#146: What Burns Never Returns

As this year limps across the finish line, it’s a perfect time to revisit one of my favorite quotes, from cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener: “There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.” The broad narrative about the pandemic is that it’s been the worst year ever, and that is undeniably true in the aggregate, as well as for many individuals, but in reality some people have had pretty decent years despite it all, or at least managed to tread water relative to those around them (even if everyone is certainly having less fun). This unevenness, more than anything else, makes 2020 a true microcosm of contemporary human experience: We largely inhabit our own islands, oblivious to how local and temporary they may be. “Progress” is a bit of an illusion, something that only exists for individuals and groups that are subsets of the overall population, and rarely shared globally. As we expand our perspective outward toward all of human civilization, there is no such thing as progress—only survival.

This has also been a year full of intense creative destruction, or just regular ol’ destruction, which is itself highly entropic. A recent list in New York magazine of 500 establishments across the city that have closed this year was heartbreaking to read, even though I’d already learned about most of the closures when they first happened. As with the definition of progress above, the type of loss embodied in mass bar and restaurant closures (which are always happening, in New York and everywhere else) feels acutely personal, but becomes less of a pure tragedy as one expands their perspective outward to the entire city and beyond. It’s not New York itself that is eroding as much as my own personal version of the city that I’ve accumulated during a decade of living here—including places I tried once or twice in 2012 and was not likely to revisit even if they’d made it. Everything dies baby, that’s a fact, as a great man once said. About a year ago, when Deadspin as we know it ceased to exist, the blogger Nathaniel Friedman tweeted that it was particularly upsetting because “it’s the end of an era…that also happens to be MY era.” Even in the best of times, our personal worlds are always crumbling and the best we can do is produce new meaning to replace the old. Earlier this year, mid-pandemic, many of the writers who left Deadspin last October recreated the site as Defector (even as the zombie Deadspin site staggers on). Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

As we expand outward from the individual and personal toward the collective, the definitions of success and failure become quite different. Human civilization is nothing if not a constant, never-ending battle against the entropy that is always nibbling away at it, and again, survival is the ultimate victory. Architectural theorist Albert Pope writes that “the emergence of entropy as a cultural metaphor coincided with the construction of closed systems throughout the period of postwar reorganization,” systems like corporations and suburban enclaves. Global entropy increases during global upheavals like pandemics and wars, but the purpose of human culture is to create order out of the chaos and reverse that entropic process, and we can choose whether to build open systems or closed ones that simulate openness. Returning to the topic of cities like New York, the question—in 2020 or any year—is always less about what is vanishing (although it’s currently vanishing too quickly) and more about how effectively we are producing new high-quality material to replace it at an adequate rate, and what kinds of generative systems we have put in place to furnish those replacements. That’s even more difficult than just preserving the good old things, but it will be extremely important in the next few years. The first step is deciding how open or enclosed we want our islands to be.

Here’s one more reminder to join the premium tier and get access to subscribers-only posts, which expand on the classic Kneeling Bus themes and have been awesome lately. I’m currently offering a holiday special that gets you 20% off the annual subscription, so if you’ve been on the fence, now is a great time to make a move! Also, if you’re looking for an immaterial holiday present that you can safely exchange in cyberspace, allow me to suggest that you “give the gift of Kneeling Bus.”