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). Continue reading Culture in cycles