Culture in cycles

By Tom Abel

We want to change the world.  So we speak, we blog, we tweet.  Many academics want to make the world a better place, especially lefty social scientists or earthy ecologists.  So they research and they write.  And the media, the Fifth Estate(!), they make TV News, write articles, they are supposed to protect us from the worst of us.  Your well-meaning Pastor (if you have one) each week does his or her best to paint a picture of a better world.  So why is the world so slow to change?  Why don’t we have more control, we bloggers, reporters, academics?  We’ve said our piece.  Why doesn’t the world change?!  One answer is that culture is about learning.  It’s about evolution.  It’s about self-organization.  We say our piece, it goes into the world.  Now what?  Well, according to the paper that is the subject of this post, unless your ideas get picked up, (probably changed), cycled again, and again, and bumped ‘up’, and maybe ‘up’ again, they are done.  Say what?

Egghead Introduction

HT Odum explored systems of all types and proposed general principles that apply widely.  Earth, sea, land, air, biosphere, universe are all subjects addressed in his process theories of energy self-organization, hierarchy, pulsing, material cycling, and others.  Of these subjects of study, the Earth biosphere possesses an energy form that so far has not been found elsewhere in the universe.  Generically we call it ‘information’.  To be clear, for Odum information was not information theory.  He defined information instrumentally.  Information is a quality of genetics in life and of culture in humans.  Information is that which aids in the persistence of self-organization in time and its sharing in space.  Information allows systems to ride-out the many fluctuations in energy sources, to preserve well-tested designs through time, designs in body, in ecosystems, and, with the evolution of humans, in culture.

In Odum’s language, information is a ‘storage’ or concentration—an extremely valuable one to the process of self-organization.  It must therefore be preserved against Second Law depreciation.  The process by which information is preserved he calls the ‘information cycle’ (sometimes the ‘information circle’).  He has given us a few systems diagrams of the information cycle, this one is my favorite (Odum 1996:223).

Figure 1: Odum's Information Cycle, ca. 1996
Figure 1: Odum’s Information Cycle, ca. 1996

In the information cycle, “the plans (information) for successful systems are extracted, copied, distributed, and used to make more structure to operate systems” (Odum 2007:225).  When applied to DNA information, this is the lifecycle, with selection for breeding adults, reproduction, and the dispersal of seed, egg, spore, or offspring.

The application of the information cycle to culture was only begun by Odum.  While he did elaborate the life cycles of rainforest trees (Odum and Odum 2001:72), of salmon (Odum 2007:228), and of shrimp (Odum 1996:228), he performed no detailed information cycle analyses of culture.  It is this task that was taken up in my newly published paper that I am hawking in this post, Culture in Cycles: Considering H.T. Odum’s ‘Information Cycle’.

The choice was mine to take the ‘information cycle’ where I wished into the realm of culture.  As an anthropologist, I know that ‘culture’ is a conceptual and political minefield with a long and jagged history.  Perhaps amazingly, I feel that the information cycle can dissolve much of the controversy – contest, struggle, power, and yet function.  My approach, as you will see, is to apply two of Odum’s most central principles of systems – self-organization (maximum empower) and hierarchy.

It’s Learning All the Way Up

Figure 2: It's Turtles All the Way Down
Figure 2: It’s Turtles All the Way Down

There’s an often-told story that the Earth rests on the back of a turtle, and that turtle rests on the back of another, and that on another.  When challenged to explain upon what the last turtle rests, the storyteller admonishes, “Uh-uh, its turtles all the way down.”

In the new tale of culture-in-nature as told in this paper it is learning all the way up.  And it is learning with a big goal.

Learning always implies a goal or consequences of some sort.  A person or animal acts and the consequences of that action either enhance or diminish the experience in some way.

Evolution is a kind of learning.  Random mutations (to an existing animal or plant, and thus always building on an existing form) are tried out in the world, and some are ‘selected’ or ‘learned’ by their consequences.

Energy self-organization is yet one more type of learning.  A summertime sky ‘selects’ among countless competing cumuli, pirating their energy of latent heat in water as a thunderhead forms.  An ecosystem in community assembly and succession ‘selects’ among plants and animals those that reinforce energy capture (in sunlight, fresh water, organic nutrients, and others) for the ecosystem whole (nested within the biosphere).

