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Tag: entropy

The Naked King Spell and the Art of Inertia Casting

It pays to be well-prepared for the occasional wardrobe subversion (Diffusion XL).

The setting

All human systems – be it corporations, restaurants, spy agencies, or nail salons – compete for scarce resources. Apart from competing with each other, they all face the Sisyphean task of continuously staving off entropy. They all lose in the end, though some have quite a bit of fun along the way. 

When a system, be it a sushi bar or an entire country, tries to isolate itself from the external world, it may stave off competitors for a while. Think North Best Korea behind a very high wall. Unfortunately, isolation only speeds up entropy. Imagine a teenager’s bedroom as a system isolated from the outside world and no longer receiving external input (like parental cleaning services). Over time, clothes accumulate on the floor, empty snack wrappers create a new carpet layer, and mysterious new life forms evolve in the pile of discarded pizza boxes in the corner. 

This isolated ecosystem rapidly accelerates towards chaos – an increase in entropy. The room becomes a miniature universe obeying the second law of thermodynamics: in an isolated system, entropy tends to increase, leading to disorder. It is better to remain at least somewhat open to the outside world and have at it before the inevitable. But that’s another story. 

This story is about those systems opting to remain at least somewhat open in the competition for scarce resources. In this high-stakes game, direct confrontation is only sometimes the wisest path to victory. There are better, more refined ways of defeating an opposing system. 

In this piece, I propose that the most subversive yet elegant method to triumph over a competing system is to make it detour itself into a state of inertia. Moreover, this self-detour can be induced as if casting a spell. 

I call it the naked king spell

Before going further, let’s quickly outline what inertia is and why it is bad for you. In brief, inertia is a system’s stubborn repetition of a routine until failure. A system is in a state of inertia when it continuously performs a set of operations regardless of external conditions. Consider a restaurant that clings to the menu that initially made it successful. Why, the restaurant owner may believe the menu exemplifies the ideal Platonic food form, worth three Michelin stars. It doesn’t matter. 

Clinging to a set of actions regardless of circumstances is how inertia sets in. The state of inertia usually continues until a non-negotiable change in external conditions forces a system breakdown. Change, by its very nature, has infinite forms. Tastes evolve, and the once-popular Michelin menu is now passe; the restaurant faces a crisis. 

Why a crisis, though? Can’t they adapt? After all, it would only take a change in the menu to adjust to external changes in taste. Here lies the beauty of the spell – self-adaptation doesn’t even come into play. The restaurant cannot adapt and must face a crisis because it cannot simply change its menu – inertia, remember? Once set in inertia, it is tremendously difficult for a system to alter its path on its own. Inducing this process is like casting a spell, convincing a system to bind itself to a set of its own routines. 

The elegance of the naked king spell is that in casting it, you’re exploiting a system’s internal structure and operations, effectively trapping it in its internal procedures. Let’s explore how the spell works, the effects of inertia, and, in the process, figure out how to defend against it. 

The naked king

To understand the inertia spell, you must know Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story, usually translated in English as The Emperor’s New Clothes. Here’s the short version.

An emperor, or king, was fond of new clothes and always searching for new fashions to surprise his subjects. The king, you see, liked shocking the bourgeoisie before it was popular. It was his thing. Some kings are fond of new wars, others of old mistresses, but our king had a penchant for deconstructing bespoke Savile Row shirts and Herringbone jackets. 

One day, the king was approached by a pair of clever swindlers who told him they could weave completely new fabrics, so fine and delicate that only those of sophisticated tastes and deep wisdom could see them. The art of deconstructed fashion brought to its logical conclusion, as it were.

The clothes made of this fabric would be invisible to everyone else, who, presumably, lacked the required learning and sophistication. The final solution to prole aesthetics! The king paid the two con men the large sum of money they demanded, and in return, they pretended to weave the fine clothes they promised. But, of course, they just wove thin air.

After a few days, the king and all his ministers inspected the magnificent new clothes. Of course, such sophisticated literati as them had long ago learned the fine art of pretending to see that which is not there, and so they all admired the magnificent new clothes. After all, only a lowly prole would fail to see their splendorous refinement. 

In a stroke of genius, the king even organized a procession through his capital’s streets to show his subjects the fine new clothes he wore. As an artist, he was also fond of raising social awareness through art for the masses. The people lined the streets to see the spectacle, and all exclaimed how unique and beautiful the king’s new clothes were. None wanted to appear uncouth or stupid, or worse, be accused of hate speech towards the alternatively clothed. They were wise to the ways of modern political science, you see. 

Only a little boy exclaimed loudly, “But the king is naked!” 

The way Andersen tells the story, the boy’s innocent observation of reality breaks the spell, and everyone starts laughing at the king and his imaginary clothes. Speaking truth to power works! 

Of course, you know better than this, dear reader. So, let’s dive in and discover the workings of the naked king spell and what it brings. 

