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Information storms and the limits to information

My first significant memory of big storms came as a 5 year old, as Hurricane Carla advanced on Port Aransas, Texas, where my father, HT Odum was administrator of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. That day, as we were due to evacuate, HT took me on his final rounds of the Institute before leaving. We walked out on the Port Aransas pier, and I remember that my father had to lift me over the gaps where missing planks had already disappeared from storm waves (my mother was later horrified at my proud retelling of the story). We stood there halfway out on the pier, and I received my first lesson in hurricane science and energy transport in waves. We counted wave troughs, heights, and wavelengths, and he explained the dynamics of wind energy, relating the sizes of the pulses to size and scale of storms. Local weather creates little wavelets, and large distant weather creates bigger, more powerful pulses that have higher impact on beaches. We talked about excess heat in the atmosphere, and how hurricanes act as Nature’s way of dispersing extra heat. It was my first lesson in storm/energy analogies, and I have never looked at storms the same way since.

Odum often drew an analogy between the way meteorological storms such as hurricanes disperse heat and the way that other systems do, including information systems. After Tom Abel’s excellent post last week on trends in education in a world in transition, it is a good time to share Odum’s analogy linking storms of information and weather storms. But to make that analogy, we first need a meteorology lesson, starting with the second law of thermodynamics.

2nd law thermodynamics (MTB) most of the energy is dispersed

The geobiosphere of the earth transforms sunlight through a number of heat engines that transform the earth’s potential energy of heat along with solar heating through temperature gradients into kinetic energy of circulating air and water. These maximize the use of energy and help to self-organize the natural capital of the earth through whirl cells of activity at different levels of scale. There are a number of different planetary heat engines driving these whirl cells: surface-sky, north-south atmospheric, oceanic, and up-down geothermal earth engines (Odum, 2007, p. 107).

Odum, 2007, p. 111 whirlcell diagram; different levels of scale, energy transformity and flow

The second law dictates that potential energy that does not go into storage is dispersed during processes. Meteorological storms or whirl cells at different levels of scale serve the purpose of dispersing and distributing excess atmospheric heat and water, transforming the landscape through rain and wind, and even creating social eddies in the form of fire from lightning to release minerals and restart succession. The distributed water creates geopotential energy by forming water at high altitudes. The main classes of whirl cells form a hierarchy of energy and transformity, beginning with latent heat flow and ocean cumulus, then land convection, temperate cyclones, hurricanes, mesosystems, and finally polar jet streams at the top of the “atmospheric food chain” (Odum, 2007, p. 112).

At the local scale, thunderstorms take disorganized heat energy and turn it into winds and rain that are organized both vertically and spatially over local landscapes. With more extreme temperature gradients, winds spin into tornadoes. At the larger scale, hurricanes prowl the lower latitudes and disperse ocean heat. With extreme storms such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and supercells, there is a direct relationship between the amount of heat and the severity of the storm. Supercells occur, for example, when a thunderstorm’s updraft builds vertically until it reaches an equilibrium of drier air that no longer cools, typically at the tropopause (between 30,000 and 60,000 feet, depending on latitude), at which point it spreads out horizontally. In transient, unstable conditions, a dome of overshoot can even form on top of the anvil, created by short-lived strong updrafts indicating potential for severe weather.

Odum, Crafoord Lecture (1987, p. 60) Information Storm

We can make an analogy between energy degradation/heat dispersal in storms and entropy in economic systems. As our energy production and consumption peaks, what happens to the volumes of information that we are producing? How much of the information is useful, and how much is dispersed as ephemeral heat entropy or dispersed as information rainfall to flow across the landscape? Sustaining information requires continual processing of information to select and refine information, and make and replace copies that are lost, broken, or otherwise depreciated. Information is tested, refined, and shared and adapted to local variation. Shared information has the highest emergy embodied in it. Our current society is experiencing an information storm that has expanded both vertically and horizontally, as the costly, noisy information explosion of the past century disperses, mixes, filters, copies, selects, and stores information. And the internet allows an extreme, global form of information sharing that is not possible in traditional ways. The internet serves as a novel, networked form of information testing, allowing many rapid interactions among many to process information quickly, perhaps providing feedback and steering currents for the information storm. If society is experiencing a series of information storms and the rain is the information, and the wind is perhaps the more destructive parts of the storm, such as gossip and media frenzies, perhaps the internet can be compared to the river carrying the information-water across the landscape, as Babauta suggests.

