Information entropy

Entropy, a concept from physics, has found its way into information theory.  Melanie Mitchell who writes about the science of complexity defines entropy “as a measure of the energy that cannot be converted into additional work but is instead transformed into heat.”  Analogously, a lot of information can produce more heat than light.

Hoping to find answers to some lingering questions, I watched the televised opening session of the “Incident Investigation and Review  Committee (IIRC), the body that President Aquino has assigned to look into the August 23 hostage-taking incident at the Quirino Grandstand.  I should have known better.  Listening to the proceedings left me with more questions than before.  I found myself unable to draw any clear meaning from the surfeit of information I was hearing.  Indeed, some of the statements, taken out of context, may easily exacerbate existing tensions between the governments of Hong Kong and the Philippines.

The recollection — from different vantage points — of the series of events that unfolded on that tragic day failed to provide a more grounded understanding of what actually happened.  The testimonies were inevitably framed by the so-called “protocols” that were supposed to be activated in such situations.  I was hoping to find out what was actually going on behind the scenes on that fateful day, what decisions were being made, by whom, and why certain actions – so obviously crucial and necessary, in retrospect – were not done.  No such picture of the incident could be pieced together. The ideal and the factual were made to occupy the same surface as in a Mobius strip.

It is interesting that people have earnestly owned up to operational

mistakes and lapses.  They have acknowledged their responsibility.  Yet one gets the strong feeling that the principal actors themselves still do not quite know what hit them.  It is as if something terrible happened so fast it left no more than a hazy impression on the consciousness.

This haziness contrasts sharply with the vivid images supplied by television — the legalistic notes pinned by the hostage-taker on the bus door and windshield, the almost surreal efficiency of fast-food delivery to the hostages, the tireless shuttling of the man in the orange shirt, the curtained muteness of the hostages inside the bus, the searing smoke from the teargas, and the bizarre futility of the final assault.  Television filled our senses with this absurdity — an overflow of images annihilating meaning.

I perfectly understand why, in the name of transparency, the government has decided to open the hearings to live coverage by the mass media.  I am not at all sure, however, whether the best way to do an investigation is to stage it for television.  The medium itself can constrain the inquiry.

Jean Baudrillard once said of information devouring its own content:  “Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication.  Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning.”

I know that the IIRC is a major part of our effort to make amends for an incident that no one wished to happen.  But there’s a limit to what we can do by way of media.  The more we try to appease the aggrieved party in this manner, the more aggressive they seem to become in their anguish.  The world is not lacking in demagogues who specialize in the exploitation of anger for political ends.  One Hong Kong legislator, reacting to the mislabeling of the coffins of three victims, sneered contemptuously at “the chaotic situation out there,” in reference to thePhilippines.  That is understandable: she was pandering to a resentful public in Hong Kong.  But we must ask why Philippine television should play that clip repeatedly for Filipino viewers.  It seems to serve no other purpose than to elicit reciprocal resentment at home.

“More and more information is invaded by this kind of phantom content,” continues Baudrillard, “this homeopathic grafting, this awakening dream of communication…. through which one stages the desire of the audience…”  We are already beginning to see the fruit of this implosion of messages all demanding to be forwarded.  I dread to think what they can lead to.  We are among the world’s most hospitable people; we like to open our hearts and our homes to foreign visitors.  But, in any society, you scratch the surface and you see the ugly face of racism.  Philippine society is not an exception. There’s enough despair and self-pity in this country to fuel brutal episodes of racial hatred.

One expects government officials of modern nations to know this, and to be always restrained in expressing criticism of another people.  Governments are not supposed to feel and speak like their citizens.  Restraint and subtlety are the hallmark of diplomacy.  Nations calibrate their moves in deference to the sensitivity of others, especially their neighbors.  Thus, in the community of nations, graciousness in the face of injury carries greater weight than the vociferous clamor for reparation.

The second law of thermodynamics states: “Entropy always increases until it reaches a maximum value.” The work of an outsider is needed to decrease it.  IfChina will not perform this crucial role at this time because it is afraid of alienating the people of Hong Kong, who will?