The spell 

On the surface, the scenario boils down to the dangers of denying the obvious. The king and his court made fools of themselves – mainstream media’s favorite topic. The story cautions us against trusting those who promise the impossible and points to the value of good old common sense. 

On a deeper level, the story illustrates a breakdown of the feedback loops within a system. In a healthy system, an initial observation of external conditions is followed by decisions, actions, and consequences, which feed into new observations, decisions, and actions in a continuous loop. Not so in our scenario. 

In the real-world enactment of the story, the boy would shout, “The king is naked,” but instead of the people opening their eyes to the obvious, the boy and his parents are usually whisked away by a three-letter agency, never to be heard from again. Who knows, maybe they are accused of hate speech? The king identifies as clothed! Perhaps they are branded as lunatics, conspiracy theorists, enemies of the state, foreign agents, science deniers, or all of the above. 

The boy’s reaction represents the long-delayed feedback loop between the king’s court and reality. In a healthy system, that feedback loop works continuously across all areas where the system interfaces with the external world. In other words, if the kingdom were a healthy system, the king’s adventures in the realm of new clothes would immediately end with a courtier pointing out the obvious. If that fails, the courtiers would simply install a new king. Many such cases! 

What matters is that a system set in inertia cannot afford to entertain signals challenging its direction. Any such signal amplified enough would break the closed circuit of inertia. In an inertia-bound system, the boy’s ‘the king is naked’ feedback signal endangers internal procedures and must be silenced. 

That feedback loop is the key element we must isolate to understand the spell. In our example, the king is a system’s linchpin. He and his ministers form the center of power, that is to say, the center of coordination and control in the network we call the state. 

The spell is cast when the con men convince the king that only educated and sophisticated people would see his fine new clothes. People who see him as naked are framed as uncouth simpletons. Crucially, everyone can see that the king is naked, including himself, but all persist in the charade. It doesn’t matter whether they know the actual state of the king’s body and the kingdom as a system. What matters is that they project an alternate reality about that state

Those closest to the king, and therefore with the most power and the most to lose, may even convince themselves that the king is indeed wearing the fine clothes promised by the swindlers. Comprehensively deluded citizens might do the same. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the power center in this system is projecting an alternate reality to itself, in complete contrast with the actual state of the system.

The essence of the naked king spell is this subtle shift from a reality image generated by active feedback loops to an image based on the self-projection of a synthetic reality. Once the shift is complete, the system does the rest of the onerous work of marching toward collapse on its own. The synthetic reality projected by the system’s command center overrides every aspect of the system. 

After all, the purpose of a system is what it does.

A system under the naked king spell starts acting according to the synthetic reality it projects to itself instead of the external conditions it interfaces with. Again, casting the spell involves convincing a system’s power center to supplant its healthy reality image with a synthetic one. There are various ways to achieve this, but ideally, the synthetic image must involve valorizing a procedure or protocol internal to the system

That is because a system is highly likely to identify with its internal protocols. The corporate culture-building gospels contain endless variations of the “we do things this way, and this is who we are” mantra. Tying the synthetic reality image generated by the spell caster to an existing protocol in the target system will map the synthetic reality to the system’s self-identity. If done well, the target system sees the synthetic reality as a core element of its identity and is highly likely to defend it. 

In our story, the con men use the king’s love for new clothes as the internal system protocol to exploit. The exploit works by valorizing the synthetic reality of non-existent ‘new clothes’ as the epitome of the existing protocol of refined clothing, itself a core element of the system’s identity. The system’s power center now maps the synthetic reality to its core identity of fashionable refinement. The spell was successful. 

In the restaurant example, an attacker could use the restaurant’s obsession with its Michelin rating as the exploit vector and bind the spell to the menu or food presentation. Again, the attacker aims to spellbind the target system into creating a synthetic image of reality and attach it to its existing protocols. This tricks the target system into mapping the synthetic reality onto how it perceives itself. After all, a system’s purpose is what it does. 

Crucially, exploiting an internal protocol when casting the spell also ensures that the system’s defense mechanism, whether three-letter agencies or HR departments, will actively defend the spell and its synthetic reality. Anyone within the system pointing out that the king is naked will be identified by its defense mechanism as a threat to the system’s operations and suppressed. This is how the feedback loop with reality breaks down and detouring into inertia begins. 

What does this breakdown process look like? First, the parts of the system still performing a feedback loop with external conditions start signaling the growing disconnect between external reality and the synthetic one generated by the spell. For example, in a war scenario, low-level officers inform their commanders that the current tactics do not work and casualties are rising catastrophically. Alternatively, in an academic scenario, teaching staff advise their faculty deans of persistent student dissatisfaction with the curriculum. 

