Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of humanity united in one sphere of growing consciousness. Dr. Harold Sackman, an author and editor of several books on information utilities or computer-assisted communication networks writes:

“The international information utility may be the first technological embodiment of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. The many publics around the world would have an unprecedented opportunity to evolve through a major social mutation — the transition from the historical tradition of passive impotent spectators to active constructive participants over an expanding spectrum of social affairs.”[1]

All citizens of the unified noosphere would therefore actively participate in determining the course of human affairs from local on up to global levels. Planetary democracy would reign supreme.

If such utopian projections arouse some skepticism, it is not without reason. The same technology which can be used to build democracy can be used to destroy it. Current prospects for the democratic use of this equipment do not appear bright. Full participatory democracy is presently far from being achieved on any national much less global level. In fact, counter-democratic tendencies may be said to prevail in the Third World, where the majority of humanity lives, and in the policy of the industrialized nations towards the Third World. The poverty-stricken peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia are, more often than not, governed by dictatorships whose primary function is to guarantee a climate favorable to capital investment by the industrialized nations. In this repressive task, the police and military forces of these regimes often use computer and telecommunication technology placed at their disposal by the rich nations. This has given many Third World tyrants a terrifyingly effective power to monitor and disrupt the flow of dissident communications, particularly dissent against the influx of foreign capital. Invested with such unprecedented powers to control the flow of ideas, these computer-age inquisitors are now earning the barbaric distinction of being among the vanguard of Orwell’s Thought Police. The rich nations not only approve and encourage but, in order to safeguard their global economic reach, tend to direct this situation. Among the countless examples of the lopsided power which the rich nations now exercise over the Third World suffice it to mention here the United Nations veto powers granted exclusively to five nations, headed by the United States and Russia.  Far from global democracy, we now find humanity’s impoverished and oppressed majority subject to the whims of a few industrial superpowers.

Further complicating any movement toward worldwide electronic democracy is the non-existence of a practical egalitarian theory. No political or economic theory, whether in the liberal or Marxist tradition, has ever laid out workable theoretical bases for full participatory democracy on any scale, let alone global.

All practical objections considered, reaching the full participatory noosphere may seem as likely as flying to Never Never Land with Peter Pan. It would be tragic, however, if the immense shadow cast by these obstacles were to obscure the urgent need for an applicable theoretical complement to the democratic potential of communications and computer technology. If we fail to discover how to use this powerful equipment for democratic purposes, its tyrannical use is all but inevitable. Lucidly recognizing this danger, Senator Frank Church recently warned that the surveillance capacity of the information technology now possessed by American intelligence agencies will leave ‘no place to hide’ if a dictatorship ever takes over in the United States.

What is needed is a participatory politics as encompassing as the noosphere. In an essay about information technology, Harvey Wheeler of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions stated:

“Solutions to our most pressing problems will require a politics especially designed to cope with science and technology, a politics based on something like what Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere — the symbolic and institutional universe we inhabit — instead of on real estate. [2]

It is fitting therefore to look within Teilhard’s thought itself for the basis of a full participatory theory.

For this exploratory purpose, it is worthwhile to examine an up and coming area of Teilhardian scholarship offering the most exciting possibilities for the development and clarification of Teilhard’s thought in scientific terms. Dr. R. Wayne Kraft called attention to this realm of enquiry (America, December 15, 1973) when he noted the correspondence between radial energy, Teilhard’s term for the basic life force of the universe, and negative entropy, a scientific concept of information.  Information viewed as negative entropy beautifully complements and illuminates Teilhard’s vision of life as a counter-entropic force.  Entropy is a measure of physical disorganization which in its maximum state is death. Negative entropy, on the other hand, is a measure of physical organization and life. In Teilhard’s view, it is precisely the negation of entropy (radial energy) which propels human life towards increasingly organized phases of the noosphere. This suggests that the maturation of the noosphere can be made more understandable not only by the democratic potential of information technology but by information science’s negentropic view of information. Firmly grounded in physics and mathematics, this definition of information could offer a means of bringing Teilhard’s celestial vision down to earth in a wide variety of areas, including politics.

To seek political clarification of Teilhard’s thought with the concept of negative entropy is a bold undertaking because modern science has yet to firmly establish that this concept is in any way politically significant. In order to present a case for its political relevance, it is first necessary to examine conceptual origins of negative entropy.

This concept of information stems from Claude Shannon’s information theory of 1948. The basic principle of information theory states that the more probable a message (‘The sun will rise tomorrow’), the less information it gives and, vice versa, the less probable (‘There will be a solar eclipse tomorrow’), the more information it gives. It is sometimes known as the surprise theory of information.

Because information theory measures uncertainty the same way physics measures entropy, we can restate the above principle this way: The less uncertainty or entropy a question raises (‘Are some roses red?’), the less uncertainty or entropy its answer will reduce. On the other hand, a question which raises a higher quantity of uncertainty or entropy (‘What is the color range of the cabbage rose?’) can only be answered by a greater reduction of uncertainty or entropy. In either case, the information acquired, because it reduces entropy, can be described as negative entropy.

Apparently unaware of the informational concept of negative entropy, Teilhard created it on his own with the term ‘anti-entropy’. In 1951, he wrote “the situation is clarified and can be seen with accuracy if we envisage as the basis of cosmic physics the existence of a sort of second entropy (or anti-entropy) which as an effect of chances that are seized, draws a portion of matter in the direction of continually higher forms of structuralization and centration.”[3]

Like information or negative entropy, this anti-entropy is a function of improbability. Teilhard noted in 1939 that reverse entropic forces appear to exist by virtue of  “..the ascent of the universe towards zones of increasing improbability and personality. Entropy and life: backward and forward: two complementary expressions of the arrow of time. For the purposes of human action, entropy (a mass effect rather than a law of the unit) is without meaning. Life, on the other hand, if it is understood to be the growing interiorization of cosmic matter offers to our freedom of choice a precise line of direction.”[4]  Is not this ‘growing exteriorization’ the informative (or in-formative) function of negative entropy?

In 1952, Teilhard called upon his knowledge of paleontology to draw a simple diagram [5] depicting life’s evolutionary advance in terms of these two arrows of time. The life forces, or the increasingly improbable and anti-entropic forms of radial energy, proceed along the y-axis. The x-axis, on the other hand, is the line of ever more probable and entropic forces — what Teilhard called tangential energy. This axis of growing probability obeys the second law of thermodynamics which condemns all life in the universe to eventual death. For Teilhard, all forms of life, including humanity, rise toward a critical phase (b), whereupon they either fail and are annihilated by entropic forces (c) or they succeed and ascend towards more improbable and anti-entropic states (d). Teilhard believed that humanity is now in its critical phase, the era of planetization. At this point, Teilhard posited, the human race will either ascend towards a form of planetary organization in which the increasingly improbable flourishes (d), or it will plunge towards greater probability and extinction (c).

The political significance of promoting either the probable or the improbable can be determined by reevaluating the classical distinction between democratic and dictatorial policies toward dissent.  A probability boundary clearly separates democratic free expression (information freedom) from dictatorial control of expression (information suppression).  When dissent is tolerated, less probable messages result than when dissent is suppressed.  The discouragement of public debate in a dictatorship leads to generally more predictable forms of political expression than can be expected where government activity is subject to public questioning.  A climate of free expression and debate therefore favors acquisition of higher quantities of information by the society at large. The dictatorial imposition of more probable forms of expression, on the other hand, has the dangerous effect of increasing societal uncertainty or entropy. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned in his undelivered 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Contemporary science knows that the suppression of information leads to entropy and total destruction”.

Dictatorship viewed in this light falls neatly onto Teilhard’s x-axis whereas democracy rises along the y-axis. “..at the lower end it (dictatorship) is forced along the line of the most probable for lack of freedom; at the upper end it (democracy) is an ascent into the improbable through the triumph of freedom”.[6]  In this frame of reference, dictatorship can be described as the politics of the probable or the politics of entropy and democracy as the politics of the improbable or the politics of negative entropy.  Because democratic and dictatorial systems are in these terms respectively analogous to open and closed thermodynamic systems, we may begin to speculate about the possible future development of a science of political thermodynamics.

Placed in the Teilhardian schema of planetization, the politics of entropy suggests that a form of global organization characterized by the irreversible suppression of dissent, as dramatized in Orwell’s 1984, would result in the extinction of the human species. However, a world where people are free to express themselves, as the result of a negentropic politics, would have high survival potential.

The practical theory now urgently needed to complement the full participatory potential of information technology may well be able to grow out of a politics which incorporates the negentropic view of information.  First of all, the information freedom characterizing this kind of politics goes hand in hand with increased public participation in political activities.  Freedom of expression creates a climate favorable to expanding participation by those parts of the public which have been denied access to the political process.

Secondly, a politics of negative entropy may allow us to arrive at a definition of political organization pegged to the degree of public participation in politics.  Negative entropy, it should be remembered, is a mathematical measure of organization. A politics of negative entropy may eventually provide a scientific measure of political organization. Although such a measure is presently far from truly scientific formulation, we can speculate that, if it ever develops, it will be closely tied to the number of participants in the political process. The more political participants, the less probable the political messages, the greater the quantity of political information likely to be acquired by the public, and the more elaborate the organization of the political system as a whole.  On the other hand, political messages are more predictable, less political information is acquired on a societal scale and society’s political organization is stunted where there is little public participation in politics, or dependence on elites. In these terms, society is only warding off chaos and becoming organized when it is incorporating ever more participants in its political processes. From the Teilhardian perspective noted earlier, this means that constantly expanding political participation by all peoples of the world is imperative to the survival of the human race. Women’s liberation, because it involves half the human race, is in this view especially important in advancing the state of human organization.

Applied to Planet Earth 1976, the politics of negative entropy signals the need for change on a scale which the world now seems ill-prepared to initiate. The Third World’s relative non-participant status in international affairs brings us face to face with the immensity of the challenge posed by global democracy. How can the majority of humanity which now shares only 12.5% of world economic activity acquire an active role in determining the course of global organization? How can the prevailing trend to suppress dissent in Latin America, Africa and Asia be reversed?

Recent events in Chile provide one tragic example of the problems facing movements toward increasing political participation within and by the Third World. They also dramatize the politics of entropy on a small scale. With the September 1973 establishment of a military reign of terror, Chilean society crossed the probability boundary from the improbable to the probable. Employing highly advanced computer and communication technology, Chile’s military dictatorship has created information controls which place the Chilean people on a forced march towards increasingly probable and entropic forms of communication. The direction of this military movement is clear:
Before the coup, constitutionally defended free expression protected improbable forms of political discussion. Ever since the coup, the summary arrest, torturing and execution of dissidents have made the political scene as predictable as Moscow’s Red Square.

Before the coup, a multi-party system generated improbable conflicts. Ever since the coup, probability has been enforced by the absolute centralization of power in the Armed Forces. Congress and all dissident political parties are dissolved. Duly elected governors and mayors have been replaced with military satraps.

Before, the economic status quo was challenged by the improbable actions of workers free to express themselves. Ever since, the dictatorship has tried to make the labor force as predictable as an ant colony. Strikes are prohibited and arbitrary police powers are used against labor leaders who dare demand the redress of worker grievances.

Before, legally protected political activism caused the improbable to flourish on college campuses. Ever since, universities have been transformed into information factories presided over by military rectors whose first instructions after the coup were to purge many thousands of ‘subversive’ students and professors.

Before, diverse and uncensored forms of mass media, books and artistic expression resulted in an unpredictable spread of ideas. Ever since, the flow of ideas has become subject to the highly predictable tastes of the military dictators. Immediately following the coup, dissident newspapers and publishing houses were closed down. Books seized in military raids on bookstores, libraries and private residences were burned in public. Many people even destroyed their own books for fear of being caught with them. Now newspapers, books, magazines, TV, radio, plays; movies, songs and even poetry are subject to one or another form of censorship.

Teilhard’s description of entropy as a “situation in which powers of action are neutralized and annulled in a kind of universal tepidity” [7] is an accurate description of the political climate in Chile today and in all other nations where dissent is systematically suppressed. Like tyrants have done for ages, the dictators justify their role as the guardians of probability as a means to defend political ‘stability’. Teilhard saw the tragic flaw in this kind of reasoning when he wrote “Perhaps the true stability, the true consistency of the universe should be looked for in the direction of increased improbability”[8].  Dictatorial movements toward the probable are, in this sense, the epitome of political instability.

How then is it possible to move in the opposite, presumably stabilizing direction and promote the improbable through information freedom? Or, assuming the correlation between information freedom and increasing participation, how can constantly expanding participation in the political process be achieved?

In the many Third World situations like Chile, the step most urgently called for is the restoration of liberal constitutional democracy and the legal guarantees of free expression. This would re-establish the legal restraints needed to terminate the horrible brutality now resulting from arbitrary and lawless police powers. By safeguarding political dissent, it would also facilitate renewed organizing activities among the poor and the powerless.

As citizens of the world’s most influential nation, the American people can and should play an important role in combating Third World tyranny by insisting on a U.S. foreign policy which opposes dictatorships and encourages constitutional democracies. However, if the American public is ever to come to the defense of free speech in the Third World, it should be fully aware of the revolutionary effects this would have not only in the Third World but ultimately right at home in the United States. Generalized information freedom in the Third World would have consequences far more sweeping than the liberal tradition is, in itself, equipped to handle. The ability of Third World poor to freely express themselves would test beyond endurance political and economical structures both nationally and internationally, making it necessary to discover and create a whole new world order.

Within the Third World, the sheer number of participants which would be generated by free expression far exceeds the incorporation capacity of liberal governing mechanisms. Unlike dissident minority groups in rich nations who merely demand a greater share of the pie, the impoverished majority in a Third World nation, when free to dissent, insists that the pie be remade. This augurs the need for governing structures which allow levels of participation far greater than those ever imagined by the architects of liberalism, structures which transcend the limited representation of liberal democracy and explore the relatively uncharted seas of participatory democracy. It would require political and economic mechanisms dynamic enough to allow constantly expanding participation.

Similarly, the liberal democracies of the First World would need to transform themselves into participatory polities were free speech to spread throughout the Third World. The present strength of liberal democratic institutions in the rich nations is due in large part to their wealth. Unlike the poor majority of a Third World nation, the affluent majority of a rich liberal nation tends to be satisfied with its lot and is unlikely to use its freedom to dissent to make revolutionary demands for greater participation. This dissent-minimizing wealth depends heavily upon rich nations’ privileged access to Third World raw materials as well as their ability to freely invest capital and market products in Third World economies. Once Third World labor forces were free to express themselves and demand basic structural reforms, the investment climate would-grow far too unpredictable for the world’s major industrial firms to continue their Third World economic operations. This would shatter the foundations of First World affluence, open the floodgates of dissent in the rich nations and place all nations on equal footing in the need to somehow discover and create unprecedented forms of democratic participation. In order to bring about such a revolution in participation, it would be necessary to revolutionize the liberal heritage. The global information revolution is hopefully the means by which this can be accomplished in a peaceful and orderly fashion for the benefit of all.

The futuristic scenario which opens this article depicts in a very sketchy way the unprecedented nature of the changes which would be initiated by the revolutionary use of communications. Relative to the information revolution, all nations of the world today are pre-revolutionary societies. Never before has any political or economic movement given the public power as extensive as the ability to monitor and participate in all decisions which affect it. The information revolution would enable the public to observe and take part in local, regional and global decisions as they are being made. It would result in the gradual dissolution of the international and intranational hierarchies which now make the flows of decision-making information the exclusive property of ruling elites rather than the property of the general public. Both the state capitalism of Marxist-Leninist societies and the explicit capitalism of the market economies would give way to stateless forms of political, economic and industrial democracy. This would entail not armed struggles but rather a legal struggle to illegalize all private decision-making which has a public impact.

The information revolution is the process by which the unconsciously organized information system we now call human society consciously organizes itself as an information system. This revolution cannot succeed unless it counterbalances the improbable forms of expression resulting from information freedom with some public means of coping with the improbable. By far the best means will be a well informed, politically active populace. As the global public becomes ever more knowledgeable and active in decisive matters, human consciousness can assume that constantly expanding form of planetary organization — much as Teilhard envisaged ‘the planetization of the noosphere”.

As a champion of the improbable, Teilhard protects himself against rash characterizations like Lewis Mumford’s ‘profoundly reactionary’ and emerges a faithful advocate of the democratic freedoms, especially free speech. This is entirely befitting one who, on his mother’s side, is a descendant of Voltaire. “I disapprove of what you say” exclaimed his venerable ancestor “but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Interpreted in the light of information theory, Teilhard’s vision brings scientific evidence to bear that such tolerance as Voltaire’s is indeed a life and death matter. In the struggle to create a world where people can express themselves freely, the very survival of humanity is at stake. In his exceptionally valiant hope that this struggle might succeed, Teilhard calls to our attention “a new and noble obligation to make all the forces provided by the earth serve to advance the progress of the improbable”. [9] It seems a safe bet that the greatest advances in this direction will be made by the information revolution.

REFERENCES

  1. The Information Utility and Social Choice, Montvale, 1970. p. 161.
    2. “Artificial Reasoning Machines and Politics” in Computers and the Problems of Society, Montvale, p. 488.
    3. “The Mechanism of Evolution” in Activation of Energy, New York. 1971. p. 302.
    4. “The Grand Option” in The Future of Man, New York – Evanston. 1964. p. 51.
    5. ‘The Reflection of Energy” in Activation of Energy p. 335
    6. “The Formation of the Noosphere” in The Future of Man, p. 190.
    7. “The Phenomenon of Man” in Vision of the Past, London, 1966. pp. 167-8.
    8. Ibid., p. 169.
    9. “The Phenomenon of Man” in Science and Christ, New York – Evanston, 1968. p. 96.

 

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