Metastable Demons: The Otherworldly Operators of the 20th Century
“There is no reason to suppose that metastable demons do not in fact exist,” explained the mathematician Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics (1948). Wiener referred to a new class of hybrid actants that were increasingly all around us, even in our homes. They could be living or mechanical, human or not, two distinctions that increasingly did not matter to him. Their unifying characteristic was their ability to reverse entropy, albeit momentarily and locally. Instead of focusing on the “can’t do” aspects of thermodynamics, a number of scientists became concerned with temporary exceptions to it, that is, by “negative entropy.” Metastable demons appeared in feedback mechanisms, photosynthesis, viruses, amino acids, enzymes, catalysis, genes, and even in some self-organizing crystals like snowflakes. My talk today will focus on mid-twentieth-century demons in relation to physics, computing, and information theory to explore key changes in our understanding of life, mechanization and intelligence.