We already know that a healthy system interprets these signals as important feedback and closes the loop by adjusting its actions accordingly. However, a system under the naked king spell views these signals as dangerous challenges to internal operations and aims to stamp them out. Usually, such a system ignores feedback loops entirely. If that is not possible, it will use various methods to silence them – from denial to force. For example, the commanding officer tells the lower ranks he will not tolerate any questioning of his orders, or the teaching staff is forced to resign for pushback against institutional culture. 

Generally, inertia-bound systems would react in one of the following ways to ‘the king is naked’ corrective feedback loops:

  1. Ignore them entirely. This is the default reaction.
  2. Counter-messaging and denial: The king is not naked! Saying otherwise is bigoted hate speech. The boy is lying, uninformed, deluded, a foreign agent, or a denier of the science of fine cloth making.
  3. Derailment and diffusion: The king has always been naked, and here’s why that’s good for you!
  4. Well poisoning: The king is indeed naked, but that is because he is secretly a reptilian! Also, the earth is flat.
  5. Force: Shut up or else! The threat is then followed by direct silencing.

In complex systems under the naked king spell, options one to four are usually in play, with force reserved for situations where the other tactics fail. For example, a government would engage in extensive denial, derailment, and well poisoning before it escalates to direct force against internal opposition. However, in simpler systems, the hijacked defense mechanism usually escalates from ignoring feedback directly to force. For example, a corporation’s HR department would fire anyone repeatedly questioning the synthetic reality projected by the spell. 

Eventually, a system under the naked king spell reaches a stage where two destructive forces start working on it simultaneously. First, such systems are subject to high entropy due to operating in a synthetic reality. Disorder builds up internally, simply by nature of the discrepancy between external reality and the synthetic image of reality under which the system operates. In effect, such systems have effectively isolated themselves from the world and experience all the wonders of the second law of thermodynamics I mentioned. 

Systems experiencing this effect of the spell try to mitigate the build-up of entropy by artificially increasing internal order through bureaucratic procedures. They would multiply administrative steps, invent new busy work, and create more procedural oversight positions while escalating penalties for non-compliance. The problem is that additional procedures only create the illusion of order while actually increasing the internal costs of operating the system, eventually triggering the Red Queen Trap

The second destructive force is generated by the elements of the system itself. Think of a system as a network continuously performed in existence by a set number of nodes, which are the network’s actors. To simplify, think of the king, his court, and his subjects as the actors of such a network. As the system limps along the path of inertia, those of its actors interfacing with external reality find themselves under a constant cognitive strain generated by the discrepancy between the synthetic reality and actual external conditions. 

The command center of a system is usually shielded from reality by one or multiple layers of intermediary actors reporting some approximate version of that reality to the center. These frontline actors suffer the most from the effects of the cognitive strain, as they can observe in real-time the widening gap between the synthetic image of reality maintained by the system and the actual external conditions. 

Think of this cognitive load as an additional energy cost for the system, as the frontline actors must omit the discrepancy from their reporting. Why? If they don’t, they immediately trigger the ‘king is naked’ chain and its consequences. Those who persist in trying to report the discrepancy are removed from the system by its defense mechanisms. 

Eventually, first some and then most of these frontline actors stop believing entirely in the synthetic reality generated by the system. “If they lie about the king wearing clothes, they probably lie about everything else too.” Such actors become extremely dangerous to the system’s internal cohesion at that point, as their dissociation adds, you guessed it, additional energy costs to the system. In effect, the whole network starts disintegrating from within along its internal connections in a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.

In that sense, the naked king spell is a feedback dissociation exploit leading to inertia. 

Let’s reassess. The naked king spell exploits a system’s internal protocols to dissociate it from its feedback loops with external reality. Casting the spell involves binding a synthetic reality to a system’s internal protocols, thereby making the artificial reality part of a system’s identity. The art of casting the spell is in correctly selecting and valorizing a procedure or protocol internal to the target system. When done correctly, the spell convinces the target system that the synthetic reality is a critical element of the system’s identity. 

A system under the naked king spell will use its defense mechanisms to target and eliminate network nodes questioning the synthetic reality. In doing that, the system maintains the spell’s effects using its own energy resources, further weakening itself in the process. In fact, the naked king spell generates increasingly destructive forces within the system, mirrored by equally rising energy costs as the system tries to resist the rising disorder. 

Again, the synthetic image generated by the spell forces the system to operate in effective isolation from external conditions, leading to rising internal entropy. To stem the rising entropy, the system adds additional internal procedures and reporting steps, further increasing its energy costs. 

Meanwhile, frontline actors in the network experience rising cognitive strain as they are caught in the middle between the system’s synthetic reality and external conditions. Eventually, such actors experience complete dissociation from the system’s artificial reality and start disintegrating the network from within in a positive feedback loop. 

The naked king spell causes an inertia-bound death spiral in the target system. The spell’s subtle subversive beauty is that the target system performs the entire death spiral using its internal energy and resources. This is the art of inertia casting. 

