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Bureaucracies and Thermodynamics

Another eternal principle, well put:

Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

[from The Collapse of Complex Business Models by Clay Shirky]

I beg to differ - surely the Second Law states that entropy always increases.

A convoluted bureaucracy sure has more entropy that simple rules? Further it takes significant effort (energy in) to simplify a bureaucracy.

— Rod Widdowson on June 27, 2010

One expression of the Second Law is that, over time, differences in things like temperature and pressure (which is to say structure, generally) tend to smooth out: entropy increases across the system taken as a whole.

People have often observed that life in general tends to violate this principle locally while preserving it globally. Shirky is, I think, just making that observation for bureaucracies in particular. The cynical might say that bureaucracies accrete structure by causing everything around them to become more disorganised.

Anyway, that’s how I understand the analogy. It is an analogy, though, and I wouldn’t get too stressed about matching it precisely against the physics.

— iay on June 28, 2010

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