Information can be thoughts, text, DNA code, text in a book, a computer program, a roadmap, conditioned responses of animals, and so on. While there is only a tiny physical spark of electrical brain activity in a thought, or in a small tweet, the embodied energy required to develop that information is vast. Because of the explosion of information, computers, and technologies in recent decades, we think information can do miracles without end. Are there limits to information use in making a vital economy?
“Information is carried in energy flows and storages. For example, information passes between two people in sound waves of their voices, over telephone wires, and through radio waves. Biological information in genes passes by means of the seeds of plants and eggs and larvae of fishes. Information is stored in libraries, computer disks, human memories, and the archaeological remnants of history. All these information carriers and memory devices contain available energy. However, the energy of the carrier (e.g., calories in paper, brain cell functions, computer disks) is small compared with the emergy involved in creating the information. The energy/energy ratio (transformity) of information is generally quite high. Because information has to be carried by structures, it is lost when the carriers disperse (second energy law). Therefore emergy is required to maintain information. INformation is maintained by copies made faster than they are lost or become non-functional. But copying from one original is not enough because errors develop (second law), and copying doesn’t make corrections” (Odum, 2007, p. 88).
Ecosystems create, store and cycle information. The cycles of material, driven by energy are also cycles of information. Ecosystems, driven by a spectrum of input resources generate information accordingly, and store it in different ways (seeds, structure, biodiversity). Information depreciates by developing unrepaired errors. Considered to be sustainable in the long run, an information storage has to be supported by a duplication and testing cycle. Emergy is required to maintain information with a cycle of repeated duplication, reusing, retesting and selecting to eliminate errors, a process that sometimes adds improvements. The circular life history diagrams taught in biology courses are examples. Very large emergy is required to generate the systems information the first time, especially genetic information. The emergy cost of the generated information can be measured by a transformity value and may be a measure of healthy ecosystem dynamics. Odum (1996) suggested transformities for various categories of information within ecosystems [table below]. In healthy ecosystems (as well as in healthy human-dominated systems such as a good University) suitable emergy input flows contribute to generating, copying, storing and disseminating information. In stressed ecosystems, such as those, where some simplification occurs due to improper loading from outside, the cycle of information is broken or impaired. In this case, the ecosystem exhibits a loss of information, which may manifest itself in simplification of structural complexity, losses of diversity, or decreases in genetic diversity (reduced reproduction) (Brown & Ulgiati, 2009, p. 316).
. . . Information-theory measures do not differentiate between useful complexity that operates a system and happenstance complexity with the same number of parts that cannot do anything. The contribution of complexity to the system is best evaluated from its emergy content and empower required to sustain it. There is great complexity at the small-scales of molecules and heat, where information-theory measure on a logarithmic scale is molecular entropy. Information-theory measures do not distinguish the same complexity on small molecular scale from that found on a large ecological scale. Instead, emergy does increase with scale of the units (Brown & Ulgiati, 2009, again, p. 317).
The ecological system precedes the origin of life. Rates of evolutionary change depend on available power; more energy flow creates more choices. One job of ecosystems is to store information; the mature ecosystems store the most information. Developing shared information requires large resources. Do human systems, like ecosystems, develop a natural limit of information? Can the superstorm of information in our current global economy be compared metaphorically to a supercell or hurricane, in which the supra economy creates a global information storm of financial assets, overheated trade and consumption, and even meteorologically as megastorms spin frantically to try to cool our overheated climate? At the global scale, the effect of surplus energy can be seen impacting all subsystems.
Emergy of generating new information from precursors can be huge, as in evolution. Although copying is cheap, maintaining information without error requires a population of duplicates and a circular process of duplication, dispersal, reapplication, selection and duplication again. Someone needs to rearrange the thousands of life cycle diagrams of plants and animal life histories taught in biology courses in order of the transformity of the stages and evaluate their emergy bases. Transformity of extracted information (examples: a seed, code, or house plan) is higher than the same information within the system it is operating (corresponding examples: a plant, a computer, or a house). Values are large where information is widely shared (examples: genetic plan of life, bible) (Odum, 1998).
