e. j. wang

On heaven and earth

Continued from part 1.

We have considered the entrepreneur in terms of the process that produced him, and we have concluded that his immediate problem is a scarcity of determination. We have articulated a theory of what determination is: it is the vector spanning abstract and concrete; it is a concept that subsumes randomness, computation, and will; and it is a sort of information.

All the while, our discussion has drawn deeper and deeper into the theoretical. But our goal has always been practical; we have stripped away the veneer of false abstraction around the entrepreneur to get to his true essence, and the fundamental nature of the problem he faces. And now that we have grasped the core of the problem, we may begin to solve it.

2a. Microdetermination

In accordance with what has been already shown… it is necessary to say that the intellect is a power of the soul, and not the very essence of the soul. For then alone the essence of that which operates is the immediate principle of operation, when operation itself is its being: for as power is to operation as its act, so is the essence to being. But in God alone His action of understanding is His very Being. Wherefore in God alone is His intellect His essence: while in other intellectual creatures, the intellect is power.1

We may more closely examine the sources of determination and their interaction through an example from experience. Stanford University offers forty-six majors. I majored in math. Why and how did I do this? Randomness, computation, and will.

This process played out over the course of two and a half years. Out of forty-six majors, I only really considered maybe eight; of these eight, I ruled out all but three; of these three, I chose one. We can say something like this:

lg(46/8) = 2.52 bits of randomness (R)
+ lg(8/3) = 1.42 bits of computation (C)
+ lg(3/1) = 1.58 bits of will (W)
= lg(46/1) = 5.52 bits of determination required for action (D).

That is,

R + C + W = D.

The specific quantities are not important2. Having actually majored in math, I already feel mildly ill for having computed and typed out some actual, specific numbers. Let’s just move on — what is important is that we can provide an exhaustive account of determination3 on terms of these three components, and that this account is itself a useful accounting identity.

2b. Heaven and earth

Nietzsche presents the dicethrow as taking place on two distinct tables, the earth and the sky. The earth where the dice are thrown and the sky where the dice fall back… But these tables are not two worlds. They are the two hours of a single world, the two moments of a single world, midnight and midday, the hour when the dice are thrown, the hour when the dice fall back. Nietzsche insists on the two tables of life which are also the two moments of the player or the artist; “We temporarily abandon life, in order to then temporarily fix our gaze upon it.” The dicethrow affirms being and it affirms the being of becoming.4

I love all those who are like heavy drops falling singly from the dark cloud that hangs over mankind: they prophesy the coming of the lightning and as prophets they perish.5

To begin any serious undertaking, we must produce enough determination to travel the distance D from abstract contemplation to concrete action. This distance can be quantified in bits; it is the entropy of the human action space, and it is much, much greater than lg(46).

In such cases we must abandon the metaphor of the “bridge between contemplation and action.” It is nothing so simple. Imagine instead the phenomenon of the lightning strike, which spans heaven and earth (or, to be precise, the troposphere and the ground). When a negatively charged thundercloud appears overhead, it pulls positive ions onto the surface, inducing an enormous amount of electrostatic potential. This potential demands to be discharged, but it is blocked by an equally enormous physical distance. Only with the singular event of a lightning strike is this distance crossed and the potential discharged.

Pages more can be written about the formation of thundercloud plasma channels and their practical implications. For now it is sufficient to note that our lightning strike can cross the troposphere and manifest as action only when we provide it with enough bits. These bits must be produced by means of randomness, computation, and will. Each individual is capable of only a limited amount of computation, and a very limited amount of will.

Therefore, in any serious undertaking, we seem to have two options: to stretch our capacities of computation and will to their limits, or to let randomness do the work and make lottery tickets of ourselves.

Neither of these options seems particularly satisfactory. Public confidence in the will and the intellect are at a 500-year low, and sensible people never play the lottery. It is not sensible to believe that you are a lightning strike. It is not sensible that you are either so much luckier or cleverer than the herd as to stretch yourself across the expanse between heaven and earth. Sensible people fall more like raindrops.

