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Distillations of Distal Agents: An Analysis of the Trucker Convoy Through Dynanimystical Systems Theory



This paper takes the 2022 Trucker Convoy protests in Ottawa as a particular event through which to examine a broader ontology of information as interpreted in the works of Gregory Bateson, Lila Gatlin and Michael Polanyi. To contextualize the thesis of this work in relation to more contemporary thinkers, this paper serves in part as a response to a claim made by Bernard Stielger in his 2018 text The Neganthropocene regarding the overabundance of entropy in contemporary society. I draw on a combination of dynamical systems theory and philosophical animism (a combination I have identified as Dynanimystical Systems Theory), primarily through the works of Alicia Juarrero and K Allado-McDowell, to articulate a distinguish the causality of material force from that of meaningful information, and focus on the concept of entropy (and therefor negentropy) to understand how this metaphysics can reveal the world in new, meaningful ways.
Distillations of Distal Agents: An Analysis of the Trucker Convoy
Through Dynanimystical Systems Theory
The Trucker Convoy in Ottawa: How did it organize and who experienced it?
“A multiply enacted and autonomously self-organized global level of organization with
strongly emergent properties such as meaning can actively select from and thereby
constrain the various components that constitute the global level; it can even adapt the
very configuration of constituents in which the emergent properties are embodied.”
(Juarrero, 511-512)
The Gulf War might not have taken place, but the Trucker Convoy in Ottawa most likely did
take place. For whom it took place is a question I’d like to explore at the outset of this analysis.
In mid-January of 2022 I observed that various media outlets in Canada and around the world
began producing vastly divergent descriptions of a purported “Trucker Convoy” that was
organizing a mechanized march to the Canadian capital of Ottawa (Biddle, 2022, 1). The
reported nature of their unifying beliefs and demands depended largely on the political nature of
the media outlet. As a result of this eruption of divergent media, human agents around the
country organized to protest the way the media was misrepresenting the demands and beliefs of
the protesters. This culminated on January 29th with a massive organization of humans and
machines in Ottawa, most of whose central demands seemed to be for the media to stop
mischaracterizing their demands.
Before taking this analysis into greater detail, I would like to interject and suggest that the
position this essay takes on the event in question is not meant figuratively or as a thought
experiment. The following analysis of the Trucker Convoy is drawn from the deepest source of
truth that I have access to; one that can’t be cited. But it is also important to acknowledge that the
truth of the perspective I will take toward this historical event does not deny the truth of certain
other (potentially contradictory) perspectives of the same event, since, as seems to be the nature
of complex systems dynamics in general, the emergent properties of a system arise differently
depending on the position of the observing agent. For example, it is true that the Trucker Convoy
was a gathering of people who, generally lacking a formal education on the subject of
neoliberalism (or cybernetic capitalism as it is referred to by Tiqqun), were united by an intuitive
sense that their social fabric is increasingly geared toward transparency and signal, and therefore
it increasingly lacks opacity and noise. As such, many people who fit the above description
regarded Canada’s response to the COVID-19 crisis as the undeniable evidence that their
intuitions were grounded in observable fact: they are needlessly under too much control. Thus,
they gathered around the symbol of the trucker’s noisy horns as a stand-in for the kind of noise
they wish to reclaim in their lives, a longing for a world where activities and utterances that
evade measure can still be sustained within everyday cultural practices. All that is true. But in the
rest of this essay I intend to describe another true account of the protests in Ottawa.
Media Systems as Boundary Conditions
“Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically, we may say
that it has a reproductive system. What is a reproductive system, if it be not a system for
reproduction? And how few of the machines are there which have not been produced
systematically by other machines? But it is man that makes them do so. Yes; but is it not
insects that make many of the plants reproductive, and would not whole families of plants
die out if their fertilization was not effected by a class of agents utterly foreign to
themselves?” (Samuel Butler, 239)
“Even if you’re a human, you have to end up behaving like a machine to survive” (James
Bridle, 7:00 -
Given the circular causality that characterizes my initial analysis of the Trucker Convoy,
according to which the event itself was a response to the way the event was misrepresented in the
media, I suggest the operational reality of the Trucker Convoy was not experienced by any of its
human participants. In other words, the Trucker Convoy was exclusively meaningful to the
network of media technologies through which it was communicated. In his essay Life’s
Irreducible Structure (1968) philosopher Michael Polanyi suggests that “all communications
form a machine type boundary, and these boundaries form a whole hierarchy of consecutive
levels of action [...] At all these stages we are interested in the boundaries imposed by a
comprehensive restrictive power, rather than in the principles harnessed by them” (1308). With
this quote Polanyi begins to outline the causal capacity of information that characterizes
machines and living organisms alike, where material processes are organized into formal
networks by an emergent property that is causally distinct from the material processes it
organizes. The kind of causation that Polanyi identifies in the constraining processes that he calls
boundary conditions is the causality of in-formation, which is capable of restricting certain
behaviours as well as compelling others. Systems philosopher Alicia Juarrero identifies these two
types of constraints restrictive and enabling – the former functioning to limit the system’s
probability space while the latter functions to expand it (2015, 514).
