A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Chemical Heat, The Speed of Change, and How We Sleep at Night

If you have a snowman out in the yard and the temperature is 40 degrees, the snowman will melt,
albeit slowly.  Now if it is 70 degrees in the sun, the snowman will melt much more quickly.  We all know this.  The reason for this is also fairly common knowledge.   It has to do with the energy imparted to the frozen water that is the snow that makes up the snowman.  Heat the snow and it melts.  No big deal. 

But what is that heating accomplishing?  When we heat something we increase the speed of the molecules that make up that thing.  This motion breaks the crystalline bonds that are formed when the original water froze into snowflakes in the sky.   So as these bonds are broken, the form of the water changes from solid to liquid.  The snowman melts into a puddle on the ground.

You can do a simple experiment with ice in a frying pan. Turn on the heat and the ice melts quickly into water and the water then boils off into steam.  This is not surprising.  We understand that there is a connection between the heat and the state of the water.  Further we understand that the higher the heat, the more rapid the transformation from state to state.

But if we reflect a bit on what is happening here, we can see it has implications for information and technological change.

Heat is simply a measure of the molecular motion in a substance. Water that is frozen has very little molecular motion.  Steam has a great deal.  And it is this molecular motion that helps spread the energy from one part of a melting ice cube to another.   As the first part of the ice begins to melt, the water molecules move more rapidly and begin colliding with crystalline (ice) molecules.  They crash into them and these molecules in turn collide with other molecules.  The translation of heat energy can be seen as being very similar to a billiard table full of balls.  One crashes into another and sends it careening into yet another.  This is how heat energy is transferred from one part of the water to another – by molecular motion.  If you increase the heat, you increase the speed at which each billiard ball is travelling and hence increase the speed it crashes into other balls.  At a sufficiently high level of heat, we can imagine a pool table full of balls all moving at very high speeds crashing into one another with great force.  Some balls will be hit with so much combined force from other collisions, the will jump from the table.  In essence they will “change states”.  In the case of water, this could be seen as evaporation.   Balls will “evaporate” from the table as they are knocked off the surface from the combined force of all the collisions they are experiencing.

So what is the takeaway here?  Simply that the rate of change of temperature in the water is related to the heat energy the water is exposed to.  This is obvious, as we have said.  Turn up the heat and the water changes more rapidly.  Eventually the water reaches a new state when the energy becomes high enough.  But the REASON that the higher heat changes the water more rapidly is that it increases the number of collisions in the molecules of the water.  By increasing the number of collisions, we increase the number of times the energy gets imparted a new molecule (or billiard ball), and turning up the heat also increases the speed that the molecules (or balls) crash into each other.  So we increase the RATE of collisions and the SPEED or momentum of each collision.

How does this relate to information and media?

The media we use can increase the speed of communication in precisely the same way that heat increases molecular motion.  A slow medium of communication that does not carry much information will not have a great impact on the state of a community (or the rate of change of society).  A “low heat” medium such as a messenger carrying a short message from one person to another will have only one “collision” – between the sender and the receiver – and that collision will only have a small amount of “momentum” since the information contained in the message is a modest few words – a simple idea.  Compare this to a “high heat” medium like television.  Imagine each person watching the live updates about the Iraq War on CNN as receiving information “collisions”.   Now the information content (momentum) is high as the information (both in terms of data and emotional content) contained in video news reports is higher than possible for a single letter carried by messenger.  But just as importantly the “collision rate” is much higher as well.  Millions of molecules (people) are being hit with this information.  They will then go out and impart this information to others in a way at least analogous to how the billiard ball then careens off to hit another ball.

It’s not hard to picture a whole nation of people brought to a higher energy state by the high heat of mass media.  Newspapers will often use words like “buzzing” to capture the state of arousal that important information can impart on a community.  It is not hard to see how viewing media as “heat” and information as being imparted by interpersonal “collisions” captures fairly well the basic mechanism of communication.

But what does this analogy imply for the rate of change in society?

