Ennui Becomes Us

December 16, 2009 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: BalkansIslamismToryWar In AfghanistanIslam

Ennui Becomes Us

Mini Teaser: Chaos and randomness abound. The increasing disorder of our world will lead to a sort of global ennui mixed with a disturbingly large dose of individual extremism and dogmatic posturing by states.

by Author(s): Randall L. Schweller

Just as energy and matter degrade over time to more probable and less informative states, the greater the flow and amount of information, the more likely it will degrade toward noise or sterile uniformity. People deluged by a flood of meaningless variety quickly reach a saturation point where, as a means of self-defense, they develop the capacity to tune most everything out and become extremely selective, jaded, blasé and callous. And people bombarded by redundant information come to view life as banal, colorless, insipid, boring and characterless.

On an oddly positive side, increasing information entropy demands our attention and distracts us from engaging in social and political activities. Americans watch an average of six hours of television a day-a habit that drains both their time and energy to respond to what they see. Plugged into the infosphere, they have become an atomized mass of self-conscious watchers who, statistics show, mostly watch alone. As voyeurism becomes an addiction, the infosphere's power to disconnect and deactivate increases. When everything and its opposite are claimed to be true, most people stop trusting what they hear and the people from whom they hear it. They either tune it all out or heavily discount the information. This produces disinterested, cynical and solipsistic citizens-people who scarcely fit the mold of potential warriors for various political causes. Inasmuch as increasing information entropy generates ambivalent paralysis, the main political effect of the infosphere will be a joyless peace rooted in apathy. But dangers lurk in this sea of ennui, for increasing information creates not only boredom but the possibility of extremism.


INFORMATION ENTROPY will polarize our politics and decrease our ability to reconcile our differing world views. Even as it bores some, it will energetically and dangerously radicalize others. Wisdom does not simply come from more and more information at our fingertips. Thus, as sociologist Orrin Klapp explains in Overload and Boredom:

The more information is repeated and duplicated, the larger the scale of diffusion, the greater the speed of processing, the more opinion leaders and gatekeepers and networks, the more filtering of messages, the more kinds of media through which information is passed, the more decoding and encoding, and so on-the more degraded information might be.

Consider the effects of the new "million-channel media universe." Talk radio, cable television and the Internet (YouTube and the blogosphere) offer so many contradictory "facts," "truths" and "informed opinions" that people everywhere can essentially select and interpret facts in a way that accords with their own personal, idiosyncratic and often flat-wrong versions of reality. In this modern "infosphere," knowledge no longer rests on objective facts but instead on "true enough" facts and arguments (Stephen Colbert's "truthiness"). A truth pocked with holes but one that is "true enough" will nonetheless hold sway over those who choose to believe it for reasons political, religious or otherwise because it feels right. Think of the claims that the U.S. government carried out the 9/11 attacks, Republicans rigged the 2004 election and HIV does not cause AIDS. With so many competing news outlets and opinions, we can now seek out and find the kind of political views, no matter how absurd, that please us; news that tells us what we want to hear, that indulges our political preconceptions and belief systems and that is told by people who think exactly the same way we do.3 The result is an increase in extremist views based on irrational beliefs and sometimes utterly insane and delusional thinking.

By producing various extremist groups with rigidly held competing beliefs, information entropy increases the likelihood of societal conflict and polarization that cannot be adjudicated through reasoned public debate. This is because dogmatic beliefs are little different than no beliefs. As Thomas Jefferson warned: "It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong." Worse still is to dogmatically believe that which is wrong.

Added to this polarization within national societies, individuals will now be more disposed than in the past to hold cross-national, supranational and subnational loyalties, identities and attachments. People will think of themselves as businessmen, liberals or Muslims. Yet, while the proliferation of these new identities might facilitate bridge building across some groups, there is little reason to suspect that conflict-dampening links will arise among highly polarized, fact-resistant people like members of the radicalized Green movement, the global Salafi jihad, or the greedy and detached corporate-executive class, whose financial terrorism in the form of credit-default swaps and other reckless practices brought the world to the brink.