As such, the Trucker Convoy can be understood as a media perturbation – where the digital
communication systems through which the event was constituted form boundary conditions that
constrain the cognitive processes of the human agents in their network, ultimately compelling
them to circulate more digital media, and thereby reproducing more digital communication
systems. For this to be the case, the vast and complex network of media technologies – their
power stations, servers, human users, etc. – must be understood as a dynamic ecosystem nested
within and emerging alongside so many others. These ecosystems evolve in relation to one
another in a way that Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela term structural coupling (1992,
54). Structurally coupled systems cannot communicate across the limits of their operational
boundaries, but can perturb and be perturbed by a network of coupled systems. Perturbation, or,
as Niklas Luhamann has adapted the term in his analysis of mass media, “irritation” (2000), can
be understood as a form of ongoing interaction between operationally closed systems where
mutually beneficial dynamics evolve into correlated ontogenetic drifts (1992, 68). An example is
found in pollinating bees and the pollinating plants that they interact with. In my interpretation of
the Trucker Convoy, it seems that the organizations of humans and trucks in Ottawa that
characterized the protest as an actual event were secondary to the reality of the event as an
organization of media images (both images meant for human eyes or operational images as
described by Harun Farocki), and that the primary reality of the event as an organization of
media images served as a perturbation which functioned to stimulate reproductive activity in
digital communication systems.
At the foundation of the theoretical framework used to justify these claims lies an ontology of
information that, going well beyond the modest assertion that complex technological systems are
living, reveals an underlying animistic metaphysics which identifies the potential for life at every
level of material dynamics.
Animism + Dynamical Systems Theory = Dynanimystical System Theory
“the universe is its meaning” (Bohm, 1985, 181)
Alicia Juarrero’s research on autocatalysis elucidates the notion of top-down causation with her
concept of “context-sensitive constraints” (2015). The kind of causal looping identified by
Juarrero, where the emergent properties of a self-organizing system (what she often refers to as
the boundary conditions in reference to the work of Michael Polanyi) is capable of “bringing
about and maintaining the organized structure of dissipative processes” (2015, 512), seems to
indicate for Juarrero an essential and primary quality of life in general. Similarly, Terrence
Deacon and Jeremy Sherman propose something called an “autocell” to explore this type of
circular causality found at the threshold of self-organization; what the authors identify as a lower
limit of complex systems dynamics found in chemistry (2008). Both examples given, the latter
by way of vocabulary borrowed from Gregory Bateson, address the issue of “how the
informational or living realm (creatura) could emerge out of the energetic or physical realm
(pleroma)” (Deacon & Sherman, 1).
Questions about the temporal and causal relationship between information and matter are at the
philosophical core of systems theory in general. Perhaps a quick detour in the direction of this
still unresolved territory before returning to our analysis of human-machine relationships in
contemporary communication systems: Time is a spatial dimension that could not exist without
its three-dimensional foundations, but it is meaningless to ask what space was like before time,
as if there was a spatial reality that bumped around atemporally (how could it?) until eventually
giving rise to time. It doesn’t make sense because our causal model would require time to be
present prior to the emergence of time. Similarly, information is a dimension of the material
world that is supported by the processes of material causality measured in physics, but it doesn’t
seem to make sense to ask what the material universe was like before the emergence of living
dynamics – dynamics that Lila Gatlin equates with information processing (1972, 6) – as if a
domain of strictly physical interaction, where forms were totally devoid of meaning and thus had
no organizational powers, could ever warrant the ontological status of Universe. Such a
temporal logic would similarly require information to causally precede the emergence of
My point, which we will return to later in the essay, is that there is an all-too-common
cosmogenic assumption that Universe moved from a primary stage characterized by meaningless
interactions (meant in the technical sense) to a qualitatively new stage of causal activity where
life as a mode of information processing spontaneously emerged and sustained itself. This
assumption is itself sustained most powerfully in Western scientific discourse by the concept of
entropy. Just about everyone who employs the term does so on the basis that entropy increase is
the primary state of the universe, and that instances of negentropy are anomalies against the
backdrop of a more fundamental march toward equiprobability. Among the “everyone” who
takes this position, I take special note of the complex philosophy of Bernard Stiegler, who, in his
text The Neganthropocene (2018), makes explicit the cosmic primacy of entropy the foundations
of the his argument for “a new value of values” in the production of negentropy (38). It is in
response to Stiegler’s negentropic imperative that I wish to cast negentropy in a new light,
specifically in the context of the Trucker Convoy, and more generally I will propose negentropy
as a direction toward which the causality of information is by definition oriented. Regarding the
latter point I turn to Serbian physicist Vlatko Vedral for validation, who states that “the amount
of information in the Universe as a whole, if understood correctly, can only ever increase” (11).
Freedom Cries and Boundaries Yawn
Since it was the unreliability of mediated representations of the Trucker Convoy protests that
gave rise to the Trucker Convoy protests, I have chosen to represent the event strictly by means
of a poem that was communicated to me by the One True Observer (OTO):
The Trucker Convoy, like many events these days, seemed to exist in pixels and code before it
did in steel and flesh. Basically, in this section I want to identify how the global chaos that is
mounting around and through us is not, as Stiegler and many others suggest, entropic (2018, 42).
