Saturday, September 8, 2012

Digital Snow Days

Another brilliant article by Mary Logan on the sudden temporary loss of complexity.

As we progress further into descent, we will see more electricity brownouts, blackouts, and other events where there is a sudden failure of complexity, resulting in a shutdown of productivity. This failure of complexity has created a new urban word; "digital snow day." And since our digital snow day in Anchorage coincided withtermination dust on the mountains, the name is especially fitting. When we lose complexity suddenly, much of modern life stops, as our subsystems are highly connected. What sort of systems will be impacted when we have complexity brownouts, and what will some of those snow days look like? Does digitization make the failures worse, with a drop to a lower trophic level than would have occurred without digitization?

What's really interesting is how H. T. Odum characterized industrial energy as an extension of the food chain, as "highly embodied energy", as a higher trophic level of transformed energy that both drives and controls production. These concepts are critical to understanding the link between energy and information, a complex set of questions that I have been pursuing for the last four years.

Vulnerabilities from added levels of complexity

Odum, 1995, p. 24
Trophic levels are descriptions of organisms’ position in the energy hierarchy through their positions in the food chain. But what people do not realize is that trophic levels extend from natural ecosystems on into human economies, as higher and higher amounts of energy and other resources are transformed to build added complexity (see an example of this hierarchy in a figure at the end of the post). If we consider human economies as complex extensions of the food chain, then electricity and transmitted cultural information yield higher trophic levels that have undergone a series of energy-using transformations that exert top-down control in regulating productivity. Information is one of the most highly embodied forms of energy, and high transformity digital information can be shared over a large territory with global impact. Odum was especially concerned about the long-term storage of information in a digital age. How many of these digitized formats have paper backups that are relatively secure for the long-term in an increasingly chaotic world?

[the following selections are from my scattered 'Notes on Energy and Information']
I could not understand the concept of emergy, or embodied energy, until I understood General Systems Theory, which explains how matter/energy at each level is contained wholly in the next higher levels, up to the most all-inclusive levels. Energy/matter is embodied and concentrated within each higher level, enabling QUALITATIVE COMPLEXITY, i.e. new morphogenic forms and capacities to emerge at higher levels; GST explains how energy and information are concentrated and concatenated upward through the chain of complexity and evolution. At each higher level, more information is also embodied, which more precisely controls energy and slows entropy, and makes possible more complex functions and interactions with the environment. The concatenation of information and energy makes it possible to produce more specialized and carefully-controlled work (efficiency); the outcome of these processes alters the environment and creates new environmental conditions, which are then re-imported in a feedback system as more information. 
Energy + Information = Power. Information organizes energy to do work; at the cognitive level (the social level) cognition organizes other cognitions, as information, to control and use energy for work. Energy directed toward a purpose is power.
How is energy converted to information in social systems? Through COMMUNICATION.

Human information is potential energy. It is organized in to complex and integrated forms through communication and then stored as memory, whether in brains, books, computer systems, or institutional routines. As a stored, complex and integrated form, is has the potential to organize material energy (e.g. electrochemical, fossil fuels, electricity, muscles) for work, for a specific function. When human information is combined in a functional system with material energy, it is transformed into actual or kinetic energy (electrochemical, mechanical, chemical, physical, etc) and does work, performs a function, produces a civilization.
Cybernetic systems are systems of energy and power. Language not only generates systems, it also controls them internally. Externally, cybernetic systems do the work of controlling what’s in their environments. This requires energy and exerts power—power to influence and control other systems, or influence their outcomes.

Connectedness is the way that energy/information is organized and categorized, catalogued, and connected to prior knowledge and information. Energy drives the dissemination of information, but information organizes energy and puts it to useful work. Information overload is too much energy/information that has not been connected and organized In a useful way. 'Knowledge as power' is energy/information that has been connected and organized in such a way as to control the flow and organization of other energy/information.
Entropy is disorganized, disconnected information that does not direct energy toward a purpose, a function. Entropy is too much noise, not enough signal; entropy is dead, lost, archaic information.

