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The unbearable lightness of information

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.

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.

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.

The idea that ours is an 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 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.

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.

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