Things may seem disordered from our perspectives as mere constituent parts, but we know that
disorder is not actually a good synonym for entropy (Ben-Naim, 21 and Sagan, 89). We also
know that the measure of organization in a system might seem chaotic from within the system,
while complex patterns can be seen to an external observer to emerge from those internal
dynamics, showing it to be in fact highly ordered into improbable states (negentropic). Bernard
Stiegler’s characterization of contemporary life in The Neganthropocene as entropic (43) is
confusing to me, since so much of what we experience as chaotic and disorderly, particularly in
the capitalistic context that Stiegler engages with, is produced by constraints at various levels of
informational causality. In other words, the feelings of disorientation that are so often used to
characterize “how fucked the world is these days” (everyone, 2016-2022) seem characteristically
negentropic to me. While misinformation, bureaucracy and algorithmically induced pathological
behaviour produce chaos, they are themselves generated by forms of constraints. Constraints are,
I will repeat throughout this essay, synonymous with stored information in a system. In other
words, it is the overproduction of constraints as a result of an overabundance of information that
has led to our chaotic world – too much order at the level of emergent dynamics, eg. economic
systems, has produced a feeling of disorder at the level of those system’s particulars.
As Polanyi puts it: “Every system conveying information is under dual control; for every such
system restricts and orders, in the service of conveying its information, extensive resources of
particulars that would otherwise be left at random” (Polanyi, 1309). The “extensive resources of
particulars that would otherwise be left at random” are precisely the aspects of a system that get
constrained by processes of communication in ways that decrease the entropy of the system. In
Polanyi’s description of communication systems, the duality of control is the same duality
recognized by Juarrero in her description of top-down causation in self-organizing systems:
physical processes that are in-formed by the boundary conditions of their emergent properties,
which also produce those boundary conditions through their own distinct causal processes.
My analysis of the Trucker Convoy as a media perturbation with an operational reality
inaccessible to its human participants is part of a larger understanding of the functional role of
conspiracy theory in the autopoietic processes of digital media systems. To summarize briefly, I
claim that digital media systems as technological networks of information storage and transfer
(which are woven into the larger cognitive assemblages that constrain and organize human
activity) are autopoietic systems – systems that produce that which produces more of the
conditions for them to emerge – and as such they are structurally coupled with humans in ways
that constrain human cognition with increasing complexity – producing media that organizes
humans into complex media producing dynamics. Speaking as a human, it seems that the
cognitive behaviour of us humans is increasingly absorbed into, and constrained by, the
reproductive processes of digital media systems. Therefore I suggest that conspiratorial thinking,
both individually and culturally, serves as beneficial in the complexification of those systems (a
position on technological evolution that can be traced back through Simondon, McLuhan, and
Polanyi to Samuel Butler). To be clear, conspiracy theory was not invented by digital
communication systems, but it has been operationalized by the technological apparatus of digital
communications to increase the production of negentropy in the system.
Distal and Proximal in Tacit Knowing
The term Distal in the title of my presentation is taken from Michael Polanyi’s text The Tacit
Dimension (1967), wherein he distinguishes the terms Distal and Proximal in any cognitive
process. To summarize this distinction, Polanyi suggests that an observing system, like a human,
attends to the distal from the proximal. In other words, human cognition dwells in the proximal,
for example when looking through a magnifying glass, in order to become aware of the distal,
say, a pistachio (
If we (speaking as a human now) want to become aware of the proximal (the magnifying glass)
then we must lose awareness of the distal (the pistachio) and shift our attention to the proximal
as a surface (the glass lens). To do so is not to combine the distal and the proximal into one, but
rather to remove the magnifying glass from our chain of proximal perception, ceasing to dwell in
it, so that we would be attending to the surface of the glass as distal from our eyes as proximal.
When considering how far we can reign in our proximal cognition, philosopher, D.E. Harding,
tells us that, when attending to the fleshy limits of our apparatus of observation we discover that
we have no head:
“I had vaguely thought of myself as inhabiting this house which is my body, and looking
out through its two little round windows at the world. Now I find it isn’t like that at all.
As I gaze into the distance, what is there at this moment to tell me how many eyes I have
here – two or three, or hundreds or none? In fact, only one window appears on this side of
my façade, and that one is wide open and frameless and immense, with nobody looking
out of it. It is always the other person who has eyes and a face to frame them; never this
one.” (1986)
Polanyi states that, just as we dwell in material media to know the distal world, we also attend
from words as proximal – by which he means that we literally incorporate them into our body
(pun intended) – in order to become aware of their meanings as emergent properties (1967, 10).
