The more complex our social arrangements are, the more effort is needed to keep them running. This belonged to the common sense of social life long before it was codified in physics as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Living creatures die; so do cities, nations, and civilizations.
The principle is true even when our social arrangements harmonize with the inclinations of our nature. For example, human nature is made with a view to marriage, friendship, and family life. We seek them, and we go to great lengths to maintain them. Even so, all sorts of things can go wrong with them. Marriages may unravel. Friends may fall out. Family members may become estranged.
But the principle is especially true when our arrangements are contrary to the inclinations of our nature, and we are trying to compensate for the tension. To give but a single example, this is why socialism has never worked. People are not utterly selfish, but neither are they entirely unselfish, especially toward strangers. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, utopian schemes “take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.”
One would expect the tendency to disorder to be greatest when social arrangements are both increasingly complicated, and increasingly unnatural. Hackers couldn’t have kept our ancestors from building cooking fires, but it is very difficult to keep them from knocking out the electrical grid. Men and women are able to get along reasonably well when their mutual expectations are in line with what they are really like, but when they aren’t, the war between the sexes passes from playful metaphor to dread reality.
Unfortunately, the way we “fix” broken complicated systems today is to invent control systems, and the way we fix those is to invent controls on the controls, ad infinitum. Consider record keeping. When all information was on paper, it was pretty easy to lock it up. Now that information is on increasingly interconnected and permeable computer systems, employees have to be rigorously trained to keep the smoke from leaking out of the bottle of data. In recent years, as a university professor, I’ve been required to take ten short courses on various aspects of information security, the most recent of which had eight modules.
That’s not to mention a total of nine other courses mandated for all university employees, in things like workplace discrimination and harassment, ethics and “compliance,” “staying healthy in a changing environment,” and something called “social engineering,” which I can’t remember.
None of this was required when I began teaching. The controllers consider the change progress. Eventually we will spend more time on required training than on doing our job. And yet I don’t think we are behaving any better.
Now think of just a few of the other kinds of smoke that have to be kept in their bottles. Manufactured viruses, both biological and electronic. Artificial intelligence. Terrorists. Genetic modification. The ideological transformation of education. Connecting computer chips to the nervous system. New kinds of social malcontents. Universal, ubiquitous surveillance. The weaponization of the justice system. Addictive media. Identity thieves. Vandals and thugs in low places and high. These things are not like everyday disorder.
I am not preaching gloom and doom. To say that the present order of things can’t last much longer is not to say that we can do nothing about how disruptively its passing takes place, or what replaces it. But it is going to pass away.
You know what happens to a house of cards when the air in the room is disturbed. The breeze is picking up.