Towards a Unified Theory of Power

Towards a Unified Theory of Power

Are political power and physical power the same thing? Or are they close enough that we can draw equivalence relationships between the two of them?

Physical power is measured in terms of “Energy per unit of time.” Almost all of physics is describing systems in terms of energy and their motion through time. Power, in the colloquial sense, is generally not measured at all – yet there is a sense of “some people have more power than others.” We can imagine that the owner of a 1 megawatt power plant would have less political power than the over of a 1,000 megawatt power plant. Would that difference in power simply be a factor of 1,000? What is the relationship between physical power and political power?

This article is an attempt to unify these two meanings of the word “Power” – to produce a single, coherent theory which can relate power in the physical sense, to power in the sense that human beings mean when they refer to political leaders.

Power, Goals, And Energy

The definition of political power that we will use is simply “The ability to accomplish goals.”

Colloquial definitions of power generally involve “control over other persons.” This definition of a special case of the ability accomplish goals: specifically, the ability to accomplish goals that involve other persons. There is a more complex argument in favor of this definition of power in this document here.

If people generally had goals like “I wish to move this 1,000 kg rock 500 meters in the next two minutes”, and this sort of thing was the basis of all human society, then it would be easy to argue that political power was just one other form of power. One person might use a gasoline engine to move the rock, another might use a team of slaves, and a third person might use a team of paid workers; we could treat all of these means of moving mass over distance as being different forms of the same concept: energy per unit time – power.

People generally have more complex goals than that. What exactly are goals? We can define a goal as ‘a desired state of the world other than the present state.’ Accomplishing goals is thus “modifying the state of the world, moving its state from the current state, to the desired state.” Making changes to the physical world requires energy.

Human goals tend to be much more complex than “move this mass a fixed distance in a fixed amount of time.” Is a physical perspective still valid, when discussing political power? I believe the answer is, “yes, physics does provide insight when dealing with human and political power.”

This does not mean that I think we come up with figures like “The President has access to 300 Gigajoules of stored energy, and can discharge this energy within a period of 35 minutes, and therefore has a total power of …. Watts ” It would be fairly easy to come up with numbers like this, for, say, the stockpile of nuclear weapons and the time it would take to deploy them. But how useful are those numbers?

When we describe one engine as producing 100 Watts of power, and another as producing 200 Watts of power, we are making precise, verifiable statements about things we could or could not do with those different engines. Is there any utility in being able to give precise numbers about how powerful politicians are?

I don’t think so – the goal of this essay is to give people the framework to think about power in physical terms, rather than provide precise numbers. If power is accomplishing goals, let’s talk more about what goals are.

Energy as a Form of Distance

A goal is simply “A configuration of the world that is not the current configuration, but could be the current configuration at some future time.”

One way to think of this is to imagine a chess board in the middle of a game. The board has some current configuration, and a number of possible ways the game could play out. The black player may have the goal of capturing the white player’s queen with his pawn. This goal is configuration of the board that is not the present configuration, but is accessible from the present configuration via the right series of moves.

Technically, “capturing the white queen with my pawn” is more like a region of the configuration space than a specific configuration. There are many possible chess boards that would represent this outcome happening. Some of these boards probably put the black player in a worse position than others. This is one reason why specifying your goals precisely is very important. If you fail to specify what you want, you may end up getting a configuration which satisfies what you asked for, but not what you wanted. We will get into this shortly. It is a recurring theme of this essay.

Chess players modify the state of the chessboard by taking turns. Each turn, a player moves one piece along  a valid path. We can describe the distance between configurations of the chessboard in terms of how many turns they are separated by. Players of the game of physics modify the state of the physical world by selectively moving energy around. We can describe the distance between configurations of the physical world by quantifying the energy it would take to move from one configuration to the other. Small changes, which are easy to make, require little energy. Large changes require more energy.

In that sense, energy is a form of distance that separates possible futures from the present. Nearby possible futures require only small amounts of energy to realize. Distant possible futures require far more energy.

There is a possible future where I get up, walk around the room, and flick a light switch. This future is relatively likely to happen already, and it requires minimal exertion of energy to accomplish. This possible future is within my power.

There is another possible future where I am 3,000 feet above the ground, moving at a velocity of 200 m/s, carrying 50 grams of gold shaped like a pretzel. This possible future is extremely unlikely to happen. A number of changes would have to happen between then and now, and all of these changes can be quantified in terms of energy. This future is also within my power, as long as my budget is big enough. To make it happen, i’d need to spend enough money to buy some gold, pay a jeweler to melt it into the shape of a pretzel, and then buy a plane ticket.