Inertia as a curse, inertia as an art

The signs 

An inertia-bound system is permeated by the ethos of doing things by the book. It is dogmatic, intolerant of all positive feedback loops even when obviously beneficial, and automatically considers innovation as deviation. Inertia-bound systems develop complex internal protocols describing the procedural steps for digesting external conditions in accordance with the synthetic reality image. 

These protocols are seen as optimizing the routine functioning of the system and come with an internal bureaucracy enforcing them, further increasing energy costs. They also generate a growing pool of sycophants convinced following the protocols – parasitizing on the system’s energy – is good for them. Following these new rules has helped my career! That is why systems under the naked king spell multiply committees, review panels, and working groups. They also usually have hypertrophied human resource departments to enforce the performance of this synthetic reality. 

Furthermore, inertia-bound systems are usually optimized for synthetic external conditions at a point of time x, with beautiful protocols describing all possible procedures for that scenario. The problem is that external reality is in flux, and the point of time is now invariably x+n. Whenever external conditions consistently change, they pose new problems for an inertia-bound system. 

Given a change in its environment, a system has to either expand energy towards altering its internal protocols and evolving or try to brute force the new problems with its existing protocols. An inertia-bound system invariably chooses to brute force new problems instead of adapting and changing because of the cost of altering its synthetic reality image. 

Consequently, such a system traps itself in a spiral of increasing conversion inefficiencies. In other words, the system requires more and more energy to perform its existing set of tasks as the discrepancy between the outside and the internal synthetic reality continuously widens. 

An inertia-bound system has clear-cut deterministic responses to environmental unpredictability, choosing to bottle up or disregard unfamiliar influences. Unpredictable scenarios threaten the synthetic reality image and must be avoided at all costs. This fear of uncontrollable scenarios with no playbook to follow cancels potential evolutionary paths and further buries the system in the swamp of inertia.

In other words, we know all these new and strange things are happening outside, but we will ignore them and talk about these other familiar things because they don’t threaten our synthetic model of reality. Ironically, this dynamic makes an inertia-bound system appear very resilient and robust. Nothing will make us change our values! 

Of course, this outward robustness is the side effect of the recursive protocols maintaining the synthetic reality image. The seemingly bulletproof nature of the system is a mark of its fragility. Its adherence to set patterns only piles up an inertia-resultant backlog of problems, inhibiting any potential resolution or innovation. Inertia, dressed up as stability, is the force driving the collapse and disintegration of the system. 

The art

As I mentioned in the beginning, I consider the naked king spell the most elegant way of defeating an opposing system. You, dear reader, should have a relatively clear idea as to why by now. That being said, paradoxically, most systems would gladly settle into inertia – if only reality would let them. After all, it is so much easier to do the same thing repeatedly or not do anything at all. It is much cheaper, too, until entropy shows its face.

For such systems, the naked king spell is pure seduction. Finally, we have implemented robust procedures and eliminated the reckless innovators who threatened our safe space! However, there are a number of other reasons why the art of inertia casting is elegant and subversive.

Efficiency: this is the most economical and efficient system attack mode, as an inertia-bound system spends energy on defeating itself. As described above, casting the spell renders the target system’s energy into a weapon against itself, paradoxically aiding in its own collapse. Moreover, the system’s defenses actively suppress its remaining healthy elements from lifting the spell. Opting for a subtle exploit rather than overt confrontation also reduces the potential for conflict and resistance. 

Predictability: the spell is highly predictable, as the actions of an inertia-bound system can be mapped with a high degree of accuracy the longer it stays in inertia. All one needs is knowledge of the protocols valorized in creating the synthetic reality image, and the target system usually doesn’t hide them – they are now part of its identity. The naked king will want to show his new clothes at every opportunity.

Control: an inertia-bound system is easy to control from the outside, as changing external conditions can easily affect its energy costs. The invisible influence of the spell is subtle and can continue unabated, allowing sustained manipulation of even seemingly well-defended systems. This subtle control also eliminates the likelihood of attack detection or retaliation, undermining the system’s operational capabilities.

Preservation: casting the spell preserves the system’s structure for potential redirection or repurposing. After all, the essence of inertia is resistance to change. The spell caster can expect the target system’s internal structures to remain largely intact and ready for a strategic realignment or conservation. Preserving systemic integrity also allows the spell caster to steer the target system toward desired outcomes with greater control and precision.

Universality: the spell is universally applicable because inertia is universally present. Moreover, inertia is seductive. Most systems usually want to be in a state of inertia – it feels safer, cheaper, more robust, and more stable. This universality also gives the spell caster many options for managing the aftermath of the target system’s unraveling – from preserving the system’s resources to their redeployment. 

Smooth reboot: the spell allows for smooth transitions from collapse to restoration of the inertia-bound system, thanks to its intact structures. If the spell caster chooses to reboot the system in a new configuration, the transition occurs without needing a complete rebuild. This quality of the spell also gives the system a semblance of continuity, ensuring that its revival is as efficient as its suspension was deliberate. The king is dead; long live the king!

