Entropy

A shitty password, a long-distance relationship. All energy seeks dispersal, and can only be recapitulated by stubborn organisms and random chance.

 

Grayson Earle — Jun 14, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Entropy

It is the only physical theory of universal content concerning which I am convinced that, within the framework of the applicability of its basic concepts, it will never be overthrown.

– Albert Einstein on entropy

 

Classical thermodynamics hinges on the idea of entropy, that any Physical system will move towards a state of equilibrium. Energy will dissipate over time and cannot be increased without outside intervention. This is how Rudolf Clausius descriped the functioning of the steam engine, which leveraged the heat differential between two chambers to oscillate piston. The heat must be maintained as it is cooled by the ambient temperature, and the old must also be maintained as it is warmed up by the engine. Often misdescribed as a movement towards disorder, entropy could be said to return things to a state of order, in which all matter in the universe is distributed uniformly.

A brief interlude

You board a spaceship and fly toward the edge of the universe. The universe is always expanding, and so it expands as you fly toward its perimeter. By the time you are halfway to your destination, the universe has expanded so much that not only will you never be able to reach the edge, but the point from which you started will grow farther and farther away. It will expand so quickly that your spaceship will never be able to travel back to your point of origin. This is surely the loneliest feeling in the universe. This is the force of entropy.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Entropy

As its basic function biological life resists the forces of entropy. Matter which seeks dispersal is recapitulated by lifeforms, held together by the dumb luck that water molecules stick together. We put matter into what we call our mouths and then what we call our digestive system breaks that into constituent parts and so on and so on until it becomes our brains and our mouths and so on and so on. Matter is constantly escaping through the billions of holes in our bodies but we keep putting more matter into one of those holes and so we keep on living and leaking. Our bodies then are constantly intervening in the forces of entropy, grabbing the matter that has escaped and using it to reconstruct an organism that can continue to die. It is our incipient senescence.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Entropy

Politics, too, suffer from a kind of entropy that is only reversed by direct intervention. The moment of organization is a moment in which disparate atomized people become a resilient form, a collective body. We might call these people »workers« and their form a »union.« 1953, 35% of private-sector workers in the United States were part of a union, and by 2015 that number had fallen to 7%.

Disregarding the liberal use of metaphor at work in my description of disparate phenomena as entropic, quantum physicists today will take issue with considering entropy a force at all. It is contemporaneously considered only to account for the probability of an outcome concerning the movement of particles in the universe. They will say that it is improbable for an ice cube to do anything but melt at room temperature, that the particles will make state changes that tend towards the most likely outcome, and that the ice will become water. This does not invalidate what is asserted by classical physics, evidenced by the mere functioning of the steam engine. It accounts for the incalculably rare moments when the ice does not become water, or when just after the Big Bang, some particles did not act like the others, and so now here we are. It is only another way of looking at the universe, it is to think in terms of indeterminacy.

Humans have been experimenting with indeterminacy for at least as long as 3,000 B.C. through the use of Egyptian throwsticks and Chinese dice. By balancing a die such that all six outcomes are equally probable, we tap into the probabilistic universe and harness randomness as a tool.

Any revolutionary act hinges on the notion of indeterminacy, that there exists a possibility outside the set of conventions presented to us.

Part of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the United States’ National Security Agency described the agency’s plans to alter the Random Number Generator on Intel manufactured processors to include a »backdoor.« The implications of this potential modification include the ability to decrypt online communications, passwords, and most forms of privacy related to our online movements.

Encryption is ubiquitous and entirely obscured. Every time a credit card is swiped or a »send« button on a smartphone is tapped, a random key is created that scrambles the message, only to be reassembled on the other end. If the key is not random, unscrambling the message becomes a trivial task. Text encryption involves taking each character and changing its value by some number. Given »A« and adding 1 we get »B,« for example. For a string of characters, each individual letter would be changed by a different offset value. Consider the word »ENTROPY« going through this transformation, known in cryptography as a reverse Caeser-Shift.1

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Entropy

The example on the left is not a strong encryption. Even though the middle is more difficult to discern, there exists a predictable pattern being used to modify the text. In the third example the numbers are greater and seemingly unpredictable. But these numbers were generated by a computer, a deterministic machine. Therefore there necessarily exists a calculus that can explain how these numbers came to be in this particular order. The number that begets all of these numbers is the »seed.« If it is known, the subsequent encryption is rendered useless.

In cryptography, entropy is the measurement of how unpredictable a random number generator is; using a technical algorithm one can determine the »Shannon Entropy« or bit-level entropy of a random number generator. Given 8 bits of random information (as in »01001100,« for example) the highest level of entropy would be 8-bits, meaning that all 8 bits are completely unpredictable as far as we can reasonably determine.

Given the concerns regarding sufficient entropy in random number generation, an industry has been created for Random Number Generators used by individuals and institutions for which security is prioritized to a degree such that relying on a (potentially compromised) consumer-level processor is untenable.

One such service, HotBits, provides a stream of random numbers produced by events of radioactive decay, which operates in the »inherent uncertainty in the quantum mechanical laws of nature.«2 Random numbers generated algorithmically have been given the epithet »pseudorandom« by cryptographers given the relative level of predictability, while systems such as HotBits have come to be called »True Random Number Generators.« Similar projects observe thunderstorms and lava lamps to access a high degree of uncertainty. HotBits leverages the unpredictable radioactive decay of the element Cæsium-137; a sensor detects instances of nuclear decay and counts the microseconds between them. If the period between a first pair of decay events is greater than a second pair, the system generates a »0« bit, and in the other case it generates a »1« bit. These binary numbers are strung together to create numerical values for the purposes of computation. This service is sold in a niche security marketplace, with clients receiving a direct line of random numbers to use as they desire.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Entropy

Even an innocuous visit to a web page initiates a secure connection to its server, which requires thousands of random bits to be generated. Our email passwords and credit card numbers are protected through this process as well. Given the frequency and importance of random number generation, we must ask: Who controls our access to randomness? In this sense the state requesting Intel to intentionally compromise the random number generator concedes a desire to control more than our online movements. It is a direct attempt to curb what attempts to escape the gravity of the determinate.

If the dice have been rigged, perhaps we should roll our own. As we create our own operating systems and tools for communication, we must also assert our autonomy in the domain of indeterminacy, like Cæsium-137 and all the matter in the universe that sometimes doesn’t do what it is supposed to.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Entropy

Grayson Earle is a new media artist. He graduated from the University of California at Irvine/USA in 2009 with a BA in film and media studies before relocating to New York, where he received an MFA in integrated media arts at Hunter College in 2013. Since then, Earle has worked as a professor at Hunter College, Oberlin College in Oberlin/Ohio, and The New School, New York. Earle is a member of The Illuminator, an art collective based in New York City that grew out of Occupy Wall Street. The group has staged hundreds of guerrilla video projections in The United States, Canada, Europe, and South America.

  1. This example is simplified by disregarding numbers and symbols as possible text characters.

  2. See https://www.fourmilab.ch/hotbits/.