Well we would need to consider what we mean by “change in society”, but even if we were to use some fairly placid comparison about “physical states” of a community, we could benefit quite a bit.  It is hard to imagine a society changing states in the same manner that ice becomes water or water becomes steam. But what about a community changing from a “state of peace” to a “state of war”?  Or what about a society changing from a rural agrarian structure to an urban industrial one?  Any analogy we can think of for the change in “physical state” of a community can map well onto the analogy of the media spreading information like a source of heat spreads energy.

In short what we are talking about is volatility. We only need to cheat a little to call volatility a measurement of the likelihood that something will change states.  And if this is the definition we use, we can see that adding heat (or increasing the number of information collisions) increases the likelihood of change in state (ups the volatility).

So in plain English this means that the more communication there is, the more rapidly change occurs.

We can then use this idea to help explain how and why societies functioned for so many millennia with so little change and why the last few centuries have seen not only many changes, but an increase in the RATE of such change.  If new ideas – new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking about things, and new ways of expressing ideas – come very slowly, then the change brought about by these ideas comes slowly as well.  But when ideas (and the technology and social structures tied to them) can spread quickly, change is more rapid.

What’s more, since changes in technology tend to increase the power of communication, we can see this as a feedback loop.   More communication drives greater changes to technology and these changes in turn produce even “hotter” media.  This hot media increases the rate of technological (and social) change, and in turn the media changes at an even faster rate.  At some critical mass it would not be surprising to achieve a “nuclear chain reaction” where hot media begets change which only produces hotter media and more change.

This helps explain how it took so many thousands of years to get to the printing press and once that was accomplished the telegraph was only a few hundreds years off, and then the computer less than 100 years after that. 

What are the social implications of such change?

If we can observe that whole communities used to exist for generations with hardly anything changing and then later during the industrial revolution society underwent rapid shifts in family structure and population density, and now we see that even more rapid changes to our social structures are in the offing, what are we to make of this?  Is there a breaking point to this rate of change?  Is there some rate at which the new generation becomes so distinct from the previous one that society breaks down?

It’s an interesting question, and one whose answer probably lies in the limits of the human aging process.  If the propagation of genetic mutation is limited by the speed at which cells divide (you can’t pass on your mutation if you don’t reproduce) then it is probably also true that generational shifts are limited somewhat by the speed at which generations come of age.

But human beings are very adaptable and the shift between generations that could take place without tearing the social fabric may be surprising to us.

Ponder how adaptable we humans are with a couple quick thoughts.  The first is about your lawn.  If you are someone who mows his lawn – either enthusiastically or simply to comport with social norms and not get reported to the Home Owners Association – you may think that this is a normal thing to do.  We suburbanites mow our lawns.  Even rural homeowners often mow an area of land around their house.  They may have many acres, but they have a special piece of property called “a lawn” and they maintain it for all to see.

If like me (until recently) you buy into common mythology about lawns, you assume that this ritual lawn mowing is simply a normal thing we humans do.  We know our father did it, and perhaps his father as well.  We don’t bother asking whether our father’s grandfather was burdened with the same task.

But most people don’t stop and think about when mowing the lawn became such a thing.  The answer is that lawns came with suburban homes.  And the great suburban migration was of course after WWII.  Before that, not many people were mowing their lawns.  What’s worse is that the quest to get the perfect lawn – lush and green – was an invention of the Scotts Fertilizer Company which was seeking to expand its business beyond golf course maintenance.  If they could convince the American public that the greenness of your lawn was a reflection of your status or competence or virility or what have you, they could create a huge market for their product.  And so it was.  And now today many of us struggle with our lawns, feeling guilty if the grass grows long and assuming an ugly lawn is somehow a reflection of our own failure in life, if only in some tiny way.

But that’s the point.  Lawns are not something we “have always done”.  They are not a natural part of the human experience.  They are effectively less than 80 years old.  And we adapt so easily that most of us accept them as a normal part of life.

Here’s an interesting thought if you’re someone like me who shuns yard work.  At the turn of the century most folks living in houses did not have lawns.  They had brown patches of dirt around their house.  Grass harbored snakes and mice and the best way to keep these from your home was to not allow grass to grow up to the edge of your house.  A proud country home might be surrounded by dirt, not a lawn, and for a very practical reason.