There is a related point worth explaining further. If left on its own, an inertia-bound system will eventually grind to a halt and collapse under the dual forces of growing internal entropy and rising energy costs. This collapse might have a broad spectrum of forms, but the underlying support structure of the system will usually remain intact. For example, our Michelin restaurant closed down, but the restaurant’s premises, kitchen equipment, etc., are still intact and available for reuse. 

As another example, a country set in inertia might run itself into the ground, but valuable infrastructure such as ports, powerplants, and factories would likely remain intact and available to the spell caster. There are many examples of this dynamic unfolding in recent history once you start looking for them. This preservation is crucial to the smooth reboot process. When a system collapses under inertia, its support architecture remains dormant yet ready for revival. 

In other words, if the spell caster decides to reboot, the system doesn’t have to be reconstructed from the ground up. Instead, the existing structures can be revived and, if necessary, reconfigured to meet new objectives or adapt to new circumstances. For example, the new owner of our formerly Michelin restaurant retains the name and appearance but has altered the menu. Alternatively, the new corporate management of a tech company changes the company name, fires 85% of staff while retaining the infrastructure, and steers the company in an alternative direction. True story. 

Alright, you say, but how can a system defend against the naked king spell? Before we examine defenses against the spell, I have to repeat that inertia is seductive. Left on their own, absent a malicious spell caster, systems are likely to detour themselves into inertia eventually. It is the easy path. It is consistently tempting for a system to multiply its internal procedures, increase the actors in its network, and reify its internal protocols into dogma. After all, it feels good to grow, be more orderly, and have a coherent culture that resists change. Conversely, it takes tremendous discipline and ideological drive for a system’s command center to resist these temptations consistently. 

Defending against the naked king spell

There are three defense modes against the spell – structural, cultural, and aesthetic. Each mode consists of a set of strategies protecting the system from the naked king spell and the seductive pull of inertia. They work best when deployed simultaneously in a layered active defense strategic posture. 

Structural defense

The structural mode of defense focuses on the system’s internal architecture – that is, its processes, hierarchies, and frameworks. Structurally hardening a system against the spell involves reformatting its internal architecture around flexibility and rapid adaptation. Ideally, every internal architectural element – be it a protocol, local hierarchy, or action framework – should be optimized for rapid reconfiguration in response to external changes or internal challenges. 

In practice, this means that protocols, hierarchies, and frameworks are construed as ad hoc and subject to dynamic alteration at a local level. In simpler terms, you should not need three months and the approval of multiple committees to adapt existing procedures to an external change – your adaptation should be immediate and executed locally. 

Architecturally, this involves reconfiguring the network for a decentralized decision-making process to enhance responsiveness and ensure short and fast feedback loops. Importantly, decentralized decision-making doesn’t mean the absence of hierarchies. It means delegating decision-making power from the center to the nodes closest to the direct feedback loop with external conditions. 

In practice, the somewhat heretical military command doctrine of mission-based orders (auftragstaktik) captures this form of organization very well: my orders to you allow you to modify or suspend my orders in overcoming obstacles and achieving my intent. In other words, if I intend to achieve goal x, you can alter all my protocols, hierarchies, and action frameworks to achieve that goal. A system with functioning decentralized decision-making adapts very fast but, even more importantly, has built-in control center redundancies, making the detour into inertia that much harder to accomplish. 

A system structurally hardened against inertia would appear highly flexible and organizationally flat, with decentralized decision-making and modular architecture that can be easily updated or replaced. An attacker would find it hard to exploit an internal protocol when the target system construes all protocols as ad hoc and subject to dynamic alteration by local decision-making nodes acting in a persistent auftragstaktik. It is much more difficult for inertia to take hold when the system is always in a state of anticipatory readiness for change.

Cultural defense

The cultural defense mode focuses on the values, beliefs, and behaviors permeating the system. Culturally hardening a system against inertia involves propagating experimentation, risk-taking, personal responsibility, change anticipation, and rapid adaptation as core systemic values. Encouraging these values as system-forming precludes the complacency-driven drift into seductive inertia and ensures the system would maintain its dynamic interface with changing external conditions. 

In other words, the network’s actors, permeated by this culture, can be expected to actively search for ‘the king is naked’ feedback opportunities, quickly close the loop, and continue the cycle. The ‘agile’ principles, subject to so much contemporary corporate infatuation, are a good approximation of these cultural values. However, many systems try to deploy agile principles while maintaining internal structures that are antithetical to these values, ending with agile lip service.  