How do we manage information storms for maximum empower? Or do we? What happens to the current levels of complexity with waning fossil fuels–how is quality and quantity of information impacted? How does it affect education and academia? What does this mean for the current digitalization (and privatization) of our knowledge base and for libraries?
Genetic information is some of the most complex, highest ordered stored information, which has been generated, copied, and refined through continual reprocessing on a massive scale, over millions of years. Sustainable information requires copies without errors, “shared widely enough and tested continuously enough to keep the structures functional and competitive. . . To sustain the system of structure and information, the cycle has to generate and test template copies faster than errors develop” (Odum, 2007, p. 227).
By summing the solar Emergy inputs to technology, some insight is obtained on questions of national competitiveness and the possibilities of sustaining an information society on declining resource availabilities. See analysis of a high Technology company in Austin Texas by Allard Brown revised somewhat in the figure at right. Part of high technology is new research and development, which runs as high as 50% of the expenditures in some defense industries. The rest is involved in manufacturing, which is essentially copying of information and coupling information to hardware, not a very high Emergy process. The input of Emergy from professionally trained people was generated from family education and public education sources, not directly paid for by the company. The diagram shows further that the basis for high technology industry comes only partly from the purchased inputs of the industry using money from sales of products. About a fourth of the Emergy basis of the company, especially in its research and development division was based on prior public and private education and a high level of information in the society. Presumably ability to compete in industries that are based on information innovations will depend on availability of high Emergy flows of high quality (high transformity) (Odum, 1987, Crafoord Lecture, p. 63).
New Moon Tongue (Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers without End, p. 107)
Faint new moon arc, curl,
again in the west. Blue eve,
Purple shade in a plant-realm–
a million years of sniffs,
licks, lip and
Many kinds of trials [in science] called hypotheses are attempted, but the choosing system is empirical measurement that makes certain the concept is loop rewarded by some agreement with nature. In this way, the network of theory grows, joining empirical facts. It is the empirical choosing system that sets science apart from philosophy. Ideas by themselves that do not receive loop reinforcement from real measurement wander off into interesting but unreal patterns (Odum, 2007, p. 234).
How do we synthesize the whole using ecological principles and general systems theory (knowledge), and distill it into wisdom? How does the current massive information storm that is a result of massive transformations of surplus energy impact society? “Information use increases as growth stops. Expansion of information will reach its limit after the crest in the growth of the economy and resource use. With declining resources less information use can be supported” (Odum, 1987, p. 55).
And how does the balance between regulatory control and the flow of information change during transition and descent? How do we face up to information limits, and set priorities as to what knowledge is most needed in descent? The transmission of information is an important part of any complex system. Small energy flows that have high amplification factors have value in proportion to the energies they control. As the smallest of energy flows, information pathways may have the highest value of all when they open work gate valves on power circuits. How does the flow of information during periods of unrest and transition affect change?
For such situations of a few combinations found in messages, the energy content as a fuel is far too negligible to measure or consider compared to the great flows of energy in the food chain. Yet the quality of this information, (tiny energies in the right form), is so high that in the right control circuit it may obtain huge amplifications and control vast power flows (Odum, 1971, p. 172).
. . . And each category has dozens of subcategories
and each subcategory scores of its own, all
meticulously cross-referenced, linked, so that each square
centimetre of surface everywhere, pole to pole,
from the top of the mightiest Portuguese bell tower to
the intestinal lining of a sea turtle off Ecuador, has
billions of words and images attached, and a special area,
a little rectangle, for you to add your own comments.
It is the great work of a young-adult global
civilization, a metaliterate culture with time on its
prosthetic tentacles, at this point slightly more silicon
than carbon, blinking vulnerably in the light of its own
radiant connectedness . . . .