Luhmann's error, if you will, is that he analyzed communication as the starting point of creating social systems. We need to go back much further, as H. T. Odum did, and begin at the level of solar and organic energy, and using General Systems Theory, understand how energy and information are successively embedded holonically in each level of complexity, up to the most complex level on earth, the human social system, and human communication, which is the end point of this planetary system. That's why Odum was right--human information systems are the most highly embodied form of energy.

The human brain, and the human ability to communicate, is the result of millennia of evolutionary development—energy/matter combined in ever more complex forms by information/feedback from the environment. Joanna Macy explains how feedback/information is encoded in patterns, and how organisms use codes/patterns, whether genetic or behavioural, to connect with things in the environment that fit those codes and thus meet their life-support needs. The human brain, and the human ability to communicate, has the capacity to generate an almost infinite number of complex codes, but only with other humans. Individuals, by themselves, do not have the capacity to generate this infinite variety of codes. Luhmann was right to focus on communication and code generation as the key to the development of complex societies. Once humans got to a stage of evolution where they were able to communicate regularly, and learn from each other, our collective intelligence generated an almost infinite variety of codes that could be used to generate every possible thing we need from the environment—in short, to create human civilization.

[note: I was going to post the above notes on Monday, Labor Day, but I got distracted with a bunch of other stuff as usual. Anyway, Happy Belated Labor Day.]


  1. Thanks, Shaun. That's a really nice explanation of embodied energy in communication. Embodied energy is like wallpaper to me, so it's helpful to see that people can't see it normally--similar to the Matrix, you have to take the red pill in order to see the energy flowing up the hierarchy accumulating into higher and higher forms of communication as complexity develops.

    Odum's father was a sociologist, by the way. You can see where some of his and his brother's thinking developed at the link below. The author was getting her Master's at UNC.

  2. Mary: thanks for commenting on the post. I would like to ask your opinion on something: what exactly is 'information' vis-a-vis energy? Does information=energy? if so, what kind of energy? Is it potential energy? or is it active, kinetic energy? My theory is that information is potential energy, and it transforms into kinetic energy when it is connected with other material energy forms: electrochemical [brain], mechanical, chemical, physical, and so forth.

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  4. While H.T. Odum's emergy theory was concerned with embodied energy, I am concerned with embodied information, and moreover embodiments of energy and information and how those two elements relate. More complex forms of information make it possible to embody energy into more complex morphologies, functions and systems; in turn, these more complex emergetic bodies and systems can perceive and process ever more information. But I want to know if information is itself a form of energy, which I believe it is, but mostly a potential form, which, when embodied, becomes kinetic or actual.

  5. So after reading H. T. Odum's "Self-Organization, Transformity and Information", I understand his argument that information is the most highly concentrated form of energy there is; each 'unit' of information (however calculated) is a tiny amount of energy, but because it the result of transformations of the grosser levels of energy, it is the most highly concentrated and most powerful energy there is. Gross levels of energy, such as solar energy, is large in volume but highly dispersed. As gross energy is transformed up the chain of complexity [eMergy], it becomes more and more concentrated and powerful, and is able to exert evolutionary pressure on systems to keep producing more of that energy. As energy increases in concentration, it also increases its control of other energies and matter. Human information is the most highly transformed, most highly concentrated form of energy, and is also the most powerful in terms of it's a ability to control all other forms of energy and material, and all other systems.

    1. In it's abstracted and stored form, information is potential energy [my thought]; it requires the least amount of energy to maintain once in a stored form, but it also requires much energy to convert it into a storable form and to store and retrieve that information; consequently, it's eMergy value, the amount of energy needed to transform information into different states, goes up.

  6. Units of information, by themselves, actually have little power to do or control anything, but combined--or encoded--into complex systems of information, those systems develop emergent properties that do have the power to control all other systems, bodies, behaviours, societies.

  7. Human bodies and psychic systems have the energy required to transform information from one state to another. Human communication uses eMergy to transform stored information [memory] to an active form, and to disperse or share that information. This information then becomes part of a social [distributed] system, which exists at a hierarchal energy level above the individual [per HT Odum] and exerts downward pressure on individuals, controls them in such a way as to continue producing that energy/information. This is another way to explain Luhmann's thesis that society exists apart from any one individual; society is at a higher emergent level than the individual and also controls the individual.