Consider the practice of penetration testing in cybersecurity, when deployed at scale, as a good analogy for the cultural defense mode in practice. Following the analogy, a system deploying this defense mode assumes that it has, and always will have, many potential inertia vulnerabilities that a malicious spell caster can exploit. Therefore, the system’s core belief is that every actor in the system’s network is responsible for continuously anticipating, searching for, and adapting to such exploits. Crucially, actors are rewarded with vulnerability bounties and promoted in the hierarchy for discovering situations where ‘the king is naked.’  

In practice, a system permeated by these values is also likely to have deployed a version of auftragstaktik, making it very hard to attack with the naked king spell. Such a system would elevate the active seeking of fast feedback loops into a core priority, maintaining its vitality and flexibility. A systemic culture that celebrates adaptability and views rapid change as a golden opportunity rather than a severe threat is inherently more resistant to the naked king spell and the seductive call of inertia.

Aesthetic defense

The aesthetic defense mode focuses on a system’s outward appearance and its interfaces with external conditions. It relates to the way the system appears to outside actors and the information frame it communicates to them. A system aesthetically hardened against the naked king spell continuously evolves its framing, communication strategies, and the symbolic brand it projects to the outside world. This makes it much harder for a malicious spell caster to isolate a static element of the system’s identity to which a synthetic reality can be bound. 

The continuous aesthetic evolution of a system’s external framing also signals adaptability and flux, externally and internally, reinforcing its defenses against inertia. This constant renewal of the system’s interface with external conditions also helps to prevent the internal stagnation that the spell seeks to exploit, particularly when matched with the cultural and structural defense modes. 

On a deeper level, a system deploying the aesthetic defense mode has inevitably weaponized its external framing. It uses its external communications channels to partially or wholly obfuscate its internal condition, camouflage its core protocols, and misrepresent its operational culture. 

This brings me to an interesting subset of the aesthetic defense mode – a strategy I call the naked king gambit. Briefly, a system can mimic being in an inertia state as a defense from malicious spell casters. Such a system would adopt the outward aesthetics of an inertia-bound system as a camouflage. The outward sign is the same; how do you know if it reveals a reality or simulates it? 

In other words, clever courtiers can install a naked king on the throne while running the country behind the scenes. From the outside, the kingdom would appear deeply stuck in inertia, with a naked king seemingly in control. The king might appear to be demented, shallow, or completely insane. It doesn’t matter. Internally, system structure and operational culture might look and behave entirely differently. 

In combination, these defense modes create a layered and dynamic defensive posture against the naked king spell and the seductive onset of inertia. Structural flexibility ensures the system can dynamically pivot in response to external changes, cultural vitality keeps the system’s operations adaptable and anticipatory, and aesthetic dynamism weaponizes the system’s external signals, preventing stagnation. Together, they form a comprehensive defense strategy that protects against inertia and propels the defending system toward continuous renewal.

In the grand cacophony of competing systems, casting the naked king spell is often the most sublime form of subversion. It is not a battering ram at the gates but a whisper that turns the system against itself. Defending against this spell requires rethinking the structure, culture, and aesthetics of a system in an ongoing battle of wits, wills, and wardrobes. 

So, the next time you face the signs of systemic inertia, remember: the naked king was seduced into dropping his clothes. Don’t let your system suffer the same fate. Anticipate and welcome change, stay adaptive, and maybe keep a fashionable spell caster on speed dial. After all, in the world of systems, it pays to be well-prepared for the occasional wardrobe subversion.

Notes on the therapeutic state

Behold the therapon, made with Stable Diffusion

Admit it, dear reader, you always wanted to know what caused our glorious edifice of iron, concrete, plastic, and silicone, that unsinkable Titan borne out of the sheer Faustian audacity of our ancestors, to suddenly shudder, grind to a halt, and start sinking. 

Well, we can probably agree that the name of the iceberg doesn’t really matter at this stage. It did hit our glorious edifice, and we are indeed going down. 

Even the two main tribes on deck, Pepsi and Coca, sorry, the progressors and the conservers, seem to agree that something is wrong. However, their main differences revolve around the music the orchestra should be playing to accompany the sinking of our Titan, so there is no point in thinking about them further. 

You must have also noticed the conspicuous absence of anger at this turn of events among our fellow passengers. After all, depression and acceptance are supposed to be preceded by denial, anger, and bargaining. So how did we jump straight to acceptance?

Enter the therapeutic state. Shallow, tepid vulgarity in pastels.

The word therapeutic originates from the ancient Greek therapeutein, “to take care of, provide for,” and is related to another old Greek word – therapon, “attendant.”

We will return to these terms below, but first, a brief excursus into the forgotten past.

The premodern, or traditional, state punished transgressions. Preferably in a public spectacle for the amusement of its people. It viewed itself as the protector of a divine order in which some toiled, some prayed, and some fought and maintained the divine order. Bodies, and their proprietors, were viewed as sovereign entities inhabiting a sacred world.