Odum, 2007 Information storm

If a surge on input energy of one kind is added to a system, it creates a bulge in the energy spectrum, causing energy to be propagated upscale and downscale. For example, the average distribution of energy in water waves is like the figure at right, with many waves of small energy and few of larger energy. When a storm passes, it generates waves with energy in the middle of the spectrum, causing a bulge in the spectral graph. Some waves interact to form larger waves, but most lose energy to friction, moving downscale to waves of lesser energy and heat (Odum, 2007, p. 7).

The same self-organization that occurs in the non-living structures of weather and climate also occurs in the social learning systems of human economies. Maintaining structure of thunderstorms and information storms requires continued flow of energy over time. Our superheated global economy creates a global internet information storm that can be compared to a tornadic supercell, creating a strong updraft of information spreading into an anvil top and a dome of overshoot that will not last. Those who view the current information storm as a stepping stone on the way to the Singularity or an information society may not understand the degree of continuous, incremental energetic transformation that is required to maintain and expand a highly technological society.

In the map of science at right, the explosion of journal articles since World War II appears to have peaked. What does that mean for our science? Similarly, our monetary system is a form of information that has exploded, resulting in a super-circulation of paper wealth mostly represented by paper debt in derivatives, securitized assets, and bonds, outside the real economy, creating a surreal digital super-economy consisting of the financial, insurance, and real estate sectors that can be viewed as a supercell. Most of the money is circulating outside the real economy at this point,

BIS Pyramid of Global Liquidity circa 2007?

with paper being swapped for more paper as symbolic representations, with little real work produced. The current digital money storm is like a supercell with a rotating top made up of anvils of derivatives forming cloud tops that will dissipate after the storm passes. The storm is creating waves of money that transfer energy but no material, similar to ocean waves. But our information storm is not yet done. If we fail to hold money supplies constant on resources, we may have to deal with severe inflation as resources diminish, which will accelerate the spin of the economic storm and the chaos that could occur from currency instability.

Television and the internet are the primary sources of information for our modern society. Competitions and sports championships become outlets for competitive behavior that might otherwise be turned to violence and war. Social causes, fashion magazines and polarized religion and politics provide outlets for excess, creating avenues for release of energy in an overheated economy. How many of these channels for energy release will become less useful or available in a lower energy society? Can we realign our goals and reorder society into less wasteful pursuits without destroying it in the process?

Is our information system in a dome of overshoot similar to a supercell? Has information accumulation peaked, as the figure above showing the history of science journal publishing suggests? Will information decline take the form of less and less usable information, similar to a low-precipitation supercell that produces little rain? What happens if the internet cannot be supported, as Tom Abel pointed out last week? What are the limits to information? Access to information decreases as it becomes more complex, however, so there is a limit to what can be supported (Odum, 2007, p. 245). Does information devolve into another instance where a digital divide dictates who has access to college education and internet access–and what does that do to society? What parts of our information storm are of value, and how do we retain those parts in long-term information storage if the digital information systems fail us? Is digital information detracting from long-term information storage in a durable format? Where is the consolidation of knowledge and simplification of principles for all of this information that we have created? What do we preserve, and how do we preserve it? How do we teach more efficiently? Can we maintain cooperation and global information sharing in a prosperous way down?

Information Principles and Policies for Descent

  • The value of information is increased by sharing it among many, so share free information for unified cooperation
  • Developing shared information such as common objectives requires large resources
  • With declining resources, less information and less education can be supported
  • Art and literature are powerful amplifiers for generating unified action
  • Information is necessary for efficiency, diversity, and organization; information use increases as growth stops in order to adapt by developing efficiencies and responding to resource shortages
  • Urban centers concentrate information (in addition to energy and materials)
  • More information is stored than is used at any one time. Information depreciates and requires energy to maintain and/or grow, so select and consolidate information for libraries
  • Direct electric power to useful information processing and sharing (Odum, PWD draft, 1987)
  • Balance emergy trade equity to replace free exploitation
  • Hold money supplies constant relative to resources, which means decreasing money supply over time to match economic contraction, in order to avoid severe inflation
  • Reduce expectations of unearned income from stocks, bonds, and other sources (Odum, PWD draft, 1987)

The principles of energy transformity, hierarchy, and energy can be applied to everything including information.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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