Friday, June 8, 2012

Erasing is What Costs Energy

My morning ritual now contains a new step: find the delete button. Overnight a few dozen emails collect, and no matter how often I try to unsubscribe (knowing even that can do more harm than good) or how much I try to reduce automatic emails, each year brings more emails waiting in the morning. I used to open each one before deleting but now it's fastest to just hit delete, delete, delete as I scan down the list of senders and subjects. Once I'm done I'm left with only three to five emails I actually want to open.

James Gleick mentions this phenomenon at the end of The Information concerning information overload, and even mentions a prescient scientist who saw this coming in the 60's. It's invitable and inexorable that information will expand, to the point that my primary email job is as much pruning as it is reading.

One of the things I learned about information theory earlier in the same book is that information has a cost but there's a surprising twist to it. The necessary cost is not in producing the information, but in erasing it. Rolf Landauer noted in 1961 that you can set up a system in a certain way so the information is recorded with no energetic cost (technically gain in heat outside the system). You can put bits in order like books on a shelf, and to a certain extent you can do that for free. But the necessary, unavoidable cost is taking the books off the shelf when you want to put new books there. Erasing the bits, or emptying the shelf, costs energy. So for this corner of information theory it's not that "time is money" so much as "erasing is money".

There's not an exact analogy here, but perhaps a metaphor, in that it's very hard to deliberately forget something. In trying to forget it, you of course remember it, and actually strengthen the memory. The strengthening goes all the way down to the neuron level, in that a neuron pathway that's used gets "thicker" and stronger. How do you not think about a white elephant? How do you weaken the "white elephant" synaptic pathway? One thing's for sure -- it's not by continuing to think about white elephants.

And pruning connections between neurons is as important as making them. One of the characteristics of autism is that not enough connections are pruned, too many connections are made and certain "circuits" in the brain are overloaded. Just this week I read about a study of the mouse brain that right before birth an amazing amount of pruning takes place, severing far more connections than are made. Brain development requires removing the wrong connections so that the right ones work right!

So what about when I want to forget something? Over time, this tangle of neurons in my head has been exposed to lots of crud, some my fault, some not. Even if it's entirely contained inside me, that burst of anger or of greed tilts the brain in that direction. Next time that burst comes more easily, and may even seem automatic, like something I can't help. Over time the brain skews toward what it experiences. It may be different in degree from an addiction, but it's not different in kind.

It's key to see every moment of life as a choice between the easy and the hard, the snap judgment and the "long obedience in the same direction." The very concept of free will and choice seems drowned out by all this information, but there is a delete button in the mind of turning away at the first sign of trouble. And it's not like an appetite for food or water -- the more you turn away and deny the urge the easier it is to do it the next time. Averaged over a long time, of course.

It's this delete button at the heart of thought that is very close to the Christian idea of forgiveness. Forgetting is not the same as forgiving -- but forgiving is a step toward forgetting. And the price, the energy, the hard thing is the erasing, the getting rid of the information, and there's so much information that getting rid of it is the major task of modern man. Taking out the trash and opening oneself to silence and being filled by light instead of darkness.

On the cross, Jesus erased our sins. I want to let that information come in -- but in order for it to saturate the brain I must first clean house and forgive. To the extent that I forgive, my bad stuff is erased and my sins are forgiven. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" in legal terms; "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" in economic terms.

So the Christian sees in the self-sacrifice of the lamb of God on the cross the action that will reverse all these tangled shortcomings and misdirected actions that we experience each day. That cost has been paid, but to fully participate in it requires the cost of personal erasure and a replication of that action in my own brain and my own actions. Each day there's more junk to delete, and I'm not talking about my inbox.

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

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