Culture may be yet one more form of learning.  In everyday parlance, culture is art and dance and theater.  Anthropologists will hastily beg to differ, culture is produced when we speak, negotiated or contested, instilled at early ages, in parts unconscious, in parts shared widely, other parts not.  But what then of dance or performance?  Or for that matter, television, social media, Sunday service, classroom lecture, academic articles like the subject of this post, the stock market, or the laws of the land?  And what about all the design specs and user manuals for technologies in the world today, and even those technologies that come without directions (a simple plow, a stone hammer, a bow and arrow, a digging stick)?  Are these not culture too?  Are all of these simply discourse of another kind?

In this paper, culture has both ‘structure’ and ‘goal’, and both are related to energy self-organization.  Culture to my mind is constituted of each of the information forms just listed, plus regular discourse (and no doubt more exist, or have, or will), and each of these is measurably and functionally distinct from all the others.  Structurally these distinctive forms are ordered into a hierarchy of forms.

Fig. 3: A Hierarchy of Information Cycles, after Abel 2013

The hierarchy of information cycles shares the qualities of other hierarchies as Odum has defined for us (1996:24).  At increasing scales in a hierarchy, there are:

  • Fewer objects and processes
  • With slower turnover times
  • Larger spatial scale
  • Higher maintenance costs, and
  • Increased control and timing of behaviors at lower scales

Odum depicted energy transformation hierarchies in many ways, here is an example:


Figure 4: Energy Transformation Hierarchy, after Odum 1996:23
Figure 4: Energy Transformation Hierarchy, after Odum 1996:23

Culture is therefore indeed turtle upon turtle, but at its base the production of culture is rapid and voluminous, constructed and (con)tested in our many conversations, building ideas imprecisely but statistically into more durable themes.  At other scales (or turtles) culture is produced more deliberately, but is no less (con)tested with each (slower/broader) cycle of its production in ritual or lecture or academic paper or even law.

With each pass through an information cycle at some scale of time and space, information returns to the world, where it ‘operates systems’ in Odum’s language.  Here its fate is entirely unknown.  Some gist of that information may or may not be picked up by some other cycle.  Cycled information from any scale may spawn a quick conversation, instigate a news story, inspire a new research program, etc.  At the end of each cycle, therefore, information is (re-) tested for value, and selection may or may not cycle it anew.

And what of the big goal of culture?  Of course we act with intentions and each cycle of cultural production is accompanied by proximate goal, but my question refers to ultimate cause.  If nature (teleomatically) builds self-organized structures as it dissipates energy, culture-in-nature is no different.  The hierarchy of culture, turtle-upon-turtle, is channeled and entrained by the self-organization of energy in a directional universe.

How Does a Journal Article Differ from a Blog?

A simple demonstration.  Let’s start with the information cycle of academic publication, the scale of the production of the paper here in discussion.  First, it takes years to train an academic, who then spends more years to conduct research.  That research is deeply considered.  And it is located at the intersections of many ongoing conversations within an academic discipline or disciplines.  Once it passes the (not-insignificant) hurdles of publication, it then is copied, using elaborate, energy-intensive printing technologies. Once in journal form it is distributed around the world using more energy and more technology in the process.  Journals are then stored in ‘libraries’, one more elaborate and energy intensive technology with a long evolutionary history of its own.  What I have just described, of course, is the information cycle of academic research, with its selection and extraction of ideas by a researcher from within the academic milieu (1,1a,2, and 3, Fig 5), copying (4), dispersing (5), and storage (6).


Figure 5: An Information Hierarchy of Academic Research, after Abel 2013
Figure 5: An Information Hierarchy of Academic Research, after Abel 2013

In comparison, what can be said about this blog?  To be clear, difference is not deficiency.  In brief, blogging gives us short-term sharing of easily copied information on a global basis with rapid turnover time, which may prove invaluable during periods of rapid change.  I will look deeper (and begin with a thrashing, but have heart fellow bloggers!).  Blogging too can be described with the information cycle.  Differences include the time invested, the number of copies produced, their transmission and wide-sharing, and their carrier and storage.  In each case, much less energy and time is invested.  One significant difference is carrier, acid-free and bound journals are far more durable than the internet (Will this blog be around in 3 years!?).  Another critical difference is the library—a tool for journal storage that has been replicated countless times across the US and the world, a secure, climate controlled and keyed accessible repository that can be reached by almost any researcher (Would this blog post ever show up in a search?  How about five years from now?).  Of course there are some online-only journals today, which have increased the speed of transmission and the efficiency of search.  What they gain in transmission and search they may lose in durability. (Will the internet be with us in 20 years, we will see!)