This is impasse at which many of us have arrived. Perhaps the age of heroes is over. Perhaps the task at hand is impossible. Perhaps you should not even make an attempt.

2c. Macrodetermination

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.

And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?

And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God:

When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.

And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.

Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.6

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government.

Confucius replied: “Let the ruler be a ruler, minister be a minister, father be a father, son be a son.”

The Duke said, “Excellent! Indeed, if the ruler is not a ruler, the ministers not ministers, fathers not fathers and sons not sons, even if I have food, how can I eat it?”7

Let’s back up. If starting a large business is such a difficult endeavor that it requires one to buy a lottery ticket, develop severe autism, or become the Overman, one should wonder why any such businesses can exist at all. The answer is that the entrepreneur aims to do with one mind what large corporations do with many. We are not faced with these three dreary options if we make the difficult realization that society exists.

Most businesses are organized as corporations. The heart of every corporation is the same: the abstract profit motive. But each corporation also acts concretely in the world. A large corporation is thus an example of a successful lightning strike. How is it that it can generate this amount of determination with regularity?

The answer may be found in the organization chart, which already bears a suspicious resemblance to an arc of lightning. When we trace a path from the top of an org chart to the bottom, we trace a path of successive determinations between the abstract profit motive, which sits above the board of directors, and the corporation’s concrete actions, which sit below the lower-level employees.

We remarked earlier that because determination is information, we could reason about it additively. Here is a corollary: when someone at the bottom of the org chart makes an action, the determination that connects that profit motive to that action can be decomposed into the individual contributions of each organizational layer between them. Each link on the chain of command takes a partially realized product and realizes it some more. Each employee’s responsibility is to take the stream of bits from above, add some of their own, and pass it down. Between heaven and earth the corporation thus interposes a series of small, incremental steps.

The joint-stock company, like the Chinese and Prussian state bureaucracies before it, is a sort of “assembly line” for determination. Its emergence allowed for the mass production of high-determination endeavors in a way that feudal or patriarchal divisions of labor could not. It laid the conceptual foundations for Fordism proper. This conceptual assembly line enabled the rapid productivity gains of the succeeding centuries. Advanced industrial society requires the existence of the corporation qua bureaucracy. Its continued functioning requires that most of its bitrate is channeled into the transformation of one given into another.

Thus much of the history of the last two centuries has been the slow adjustment of the superstructure to the base. In this case, the base is not the industrial technology of the productive forces but the determinative machinery of bureaucracy. When, in the 1990s and 2000s, experts agreed that globalization and technological acceleration were to become the order of the day, Americans were urged to stop resting on their laurels and to embrace industrial reorganization as the order of the day. Great emphasis was placed on being able to adapt quickly, to acquire new skills as soon as they became relevant. The professional-managerial class was urged to embrace what had long become the core of its role: not a specific task, but the transformation and augmentation of information in the abstract.

Hence it became undetermined.

Continued.


  1. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, q. 79, a. 1 

  2. In any case, their calculation depends on the null distribution, which we’ve held here to be uniform. Computing the “real” null distribution, insofar as such a distribution might exist, is difficult in some cases and virtually impossible in others. 

  3. There is good reason to believe that this division of determination into randomness, computation, and will is non-overlapping and exhaustive. Randomness is a form of hardness. Hierarchies of randomness exist, corresponding to hierarchies of computational power. Insofar as a subject falls on this hierarchy, “randomness” is generated by processes of a higher class, “computation” is generated by processes of a lower class, and “will” is generated by processes in the same class. Randomness is what we cannot understand, computation is what we do understand, will is what we can understand with difficulty. (It is difficult to nail this concept down precisely. For more on this see my original essay on the subject.) 

  4. Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, p. 25, trans. Tomlinson 

  5. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue 4, trans. Parkes 

  6. Exodus 18:13-18 (KJV) 

  7. Confucius, Analects 12.11 trans. Muller