An exercise in entropy

8 mins read

It’s an oft-stated and well-treaded fact that systems tend toward disorder. This tendency is called entropy, and to say that systems tend towards disorder is to say that the available energy in a system (energy that is available for work) decreases. Another way of saying this is to say that signal gradually fades to noise.

Picture the development of life, for example, as a constant war against entropy. For life to blossom, there must be structure of various kinds at various levels. A balance between internal and external environment is necessary to maintain this structure. As we live and breathe, our cells constantly seek out and work toward this balance, towards homeostasis. This entails seeking out matter external to the system that can be turned into energy to be used by the system, this is called work (this is the meaning of work I’ll be using, not the one with the connotations of employment). But, the centre cannot hold, and so goes the structure; our telomeres shorten as we do, and entropy wins out. This is observable, but to move from the observable to the non-observable we can see a similar story play out in the social world.

It’s easiest to begin with a simple observation: why aren’t we all friends? Why is the default mode of interacting with a stranger that of a non-friend, that of a distant entity? This isn’t to say that we avoid interacting with strangers entirely, or that we mistreat them, but that we have the capacity to see them as other. The easy answer, perhaps, is that it is because we do not know them but that fails to explain the existence of people we do know but still feel are strangers. If we think of the social world as a system of relations, then the “stranger” relation is the least informative one, and here we can begin to see the relevance of entropy. The stranger default stands in opposition to the structure of the social world, it is the state toward which things tend. A simple experiment can confirm this: neglect a friendship for a month and attempt to return to it as though there was no period of absence. Chances are, you have begun to be a stranger to them. Relationships require a constant input of energy (i.e. work) to exist.

This is all to say that relationships require maintenance because the very order which they bestow is constructed, I think. It seems obvious, but ideas to the contrary permeate our culture. The notion of love in fairy tales and romantic comedies as a happily ever after suggests a relationship that requires no energy to be input into the system. There are no perpetual motion machines in the real world, and so it also seems there are no perpetual motion friendships. Happily ever after must be sought after.

Is there a social homeostasis? There must be a goal of social work that involves a balancing, so in this notion there must be something like a social homeostasis.This is a harder notion to observe, so the only claim that can be made is that social homeostasis involves the balance of energy put into the system and the “returns,” I’m not a fan of this model, as it seems soulless to think of relationships as having a return—and that being a metric by which they are judged—but I have to admit it is probable. Reciprocity seems to underlie most relationships, and governs our expectations. So perhaps it is possible to be a good friend to all with no expectation of return, perhaps, but I do not feel it is a positive state to be in because of the reciprocity norm present in our culture.

The limits imposed on us as students similarly serve to further isolate us. The lack of leisure time, especially during particularly taxing semesters, forces us to choose between keeping up academically and keeping up socially. This issue, of course, is not unique to students but seems to be a consequence of the increasing qualifications necessary to “keep up” in getting a promotion, providing for your children, buying a house, etc. The rat race has social (and thus also mental) consequences that should not be ignored.

This seems very bleak, but there is no reason to think that this is anything more than a matter of perspective. The energy we spend on achieving an outcome can make it feel all the more fulfilling and can be the way in which we create meaning. As the fox said to the Little Prince before departing, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” Perhaps this is enough to face each day with a smile, to look into the eyes of a dear friend and tell them what they mean to you. But, can you say you would not be deeply hurt if that smile were not returned? This question lurks behind every interaction and is at the heart of the middle school experience; “Do my friends actually like me?” The answer: “Don’t think about it.”

The tendency towards disorder in the social realm is troubling, the whole thing seems to cast doubt on all relationships, but it is important to remember that this is only one potential reaction. The inherent difficulty in friendships could be the very thing that makes them so fulfilling, as the fox said. Of the seemingly many days I have had, I cannot honestly say the happiest has been alone and I feel this points to a larger truth. Perhaps this is all just another (long-winded) way to say that relationships, much like everything else, are ephemeral and must be tended to, much like the Little Prince’s rose.

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