A fundamental activity of humans is to invent ways of ordering the environment socially and structurally to bring ecological resources into society. These various social arrangements, such as a political philosophy, the layout of a city or building, a set of tools, a display of merchandise, the verbal exposition of facts or ideas, a painting or piece of music are called orderly when an observer or listener can grasp their overall structure in some detail. Order makes it possible to focus on what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated to reach an understanding of the interrelation of the whole and its parts. It is then also possible to comprehend the hierarchical scale of importance and power by which some structural features are dominant, others subordinate. Perceiving and maintaining order are both necessary to gain environmental benefits because this kind of analysis can be applied through political and natural economy for establishing orderly relations between people and nature for production.
Establishing cultural order requires the application of many kinds of managerial energy to integrate its structures and functions in a dynamic system. Once order has been created it is necessary to make management plans for the application of energy to maintain it because the second law of thermodynamics states that every kind of energy spontaneously disperses if not prevented from doing so. How much energy is spread out and how widely it it spread are measures of the entropy of the system. Entropy change is therefore responsible for the tendency for all processes making up a cultural system or structure to naturally move toward a state of randomness or disorder.
With respect to entropy, order is the function of external forces acting to change a system by inputs of energy. Disorder is the tendency of energetic processes of the environment to undermine these types of changes with resultant outputs of energy. In general, cultural entropy measures heat lost to the environment when work is done for improvement of the quality of human life, whether it is helping species survive in an ecosystem, the biochemistry of growth, or the politics of a social system.
Entropy is important for the study of cultural ecology because it offers a valuable way of defining and measuring sustainable systems. A sustainable system must, by definition, ensure that its entropy level does not rise to the maximum, as maximum entropy is tantamount to system death. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, around 70 percent of heat produced by burning fuel in the average car engine is heat lost by the engine. This is released into the atmospheric heat sink. As more heat is dumped into the environment, Earth’s entropy will increase and searching for new, more efficient technologies and new non-heat engines has become a priority. To be sustainable, a cultural system must have life support subsystems, known as ecosystem services, that can ensure supplies of matter, useable energy, and information sufficient to maintain entropy levels below the maximum. From this cultural perspective there are actually entropic linkages between thermodynamics and information theory. For example, methods developed within information theory to handle heat entropy generated by computers could lead to innovations in thermodynamics. The connection made between the two concepts of cultural entropy is fundamental to living sustainably
The impact of cultural entropy on society may be regarded in two ways; as social entropy or structural entropy. Social entropy is the amount of energy in a society that is dispsersed in unproductive work and in this respect research into entropy has helped achieve unseen productivity in business sectors. Structural entropy arises from the material ordering of the environment, where molecules are organised into larger entities, whether it’s a house or a glass of water. For example, to erect a building, energy must be applied to randomised building materials to arrange them into an ordered structure. Inevitably, these constructed entities will interact chemically and physically with the environment to become disorganised. Common processes in man-made structures that lead to an increase in entropy are oxidation, gravity, friction, contamination and heat. They also act in combinations, for example the process of friction generates heat, which causes expansion, which causes more friction, which causes more heat.
A qualitative way of looking at the various expressions of cultural entropy is set out in the following mind map.
This layout shows that the concept of entropy is bound up with cultural ecology through the dynamic living and material order of the environment. Entropy in the living order is expressed culturally through the disorder generated through the dispersal of energy via social and biochemical processes.
Generally, in a social context, entropy is a surrogate of the conflict, friction and frustration that exists within an organisation because of the energy dispersed unproductively by its current leaders and the institutionalized legacy of the personal entropy of past leaders. Inefficiencies of personal entropy can become institutionalized in an organisation through the introduction of bureaucratic systems and processes requiring hierarchical decision-making or rigid silo-driven structures. The social entropy generated by current leaders usually shows up as excessive control and caution, blame and internal competition, confusion, and long working hours. Much of the energy consumed by a social organization is spent trying to maintain an efficient structure by counteracting social entropy, e.g., through legal institutions, education and rules of conduct. Social entropy measures the tendency of social networks and society in general to break down over time, moving from cooperation and advancement towards conflict and chaos. Humans are at cross-purposes more often than they are at equilibrium. The more disagreement, the more entropy. Taken to extreme, war is much more entropic than peace.
Entropy increases in biochemical entities at the level of species and individuals and is evident in various expressions of ageing in molecules, organs and individuals. Entropy in the material order of the environment is generated as various outcomes of energy input, such as the geological dynamics of the Earth’s crust, the production of wastes through inefficiencies in human production systems and the ruination of human creations. To cope with the latter a large fraction of the human economy has to be devoted to counteracting ruination, through building maintenance for example. However, there have always been positive cultural values in ruins which tend to either become historical icons of former glories of civilisation or reminders of the continuity of particular ideologies and human inventiveness. These icons of heritage have led to a category of art where ruins have become the subject of landscape aesthetics. Picturing ruins in the landscape is part of a larger area of entropic aesthetics which also includes the production of abstract art/music where the aim is to get a value response from the viewer through the introduction of maximal entropy into the making or performance of a work. Entropic aesthetics also includes maintenance art, a category of process art where the objective is to celebrate services that oppose the entropy of social systems. De-composition art involves presenting a work in a way that allows it to change through its entropic interactions with the environment. The following classification of cultural entropy is a further development of the above mind map.
1 Entropy in living order
- Social entities
- Biochemical entities
- Molecular errors
- Organ senescence
- Programmed death
2 Entropy in material order
- Geological dynamics
3 Entropic aesthetics
- Landscape painting
- Abstract art/music
- Process art