Why Maxwell’s Demon will decide the Web’s fate

Today’s White Horse blog topic is “Best Simile for the Web in its Current State.” We’re going to see if we can improve on 900-year-old former Senator Ted Stevens’ infamous “series of tubes” simile. I have to admit a perverse fondness for Stevens’ inept analogy, because it calls to mind the endless tangles of pneumatic tubes in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, which offers a dystopian vision of the soul-deadening effects of information overload.

Not that I’m cynical or anything. But I do think that dealing with information overload is the critical issue facing the Web today, especially with the proliferation of content types and contributors brought about by emerging media. For this reason, I offer a metaphor that (for me) reflects the razor’s edge we currently walk between a utopian and dystopian future for the Web: Maxwell’s Demon.

Maxwell’s Demon is a theoretical concept invented by the Scottish physicist James Maxwell in 1871. Bear with me for a minute here while I scramble to make the metaphor stick. Maxwell was offering a challenge to Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, which describes entropy, i.e. the tendency of things to fall apart. He envisioned a box of hot and cold molecules bouncing around; under the Second Law, these highs and lows will eventually even out to a lukewarm vanilla state, much like network television.

But Maxwell envisioned a creature, a “demon” in the box, whose sole job is to sort the hot molecules from the cold. If the energy the demon uses to sort molecules is less than the amount of energy retained by keeping hot molecules together, the demon can defy entropy and even create perpetual motion. The big question that physicists continue to debate is this: how much energy is used in the act of sorting?

So, back to the Web. For consumers and marketers alike, success or failure in their online experience entirely hinges on their ability to sort and isolate relevant information: finding your target audience among billions, joining with like-minded communities, locating relevant search results, finding your ex-classmates, and on and on.

In fact the single biggest company in the space – Google – is nothing more than a giant Maxwell’s Demon. Google doesn’t create content; it sorts it, and it enlists millions of lesser demons – you and me – to help it do that. And most of the work we do as an agency – pinpointing users in digital advertising, increasing the prominence of relevant information in Web site design, or creating Web communities – involves acting as a Maxwell’s Demon on behalf of our clients and their customers.

Our own Steve Heikkila’s excellent evaluation of the social media meta-tool Flock describes a Maxwell’s Demon of a browser that constantly tracks our own box of molecules – the social communities in which we participate.

And we at White Horse created a highly effective Maxwell’s Demon to help us overcome the entropy of our laziness about blog posting. Left to our own devices, we only occasionally mustered the energy to post. Now our esteemed administrator-demon, Jamie Beckland, tosses out a blog topic each day for us bloggers to tear at like a pack of crazed hyenas. Is the net energy used to maintain a blog reduced by the sorting action of this demon? Yes. Now our blog is its own perpetual-motion machine. Almost.

So here’s the utopian/dystopian dilemma: if we can create ways to sort information that keep pace with the growth of information, we create a utopia of relevance and connectedness. If we fail to do so, then social media will eat itself: the demands of keeping up with the social stream will outweigh its relevance to users, and they will retreat to fragmented communities of deeper relevance but less connectedness. Which way will it go? Not even the Demon knows.

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