The more power a person has, the more possible futures they have the ability to select from. If I had more money, I could fly in a higher plane, going even faster, with even more gold on my lap. Of course, then I’d soon be out of money and my wife would not be happy with me. It turns out it’s a lot easier to waste energy than it is to use that energy in a way that will get you more energy.

Power vs. Control

A nuclear blast releases a very large amount of energy in a very short period of time. This energy is essentially randomizing the area into which it is released. This is true of most weapons: they are means of delivering energy into a system. That dramatic increase of energy into a system increases the number of configurations available to the system, effectively randomizing it.

What would happen if you could take that same amount of energy and put it into a city, but do so very precisely?

We might choose to specify – these rocks, this cement, and that mortar would be moved and rearranged into a bridge here. That asphalt in this supply center would be moved over here, to repair these potholes. The soil in the park that has been eroding towards the creek lately would be pushed back to an earlier position. Screws, bolts, and planks of wood would be moved over to build a retaining wall, to prevent that soil erosion from continuing. The lights in the city would stay on, without depleting the coal in the powerplant; the extra energy would go straight into the arcing electromagnetic fields that hum around the high voltage wires. Schools, houses, shops and hospitals would be warmed in the winter, without depending on any natural gas. Every heating element on every stove would hum with the free energy we’d be delivering, due to our unique ability – our power – to precisely specify where energy should be delivered.

Lastly, some paint and canvas would be moved around, so that street overpasses would display large banners saying “Mark Neyer for Mayor! He’ll put physics to work for us!” And don’t worry about theft – we’d use our power to move some pieces of metal around, flip a few bits on hard drives, and the owners of that asphalt and paint would happily see their bank balances increased to compensate them.

Lines of ink would be arranged very carefully on papers, to record these transactions, and subtle patterns in the relative connection strengths of various neurons in the minds of shopkeepers, bankers and auditors would be nudged just slightly from their present configuration. Those shopkeepers would remember the transactions that definitely occurred, the auditors would remember having audited the bills, and all of the computer systems would compute the same hash values as if they had actually processed these transactions. To anyone who is limited merely by their ability to observe their physical environment, it would look like these transactions actually happened, and were not just written into being via careful use of physics by an entity with large amount of power and control.

Remember, though, the same total amount of energy was used in both scenarios. The difference between “A city reduced to rubble” and “A city that’s better off, and a Mayoral campaign underway” is control. The first scenario, in which we simply dump energy into the city, without carefully specifying the desired end state, results in massive destruction. The second scenario, where we specify precisely where the energy should go, results in what is arguably a better city.

The only way we have to make the second scenario occur is to have help from a ton of people. There is no magical system that will let us reach into the physical universe and manipulate it at well. Yet if I have hundreds of loyal supporters, it is effectively as if i have thousands of tiny fingers that i can move to accomplish my goals.

This may seem obvious – yes, of course, the politician has lots of people willing to work for them. I think there’s a meaningful physical aspect to this: If you tried to do this all on your own, even if you had the massive supply of energy and the ability to go in with a marker and just change the physical world, applying forces at will, you’d almost certainly fail. No one person could be smart enough, or have accurate enough knowledge about the world, to avoid screwing it up.

If you just dump a large amount of energy into a system at random, you will almost certainly make things worse. This “almost certainly” is like saying “If you have a pot of boiling water, you will not find an ice cube in the middle of it appearing randomly.” This is possible according to the laws of physics, but it is extremely unlikely, to the point where if we watched that pot sit and boil for the age of the universe (perhaps we replenish the water from time to time), we should still not expect to see an ice cube spontaneously form.

Even if you dump a large amount of energy into a system very carefully, it is still likely that you will break the system. Most of the things that we want to occur are extremely unlikely to happen at random. The reason is because our universe is one that is 99.9999% hostile and 0.0001% snug and cozy.

Most Random States are Awful

Most of the universe is incredibly hostile to life and will kill you in seconds. I am now in a very comfortable chair, in a comfortable house, with people who know me and love me, in an economy that provides for all of my needs, most of my wants, many whims that I enjoy but don’t like all that much, and all kinds of desires that I might have. There is air I can breathe, water I can drink, and food i can eat. The environment is filled with the volatile, combustible gas known as oxygen, but not so much that I can’t breathe according to the needs of my finely tailored biology. The vast majority of the universe would kill me within seconds of my arrival.

This contrast is one of the paradoxes of being alive, and it’s important to understand. Most randomly selected states will kill you. A very small number of comfortable states exist, and many of these are connected together. We can illustrate this idea relatively simply using the this image of intergalactic space. I chose this image because it has the exact structure I want: a mostly black space, with tiny bright dots connected by less bright webs. The fact that the whole universe looks like this is just a coincidence.

