It was Christmas day in the year 800. Charlemagne was crowned first Roman emperor by Pope Leo III in the ancient basilica of San Pietro in the Vatican. Charlemagne had been King of the Franks for 32 years—he would be emperor for another 14.
A total of 46 years as the head of the western world, a world he unified for the first time after the disintegration of the vast Roman Empire. He moved the center of his empire to the north and west. Someone called him Rex Pater Europae.
Power is an interesting concept. Because when you hear about it, it's usually in the context of social hierarchy—rulers, leaders, your boss, etc. Someone who has power over others or decisions.
Absent power, some say, gaining status is useful. In that sense, there's power in making commitments. But think for a moment about the power in definitions and mental models. If you limit yourself to the narrow definition, your perspective shrinks with it, and so does the opportunity.
The ability to produce an effect
The Cambridge Dictionary defines power as the “ability to control people and events” and “the amount of political control a person or group has in a country” ahead of “strength,” the third definition. It's an interesting cultural signal.
A broader definition is “the ability or capacity to act or produce an effect.” It explains that power is the rate at which work is done. In physics, you measure that in joules. Energy also uses the same unit of measurement. That's because work is a change in energy. One useful definition of energy is thus the ability to do work.
So you have power and energy, two concepts related through work.
James P. Carse, Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University says that “power is a feature only of finite games.” In Finite and Infinite Games, Carse lays out a Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. Within it, “Power is concerned with what has already happened,” he explains. “Strength with what has yet to happen.”
He then goes on to say that strength cannot be measured as it's an opening and not a closing act. Finally, power has limits, while strength doesn't.
Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.
Charlemagne had power. Because the people who surrounded him gave him power by yielding to his requests, he had the ability to control people and events. By doing so, he also had the ability to produce an effect, work.
The reforms he brought forth unified different races and groups under one, cohesive region. Everyone marching in one direction. Incidentally, he was a very diligent leader, planning and strategizing wars every single summer but one.
He created schools for the clergy to improve Latin and eventually standardize the Bible, a unified liturgical calendar, rules for the monks. But also to standardize hand copying and use the newly-developed Carolingian minuscule. This form of writing was adopted by the Middle Ages for printing and is still in use to this day for its clarity.
His reforms organized the commercial routes and put in place counts as administrators and marquis in border territories with additional defense duties. Then elected representatives to check on both. Administrative decentralization with central authority.
All of these things, Charlemagne did because people agreed consistently that he had power over the course of 46 years. The effects of what he decided and executed happened over time, through work. He died in his late sixties-early '70s, having lived to a ripe old age (for the 9th century).
Charlemagne's work survived him and his contemporaries. It became part of culture, where it energized future generations. By virtue of accumulating energy from ways of doing things, culture became a repository of strength.
Strength and entropy
James Carse explains how strength stays open. In doing so, it keeps building. This is a correct understanding of entropy if you were to apply the second law of thermodynamics to social systems.
The second law of thermodynamics is one of the fundamental laws governing everything in the universe. It states that left to itself, an isolated system will tend to go from a state of order to one of disorder or chaos. This order and chaos was quantified by what we call entropy. Order means fewer states and lower entropy in which a system can exist, chaos means more states and higher entropy.
We're used to thinking of entropy as a bad thing, energy that disperses in the tension between order and chaos. This is a selfish view and it could be risky. By way of wanting to put order into things, in extreme interpretations, minimizing entropy slows down diffusion.
But circulating entropy is useful to social systems. In times of chaos, like the present, we consume other people's energy while providing energy to other people. It's how open systems work. More entropy means the community has more energy.
Take a look at companies that are completely buttoned down. What do you see and feel? There's no energy there, it's dead. They're the same companies that focus on accelerating, a less useful form of energy. Things that change quickly have less staying power than things that change slowly.
Innovation experts often talk about the legendary Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. The Palo Alto Research Center had an astounding burst of creativity in the 1970s. Use of icons, windows, point-and-click commands, local area networks and other features are now part of the foundation of the personal computer industry. It was a separate entity created to release energy for the company.
The reason why other companies built on its creations rather than Xerox has much to do with culture. How Xerox saw itself and made decisions discounted the value of those ideas. In other words, the company behaved in the accelerate version of itself, moving more quickly toward what it already did and knew. It bet the other way on entropy. To this day, those ideas are still layered in the evolution of computing.
It's a process Charlemagne and my Barre teacher know well. They have something in common: understanding the energy that is in layering things on top of each other.
A new civilization built on top of reforms Charlemagne championed; my Barre instructor builds strength by using the resistance of the person she's training. I've been practicing for more than five years. I am stronger, and yet there is still more I can do. The stronger, the more resistance. It's an infinite game.
Sailing on the wind of change
But the parallels don't stop there. Charlemagne's layered approach was ideal to build culture. Each reform organized one system under an umbrella of reforms, each interconnected to the others, all operating in a body of reforms. As he accrued power from king to emperor, learning and acquiring experience, he empowered the work that created a cohesive culture in the empire.
Nature has its own way of layering. Take the immune system. Different cells do certain jobs and communicate with each other as they recognize and detect signs of threat to your body. To do its work, the immune system isn't one. Instead, it's a number of different systems built on top of one another.
If you like a good detective story book, read The Beautiful Cure by immunologist Daniel M. Davis. It's an opportunity to look deep inside—with a microscope—to understand how nature designs to have just the right amount of entropy.
In the book, Davis lays out the work of various scientists and teams in history (much of it surprisingly recent history) as they discover how different aspects of the immune system work. Molecular biology's extreme complexity explains why it's so hard to come up with a simple flu vaccine.
Being alive is a fight. Every day brings something new. Your body works very hard to keep you safe. It does it through overlapping systems that communicate with each other. Differences are good. Your genes know that—the genes that vary the most from person to person are related to the immune system.
Charlemagne's reforms were the glues that started creating cohesion among different people and cultures to work together in the 9th century.
It's interesting to note here how language impacts mental models. In Italy and much of Europe, when we say “it's history,” we mean it was a crucial moment in an evolving series of events. In North America, “it's history” means mostly something that is finished, done.
Nature and culture are good examples of complex systems that keep things going as change occurs. There's no change without energy. More energy dispersion means the community has more. To embrace and enjoy life to the fullest, you need an energy-dense environment. This is the value of entropy to social systems.
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