A Complexity Theory of Power, Part 2

Thursday, May 30, 2013

[The following is based on part of a presentation I gave last year at the 20th Winter Chaos Conference in Montpelier, VT on March 23, 2012.]

So, after settling back into the U.S. in 1972, I was pursuing the conclusion I had arrived at shortly before ending my three year stay in Brazil, namely that information was the analytical key to understanding the military dictatorship. But, that conclusion now had a new twist. I had become intrigued by the possibility that information defined as negative entropy, the cornerstone of Claude Shannon’s information theory, had a political resonance. Viewed strictly as a tool for electrical engineers, information theory provided no justification for drawing any conclusions about politics. One electrical engineer who had studied with Shannon at MIT confirmed for me what I had read about Shannon, that he entertained no applications of information theory beyond the purely technical realm for which he had designed the theory. It became clear to me that the safest way for me to make any claims about the political relevance of negative entropy would be in terms of analogy and metaphor. Indeed this was the course recommended to me by Dave Burrell, CSC, an old friend and philosopher at Notre Dame.

I would spend the better part of the 1970s exploring the prospect of what might be called political information theory, partly through a Masters program at Stanford but largely through independent study.   The insertion of politics, with a little metaphorical license, into the conceptual core of information theory raised some incisive, challenging questions. Norbert Wiener wrote “Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization.” The political questions became: Is it possible then to view entropy as a measure of political disorganization and if so how? Is political information carried by a set of messages is a measure of political organization? Or might it be possible to build on Warren Weaver’s observation in the essay accompanying Shannon’s landmark 1948 publication that “Information is…a measure of one’s freedom of choice in selecting a message”? Could information be used as a measure of one’s political freedom of choice in selecting a message?

One approach I took was to suggest that electoral choice in political systems was analogous to choice in information theory. I proposed a relationship between political organization and the ability to exercise choice and between political disorganization and the inability to exercise choice.

The analogy can be constructed with some commonsensical principles of information theory evident. Consider the difference between the single possible outcome of a two-headed coin toss and the two possible outcomes of a regular coin toss. Because the choice presented by the two headed coin is a foregone conclusion, it really poses no choice at all. A two-headed toss provides no news, no information. The result of a regular coin toss, on the other hand, to the extent it is unpredictable, makes news. It provides information.

Plugging the number of possible outcomes into Shannon’s mathematical measure of information, the logarithm for the two headed toss, log (1) to any power, always equals 0. The logarithm for the regular coin, log (2) to any power, always has some value greater than zero. Or, viewing information as a measure of organization, the regular toss, because it presents us with some choice, measures some organization. The absence of choice posed by the single possible outcome, on the other hand, measures zero organization.

A dictatorship like Brazil’s offered abundant examples of the denial of choice, whether in terms of banning elections or in the many ways it suppressed free political expression.   Take the situation of the Brazilian electorate during the 21year reign of the military dictatorship. There were six presidents during that time, all Army generals, all dictated by the Armed Forces, none of whom ever had to face voters in an election. It was as if the military Joints Chiefs of Staff in the United States suspended elections and took it upon themselves the power to appoint the president. For Brazilian voters, it was in other words, a no-choice choice – just like a series of two-headed coin tosses. By analogy, we can say that the imposed choice reflected a state of political disorganization whereas the national elections that have been held since 1985 in the country reflect some state of political organization. This certainly makes sense if we think concretely about the organization of Brazil’s electorate. A national electorate which has no choice to make, nothing to do for 21 years, clearly lacks organization. It is incapacitated. An electorate, on the other hand, which has elections to participate in and actually votes in those elections, clearly, by comparison, possesses some qualities of organization. The analogy applies equally as well to more particular sectors of Brazilian society during that were at the time similarly “disorganized” and to various degrees politically incapacitated by the dictatorship – the mass media which often had to face police censors in editorial rooms, artists whose songs or works in other media were banned, students whose organizations were made illegal, labor activists whose organizing activities were criminalized and so forth.

I further argued that information theory offered a way to reinterpret the classical distinction between democratic tolerance of dissent and dictatorial intolerance of dissent (McCullough, 1977). A probability boundary clearly distinguishes political systems that tolerate dissent from those that don’t. On one side of the boundary, where there is effective legal protection of dissent, political communication is less predictable and therefore, by analogy, measures more political organization. On the other side of the boundary, where systemic measures against dissent tend to succeed, political communication becomes more predictable and therefore, by analogy, measures less political organization.

This brings me back to my opening speculation about a tie with thermodynamics. When we recall that Shannon’s measure of information is mathematically identical to the one used by physicists to measure entropy, it is a short hop, skip and a jump to start speculating about something like political thermodynamics.   By analogy, a dictatorial system is not just less organized, it is more entropic – like a closed thermodynamic system. And, by analogy, a democratic system is not just more organized, it is less entropic — like an open thermodynamic system. If open and closed political systems are characterized by climates favoring, respectively, the improbable and the probable, if such systems may also be distinguished in terms of organization and disorganization, it seemed reasonable to draw the analogy to open and closed thermodynamic systems. In an independent studies paper I did for the Stanford Institute for Communication Research in 1975, I even proposed a nickname for political thermodynamics. It was “polimix”. Rhyming with “politics”, it combined “poli”, the first syllable of politics, and “mics”, the last syllable of “thermodynamics” to suggest a mix of the different fields.


McCullough, Michael F., “Teilhard and the Information Revolution”, The Teilhard Review, February 1977

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