chapter  20
Pages 13

Behind thermodynamics is a simple but crucial concept: nature seeks to undo gradients – differences in temperature or pressure. The familiar image of warm turning inevitably to cold, however, became rationalized into the historical specter of heat death, total energy loss, the final stillness of the universe. Henry Adams, the American historian and writer, having been overawed by the electrical dynamo at the 1900 Paris Exposition, offered ever-gloomier predictions that the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the dissipation of usable energy due to entropy increase in a closed system – foretold the gradual exhaustion of culture as well as nature. The sense of order to the universe supported by the First Law, the law of conservation of energy throughout its transformations, would no longer be sustainable. Adams made these predictions in part as a sarcastic response to the belief that evolutionary progress would drive history forward. For Adams, conversely, the beginning of the twentieth century could only usher in an increasing cultural chaos that he felt obliged to explain in thermodynamic language. That his Education of Henry Adams (1907) regards modern capitalism as naturally created through thermodynamic laws anticipates how, as we will later see, a thermodynamically guided model of evolution draws on imperialist logic. Indeed, Adams’s book, particularly in later chapters, forecasts the importance of information for thermodynamic science (Bruni 2010). The major developments of thermodynamics – for instance, the shift in focus as life becomes regarded not as a closed but as an open system, and thus resistant to the second law – are widely restaged in literary narratives that envision the creative and destructive roles for entropy to play in an increasingly technology-saturated social landscape. Yet the tendency remains to extrapolate from simple scientific concepts a

universal theory of development, one that leapfrogs on recognizable cultural trends. The temptation to find a natural explanation for cultural phenomena has long dogged thermodynamics. As thermodynamics shifts from closed to open systems, in Ira Livingston’s sarcastic description of the attitudes of those who would uncritically embrace a model that ties energy flows to economic flows: “Life, the tragic hero of the late nineteenth century, becomes at the dawn of a new millennium a surfing CEO with a cell phone” (Livingston 2006: 138).

The danger, as will be made clear, is in totalizing thermodynamics, subsuming cultural differences under the heading of self-similarity.