Mark Hurrell.


Functional entropy

16 January 2014

I’ve been thinking about time recently. About how lean organisations become bloated and paralysed over time. How user-centred products turn into corporate-centred products. And the relatively few examples of things that resist that trajectory. Entropy I guess.

In December I bought a book about japanese houses. For a small, developed country with very strict planning laws Japan has has developed a reputation for avant-garde domestic architecture. Obviously it’s only a tiny fraction of japanese houses that are tailor-made for their occupiers like this, but that small quantity is still far more than in Europe or the US. The book explains that this difference isn’t cultural, but a rational response to the local property market.

Unlike a rental apartment or house for sale that has to maintain its market value at a high value for a wide range of people, the single family home in Japan is designed for one specific family. As an incentive to new development, the depreciation of the value of a house is deductible from taxable income in Japan. Wooden houses, considered to have a lifespan of 20 years, can be completely written off in 20 years. A house built of concrete, with an expected lifespan of 30 years, can be written off in 30 years. Once a house has depreciated in value to zero, its owners can choose to continue living in it or tear it down and build a new one. By continuously building new structures, you can therefore gain considerable tax advantages.

Cathelijne Nuijsink, in How to Make a Japanese House by nai010 Publishers

At the same time I was reading Pier Vittorio Aureli’s recent book Less is Enough which has an interesting section on Walter Benjamin (who I haven’t read since art college.)

For Walter Benjamin, poverty of experience does not imply personal poverty, or even abstinence from the abundance of things and ideas that a capitalistic society produces. On the contrary, poverty of experience is precisely the effect of this abundance. Inundated by all sorts of information, stories and beliefs – 'the oppressive wealth of ideas that has been spread among people, or rather has swamped them entirely', as Benjamin put it – we can no longer trust the depth and richness of human experience. Living in a context of constant cognitive stimulation, what we experience is no longer effectively communicable. It for this reason that the only acceptable way of life for Benjamin is to be a modern 'barbarian' who is able to start from nothing and make 'a little go a long way; to begin from little and build up further, looking neither left, nor right'. Here Benjamin introduces one of the most radical and subversive versions of asceticism in modernity, which consists in the act of transforming the most devastating aspects of modern experience, such as uprootedness and precarity, into the emancipating force he defined in one of his most beautiful and enigmatic denkbilder, the 'Destructive Character'.

He invoked the 'Destructive Character' as a liberating force. As he wrote in the most crucial passage of this text: 'The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred'.

Pier Vittorio Aureli, in Less is Enough by Strelka Press

These two ideas felt related somehow, but I couldn’t quite work out how for a while. They sat in my drafts folder for a month or so until my old boss Matt (who’s maybe haunted by the same ghosts that I am) wrote a blog post about, you know, actually doing something to combat entropy rather than just thinking about it.

Monoliths don't start out as monoliths.

A software team who builds software that is obvious to improve, simple to introduce new features, easy to do things quickly is seen to be doing a good job, and, ironically, it's only through the daily addition of code layered upon code layered upon code do things begin to seem unmanageable after a while.


What if we could implement a dead man's switch whereby the feature in question could remove itself from operation if nobody was paying attention or it became unowned and unloved?

Matt Chadburn on his blog

The brinksmanship of this idea is just the sort of thing I love anyway, but it also seems to perfectly distill those first two quotes into something productive.

And then I was chatting about this with Tom in the office and he got all thoughtful and pointed me at a blog post that Snapchat published last summer. It’s a bit tangental to the rest of this post, but good tangental.

This is abstract, I know, and we won’t settle this philosophical debate on a blog, but the Internet has played an Interesting role in this tension between identity consistency and change. The tale is a familiar one by now: the Web arrived pregnant with the possibility of rethinking who we are by transcending geographic location, physical ability, as well as things like race, gender, age, even species (though, this detachment was always only a fantasy). The New Yorker cartoon infamously joked that, 'On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog'. As the story goes, however, the Web went mainstream and commercial. It got normal and somewhere along the way spontaneous anonymity became replaced by consistent identity. Now that everyone knows you’re a dog, it’s difficult to be anything but.

Social media has come to put a tremendous emphasis on our own identity, constantly recorded, always accumulating, stored, and presented back to us in an always-available profile of ourselves. Yes, Identity can be a source of importance, meaning, history, and pleasure, but, today, identity is rapidly piling up, exponentially increasing our own contact with ourselves. The profile photo, the background, what you like, what you do, who your friends are all lead to a never ending and always growing self-surveillance that’s paired with a healthy dose of being watched by others, too. What can be in one breath 'self-expression' can be in another 'self-policing' when who you are (and thus who you are not) become increasingly part of everyday life.


I wonder how we can build social media that doesn’t always intensify our own relationship to ourselves by way of identity boxes. I think temporary social media will provide new ways of understanding the social media profile, one that isn’t comprised of life hacked into frozen, quantifiable pieces but instead something more fluid, changing, and alive.

Nathan Jurgenson on the Snapchat blog

Which is almost exactly a non-sweary version of the rant Louise launches into whenever a previously-useful bit of software (Spotify, OSX etc) starts pushing social-networking features.

If you want to chat more about stuff like this, send me an email or get in touch on Twitter.