It is as if we are entering a new social landscape composed of personal worlds, where each individual can construct his or her own unique intersubjective space. The mystery of entropy-what makes the concept so difficult to get one's head around-is that it divides us while making us more the same; it is a process of disorder and homogenization. Because it drives systems to their least informative but most probable states, entropy manufactures an acute sense of chaos, randomness and uncertainty, while, at the same time, the system moves from differentiation to sameness. In this regard, what is important about the digital revolution is not only that it has empowered desktop freelancers and innovative startups all over the world, especially in India and China, to compete and win, but that we are all playing the same game. Can we be far from the long-dreaded "global monoculture"-that final state of sameness captured by the neologism "Westoxification" peppered with violent extremism as a reaction to the unipole's dominance?


BUT THIS increase in cross-national and subnational loyalties associated with entropy has effects beyond the world of an individual's mixed-up mind. Entropy will result in the breakdown of clear geographical patterns demarcating friends and enemies. One important consequence of this geographic disorder from a state-level military standpoint is that selective targeting of individuals becomes more important than the firepower of a given weapon or even of one's entire arsenal. The problem is that, when ideas define the enemy rather than the territory on which it lives, it becomes extremely difficult to avoid excessive collateral damage while still fighting to win.

Originating as a euphemism for the killing of noncombatants during the Vietnam War, collateral damage relies for its moral justification on the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), which was introduced by Thomas Aquinas and has been used to show that agents may permissibly bring about harmful effects provided that they are merely foreseen side effects of promoting a good end (hence, the double effect). With the civilian death toll in Iraq estimated at over six hundred thousand, the DDE has become an important justification for U.S. war fighting. Much of the world, however, views collateral damage as nothing more than a rhetorical contrivance for murder and, in this respect, no different than terrorism. This creates a political problem for any state combating terrorism (whether Israeli reprisals against Hamas in Gaza, Russian military strikes against Chechens in Georgia or U.S. operations in Iraq). Greater selectivity in targeting can only provide a partial solution to the problem. The bottom line is that the decreased importance of geographic space under conditions of high entropy neutralizes usable firepower while favoring guerrilla tactics, sabotage, terrorism and, more generally, a movement from interstate to intrastate wars. So in the end we are left with a more level military playing field (but with its own hidden dangers) consistent with the process of increasing entropy.


TAKEN FURTHER still, information overload and entropy suggest increased fragmentation, policies and inferences of states driven by hard-core ideological and religious beliefs, and rigid and uncompromising political views that are fact resistant. National and international narratives now become more fractured and incoherent, making purposeful national action, especially policies calling for costly and intrusive international cooperation, far more difficult to achieve.

Just as individuals are freer than ever before to pick and choose "facts" to fit their personal beliefs, states are now able to engage in what is known as forum shopping, selecting from among countless international institutions the specific venues most likely to elicit decisions that favor their particular interests. Like the choice-enabling infosphere with its unlimited facts, the number and density of international organizations has grown exponentially over the past few decades, creating a sea of nested, partially overlapping, parallel bodies and agreements.

What some call global governance is little more than a spaghetti bowl of clashing agreements brokered within and among thirty thousand or so international organizations of varying significance, from the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission to the United Nations. One wonders how states make decisions and forge long-run strategies these days when it is virtually impossible for them to figure out where international authority over any issue resides, and which agreements, interpretations and implementations of rules and laws have salience and should come to dominate.

The downside is that nobody wins and nothing gets done. The upside is that no one loses either. Once a state or group of states has been outmaneuvered in one venue, the "loser" merely shifts the negotiations to other parallel regimes with contradictory rules and alternative priorities. Thus, when developing countries lost at the WTO and World Intellectual Property Organization on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, they "regime-shifted" to the friendlier WHO, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), where they won. They then went back to the WTO invoking these victories and renegotiated the TRIPs agreement to have the revisions drafted in parallel regimes written into the global rules.

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