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.

Abel (from Odum)

We mistake the lightness of electrons and the vaporous nature of the information that rides on them for the lightness of the entire economy behind them. Every person who works in the so-called information sector of the economy must be housed, clothed, schooled, provided transportation, provisioned with household goods, given opportunities for entertainment and recreation, supplied with a wide array of public services, and…well, you get the idea. And, much of the manufacturing economy which previously provided employment in the United States and other industrialized nations has simply shifted to China and other low-cost locales. As it turns out, one of the main tasks of the information economy is to direct and manage the resulting global logistical system, a system that continues to bear down with its ever increasing weight on the landscape and the environment.

Howard Odum, the great pioneer in understanding energy flows in nature and society, understood that information, far from being a feathery presence in society, is actually its most resource- and energy-intensive output except for the natural process of species formation.

To read the chart below one must know that Odum turned all measurements into equivalent calories of solar energy which he dubbed solar emcalories. Concentration of emcalories leads to their greater and greater usefulness to human society. Diffuse sunlight on a field only warms a person for as long as the sun shines. But the energy concentrated in field crops can be stored until needed for food or fuel. Such is the role of what Odum calls transformities, that is, the transformation of previously concentrated energy into more concentrated, more energy-intense forms. Transforming fossil fuels into electricity is another example.

Adapted from “A Prosperous Way Down” by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum
Solar Emcalories Needed Per Calorie Produced
Sunlight energy
Wind energy
Organic matter, wood, soil
Potential of elevated rainwater
Chemical energy of rainwater
Mechanical energy
Large river energy
Fossil fuels
Electric power
Protein foods
Human services
1 X 1011
Species Formation
1 X 1015

Odum is not trying to discount the usefulness of information. In fact, energy embodied in the various products of nature and of human societies generally becomes more useful, the more concentrated it gets. Energy that is more concentrated is more easily transported and used. And, energy which becomes the above-mentioned weightless information may be the most potent of all. It was Archimedes who said, “Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth.” He was, of course, talking about the power of the lever to move things. The key element, however, is a piece of information, namely, where to stand.

Facebook Connectivity

Far from being costless or weightless or light on resource use, information comes to us at very great expense. Today, we talk about the vast volume of information that is being produced. But is this the case? Aren’t we really talking about the vast quantity of copies of information flowing through the information system? Aren’t we also talking about the vast quantity of gossip that moves through that system? As anyone who sifts through the information on the Internet on a regular basis knows, a good piece of solid, actionable information is not always easy to find. In proportion to the chatter and clutter on the Internet, there simply isn’t that much good information. Perhaps one reason is that genuinely useful new information is so very hard to produce.

Flowing Data

The idea that ours is a new age when people first began to grasp the importance of information is patent nonsense. When someone tells you that we are moving into an information society, you can retort that we have always been an information society: information about how the forest works and where one might find food, about how to grow crops and which ones grow best, about how to cut and stack stone upon stone to make buildings that will last for the ages, about how to float vessels on water, about nearly everything human societies value past and present. We are now copying and disseminating what information we have on a grander scale and at a faster pace than ever before. And, we certainly have a lot of information about how to make the earth, the sky, and the sea give us whatever we want. In truth, much of the modern “information revolution” is nothing more than this.

Adbusters Spoof Ads-Name These Plants

What we are lacking is the widespread understanding of how to live within the limits prescribed by the planet. Putting to rest the idea that so-called information-based industries somehow have a negligible impact on the biosphere might be a good first step in focusing us on the kind of information that we will need to become partners with nature rather than its adversaries.

5 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Information”

  1. I have been, like Kurt Cobb, one of the last people that would believe in an information economy, and I still am. Cobb does a nice job illustrating why such an economy is impossible. The post-industrial information economy is still highly industrial and utterly dependent on fossil fuels for its maintenance.

    But one issue that came up in our PWD workshop last month was, ‘Where’s the inflation?’ It would appear that the US economy has not been suffering the high inflation that should be expected when money is added (by nonstop government borrowing) while emergy flows remain constant or even decline. There was one especially intriguing proposal (and if the presenter (MB) has time to comment here or in his own blog it would be very welcome!).

    But one answer that was not considered by myself or anyone else at the time is, in fact, related to the emergy feedback flow from storages of information. Information storages that have led to today’s high finance (and other useful information) have been gradually accumulating for 200 years at least of capitalist testing and re-testing. These storages are thus from a different temporal scale and can(?) therefore be counted as emergy inputs to the current economic system (DC has also explored this issue).

