Posted: 20 September 2007 Updated: 04 October 2007 - added a comment sent in by a reader.
As always, this is my opinion. The background material is technical, but when I finally get to the fun part, no technical expertise is needed. Comments are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
As some of my readers may know, the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be expressed in a number of ways. In meteorology, it takes the form:
In this version of the Second Law, the quantity on the left-hand side is the change in entropy, and the term on the right is the change in the heat divided by the temperature (on the Kelvin scale). Meteorologists will recognize the term in the middle, which involves the change in the logarithm of the potential temperature. Basically, this says that the change in entropy -- associated with any change of thermodynamic state -- which is related to the logarithm of the potential temperature, is greater than or equal to the change in the heat content (an inexact differential -- its integral around a closed path on a thermodynamic diagram is not equal to zero) divided by the temperature. If the process is reversible, the equals sign applies, but for any irreversible process, the "greater than" sign applies. For a reversible process, since the left-hand side equals the right-hand side, it says that the integral of the change in entropy around a closed path does equal zero and the change in entropy is an exact differential. However, for any irreversible process, the change in entropy is always greater than zero -- in real processes, entropy always increases and never decreases. Meteorologists call a process involving no change in entropy an adiabatic process, and under some circumstances, it is a useful approximation to assume that the process is adiabatic (or isentropic).
The notion of entropy is rather nonintuitive and often creates confusion. Energy is much more intuitive as a concept. The laws of thermodynamics in general do not arise as a consequence of first principles - rather, they are empirical observations. The notion that energy is conserved (the First Law of Thermodynamics) is a hypothesis that has been observed to be valid countless times, without exception. Hence, it has become a "law" -- more solid than a “theory” but not a consequence of some deeper principle. That the change of entropy is always nonnegative is another way to put the Second Law. Still another way to put it is that during any physical process, the best we could hope for is a reversible (adiabatic) process - if it runs backward, everything could be returned to its original state. As noted, all real processes are irreversible - it always takes more energy to return a physical system to its original state than might have been produced during the process. Some energy is always lost and becomes unavailable. Among other things, this means that perpetual motion machines are impossible. Suppose we made a machine that produced more energy than it consumed. Then we would be able to use the energy that the machine produced to run the machine itself indefinitely, and have extra energy to do work. Even a machine that produces just enough energy to keep itself going is impossible - that would be a perfectly efficient machine, but it would not provide any surplus energy. Whenever some faker makes such a claim and shows some machine that seems to contradict the Second Law, it's inevitable that the machine draws energy from some hidden source. As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, then it likely isn’t true.
Entropy is often interpreted as a measure of disorder. An ordered thermodynamic state in meteorology is usually associated with a difference in potential temperature - for example, along a front. If one simply lets things go, eventually everything comes to a uniform temperature. At that point, although the system contains energy, it's unavailable to do any work - the system has become disordered. The energy remaining in the system is in the form of random molecular motion (which we observe as temperature), or heat.
Exceptions to the Second Law are always local -- it's possible to drive some part of a system so as to increase order, but if the system as a whole is considered and reversibility is recognized as an unattainable ideal, then the price of creating order in some part of the system is an increase of entropy within the entire system. You can't get something for nothing. There's no free lunch. And so on for other colloquial expressions of the Second Law. What follows is my own application of the Second Law ...
O.K. So much for the background. My own empirical experience is that bureaucratic organizations follow their own version of the Second Law. Put simply: however things are in a bureaucratic organization, their current state is as good as it’s ever going to be - in bureaucracies, things always get worse over time. There may be local, transient exceptions to this rule, but on the whole, organizations run downhill. For the organization as a whole, on the average over time, the bureaucracy always gets worse. There are reasons for this.
When organizations come into existence, they typically have some broad consensus to achieve something. Everyone at the beginning buys into this consensus and policies are driven by the shared goals within the organization. With time, however, individuals are hired who are less concerned with the organization’s goals and more concerned with their careers. Stupid rules are created by managers unable to deal with problem employees -- it’s easier to create a stupid rule (that applies to everyone) to deal with some problem than it is to confront an individual who may have made a mess by his/her actions. These rules accumulate, along with careerist managers, with the result that the organization slides inexorably downhill. Things always go from good to worse. Managers and other careerists are preoccupied with justifying their existence in the organization - many of them become quite adept at it. They create problems for the productive people on the staff. The stupid rules that accumulate during the development of the organization virtually always make it difficult to get rid of incompetents, and those incompetents rise within the hierarchy through a combination of seniority, attrition at higher levels, and the incompetence of people above them. With time, the organization becomes bloated with bullshit: this consists of (a) massive paperwork and (b) inept bozos whose main goal is to not let anything bad happen during their tenure, so they can move on to the next level. Creativity and innovation are stifled. All of the recognized laws of bureaucracy -- e.g., Parkinson's Law (Work expands to fill the time allotted for it.), or the Peter Principle (In a hierarchy, every person rises to his/her level of incompetence.), and so forth -- are simply expressions of this more basic principle: the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
When applied to organizations, my corollary to the Second Law can be stated in the mildly profane way: bullshit = entropy. Thus, for organizations, bullshit either remains the same or increases. If the bullshit level decreases locally for a time, this is at best a local, transient situation. Over time there always is an increase of bullshit within the organization as a whole. Essentially, the only way to defeat this principle is to kill the organization, or let it die from suffocation in its own entropy.
After the organization dies, it might be possible to create a new organization from the ashes (or compost) that would, for a time, thrive on a shared consensus vision, until the bullshit began to accumulate to intolerable levels once again. This cycle will repeat endlessly until the end of the Universe, when the whole universe will be saturated with entropy (bullshit). Hence, bureaucracies are a microcosm of the Universe and this corollary is "universal".
I don't make the laws of the Universe -- I can only try to learn what they are and deal with them as best I can.
Update: 04 October 2007 - Steve Miller, a reader sent me the following comment:
I would like to add the basic rule that the atmosphere thins as altitude increases. Thus, those who rise to the top within such bureaucratic organizations also suffer from “High Altitude Cerebral Edema”. From Wikipedia:
High altitude cerebral edema (or HACE) is a severe (frequently fatal) form of altitude sickness. HACE is the result of swelling of brain tissue from fluid leakage. Symptoms can include headache, loss of coordination (ataxia), weakness, and decreasing levels of consciousness including disorientation, loss of memory, hallucinations, irrational behavior, and coma.
Keeping this in mind helps me to better understand the decisions (or non-decisions) that float down from the top. ;-)
Good comment, Steve, and I certainly agree that many bureaucrats act disoriented, seem to have selective memory loss, are apparently delusional, and certainly irrational - but watch out for the split infinitives (blue)! See Item C.2 in my Pet Peeves.