But last, and perhaps most importantly, the transmission of high-fidelity information depends on the ‘receiver’.  Some cognitive scientists have characterized what we do when we converse as the ‘transformation’ not ‘transmission’ of information, because each of us as we ‘receive’ information from some source proceed to ‘interpret’ that information in terms of our present models, schemas, discursive formations, hegemonic structures, habitus, etc.  If you have ever written a blog you will know what I mean.  The ‘comments’ by readers are often so off-the-wall that bloggers must shake their heads and wonder why they do what they do.  This is not to criticize the ‘popular’ readers out there.  It is instead to point to the markedly different characteristics and functions of the academic information cycle vis-à-vis social media.  For academic publications, each participant has spent years getting to the point that they can (finally) have academic conversations on very specialized areas of knowledge.  Blogging requires no such pass-key to enter a conversation, and as we all know, anything goes!

Therefore, in my hierarchy of information cycles (Figure 3), academic research is to the right of social media.  It is argued that hierarchical position gives academic publications longer turnover times, larger ‘spatial’ scale, higher transmission fidelity, greater maintenance ‘costs’, and an enhanced ability to control or structure the production and timing of behaviors to the left.

Figure 6: We graze in cyberspace and, often unaware, construct new insights
Figure 6: We graze in cyberspace and, often unaware, construct new insights

Is this then to condemn or denigrate blogging?  Not at all.  Blogging is much more like conversations.  It is produced quickly and in great volume.  Its spatial scale is broader than conversation (due to the energies added).  It does not require spatial and temporal aggregation of people, a great advantage.  And it allows for relatively improved fidelity in thought and ‘conversation’.  But perhaps most important, much like conversation, it permits ‘statistical’ learning.  While readers do not perhaps ‘get it’ in every post, from every blogger, learning is statistical in that over time we may extract some pattern of understanding that is not encoded in any particular blog.  This can be of great value, especially when it introduces us to new knowledge areas that we are unfamiliar with.  We need not study for years to grasp some new gist of understanding.  We graze in cyberspace and, often unaware, construct new insights.  This of course can lead us to wish to explore more deeply, to go back to school, to reach an academic understanding in areas we feel of great value to self or society.  Or not.  But blogs offer opportunities to let us sift the world, in ways we could not in the past, a real service.  Odum made a similar point to all this when he compared the Internet to short-term memory, which may (or may not) contribute to the more durable storage of cultural long-term memory.

Thus, information at different scales contributes to self-organization in different ways.  In general, information that is pushed up to higher scales requires additional energy for it’s (re)production and maintenance, for which is retuned greater fidelity, wider sharing, and longer turnover times.  Information that is picked up at lower scales is controlling or channeling of information (re)production and timing at those scales.  The higher scales require the floods of statistical learning at the lower scales, from which ideas may be selected.  The lower scales are structured by the higher.

A Journey through the Information Hierarchy

Figure 7: information cycle labels from Figure 3
Fig. 7: information cycle labels from fig. 3

So to end with one more demonstration.  An evolutionary psychologist has a thought.  At breakfast she may discuss it (D) with her husband and on campus with a few choice colleagues, and new memories are initiated (E).  That thought becomes the germ of a new research project (A).  Proposals are written and the ideas are shared with reviewers (E).  Over several years, research is conducted and papers written (A).  Another year later, ideas are shared in the academic community in the ritual of professional meetings (R).  Being evolutionary psychology (sexy, provocative, conservative, sells papers), the NY Times will write a simplified (and politicized) ‘science’ piece (N) and several lesser outlets will pick it up and dilute it.  Thousands of readers will take some gist of that story to the water cooler or breakfast table in a new round of discourse (D) and individual memory construction (E).  In fact, conversations lead to more conversations in contagious fashion that may go on for days or weeks (D,E).  In the next ten years some form of that idea has spawned a number of new research projects by other teams (A).  New textbook editions have now incorporated the story (F), though it has been lumped together with other research under a newly coined paradigm, and the author has been relegated to a never-read chapter endnote.  New generations of student textbook readers will be educated with this (renegotiated) idea as part of a critical, early learning experience (F).  After many more years, the idea has led to a change in workplace violence laws (L), which curtails a women’s right to sue her employer, and which in a contracting economy reduces the financial burden on already struggling corporations. 😉