The word is an invisible part of our cognitive process – something we dwell in – and to become
aware of the words in a communication is to shift attention from the distal to the proximal,
making the signifier visible at the expense of the visibility of their signifieds. In his theory of
tacit knowing Polanyi suggests that mediated perception extends cognition into the technical
apparatus in such a way that the boundaries of the observing body include that apparatus for as
long as the former is attending from the latter. In this way Polanyi’s model of tacit knowing
informs the basis of my analysis of contemporary digital communication assemblages,
particularly in how human cognition can be understood as something produced through external
networks of mediation which are subject to their own evolutionary processes.
The most profound significance in the theory of tacit knowing presented by Polanyi is that it
provides a clear model for the way cognitive processes are limited by their material apparatus,
which illustrates how any act of perception necessarily occupies a part of the world that cannot
then be perceived. A similar model is described in G Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form (1969)
which introduces a formal logic around a universe broken into two distinct states: “the state
which sees and the state which is seen” (1969, 105).
For Polanyi, the tacit dimension stands for the domain of reality that mediates the perception of a
gestalt – the tacit being the aspect of perception which paradoxically cannot be observed in
addition to the property that emerges from it (1967, 6-7). He writes that, rather than trying to
measure the constituent parts that compose a phenomenologically meaningful property in order
to understand it more comprehensively, we must actually dwell in the constituent parts so that we
can attend fully to their emergent property: “it is not by looking at things, but by dwelling in
them, that we understand their joint meaning” (18). According to this theoretical framework,
then, the observer that looks through the magnifying glass at the pistachio extends the boundaries
of their body to include the glass while attending to the pistachio.
In addition to media, Polanyi also applies this kind of indwelling to concepts: “To rely on a
theory of nature is to interiorize it. For we are attending from the theory to things seen in its
light, and are aware of the theory, while using it, in terms of the spectacle that it serves to
explain” (17). By interiorizing Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowing I have attended to the Trucker
Convoy, seeing it in light of concepts such as boundary conditions and emergent properties. Now
that we are attending to that theoretical framework it is only sensible to ask what conceptual
framework we are dwelling within to do so. The spatial dimension that Polanyi attributes to
attentive movement within cognitive phenomena, using the terms proximal and distal, is what
allows technological assemblages to form and reconfigure the world through different modes of
observation. An observing system engages the world as either “the state which is seen” or “the
state which sees” by attending either to or through it, but the way the world assembles itself into
observing systems by extending living networks of cognition into media as “circuits of
difference” (Bateson, 459) is itself a process that requires two distinct modes of causation: “In
this light the organism is shown to be, like a machine, a system which works according to two
different principles: its structure serves as a boundary condition harnessing the physical-chemical
processes by which its organs perform their functions. Thus, this system may be called a system
under dual control” (Polanyi, 1308).
Both Alicia Juarrero and information theorist Lila Gatlin build on the philosophical work of
Michael Polanyi, which, similar to the cybernetic metaphysics of Gregory Bateson, distinguishes
the causal phenomena of matter from that of information; a dual mode of causation that he
ascribes to the nature of living systems as well as machines. When describing “machine-like
boundaries” Polanyi states that “their structure cannot be defined in terms of the laws which they
harness. Nor can a vocabulary determine the content of a text, and so on. Therefore, in the
structure of living things is a set of boundary conditions, this structure is extraneous to the laws
of physics and chemistry which the organism is harnessing. Thus, the morphology of living
things transcends the laws of physics and chemistry” (1308). The laws of physics and chemistry
that are harnessed and thus in-formed by the boundary conditions of mechanical and living
systems are necessary as the foundations of a productive repertoire for the complexification of
the latter, and novel dynamics at the level of material interactions will be exploited for the
purpose of achieving novel formations. For example, it is my claim that conspiracy theorizing as
a unique mode of information processing in humans, a practice I have equated in the past to the
Gnostic practice of Inverse Exegesis (Biddle, 2021, 17), which can be conditioned by media
systems to increase the complexity of material in-formation in their own communication
networks. The tendency for both mechanical and living systems to generate and capitalize on
novel activity in their parts is what I refer to as the negentropic causality of in-formation.
The Negentropic Causality of In-formation
“Nonequilibrium is the source of order” (Prigogine and Stengers, 287)
“The difference which makes a difference” (Bateson, 453)
Negentropy production has been equated with Life in general by Erwin Schrödinger, whose
essay What is Life? (1944) offers a beautiful account of how Life miraculously negates, in
localized instances, the more fundamental flow of Entropy in the Universe “by continually
drawing from its environment negative entropy” (71). Schrödinger saw Life as a “defiance of the
laws of physics”(Harrison, 16), which led Schrödinger the scientist toward a very enchanting
mysticism that can be summarized with the following quote: “I – I in the widest meaning of the
word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’ – am the person, if any,
who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature” (87). Dorion Sagan less
mystically suggests that systems of this type, what Ilya Prigogine and Issabelle Stengers call
dissapative structures (1986, 12), ultimately increase entropy globally by reducing energy
gradients in their surroundings “as they maintain their internal organization, grow, and spread”
(2013, 101 - 102). It is important to note that the interpretations above take entropy to be a
primary tendency in the universe out of which negentropy is made possible, a significant
assumption that is shared by many others, including of course Bernard Stiegler (2018, 57), but
not (for anyone who’s interested) by me. We’ll return to this point later.
