Back in the Middle Ages, inventors and alchemists tried to build machines that relied on perpetual motion. The idea was that the machines would continue to work indefinitely without any energy source.
The machines are impossible because they break the first and second law of thermodynamics. If they didn’t, Elon Musk would have built one by now and they’d be on sale at Argos for £12.99.
The laws of thermodynamics that prevent perpetual motion work on a cosmic scale. To us on our mote of dust in a sunbeam, the movement of the planets, for instance, may appear perpetual, but they are attacked by bigger and more fundamental forces that slowly dissipate their kinetic energy, such as solar wind and and thermal radiation.
Some of the ideas for perpetual motion machines were simple and ingenious. Here’s Boyle’s Capillary Bowl.
Here’s Villard de Honnecourt’s Perpetuum Mobile.
Leornardo da Vinci and many other great thinkers tried their hand, to no avail.
Escher’s famous watermill is an example that exposes the flaw.
I was thinking about perpetual motion in the context of notoriety, the darker side of fame, the other day. The analogy doesn’t quite apply, because it relies on the will and energy of the crowd, but I was thinking about the rise of various people in recent years and how the cultivation of notoriety has for a time given them a sense that they might rise forever on the updrafts of outrage and voyeurism that they engender.
The world is perfectly set for the temporary rise of the notorious at the moment.
Social media, a media buffeted by the sidebar of shame phenomenon, voyeurism, our digital backyard fences, the rise of global tribes, the binary nature of social debate, photoshop, the broadcast studios in the palms of half the world’s hands: all of these preconditions perfectly enable the rise of the notorious, especially after several decades of relative (and I stress relative) peace and quiet on a global scale.
Consider Trump, Farage and a number of other second-rate rabble rousers. Here’s how their perpetual motion machine works:
All the time they rise. The orange rent collector. The bloke down the pub that looks like Mo off the Simpsons with a voice that could warn ships off rocks. There are others.
There is an inevitable end to this, of course. It simply isn’t possible to sustain flight. At some point, the brass neck melts. At some point, Icarus’s wings melt. At some point, the mob turns on you. At some point, like Icarus, you fall from Alt Right to Bottom Right.
Notoriety is no recipe for enduring and sustainable fame, for two reasons:
First, at some point your audience shifts from bemused amazement to outrage and rises from their sofa.
Second, if your predisposition is to inviting outrage, you will at some point step too far in your quest for sustenance from the crowd.
There are, of course, methods deployed to keep the outrage wheel spinning.
Taboos, insults, statements that are designed to invite ridicule.
There is the ‘tank with the handbrake off’ manoeuvre, in which the rabble rouser makes an extraordinary statement and manages to be apparently unaffected by the backlash because he claims to be victim of the very thing that he is railing against. This technique is amongst the most insidious, because it evokes in the audience a sense of angry futility.
It all seems clever at the start. Asymmetrical communications. But it’s a Ponzi scheme, sub-prime communications, and there is no way that you’ll come out of it on top.
Crowdsurfing relies ultimately on goodwill. If you want to court enduring fame, best remember that.