I thought of Maxwell’s Demon as I reconsidered the “Star Wars”-Le Creuset thing, and how clear it was that no one involved had been especially angry. It’s in episodes like this that Twitter manages to break the law of speech that, until recently, prevented random Aussies from yelling at you when you’re trying to go to bed. In the real world, you can go 30 years without encountering the sensibilities of the “Star Wars” cookware community. But Twitter can, if you tell it the right thing, shoot every last one of them at you through a little door, creating a pocket of extreme heat without anyone intending to do much. This is perhaps the central paradox of Twitter: it can produce huge results without significant input.

I happen to know about Maxwell’s demon only because it appears in Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” a 1966 novel centered on a clandestine communications network used by a bewildering variety of people (anarcho-syndicalists, tech geeks, etc.). , assorted perverts and kooks) and seems particularly popular in San Francisco. Instead of mailboxes, it works through a system of bins disguised to look like trash cans; the only one of these that the protagonist finds is somewhere south of Market, just a few blocks from where Twitter would be born. It’s a book I read 20 years ago. If it had come to that more recently, I doubt the mention of Maxwell would have stuck in my mind, either because of normal aging or some irreversible damage I did to my brain by looking at Twitter.

But I’m glad I remembered, because what I read when I pulled my copy off the shelf was the best way to think about Twitter I’ve ever come across. In the novel, an East Bay inventor named John Nefastis has designed a case, complete with two pistons attached to a crankshaft and a flywheel, which he claims contains the molecule-sorting demon. It can be used to provide unlimited free energy, but it doesn’t work unless someone is sitting outside, watching it. There was, Nefastis believed, a certain type of person, a “sentient”, capable of communicating with the demon within while collecting data from him on the billions of particles inside the box: positions, vectors, levels of arousal. The sentient could process all that information, telling the demon which piston to fire. Together, the demon and sentient would move the molecules back and forth, creating a perpetual motion machine. The box was a closed system, cut off from the outside world, yet it could work on anything it was connected to.

Pynchon’s protagonist tries, and fails, to operate the Nefastis Machine. But when I open Twitter, I see a lot of people who can talk to that demon; that he can intuitively process the positions and attitudes of an unimaginable number of others; that they know exactly what to say to the devil to make things move; that they are happy, or close enough, spending hours sitting with the box, watching the pistons pump. Activists, politicians, journalists, comedians, snack brands and Stephen King have all taken their turn at the checkout. Union organizers, venture capitalists, graduate students, and amateur historians—they could all spin the wheel. No one has to do much to get it moving. But none of us have the power to stop it either. And at some point, before we really knew what we were doing, we connected those pistons all over the place.

And while it seems unlikely that Twitter will ever go away, the powerful mechanism it has become over the years, the one that made an often unprofitable company so valuable in the first place; the one who allowed a collectively conjured illusion to transform the real world, seems to be sputtering and screeching, and all the noise makes it difficult to communicate with the demon within. The platform could continue to function in some form, even as the mechanism slowly rusts or eventually stops. If that happens, the world would feel exactly the same, and completely transformed. And I, and others, and maybe you too, would have to deal with what we had actually been doing all along: staring at a box, hoping to see it move.

Props Stylist: Ariana Salvato.

willy staley is a story editor for the magazine. He has written about the effort to count America’s billionaires, the television show “The Sopranos,” writer-director Mike Judge, and professional skateboarder Tyshawn Jones. Jamie Chung is a photographer who has worked on nearly a dozen covers for the magazine. He won awards this year from American Photography and the Society of Publication Designers. Pablo Delcan is a designer and art director from Spain who now resides in Callicoon, New York. His work combines traditional and modern techniques in media such as illustration, print design, and animation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *