Monday, December 8, 2008
The War on Error
Clive James has a piece on the BBC website about how he can only think in chaos. It appears he has one of the rooms from hell (I assume that in hell, there are an infinite number of rooms); a vast jumble of related and unrelated sources of data in the form of books, newspapers, half-finished writing and unwashed cups. For myself, such a state of affairs would elicit in me the opposite of creativity, a sort of constipated, distressed inertia. Just as Canute tried to demonstrate that even a king cannot prevent the waves from washing his feet, I cannot prevent waves of nausea roll over me as the debris of past engagements with the word begin to mount on and around my desk. There is a Macbethian sticking point where I must take courage in both hands and bring order to bear. When everything is just so, even to the moment when the last pencil is safely entrapped in the container for writing implements, I can look again at the virgin page, pen poised. This kind of tidal activity goes on incessantly throughout life. Thus, I have, despite all the signs of being a dissolute desk user in my youth, become a tidier upper.
However, the thesis in this little essay is bigger than the battle for control over my desk. It concerns one of the laws of thermodynamics culled from the Hitchhikers Guide or some such; the law of entropy. Basically stated (at least to my subjective satisfaction) it is that all systems break down, from those relating to a human individual to those of a society, to those of the cosmos and, eventually, those of this and the many other posited universes. At the big end of this spectrum, everything in time and space will eventuate in a vast, dissipated deep freeze of practical nothingness and at the small, human end, the Forth Bridge, despite all those continuous coverings of resilient paint, will disassemble into random particles.
Being a management consultant, I am forcefully aware of entropy in human activity. It is a perennial salvage yard for broken down orderly systems, well-intended behaviours, protocols, lists, models and accurate projections. The intended effectiveness of organisations perish like rubber bands in sunlight, their elasticated vitality giving way to a sticky, brittle waste product. Like foraging ants, we consultants move through the administrative and interpersonal mess and drag away the detritus, leaving, momentarily, healthy order. But, despite our best efforts, with good behaviours embedded, creativity refurbished, communications effortless and effective and interpersonal dynamics restored, we know that in the months and years ahead, it will all end in tears. Again.
Mao had one good premise, in my experience. He called it ‘continuous cultural revolution’. In effect, life for each individual is a solitary battle for order in chaos. In the human groupings that make up a society, the problem is exponentially intensified. Look at the global breakdown of banking.
The only answer to the perpetual imperative of systemic order to crack up, to age, to fragment and return to the dust that first constituted it, is a daily war on error. That’s why it takes a life time of Canutish hard work even to write an article such as this.