The white areas represent spaces that are great for life. There aren’t too many of them. The purple areas represent spaces that are pretty good for life. There are far more of these, and they tend to connect the white spaces. The black areas will kill you immediately. This is a metaphor of course; the reality is that if you could select a destination in this space by choosing the exact pixel where you wanted to end up, you’d still likely die immediately upon arriving at your chosen destination.

Most random states are lethal. The earth is a very cozy spot for life. This seeming contradiction, I think, lies at the core of the use of power – it’s far easier to use it poorly than it is to use it well.

Suppose you take a very large step away from where you are. In order words, you make a very high energy change to your environment. This means you’ll end up somewhere along the white circle:

If you take a large step with zero knowledge of your environment, it’s like selecting a pixel on the white circle at random, and then jumping there. The overwhelming probability is that you have made your life far, far worse. If, instead, you take a smaller step, you might fare better.

Even if you have very good knowledge of your environment, tiny errors compound over large distances. Taking big steps through the physical universe is a good way to get yourself hurt, unless you are extremely knowledgeable about your environment. Taking smaller steps is generally a safer idea. You can still travel long distances by taking smaller steps, and you are more likely to arrive at your intended destination.

This concept here is the basic argument behind “separation of powers.” It’s an argument that society functions better when power is spread out. Most of our environment is terrible for us, and larger steps dramatically increase the probability that we as a society step somewhere we’d really rather not go.

When lots of people are talking many smaller steps, the chances are much higher than the state of the global system actually improves. When a small number of people chooses much larger steps for everyone else, even if those people are extremely intelligent, caring, and benevolent, there’s a higher chance that one error kills everyone.

A physical understanding of power, coupled with knowledge that most of the possible changes we could make are harmful to us, suggests that we should be very hesitant to allow large concentrations of power to exist in any form – be that corporate, state, religious, or cultural.

There’s another other lesson to draw here: the importance of knowledge – particularly local knowledge. The more accurately you understand how the world works, the greater ability to you have to navigate. Given that taking large steps is often very dangerous, a good practice would be to improve your ability to perfectly take small steps.

Most of us who feel less powerful than we’d like to be tend to think of power in broad terms. “If I had a billion dollars, I’d do X. If I were president, I’d do Y.” The perspective on power outlined in this paper suggests that this way of thinking is not helpful to us. A better way of thinking – a way we can be more powerful overall – is to improve our ability to make small choices excellently.

What would it look like if we were all sitting up a little straighter, eating a little healthier, being a little more present, more patient, and more calm? We’d be in a slightly better universe, distinguishable from our own only in very subtle ways. Yet we’d arguably be much better off.

The Warrior Monk: Extremely Accurate Local Knowledge

Imagine a monk who meditates so often that her attention is always grounded entirely in the present. She is extremely aware of what is happening right around her, and she is always perfectly relaxed.

She has zero ability to plan for the future. She can’t even anticipate that the sun will set in a few hours, because the idea of ‘a few hours’ is just some abstract nonsense to her. On the one hand, we might think that she has very little power, because, absent her ability to imagine possible future states, she can’t select from among them. On the other hand, if there is a way for her to survive, she’ll find it. If there is a path out of any trap, she’ll see it – but only the moment it becomes accessible to her. It will be impossible to anticipate her behavior, because she will not plan in any sense that we are accustomed to.

This is not a form of power we generally think about. From an aesthetic standpoint, it sounds awesome. From a practical standpoint, there are probably diminishing returns to localized awareness. However, this is a dimension that everyone can grow in. It’s not as if “local awareness” is a limited quantity, whereas political power seems like it might be: if i have power over you, this prevents you from having power over me. Me being more locally aware does nothing to limit your own ability to be locally aware.

Closing Hypothetical

What if, in every scenario, there is some course of action a person can take that will improve their situation. What if that purple filamenty web spans entirely through the black space, and in any situation, any situation at all, we are connected to some bright, white, lovely dot at the center, that we could get to if we both desired it and acted accordingly?

This starts to sound like an argument for a God who is both mercial and vengeful, who judges us based on our choices, but who always gives us a path towards salvation, in every situation – a path that requires both faith and works. If that were the case, as long as we choose to do good, to move towards the good, we will make progress on our path.

Of course, it may very well not be the case. It may be the case that there are big, black areas of void that will kill you immediately and that’s that. Either way, I suggest getting better at making small, local choices as best you can. Take small steps, instead of large ones. Be as knowledgeable as you can, and make lots of friends.

One thought on “Towards a Unified Theory of Power

  1. I did not know that “Most random states are awful”. Awe-ful I considereed them, Mark.

    And true about the void and the killing! Even metaphorically.


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