Perhaps you’d like another example of how historically short sighted we are.  Well, again if you’re anything like me you have been raised reading about how Americans are not saving enough for retirement.  Social Security, we are reminded, is an insurance plan, not a retirement plan.  It is not supposed to replace our pensions and our savings.  I read an article the other day that actually described the three legged retirement stool of pension, Social Security, and savings or IRA.

But you probably already know how silly that is.  To begin with, pensions are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  The expectation that the common worker will have any pension at all is a very myopic notion.  And many of us realize that we can not count on the amount of money we get from Social Security being very large in the future, if we in fact get anything at all.  No, if you are under 50 probably, and 30 certainly, you are basically going to be responsible for your own retirement.

But here’s the thing.  Even if we remember that the concept of Social Security is a very new idea – going back to the 1930’s – many of us fail to appreciate the very notion of retiring is historically a new idea.  We are brought up thinking that the world has always worked that way simply because a generation or two since WWII functioned that way.  Just like lawn mowing, it is seen as the status quo, but it is in fact a historical novelty.  The notion of retirement may prove to be nothing but an industrial age fad.  Yet we so easily adapt as social creatures that most of us accept the concept as completely normal.

To me, these examples make clear that even as society undergoes tremendous shifts from traditional patterns, these new ways of doing things are quickly assimilated into our identity and treated as just a normal part of being human.  Thousands of years without lawns or retirement, yet suddenly they are as much a part of human life as death and marriage.  That’s an amazing level of adaptability.

If you’re still not convinced, maybe I can surprise you with another example.  What do you think of when someone mentions the weather?  How about the weather forecast?  Have you ever stopped to think about the history of weather forecasting?

You may think you know where this is going.  You may think I am about to launch into some discussion of how science has helped people become better weather forecasters.  Well, you’d be wrong.  Because while we take for granted today the notion that weather forecasting has improved over time, we don’t actually appreciate something else.  The very notion of weather as a system that can be predicted is very new.  Since the dawn of time, man has understood that weather changes.  He has tried to predict what will happen by looking at the sky and the world around him.  Sure, we appreciated that “weather” was real.  But it wasn’t until the telegraph in the early 1800’s that we appreciated how weather moves in systems.  That is, in the 1700’s a storm that hit London was not associated with a storm that hit Liverpool a few hours later.  Why not?  Because until the telegraph, information could not outrun the weather.*

So we knew that we had storms, but we didn’t appreciate the very basic idea that a storm moves across the land and affects all those in its path. Except for certain “epic floods”, we had no historical appreciation for weather as something that moved across the globe in a pattern.

So ponder that a minute.  You probably realized that weather forecasting used to be worse than it is today.  But did you really comprehend that we didn’t even know what weather was until the early 1800’s? Had you given it any thought?  I hadn’t.  If pressed to think of it, I would have imagined that Roman generals used reports of approaching storms to plan their battles.  But I would have been wrong.  The storm would have outrun the reports!

Now surely in some coastal regions the sky would have foretold events with some time to plan for them.  Wise folks could learn to spot a storm approaching.  But the appreciation for how storms moved and where they went after they crashed into the coast waited for a time that we had the means to communicate about them at a speed faster than the storm itself.

And this ties in with my adaptability argument.  We tend to think so flexibly that we assume that what we experience is pretty much what people have always experienced.  For many thousands of years this was probably true.  And in some big picture ways it will always be true.  War will always be hell whether it is fought with swords and spears or lasers and battlefield drones.  People will always fall in love and make friends and have families.  But the world around us changes so rapidly now that we have a hard time comprehending just how new most of our daily experiences are in a historical sense.

And as we have established, the rate of change is only increasing.  This means that events and experiences and social customs will be even newer each decade.  But our tendency to adapt and to normalize our experience – to assume it ties in with historical norms even where there is no evidence to support this claim – may be our saving grace from a social stability point of view.  That is, if we really comprehended just how rapidly the sand is shifting beneath our feet, we might never get the peace of mind it would take to fall asleep.

*This wonderful tidbit is lifted almost verbatim from Gleick's book "The Information"so I feel I should credit it.

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