Justin Kern The grand staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Age of Entropy

Why the New World Order Won't Be Orderly

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, foreign policy experts have been predicting that the United States' days as global hegemon are coming to a close. But rather than asking themselves which country is most likely to replace the United States, they ought to be asking themselves whether the concept of global hegemony still applies in our era.

It increasingly seems that the world will no longer have a single superpower, or group of superpowers, that brings order to international politics. Instead, it will have a variety of powers -- including nations, multinational corporations, ideological movements, global crime and terror groups, and human rights organizations -- jockeying with each other, mostly unsuccessfully, to achieve their goals. International politics is transforming from a system anchored in predictable, and relatively constant, principles to a system that is, if not inherently unknowable, far more erratic, unsettled, and devoid of behavioral regularities. In terms of geopolitics, we have moved from an age of order to an age of entropy. 

Entropy is a scientific concept that measures disorder: the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. And disorder is precisely what will characterize the future of international politics. In this leaderless world, threats are much more likely to be cold than hot; danger will come less frequently in the form of shooting wars among great powers than diffuse disagreements over geopolitical, monetary, trade, and environmental issues. Problems and crises will arise more frequently and, when they do, will be resolved less cooperatively. 

CREATIVE DESTRUCTION

How did we get here? The shift began in the twentieth century, with the advent of nuclear weapons and the spread of economic globalization, which together have made war among the great powers unthinkable. As many scholars have pointed out, the world has enjoyed the longest period of relative peace in recorded history. The absence of cataclysmic wars among great powers has obviously been a great boon. But it has also come at a real cost. For the past several centuries, wars between the extant power in the international system and the rising challenger or challengers have occurred every hundred years or so, crowning a new leading power, which is responsible for organizing international politics and shouldering the burdens of global leadership.

In crowning new kings, these hegemonic wars also obliterated the old orders, wiping the institutional slate clean so that a new global architecture, better suited to the times, could be built from scratch. The wars were thus a good thing in some sense, because they replenished the international system with new energy in service of world order and lasting peace. In their absence, we no longer have a force of “creative destruction” capable of resetting the world. And just as seas become foul without the blowing of the winds, prolonged peace allows inertia and decay to set in.

Power is already more diffuse than it ever has been. And it is growing more so by the year. The United States remains an important power, but it knows that it no longer towers over all contenders. Plagued by ballooning debt, Washington has narrowed its foreign policy to a few basic objectives. Yet the deterioration of Pax Americana is not due solely to the United States' declining power. It is also a problem of will -- one rooted in fading national resolve to use those power advantages that the United States still enjoys.

Interactions between political actors are also characterized by greater entropy. The digital revolution has allowed information to spread farther than ever before, empowering average citizens, celebrities, corporations, terrorists, religious movements, and shadowy transnational criminal groups. The power these groups can exert, however, is unconventional. They have the power to disrupt, to stop things from happening, but they don’t have the power to enact their own agendas. Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging have allowed citizens to organize massive demonstrations and topple dictatorial governments. But there is little reason to believe that citizens organized via social media are able to institute political changes. 

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Entropy is not only on the rise in the international system. Individuals, too, are experiencing greater personal entropy, as they discover that they are incapable of handling the speed at which digital information is transmitted. Information rains down faster and thicker by the day. Increasingly, modern people may feel, as the psychologist and philosopher William James did in 1899, that an “irremediable flatness is coming over the world.” Flatness here refers to a general sense of banality and loss of meaning. Rather than a heightened sense of stimulation and awareness, information overload produces boredom and alienation. As the economist Herbert A. Simon has explained, a “wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This is because in “an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

In that sense, modern society suffers from collective attention deficit disorder. No matter how much we pump up our brains with drugs originally intended to treat Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy or attempt to “train” our brains using Cogmed or Lumosity, we are likely to remain terminally distracted by the flood of digital information from Google, Twitter, e-mail, RSS readers, Netflix, Firefox tabs, and Flickr photostreams. Organizations, too, face this problem. The U.S. National Security Agency alone intercepts and stores nearly two billion separate e-mails, phone calls, and other communications every day. “The complexity of this system defies description,” lamented John R. Vines, a retired U.S. Army general who reviewed the U.S. Defense Department’s intelligence efforts last year. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

Having greater quantities of information at our fingertips has not produced greater wisdom. Instead, it has led to information entropy. As the volume of information processed or diffused increases, the information becomes noise. In the digital age, information is routinely distorted, buried in noise, or otherwise impossible to interpret. The result is that people respond to the many contradictory “facts” and “informed opinions” being hurled at them by essentially selecting and interpreting facts in ways that accord with their own personal, idiosyncratic, and often flat-wrong ideas about the world. Knowledge no longer rests on objective information but, rather, on seductive “true enough” facts. Knowledge that is pocked with holes but that seems true enough will continue to hold sway over those who simply want to believe something that feels right.

WELCOME TO PURGATORY

The new world of rising structural and informational entropy means that history can no longer repeat itself. We will not endure the hell brought on by a world war, for example, or by utter economic catastrophe. But this lasting peace won’t be the heaven on earth that one might wish for either. Instead, we are on the cusp of an eternal purgatory. It will be a world full of confusion and instability. The age of entropy will be a time of restless disorder, an aimless but forceful hostility to the status quo -- a hostility that inspires the pervasive use of the dismissive prefixes anti- and post- (as in anti-Western, post-American, postmodern) and the promise to reinvent much or all of the present global order and its associated institutions. But the hope that getting rid of “what is” will by itself spawn something new and workable to take its place is just that, mere hope. In his Delphic interview with Time, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi put it this way: “The world is now much more difficult than it was during your revolution. It’s even more difficult. The world. More complicated, complex, difficult. It’s a spaghetti-like structure. It’s mixed up.” 

None of this is to suggest that we will inhabit a miserable world of endless gloom and doom, that we and future generations are fated to endure wretched lives of perpetual unhappiness. Although we can’t reverse the process of information overload, we can figure out how best to adapt, and maybe even learn how to turn floods of information into useful and reliable knowledge. There are no strategies that can guarantee success. But the focus should be on creating decentralized and self-organizing networks that are capable of responding to rapidly changing environments. 

The age of entropy will not be a utopia, but it need not bring us to despair. Disorder does not suppress all that is good in the world. Without great wars, we have enjoyed prosperous and peaceful times. Nor is disorder itself something to fear or loathe. “The struggle itself,” as Albert Camus famously pointed out, “is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Like Sisyphus, we need to embrace the unknowable, to accept our unintelligible world and our futile struggle to come to terms with its incomprehensibility. For better or worse, we have no other choice.

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