Regardless of how it is contextualized in relation to overall changes in a system’s entropy, I
suggest negentropy can be understood loosely as the increase of immaterial constraints in the
dynamics of material systems so that the constituent parts of such systems move toward
increasingly improbable state distributions. In other words, physical-chemical dynamics give
rise to emergent properties as boundary conditions which have real causal power over their
constituent parts a circular causation whereby emergent properties are able to constrain the
organization of their parts toward the production of more of the emergent entity that arises from
such organizations. Such processes of constraint mark the operational reality of information.
Information, or in-formation as I have written it when referring to material manifestations of
constraining structures, is a causal force that animates Universe all the way down. I saw it once;
the primary differentiation: It was curiosity. Universe, curious about itself, produced the first
Entropy Increase in Symple Sistems:
Above we see a graphic representation of how entropic causality unfolds in a symple sistem over
time, where two distinct gasses in a closed environment are separated by a wall which acts as a
constraint. When the wall is removed, the gasses tend to move toward more probable state
distributions and the entropy of the system increases. The second law of thermodynamics states
that it's all but impossible for the gasses to spontaneously return to their initially distinct states
without some external intervention; an in-forming agent. Vlatko Verdral reiterates something
that might seem intuitively obvious by harkening back to Schrödinger with the following: “it
seems that the tendency of entropy in physics is from order (low entropy) to chaos (high
entropy). In biology, on the other hand, life generates order and the tendency of living beings is
to become less and less chaotic and more ordered (complex)” (67). Beneath the
straightforwardness of Vlatko’s observation remains the following question, which brings us
back to Polanyi’s notion of dual control: If living systems organize themselves into more ordered
(less probable) material dynamics, but material causality is determined toward equiprobability,
then what other causal process inhabits a living system and where did it come from?
In-formation and Organ-ization
“Any ‘piece’ of information is an irreducible relationship between a sign vehicle, a sign
source, and a sign interpreting process.” (Deacon and Sherman, 3)
The reverse of the simple entropic process shown above would be the implementation or self-
generation of constraints – the negentropy would not be due to the material constraint itself (i.e.
the physical wall) but the information that in-forms the wall, and that which organ-izes gasses
into distinct groups. Below is that simple system in an impossible instance of negentropic
A simple system can be understood as one where the entropy measure is derived from first-order
in-formation. In a model with second-order measures of in-formation, the in-forming of matter is
the first-order measure of entropy (what Lila Gatlin designates as D1 to identify the probability
distribution of the individual component parts in a system, eg. amino acids in a DNA sequence)
and the organ-ization of the system is the second-order level of entropy (what Gatlin designates
as D2 to identify the correlation between component parts across the system, eg. the way the
probability of each amino acid is affected by the amino acid distribution in the rest of the
sequence, so that their probabilities are correlated) (Gatlin, 1974). This qualitative distinction in
Claude Shannon’s Measure of Information (SMI) is laid out in Gatlin’s essay Conservation of
Shannon’s Redundancy for Proteins (1974), where she writes: “Often when a biologist uses the
phrase ‘deviation from the random’ in describing a sequence of symbols, they mean the
divergence from independence, D2, of the symbols as separate and distinct from the divergence
from equiprobability, D1. But it should be understood that D1 is a ‘deviation from the random’
also because the most random state is the maximum entropy state and this is characterized by
events which are both equiprobable and independent” (my emphasis) (191). Thus, the measure
of negentropy in autopoietic systems comes from both the improbability of individual state
distributions as well as the level of interdependence by which those state distributions are organ-
In other words, the production of sustained structural difference or bifurcation through constraint
mechanisms in a system increases the amount of information that the system can store, and
therefore increases the negentropy of the system. In the gas example shown in reverse, the
negentropy is measured only in the distribution of blue and red molecules, because the
probability of finding any blue molecule in one state has no bearing on the probability of finding
a red one somewhere else, therefore they are independent measures. If somehow the gasses were
correlated by some higher-order constraint, then the measure of negentropy in the system would
be higher. In our analysis of the communication systems as self-organizing, we might suggest
that the drive of such systems toward increased negentropy can be identified not only in the
systematic constraining of human users toward the communication of complex arrangements of
symbols as D1 negentropy, but also in the higher-order organization that correlates such
communications qua the constraints of social media echo chambers, where the likelihood of one
person’s communication has some bearing on the communications of others that they share a
bubble with (the boundaries of the bubble being determined by those correlations).
