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Month: February 2021

Horizon loss

Yesterday the NYT published this piece, describing what appears to be a veritable mental health pandemic among Gen Z and late millenials in the developed world, ostensibly resulting from the COVID-19 social distancing measures.

The article reports that youth psychiatry wards in many European countries appear to be filled to record capacity, while in the US a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds have seriously considered suicide.

It is not only the loneliness associated with social distancing, but also the loss of purpose caused by economic collapse and gigantic youth unemployment. There is a massive spike in anxiety, depression, and a sense of guilt from ‘missing out’ on the bright future of carefree consumption promised by the global media-entertainment complex.

Someone in their early twenties describes how they are struggling to envision a future after a year of social distancing and massive job losses. The NYT aptly frames this as “a world with a foreshortened sense of the future.”

I would describe this as a catastrophic horizon loss.

The future is not ‘foreshortened’, it is completely absent. The horizon has been disappeared. Where? Perhaps somewhere between planned obsolescence, environmental collapse, a parasitic global financial system, forced isolation, economic collapse, deliberate social atomization, a global ersatz-culture celebrating hyper-consumption, and a gerontocratic global elite completely out of ideas and utterly divorced from the everyday reality of the 99%.

This horizon loss has nothing to do with the Gen Z and late millenials who are on the receiving end of its arrival. I also don’t think it is caused by the global reaction to COVID-19. The pandemic only sped up and made it visible earlier than it probably would have been otherwise. The disappearance of the future was baked in the paradigm whose death spasms we are living through now. After all, when Fukuyama celebrated the ‘victory’ of global liberal democracy as the death of history, he also inadvertently announced the death of the future and the arrival of an eternal present.

The good news is that this brief and terribly destructive 30 year paradigm has come to an end. There are no more horizons left within it, and many possible futures outside of it.

On energy loss in a system

Every system is in its essence a network of actors that perform it from moment to moment into existence. The participants in the system, or actors in the network, enact and perform it through their daily routine operations.

Some of these routine operations are beneficial to the system being performed, and some are not. Some add to the energy of the system and therefore reduce entropy, while others take away from that energy and increase entropy. If the former outweigh the latter, we can say the system is net positive in its energy balance because it generates more energy than it wastes. If the latter outweigh the former, we can say the system is net negative in its energy balance as it wastes more energy than it generates. How to distinguish between the two in practice?

The rule of thumb is that any action that increases complexity in a system is long term entropic for that system. In other words, it increases disorder and the energy costs needed to maintain the internal coherence of the system and is therefore irrational from the system’s perspective. For example, this includes all actions and system routines that increase friction within the system, such as adding steps needed to complete a task, adding reporting paperwork, adding bureaucratic levels a message must go through, etc. Every operation a piece of information needs to go through in order to travel between the periphery, where contact with external reality happens, and the center, where decision making occurs, comes at an energy cost and generates friction. Over time and at scale these stack up and increase entropy within the system.

Needless to say, the more hierarchical and centralized an organization is, the more entropy it generates internally.

In addition, what appears as a rational action at a certain level is irrational from the perspective of the system as a whole. For example, if a layer of management increases paperwork this is a perfectly rational action for that management layer, because it makes it more needed and important within the system’s internal information flow; however, this is a totally irrational action from the point of view of the system because it increases its internal operational costs.

Put differently, from the point of view of a system such as a large hierarchical organization or a  corporation, the only actions of the agents comprising it that can be considered rational are the ones that increase the net positive energy balance of the system – i.e. reduce internal friction and/or increase external energy intake.

Importantly, this should be viewed across a time axis.

For example, when it comes to a complex operation such as a merger between two departments, or two companies, it might be a good idea to compare the before and after energy net balance for the two systems and the new system that has emerged as a result of their merger. It is also important to look in high enough granularity in order to understand the specifics of each network within the system, and its operations in time.

Say you had two admin structures servicing two different departments, and, now that the departments have merged, senior management optimizes the two admin structures into one, and cuts 50% of the stuff due to ‘overlapping roles’. On the face of it this is logical and should reduce internal energy drag, as admin structures are net negative – they don’t bring in new energy and have no contact with external reality.

However, the new merged admin structure now must service a twice larger part of the system than before, and as a result ends up delegating 30% of that new work back to the front line staff it is nominally servicing. As a result, the front line staff now have to perform 30% more reporting paperwork, which is net energy negative, and that much less time to bring in new energy into the system. In effect, the long-term effects of this ‘optimization’ are net energy negative and result in increased friction within the entire system that was supposed to be ‘optimized’.