Entropy and Ethics

Last year I wrote a little post about visiting Google’s lavish offices in Manhattan to see my friend Greg, who had recently joined their engineering staff. Here’s a longish excerpt:

It being a mild day, Greg and I dined al fresco on a high terrace with a sweeping view of Midtown. (I had a delightful osso buco, he some freshly made sushi.) We talked about what his new life was like. Yes, he said, the physical perks were nice, but what really made the place so extraordinary was “the culture”.

His use of that word crystallized for me the effect the place had had on me from the moment I walked in. To get there, I had taken the subway from Grand Central down to 14th Street and 8th Avenue (two subways, actually), and the experience was as it is always is: crowded, blaring, gritty, and above all maximally heterogeneous in every way imaginable. It’s “vibrant”, if you like, and after living here in Gotham for more than thirty years I’m certainly well accustomed to it — but the effect of such a volatile and discordant public environment is to produce in everyone a subliminal wary tension, so constant and so routine that after a while one hardly notices it until it’s gone.

Well, when you walk into Google, it’s gone. Coming into that place, through the high-tech security checkpoint, from the teeming city outside is like passing through an airlock; it’s like beaming back up to the Enterprise from the steamy planetary surface. You can’t help being aware that you are suddenly in what feels like a different country. It’s culture shock.

Just how, exactly, is it so different? Well, it’s not the the creature comforts: for all its toys and free lunches, the place has nothing on a good hotel. It’s the people. Unlike any government or academic institution, Google is a pure meritocracy. Its employees have jumped a series of very high bars to get in the door, and as a result this building houses one of the most elite concentrations of high IQ in the world. En masse, it’s palpable. You can’t help but notice.

Greg said that he sometimes feels, working at Google, that he’s living in a “bubble” — and sitting on that terrace with all those bright people, looking out over New York City and enjoying my osso buco, I had to agree that he’s right. I realized that what Google has done is to create a one-way membrane, a kind of Maxwell’s Demon: as the world decays and degenerates outside, falling further into chaos, the entropy inside the Google membrane decreases, as self-organizing complexity emerges. That’s what Greg’s “bubble” is, and that’s what makes the “culture” possible: an extreme statistical outlier at the end of a long series of centrifuges.

Another friend (and another very smart guy) who now works at Google is my old boss from PubSub, Bob Wyman. I chatted briefly with him, too, while I was visiting. Bob has an interesting paradigm for thinking about the world. The way he sees it, good and evil are basically just a matter of thermodynamics. In a nutshell, good consists of reducing entropy, and evil consists of abetting it.

Google’s motto: Don’t be evil.

It’s an interesting and seductive idea, with a natural, almost instinctive appeal. My lovely wife Nina told me of a little doggerel that her father used to recite to her when she was a wee thing:

Keep order and space, and order in time;
Disorder is chaos, and chaos is crime!

That’s pretty good, I think. If you wanted a pithy way of expressing the idea that ethics is essentially a question of thermodynamics, you could hardly do better.

Well, today my friend Salim Ismail sent me an excerpt from a book called Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, by Robert Frietas. It makes Bob Wyman’s argument: that the reduction of entropy is a suitable foundation for a universal (in every sense of the word) system of ethics.

As my dear departed mum used to say, I hae me doots. I’ll lay them out in a later post — I want to think about it a bit more before commenting — but for tonight I’ll just give you the link. Here it is.

One more thing: if evil really does consist, at bottom, of increasing the world’s entropy, then Mayor Bloomberg may want to set his sights on some of the city’s most egregiously entropic culinary offerings. More here.

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