One minute Jacko was right next to me. A few minutes later he wasn’t there. When the boat pulled in to the landing, there was no Jacko. The day was utterly traumatic for me. I really loved Jacko and it was my first experience of serious loss.
So I will always remember that sad day on the Finsbury Park boating lake. Jacko must have fallen overboard, and there was no way they were going to drag the lake for a kid’s stuffed animal. Mum and Dad tried their best, but I was inconsolable. They offered to buy me another monkey, but the toy store only had teddy bears, and I didn’t want one of those.
We can view life as a struggle between those things that run down and get used up, and those that don’t. The traditional view of resources was that they are scarce, finite, and bound to disappear. The second law of thermodynamics states that any chemical system will tend towards maximum disorder. Heat can only be used up once – it flows into the cooler body and can’t be retrieved. As the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) remarked, “If you throw a tumbler of water into the sea, you cannot get the same tumbler of water out.” Nor could you get Jacko out of Finsbury Park boating lake. The natural condition is entropy. A system’s energy gets used up and life requires constant infusions of new energy. We live, and we die. You can never win; the best you can hope for is to break even in the short term, but in the long term, you will lose.
This rather depressing view of science overflowed into considerations of economics and society. The only way that the working class could benefit, said Marx, was by overthrowing the middle and upper classes. Life was a zero-sum game – if somebody won, somebody else had to lose. Economics, the “dismal science”, reinforced this view. Everything would tend towards diminishing returns.
But in the last two or three decades of the twentieth century, a new economic doctrine emerged. Championed by W. Brian Arthur, an economist from Northern Ireland who settled in California, the idea of “increasing returns” came to the fore. Information, in particular, has the characteristic that it is not used up. If I used information and give it to you, you benefit, but I don’t lose it. The idea is actually rather old. Benjamin Franklin, who died in 1790, said that “he who lights his taper at mine [gets a light from me] receives light without darkening me”. There is a story in the Bible about the prophet Elisha, who rewards a poor widow for making him a loaf of bread. The jar of flour she uses, Elisha and the Lord see to it, will never be used up, nor will her jug of oil ever run dry. In the first flush of enthusiasm for the internet, economists and stock promoters waxed lyrical about the fact that increased use of the internet actually made it more valuable – the same was true earlier for telephones and fax machines – so that far from being used up, it was subject to increasing returns. Would that had been true about poor, sodden, disappeared Jacko.
The views of diminishing returns and entropy, on the one hand, and increasing returns and network effects on the other, are both true. We can view life – our planet’s life, the life of humankind, our own life, and that of society and the economy – as a huge tussle between things that get used up, and things that don’t. Do you prefer to be depressed, or to be cheerful? If the latter, here are five things to celebrate:
Science doesn’t get used up. The more we know, the more we will know in the future. Of course, knowledge can be used for bad purposes, but we can view the history of humans as being the search for better and more useful information – technology and goods to make us comfortable, better ways to provide vastly more food at ever lower costs, ways to run society such as democracy that conduce towards the greatest good of the greatest number of people, cures for diseases, and ways to stay healthy and feel engaged with life for longer.
Science is cumulative – it gets better and better, and as long as there are scientists dedicated to the dispassionate service of science, free from political or economic interference, science will always improve. Science in the broadest sense – the search for useful knowledge – is the destiny of humankind, and as we are able to devote more resources to science, the world can get better, not only materially, but in all other ways too.
We can increase our useful knowledge, too, throughout our lives. Whatever knowledge excites us, whatever turns us on, we can increase the depth of our understanding and insight. The brain, free of disease, does not get used up. The more we use our mind, the more we can understand, and the more we can enjoy. Our bodies are bound to decay sooner or later, but for most people, our minds do not have to decay. By using our minds, we increase our capacity for thought. The mental sphere is one of life’s great joys – it requires little expense, it can operate through the subconscious even when we are doing other things, and it makes us more fully human. It is our destiny to think and enjoy thinking. And although some people bemoan the temptations that enfeeble our minds, the truth is that more books are sold and read than ever before, and the joys of thinking are profoundly democratic. You don’t need a degree to think, nor do you need permission from anyone. Life is a huge expedition, a journey of thought, reflection, and mental enjoyment, which can be solitary or social, as we choose.
Social capital expands every time a new and useful thought is created, every time a beautiful building goes up, every time a remarkable work of fiction or non-fiction is written, every time new music emerges, every time we learn better how to live together, every time a generous deed is done or a clever insight formulated. Social capital expands through the great reformers – people such as the Founding Fathers of the US, Lord Ashley who helped to abolish slavery, and Nelson Mandela, who brought justice and reconciliation to a country that had been on the verge of self-destruction. Social capital expands through the work of entrepreneurs and the unsung efforts of millions of volunteers and people of goodwill. Social capital increases every time we add more to our friends, our families, and society personally, than we take away. And on the whole, in societies that work, that is what tends to happen over time. And despite all the headlines and focus on societies that don’t work, the ones that are growing and prosperous do provide decent lives for vastly more people than they used to.
Trust & Friendship
Life is an opportunity to choose our friends more wisely and to deepen the relationships with those to whom we get closer and closer. Having good, dependable, respected friends is one of the best things in life – psychologists say it is highly correlated with feeling happy. Our relationships are also cumulative – the one that matter do not get used up, but continually demonstrate increasing emotional returns. Trust and opening up ourselves are essential for deep friendship, and these qualities are also cumulative and not subject to entropy. And friendship is free.
Love, both romantic and not, is, of course, the best demonstration in the universe of something that gets stronger the more it is used. Love elicits love. Love not only makes other people happy, but makes us happy as well. Love triumphs over troubles. Love makes other people more likely to love and to enrich the world. Love leaves its imprint even after death, through reputation and remembrance. Love is also free, or negative cost. If we were more sensible, if we had our interests at heart, we would love more. Why don’t we?
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