The modern, or industrial, state had a radically different conception of its role. The modern state severed its ties to the divine, declared victory over it, and imagined itself an all-encompassing Leviathan. The Leviathan had no need to punish transgressors since it was the source of all order, and those transgressors were always to be part of it. Instead, it aimed to discipline all bodies, of which it was now the sole proprietor. To do that, it invented disciplinary institutions – schools, universities, offices, hospitals, and prisons. 

The therapeutic state doesn’t punish or discipline. It doesn’t care about order or the proprietorship of bodies. It inherited the disciplinary institutions of the modern state, but now they are simply vestigial appendages parasitizing on whatever residual energy they can find while tepidly caring. “Sir, I want you to know that we listen and care!” The therapeutic state seems to have only one role – it somatizes by alternate excitement and sedation. Its function is to smoothly transition the masses into acceptance by diverting their anger and medicating their depression.

The purpose of the therapeutic state is not to maintain a divine order or push forward into the unknown. It is to cope. Inclusively. 

Think of the bureaucrat. A vestigial organ of the now defunct industrial state, found across all its residual disciplinary institutions. 

Leviathan needed the bureaucrat to organize and maintain its disciplinary apparatus. Left to its own devices, it could always be relied on to create Kafkaesque labyrinths into which it could lure its unwitting prey. 

However, the bureaucrat has always been cowardly and would never dare to be the Minotaur in its own mazes. Instead, it would parasitically drain the vital energy of its victims while excreting the busy work necessary to maintain the labyrinth.    

Who knows, future historians might even decide that it was the bureaucrat, having developed class consciousness as the managerial class in the West and the nomenklatura in the lands of socialism, that brought the industrial society to collapse through its sheer parasitic chutzpah. 

In the therapeutic state, the role of the bureaucrat is played by the therapon. Like the strapon, the therapon is an ersatz appendage symbolizing an absence. 

The absence of order, meaning, or direction. Unless you call sinking a move in the right direction. 

The therapon is an attendant. It copes, but shallowly. The therapon listens and cares, inclusively. The therapon seethes when prodded, but timidly. 

The managerial class could at least be counted on for dizzying displays of kitsch vulgarity masquerading as high modern art, the prerogative of the untouchable parasite.  

The therapon aesthetic is a tepid vulgarity in pastels. A beige you must accept. 

On empathy

Empathy, generated with Stable Diffusion

Here’s a thought. High empathy is the most essential element of a culture or civilization in its prime, and the absence of empathy is the most important marker of a collapsing culture or society. 

There is a moment in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game where the character Colonel Graf must explain why he chose the main protagonist Ender instead of one of his siblings as the commander of the human fleet to face an alien invasion. 

The colonel explains that Ender had the perfect balance of empathy and ruthlessness, while his siblings were either too empathetic and caring or too ruthless and sociopathic. Crucially, Colonel Graf also ensured that most, if not all, of Ender’s officers, had higher empathy than him.

Being too empathetic appears to be an obvious obstacle for a military commander who must be ready to destroy an enemy and sacrifice his soldiers. So why would too little empathy hinder a commander or anyone else? 

Empathy is usually associated with soft skills secondary to cold, rational decision-making. It is supposed to be a weakness, a quality for poets, fantasy romance writers, and the like. You wouldn’t want your stockbroker to show signs of empathy, would you? CEOs don’t get awarded bonus points for feelings, do they?

Well, empathy is not about having feelings for someone’s plight. Instead, empathy is the ability to model what it is to be someone else. 

Expressing feelings for someone’s condition is a projection of one’s internal state onto someone else. We see it everywhere today in the form of virtue signaling. 

However, modeling in one’s mind the internal states of someone else as if they were one’s own is an altogether different process.

Empathy starts with the other. To begin to empathize, you must acknowledge the other as a conditionally different entity from you, with different beliefs, values, experiences, feelings, and points of view. You then must model how that other would see a situation from their own POV.

This sounds like common sense, merely a precondition of the golden rule. However, it is an act of profound significance. You just created a synthetic entity that is radically symmetrical to you and then dropped the safety of your familiar POV to adopt the synthetic one.

Genuine empathy is also intellectually demanding, as it presupposes the ability to create mental models with conditional hypotheticals, emotion mapping, and recursive states. Let’s unpack these. 

First, an empath must create a mental model of the hypothetical state of another person, given a set of conditionals N. This involves imagining the other and modeling the other’s state given some hypothetical conditions that have not happened to you. 

The empath must then map the other person’s hypothetical emotional states onto the model because these states may influence how the other perceives reality.

In other words, the empath must model what it is to be the other given a set of hypothetical starting conditions and then map what that other might feel like in these conditions in a given moment. 

Modeling anything based on conditional hypotheticals is hard enough for many people. For example, “How would I have felt if I didn’t have breakfast this morning? What do you mean? I had breakfast!”. 

Emotion mapping adds another layer of complexity, as it involves synthesizing emotional states other than one’s own and then ensuring they cohere with the synthetic POV you adopted earlier. 