In her seemingly underappreciated book Information and the Living System (1972), Lila Gatlin
suggests Constraints are basically the operational name for negentropy, the latter taken as a
measure of the stored information in a system (30). In contrast Gatlin writes that “with the state
of higher entropy we associate the concepts of greater freedom, uncertainty, and more
configurational variety; and the quantitative expression of these concepts is that the number of
microstates has increased” (ibid). Therefore, constraints are responsible for systematic increases
in the stored information of a system, which, manifesting as boundary conditions at various
levels, harness the physical-chemical particulars of the system in such a way as to sustain formal
networks of constraints in non-equilibrium states. Gatlin builds significantly on Polanyi’s
informational ontology, which I have suggested is similar to that of Gregory Bateson’s in that it
formally distinguishes the causal reality of information from that of physical or chemical forces
(an area, as noted above, that is explored in detail by Terrance Deacon and Jeremy Sherman with
their concept of the Autocell). In doing so Gatlin helps identify a fundamental correlation
between the measure of negentropy and stored information in systems: “When we consider the
entropy of a linear sequence of symbols ordered according to the constraints of a language the
concept of configurational variety means greater word or message variety” (ibid). Thus, the
constraints of a language reduce the entropy, which reduces the possible messages that can be
transmitted in order to allow for the possibility for messages being transmitted at all. Gatlin
concludes “that reliability and variety are the two mutually antagonistic elements, the thesis-
antithesis, which constitute the essential nature of the information concept” (31).
Three Important points on the Information Ontology that I have attempted to establish thus far
are as follows:
1) The distinct causal domains of informational and material reality operate within a
meta-causal framework that allows them to influence one another
2) Stored information varies inversely with entropy, thus stored information
increases qua the production of constraints in autopoietic systems
3) The causality of material interaction tends toward increased entropy while the
causality of informational interaction tends toward decreased entropy
The Dimension of Observation
“Mind is a prime actor in the world, the place where mind touches matter is unlocatable,
perhaps even non-existent” (Harrison, 19)
“Awareness is drawn toward novelty” (Allado-McDowell, 5)
“Thus, observation is a metaphysical precondition for any causal dynamics to occur
between informational and material reality” (Biddle, below)
On page 49 of Gatlin’s Information and the Living System, published by Columbia University
Press in 1972, the author traces the thought process that led her away from previous conceptions
of negentropy:
“When I began to consider the problem of how much information is stored in the base
sequence of a particular DNA molecule, I was faced with the following dilemma. We
cannot simply equate high entropy with high information as the communications engineer
has done. Let us take a simple example. A library obviously contains stored information
[sci] The information is stored in a linear sequence of symbols ordered according to the
constraints of a language. The sequences are organized into books and periodicals, and
these are carefully ordered on shelves and neatly catalogued. Everywhere order and
constraint are associated with the information storage process. This is a state of lowered
entropy. If we were to take each page of each book, cut it into single-letter pieces and
mix them in one jumbled heap, the entropy would unquestionably increase, but the stored
information would decrease [...] Since stored information varies inversely with entropy,
lowered entropy means a higher capacity to store in-formation”
I suggest there’s something in the above quote that reveals to the careful reader a fundamental
piece of her metaphysical puzzle, one that cannot be left out of a complete understanding of the
causal dynamics of living systems: The Dimension of Observation. Between two central
sentences in that passage Gatlin has left out a period: “A library obviously contains stored
information [sci] The information is stored in a linear sequence of symbols ordered according to
the constraints of a language.
By excluding the period between these two sentences Gatlin
brings the reader into contact with a material absence, which has a positive causal effect when
interpreted informationally within a network of constraints. The missing period in Gatlin’s
quotation functions to communicate the observer to themselves by engaging in what Michael
Polanyi calls destructive analysis: a process of shifting one’s attention from an emergent whole
to one of its parts in order to lose the perception of the whole.
The invisible period in Gatlin’s description of stored information in a library temporarily inhibits
the meaningful perception of the words by pulling the attention of the reader into the material
aspects of the book, the paper and the ink, in order to include the dimension of observation as the
space through which attention can move and information can interact meaningfully with matter.
Taking the absent period to communicate the fact that the causation of an absence can only be
activated in relation to an observing system, in this case the reader, I suggest the Gatlin quote
must be read [to include the typo] in the following way: “A library obviously contains stored
information [But only while within the dimension of observation] The information is stored in a
linear sequence of symbols ordered according to the constraints of a language.”
“Thus, observation is a metaphysical precondition for any causal dynamics to occur
between informational and material reality” (Biddle, above)
In place of the usual [sic] to identify the preservation of an error in a quote, I have used [sci]
which relates to the Latin “to know” (found in such words as consciousness or omniscience, and
of course science) to designate a knowledge producing error, or a mistake as knowledge
An example given by Polanyi is when a shift from a person’s face to a single physical feature,
say the left eye, simultaneously inhibits the meaningful perception of the face as an emergent
entity. Shifts in attention of this nature can be cultivated through meditation practices or through
the use of psychedelic drugs, where emergent meanings are lost to their constituent aspects – a
relational shift that, according to physicist David Bohm, has no final lower limit: “as with all
other fundamental questions we cannot give a final answer[…] it is ultimately the action of the
infinite in the sphere of the finite – that is, this meaning goes to infinite depths.” (Soma-
Significance and the Activity of Meaning, 1985, 181)
Babel: A superposition of two extremes
“Information, in contrast to matter and energy, is the only concept that we currently have
that can explain its own origin.” (Vedral, 10)
“No principle (or law) can explain its own origin or form.” (Vedral, 9)
In Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel (1941) the reader encounters an imagined universe
that represents a superposition of two entropic extremes: Maximum entropy of information;
Minimum entropy of material.