    Information inputs must still be matched by lower quality emergy inputs, and they have been, in the forms of fossil fuels, minerals, timber, crops, etc., and so this is not a contention that the current economy is being supported by information alone. Certainly not. But is it that stored feedback information emergy is being rapidly drawn into the economy, increasing the total emergy flow, and thus preventing expected high inflation?

    And if that is the answer, then in all emergy analyses (I’m afraid) feedback information becomes an import input that has not been to this point accounted for.

  2. Tom, Odum wrote about the super-circulation of money:

    “In year 2000, with economic growth still in progress, self organization is generating a hierarchy of sub-economies with controversies about the relationship of economic power to other information. The broad base of global energy is supporting high diversity super-circulation. There appears to be a struggle for control between monetary power and the shared information of an emerging world public opinion. The coupling described here helps anticipate the future, as fuel shortages reduce the energy hierarchy, concentrations in centers, and the circulation of monetary buying power. Since emergy is a general measure of inherent real wealth, rising costs of energy means rising prices” (Odum, 2000, p. 11-12, Energy Hierarchy and Money).,HT.2000.EnergyHierarchyandMoney.EnvirEnginSciences.UFl.13pp.pdf

    In my opinion, expanding political promises to bailout and support a collapsing economy creates demands to print more money rather than accept international defaults and contract the monetary system. Increasingly, the financial, insurance, and real estate sectors are separated from the real economy by layers of debt to the future, using churn in fiat debt obligations at the global level as a form of super-circulation outside the economy, removed from the real production-consumption economy. Most of the churn consists of securitized assets and derivatives, which is over 1000% of global GDP, and about 90% of all liquidity (see Money for BIS pyramid of liquidity for reference). The casino for derivatives only developed in the last two decades (Das, 2006). We created a casino with Wall Street in charge of making the chips and handing them out, LOL. In my opinion, this casino developed as a function of maximum empower at the end of empire. You can’t play for long unless you steal your opponents’ game pieces. Other bubbles implicated in this gyre are government, the military, and education in some countries, depending on how financing is done. This super-circulation benefits the few who are associated to the circulation of paper, increasing inequities between rich and poor, and expanding the obligations to a future of expected growth that won’t be there, ensuring collapse of the monetary system.

    But as fossil fuels are removed from the system, the value of currencies becomes less important than the value of real wealth in terms of resources and sources of production and labor? And stealing your opponents’ game pieces shortens the game, and even the real money (power and broad money) is counterfeit, because the information value of money is false, it does not value Nature, and the also because the money is being inflated by ever increasing expansion through printing. This is how debt-based fiat currencies lose their way over time, over and over and over again through history.

    Game over, man!

  3. On a somewhat parallel track, David Holmgren has written a wonderful essay called “Money Vs. Fossil Energy: The Battle for Control of the World.”

    “The unfolding climate/energy/economic crisis is heating up a very old rift in global industrial politics. This rift derives from two core beliefs on what constitutes the source of wealth. Does wealth come from human creativity and innovation or is it found in the natural world? Is human capacity the source or a by-product of real power?

    I believe two alternative (and mostly complementary) paradigms that are implied by these questions, have shaped the history of the modern world perhaps more so than the Left-Right political ideologies. I characterise these increasingly conflicted paradigms by the following shorthand: faith in wealth and power from “human brilliance” (meaning “faith in human brilliance to overcome physical limitations.”) verses faith that wealth and power emerge from control of “holes in the ground”, ie. physical resources.

    In a world of energy descent and climate change, both these beliefs are failing and increasingly we see the believers of both paradigms at war in a futile battle for control of the world.”

    Complete essay here:

    Abridged version here:

    1. Hi, David. This was a great essay; it’s linked to Holmgren’s figure of political spectrums at the link on the website below.

      As we go on, there is more and more money chasing less and less resources. And the resources are not valued appropriately, so they are used too casually–Mother Nature’s currency is energy and materials, not greenbacks. The focus on money and politics is part of the information storm occurring in overshoot, with a lot of heat escaping an overheated economic engine as wheels spin fruitlessly. People eventually lose their confidence in money and the money loses its meaning, requiring a reboot. Only this time, the reboot in the monetary system will require relocalization of global currencies–that’s going to leave a mark?

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