Finally, the empath must then run the model recursively to identify possible emotional states for conditionals n+1 for that other. In practice, this looks like continuously asking and then answering a question such as: “What would it have felt like to be person X in situation Z given conditionals N, and then have N+1 happen to me?”

An empath does this mental modeling intuitively and iteratively while observing and operating in changing external conditions. Quite a feat. However, empathic modeling is far less impressive in practice because everyone takes it for granted. Until it disappears, that is. Then it is too late. 

The absence of empathic modeling, particularly at large scales, becomes immediately visible. It is usually followed by disappearing trust, crumbling social and physical infrastructure, and sociopathic behaviors at all scales. 

Returning to Colonel Graf’s logic, you want your commander to be a high empath because that is a precondition to accurately modeling the enemy’s POV, assumptions, and decision-making process. To truly defeat an enemy, one has to truly understand them first.

The importance of empaths becomes more visible as an organization, or a society, increases in complexity. However, at an individual level, sociopaths would always dominate empaths as long as they can keep one step ahead of the consequences of their actions. Sociopaths generate entropy, but all is fine as long as someone else expands energy on dealing with that entropy.

You can observe this in large organizations where the energy source for maintenance is disconnected from most or all of the organization’s decisions and actions. Think government bureaucracies, academia, the peacetime military, and large corporations with a long delay between decisions and consequences. 

Over time, sociopaths congregate in management roles in such organizations, pushing out all empaths simply because of the absence of immediate consequences for bad decisions. Ironically, such organizations would expend exceeding energy on signaling an empath culture while smothering it at every step in the death grip of sociopathic managerialism and HR. 

However, empaths become necessary when the delay between actions and consequences is short, even in small teams, units, or tribes. In this scenario, you either act as an empath towards your unit or you get to learn all about friendly fire. 

Conversely, in a situation with a very short delay between actions and consequences, a team without a critical mass of empaths quickly generates enough entropy to tear apart all internal cohesion. This is because empaths are negentropic. 

As an organization grows in complexity, the number of empaths necessary to maintain critical mass increases because more and more organizational elements begin operating in situations with long delays between actions and consequences. 

This brings me to the importance of culture. A culture that valorizes empathy and consequently has a significant average of empaths would be able to operate large complex organizations while staving off entropy. To an outsider, this would appear as a high-trust society.

A society with a significant average of empaths doesn’t need surveillance cameras on every corner because an empath can model what it would be like to be the person whose bike was stolen. We call them high-trust societies but rarely ask where all that trust suddenly came from.

A society with a significant average of empaths would likely drive carefully and use indicators. As an empath, you use the indicator when merging into a lane because you can model what it would be like to be the driver who has to suddenly jump onto their brakes when someone suddenly joins in front of them without indicating. You also model what it would be like to be the hypothetical you if that other driver chooses not to jump on their brakes. 

It’s the simple things once you start seeing them. The trick is to see the simple things in aggregate as they add up over time and at large scales. Is that an empath thing?

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’.

Management entropy and the Red Queen Trap

I had an interesting conversation about my essay on the Red Queen Trap with someone on LinkedIn, and it made me think about something I did not explain in the essay.

In an ideal environment each element of a system will be acting rationally and striving towards its own preservation and, by extension, the preservation of the system. Rational action here can be understood as the action resulting in optimal energy efficiency from a given number of viable options, where optimal energy efficiency is a function of the energy that must be spent on the action vs the energy that is gained from performing the action. The scenario I describe in the Red Queen Trap essay is set in such an ideal environment.

However, in the real world individual network actors do not often act rationally towards their own or the system’s preservation. This is not necessarily out of stupidity or malice but is often due to limited information – what Clausewitz called ‘the fog of war’ – or a host of other potential motivations which appear irrational from the perspective of the system’s survival. What is more, the closer an actor is to the system’s decision-making centers, the higher the impact of their irrational decisions on the overall state of the system. The irrational decisions of front-line staff [the periphery] are of an entirely different magnitude to the irrational decisions of senior management [the decision-making center].

In practice this means that in complex hierarchical systems decision-making centers will have much higher entropy than the periphery. In other words, they will be dissipating a lot of energy on internal battles over irrational decisions, in effect actively sabotaging the internal cohesion of the system. As a reminder, the lower the internal cohesion of a system, the more energy the system must spend on performing itself into existence. The higher entropy of decision-making centers may be harder to observe in the normal course of operations but becomes immediately visible during special cases such as organizational mergers or other types of system-wide restructuring.

Interestingly, it is in such special cases when senior management is often tempted to make the internal environment of the system even more competitive – through the layering of KPIs or other means – in order to ‘optimize the system’ and protect its own position in the hierarchy. While on the face of it this appears to be a rational decision, it invariably ends up lowering internal cohesion even further, thereby increasing energy costs and routing even more resources away from the periphery and contact with reality [market competition].