Changing the World

We want to change the world.  In the introduction to this blog, I said that ideas that persist and spread must be ‘picked up’ and (re)cycled.  Here’s the tough part of that.  An idea that is ‘picked up’ is tested, contested, negotiated in the larger scale of our human-ecosystem context.  Currently we live in a world wholly dependent on fossil fuels for the maintenance of our self-organized, globalized, world economy of 7 billion people.  For ideas to be bumped up to the highest scales of technologies for finance and the levers of legal power, they must be at those scales too ‘selected’.  That’s the rub.  The scales of ideas with the greatest control and structuring ability are intricately tied to our material strategies of provisioning and power.  If you look at the laws of the land, as I say in my paper, you won’t find freedom and brotherly love, you will find the rules of capitalism – contract law, property law, corporate law, commercial law, succession law, insurance law, labor law, intellectual property law, tax law, securities law, banking law, maritime law, etc.

While this thought may be discouraging, I feel instead it can be empowering.  Understanding the obstacles to change is the first step to making real change.  We do not live in a world of ideas only.  We can use our ideas to instigate, to educate.  But we should understand that the ideas of culture are only part of a whole.  Movements today for alternative economic strategies, alternative scales of society, alternative food systems, alternative ‘security’ systems, energy downsizing, these can change the ‘context’ of idea production, making it more likely that alternative ideas are amplified.  Culture is learning.  But the classroom is in the (material) world.  We need to understand both.  If you are sampling, Odum had a few ideas on that too.

  • Brian

    Loved the ending. We are never really aware of the chain of causality till it is too late . But my reason for commenting is that the paper appears on my end to be behind a paywall. Any chance of readers getting an electronic copy?

    • Hi, Brian, here’s a link:

      Tom’s mention of turtles brings to mind a favorite childhood Dr. Seuss book, Yertle the Turtle. Yertle is the king of the pond, and he wants to see further. So he creates a stack of all the turtles, with poor Mack at the very bottom, who is in a lot of pain and very hungry, depleted. Yertle finally aspires to be higher than the moon, and Mack decides he has had enough, and gives a great burp, and down the whole pile tumbles. Yertle ends up back where he began, King of the Mud, while all of the other turtles are freed to go do turtle things.

      I clearly remember my father reading this tale of hierarchy to me with a smacking of the lips. :-}

      See Tom, comments sections can be quite useful; sometimes there are some really smart people hanging out behind those pseudonyms.

      • Brian

        Awesome! A treasure trove of Tom’s Emergy papers and free. Just as information should be. Thanks!

        And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if someone were to write children’s books on Emergy. Who would’ve thunk it, but dr. Seuss beat me to the idea.

  • tom

    I may not be meant to blog (I’ve said this before!). 🙂 I write academic
    papers and it can take days for me to understand why I am writing
    something, or to consider the audience, or to see the bigger point!
    Brian, thanks for saying so. But I have added now an ending to my
    ending (that’s cheating!). Oh yes, and a beginning to my beginning. If
    there is anyone else who may someday read this post it will have a
    different, hopefully more meaningful, message. Sometimes it is hard to
    step back and see it all, at least for me. Cheers.

    • Brian

      Your paper was great. I had just asked a question about evolution of social forms of information/memory on a message board that your paper really cleared up for me. I keep telling Mary this site is scarily getting into my head. And perhaps you wouldn’t have rewritten the ending and beginning if I wrote something more fitting like, “The evolutionary explanations, while part of the answer, are incomplete because of their fragmentary conceptualization of the world and its (single) location of causality. (Abel, 2013)”

      • tom

        Very nice, thanks!