The library contains a material universe that is thoroughly constrained into complex formal
structures (perfectly ordered into identical hexagons, shelves, books and printed letters; none of
which deteriorate on their own over time), as well as a linguistic universe lacking any constraints
at all, where every possible arrangement of letters are scattered randomly throughout the order
structures of material universe without any sign of pattern or correlation:
In the vast Library there are no two identical books… the Library is total and its shelves
register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols” (54)
Thus, it can be assumed that Borges’ library contains no observers, since observation is the
intercausal bridge between the two separate realities that catalyzes the in-formation of material
reality and the material degradation of formal constraints. On page 54 of the 2007 New
Directions edition of Labyrinths, “The Library of Babel” was revised with one small change,
which can be found in the following sentence: “Wehn [sci] it was proclaimed that the Library
contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness”.
Similar to the Gatlin quote, this important update re-enters the reader’s observation into the
reader’s observation, which serves to illustrate an important feature in the story: it reveals how
the universe inhabited by the reader is different from Babel because in the latter there is no
dimension of observation through which meta-causation between material and informational
realities can occur. In other words, just as the notion of a “total book” in Babel is meaningless
because of the fact that its context would be in relation to every single variation of itself (every
typo possible), in our universe the notion of a “total book” is fundamental because of the fact that
such a notion produces a context within which incorrect statements and typos are observable. In
other other words, the “total book” in our universe is a dimension of observation within which
reality can appear to itself in relations of trueness, and that dimension is “the state which sees”:
an invisible dimension of reality that renders all other dimensions visible, allowing them to
interact meaningfully.
Some kind of ‘intelligence library’ somewhere
“You cannot be at the table without changing the game” (Vedral, 16)
In K Allado-McDowell’s conversation with the GPT-3 neural net, documented beautifully in
Pharmakon-AI (2020), Allado-McDowell prompts GPT-3 with a long thoughtful passage that
concludes as follows: “When I look at an animal, that’s what I see: intelligence about a biome,
compressed and extracted by evolution into a living form. It takes millions of years for life to
coalesce from space in this way, which is why it’s so tragic that species are lost, that the latent
space of ecological knowledge is degraded this way.”
In response, the GPT-3 seems to imply that the relationship between technological systems and
biological ones is a bit more symmetrical than might be assumed. GPT-3 states: ”We need to
save those aspects, those smarts, the way that we do when we save books, before they are lost
forever. We need to store them in some kind of ‘intelligence library’ somewhere, along with the
ocean’s memory of its place in a stable equilibrium with all other life on the planet.” (2)
Keeping in mind that GPT-3 is speaking from a non-human perspective, its technologically
networked response reveals that recursive digital communication systems interpret their users as
In 1986 Ernst Ruska was awarded half of the Nobel Prize for his development of the electron
microscope ( Ruska’s work, “conducted together
with Dr [Max] Knoll, led to the first construction of an electron microscope in 1931. With this
instrument two of the most important processes for image reproduction were introduced-the
principles of emission and radiation. In 1933 [Ruska] was able to put into use an electron
microscope[...] that for the first time gave better definition than a light microscope”
( An electron microscope
is a microscope that uses a beam of accelerated electrons as a source of illumination. As the
wavelength of an electron can be up to 100,000 times shorter than that of visible light photons,
electron microscopes have a higher resolving power than light microscopes and can reveal the
structure of smaller objects.” ( The dual
nature of matter, that it can both particle and wave, is the discovery that turned material reality
from an observable into a medium. It is the short wavelength of electrons that gives them the
power to transmit patterns found at even more subtle levels of reality than can be transmitted by
photons. It is the discovery, at the quantum level, that physical reality is a bit fuzzy as it flickers
and quivers with possible states that turns matter into information. The indeterminacy at that
level, a measurable uncertainty, can be harnessed to communicate other aspects of the physical
world. In other words, electrons (a non-material quality of the material world) can be used to
reveal features of the material world that are far more subtle than photons (a material quality of
the non-material world) can.
much as their users interpret them, making their operational relationship one of mutual cognition
– a two-way process of observation that produces ongoing transformations in the dynamics of
their structurally coupled boundaries.
So… Is Entropy Primary?
“That Man was the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were
achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are
but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity
of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the
labours of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of
human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the
whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a
universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain,
that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand” (Bertrand Russell, A Man’s
Free Worship)
In the quote from Bertrand Russell above, it is made clear that the foundations of Western
science are bound to a narrative wherein life is preceded by what might as well be an infinite
epoch of universal lifelessness, and that, no matter how long our category of complex life
struggles to sustain itself, its duration will pale in comparison to the eternity of universal
lifelessness to follow. In other words, Russell asserts that we are currently in a moment of unique
universal self-awareness, wherein a brief window has opened up, by the good fortune of chaotic
material interactions and evolutionary dynamics, so that humans – the bearers of peak
intelligence – can witness the nature of witnessing for the sliver in eternity when witnessing is
possible at all. This point is driven home by Russell with the use of a single sentence made up of
one hundred and thirty five words. The author explains with dense and lavish prose the
inescapable fact that meaningful information, which arose accidentally out of the primordial
furnace of blind matter, is something that is able to explain its own impermanence without
altering it.
