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

Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

by Tom Abel

La poule aux oeufs d’or 1905 movie poster (goose with the golden eggs)

Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs.  I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe.  Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan.  MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming.  Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in.  George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”  Get it?  This is the end of universities as we know them.  A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there.  Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.”  That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.

So I started to search for articles on MOOCs.  It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang.  I could find nary a discouraging word.  And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this.  Why are the big boys interested?  I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent. Continue reading Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

The Unbearable Lightness of Information

by Kurt Cobb

[This article is reposted with permission from Kurt Cobb’s April 5th, 2009 post on his Resource Insights website. Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites.]

This decade was the one that was supposed to usher in the era when bits and bytes would replace tons and barrels as the measure of what an economy does. The information economy would eclipse the economy of blast furnaces and railcars.

The allure of such an economy is that it was said to be less resource intense, less driven by the high-amplitude economic cycles of the industrial economy, and more driven by the need for and efficient use of information, something that is always in demand. It turned out not to be so. The tech bust of the early part of this decade highlighted the vulnerability of the so-called information economy to cyclical forces and also the reliance of that economy on the more substantial physical economy. Continue reading The Unbearable Lightness of Information