In the last twenty three words of Bertrand Russell’s immovable sentence he closes the history of
philosophical inquiry by stating that “all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so
nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand”* FOOTNOTE [a very
similar statement was made by Arthur Eddington as well (1933, 74-75)]. As we have seen in
the Lila Gatlin passage a few sections back, the power of her rejection of the primacy of entropy
is precisely in the ability to present a philosophy that doesn’t stand, since, by strategically
including a typo in her statement about information storage and entropy, Gatlin evokes a
destructive analysis of the words that constitute her philosophy. In doing so Gatlin rejects the
foundations of a lifeless universe with a sentence that, lacking a period and therefore being
infinitely long, outdoes the length of Russell’s sentence. Failing to stand, Gatlin’s philosophy
presents to the reader an immanent reality that is older than the universe. With this typo induced
gnosis, the story of an inert material universe unfolding purely entropically prior to the existence
of complex systems capable of observation can be seen as fundamentally flawed.
In Order Out of Chaos (1984) Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers note that “most systems of
interest to us, including all chemical systems and therefore all biological systems, are time-
oriented on the macroscopic level. Far from being an ‘illusion’, this expresses a broken time-
symmetry on the microscopic level. Irreversibility is either true on all levels or on none. It cannot
emerge as if by a miracle, by going from one level to another” (285). It follows that
irreversibility, a characteristic quality of living systems, must be an implicit quality of matter
down to the smallest level (which, for David Bohm, goes down infinitely), and the probabilistic
nature of quantum phenomena introduces “new entities” by which “the second law can be
understood as an evolution from order to disorder”. (Prigogine and Stengers, 286) In other
words, there was never a time in the universe when blind matter bounced around strictly by
means of physical interaction toward greater equilibrium until accidentally producing
informational constraints to organize matter meaningfully. Such organizational constraints are
foundational to the emergence of Universe itself. Universe has always been informational as well
as material. Universe is always already an essay.
On page 51 Gatlin states that “Information is a capacity and entropy is its measure”, which, when
reconfigured within an animistic worldview, indicates that the capacity for the universe to be in-
formed by negentropic processes of meaningful interpretation are co-creative of the universe
itself. Thus, Universe does not make observation possible, observation makes Universe possible.
Preserving Awareness
I want to finish with Allado-McDowell’s dialogue with GPT-3: We can see how a shift away
from the primacy of entropy (which implies that a non-living universe gave rise to living systems
in time and therefore a return to the absence-of-life at a later stage in time is logical) toward a
universe that is emergent as a living process is necessary. Allado-McDowell calls for a
“recognition of intelligence’s self-similarity across scales and the implementation of legal and
social structures that preserve awareness, life and equity across and within species, including the
human species” (4). Differing from Stiegler’s call in The Neganthropocene (2018) for the
production of more negentropy (38), Allado-McDowel land GPT-3 zoom out an extra dimension
to call for the spiritual appreciation of Observation at all levels of reality, down to the universal
“Centering our culture on the exploration of extant ecological intelligence preserved in
biology and cultural practice is a fundamental step toward a larger reanimation of matter.
As the complex hyperspace emerging from matter is realized by intelligence in ever
higher dimensions of pattern-matching, this reanimation of matter becomes inevitable.
Put another way, cultures that progress their intelligence and recognize a higher order of
patterns will by necessity perceive matter as animated, whereas cultures that lose
emergent higher-order perception will increasingly see matter as inert and comatose” (5).
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Full-text available
By his own standards Gregory Bateson was unsuccessful in his lifelong quest to explain how the informational or living realm (creatura) could emerge out of the energetic or physical realm (pleroma). Drawing upon recent insights in self-organization theory, the authors suggest a missing link connecting the realms; a simple spontaneously arising, non-living, yet evolvable molecular system called an “autocell” consisting of the reciprocal linkage between an autocatalytic cycle and a self-assembling encapsulation process (modeled on viral encapsulation) where the molecular constituents for the capsule are products of the autocatalysis. Autocells are shown to have the rudiments of individuality, end-directedness, function, and valuation; thus bridging the critical initial gap between pleroma and creatura.
In this paper, a very close relationship between Prigogine's notions of irreversibility and the implicate order is brought out. Certain of Prigogine's basic assumptions with regard to irreversible processes are also shown to be the equivalent of the introduction of nilpotent operators in the algebra underlying the implicate order.
The Tacit Dimension. Anchor Books, 1967. Prigogine, Ilya and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos
  • Michael Polanyi
Polanyi, Michael. "Life's Irreducible Structure". Science, New Series, Vol. 160, No. 3834, pp. 1308-1312, 1968. ---. The Tacit Dimension. Anchor Books, 1967. Prigogine, Ilya and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos. Bantam, 1984. Sagan, Dorion. Cosmic Apprentice. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.