'Information Cycles' of Culture: The Production of TV Media in Hualien County, Taiwan

This research is exploring the production of information in the news media within Hualien County.  It provides new detail into the study of hierarchy and social structure, while at the same time broadening its focus to include information and its realization in culture.   The results of this project aim to advance our human-ecological understanding of social structure and information, as well as the use of emergy ecological-economics for their study.

With the appearance of life on Earth has come something that makes a dramatic contribution to this universal process of self-organization, something that we often call information.  The genetic information of life allows self-organized structure to last in time and extend in space, to ride-out the many natural fluctuations in energy sources (e.g., day/night, seasons, etc.).  With the appearance of life, time-tested energy pathways are preserved from day to day, and much longer, by the information of genetics and its blueprint for both living and reproduction.

icWith the evolution of we humans another form of information has appeared.  Culture performs this same trick of persistence and expansion with additional efficiency, perhaps ideally suited to environments that fluctuate at specific rates that were encountered by human evolution (Richerson and Boyd 2005:131).  Cultural information is like and unlike genetic information.  The ecologist H. T. Odum has explored the similarities and differences and has produced a synthetic theory of information, nested within his theories of general systems.  In his approach, information is maintained only within what he calls information cycles (or circles).  He has diagrammed information cycles in a number of ways, of which this diagram is representative.

From Odum’s view, information cannot be created once and then copied through time from one individual to another:

Because information has to be carried by structures, it is lost when the carriers disperse (second energy law)…Information is maintained by copies made faster than they are lost or become nonfunctional.  But copying from one original is not enough because errors develop (second law), and copying doesn’t make corrections.

So in the long run, maintaining information requires a population operating an information copy and selection circle like that in Figure 1.  The information copies must be tested for their utility.  Variation occurs in application and use because of local differences and errors.  Then the alternatives that perform best are selected and the information of the successful system is extracted again.  Many copies are made so that the information is broadly shared and used again, completing the loop.  In the process, errors are eliminated, and improvements may be added in response to the adaptation to local variations…

In an information circle, the information is increased with copying and decreased with selections and depreciation, but a successful circle maintains enough copies to exceed depreciation and destruction rates (Odum 2007:88-89).

In an information cycle, therefore, information must be transmitted through time via many copies, via a population of carriers bearing that information.  Each new copy is dispersed within the system where it does what it does, always within a larger, dynamic, multi-scaled system of energy and materials.

Information Cycles and the Media

Odum never located specific persons or roles within his information cycle.  Because we are describing in detail one channel of information among many, we will need to be more precise.  In this figure, therefore, we have chosen to situate journalists as the extractors and processors of information (3).  They observe the world and narrate points of interest.  But they do not see the world in a pristine sense; it is filtered or selected (2) by the larger-scaled context of market elites, production chains, newsroom managers, ecological context, academic elites, and others, often called the gatekeepers in journalism studies (Shoemaker and others 2001) (1a).  The story subject, message, and style are largely selected or framed (Scheufele 1999) by this context.  From this filtered world the journalists extract points of information for the production of their stories (3).  Once written, stories are made in many copies (4).


This is the first point where the remarkable energies and technologies of media corporations are applied.  Beginning with the first printing presses, these technologies make it possible to produce great volumes of story copies.  At the next step in the information cycle is the second powerful innovation, the application of new transmission technologies for the dispersal of news stories (5).  This technology also requires substantial energy inputs, which are shown as another energy source.  Finally, information is shared among viewers, readers, etc. (6).  Not all adults are exposed to all stories, so we can talk about frequencies of exposure, much as we talk about frequencies of alleles or cultural variants.  The cycle of enculturation is tied to the individual’s lifecycle and is very slow in time.  In marked contrast, the journalism information cycle is extremely fast, requiring only minutes or hours to complete at times. 

Scales of Cultural Information

Information cycles differ from one another in cycle time and in space, which taken together is often referred to as scale.  As cycles at different scales they can be arranged in a nested hierarchy, as in this next figure, from left to right in increasing dimensions of time and space.  In this form we can see a common pattern in nature that Odum calls an energy transformation hierarchy, his proposed 5th Law of Thermodynamics.  Here many events of shorter duration on the left contribute to fewer and longer events as one moves to the right.  In energy transformation hierarchies, as energy is converged (moving to the right) there are larger and fewer objects, which have longer turnover times, larger spatial scale, higher search/exploration ability, higher maintenance cost, can take more varied inputs and/or from varied sources, and have larger feedback effects (Odum 1996:24)

At each scale in the information hierarchy the information outcome or product differs in its complexity, cycle time, its carrier, and in its communication form.  These are together related to the intensifying ‘quality’ of work that went into the production of information at each ascending scale, and this is an essential point that allies this analysis with Odum’s theory of hierarchy.  Taken individually, each of the information cycles has special characteristics.  But the point here is to see the arc of information production.  From thoughts to lectures to people or cultures, information is produced in a hierarchy of similar cycles.  They are different because the scale and complexity of each product is different.  Per Odum’s theory of hierarchy, the product of each successive scale is dependent on what came before, each is of higher ‘quality’, and each has increasing ability to feedback and structure information at smaller scales.


Outcomes from this research:
  1. Emergy analyses of the production chain and information cycle of news media in Hualien County.
  2. Transformities for subproducts of media publication, transmission and storage, as well as for the media information that is output. 
  3. These data will be used to improve the analysis of structural hierarchy in Hualien County in my ongoing NSC-funded research project.
This research has significant outcomes, related to several topics:

Information in Information Cycles
While ecosystem information has been investigated as information cycles, this is the first demonstration of the production of cultural information within information cycles.  It thus demonstrates the usefulness of the information cycle for conceiving cultural information which can then be applied to other forms of cultural information, as outlined in (Abel 2009). 

Transformities of Information
Very little empirical research has yet produced transformities of information (Odum 1996:224), and no studies have yet measured transformities of cultural information.  This research is original, and much needed if Odum’s general systems conceptualization of information is to be tested.

Testing of principles of hierarchy
Emergy principles of hierarchy have been tested on detailed analyses of ecosystems.  However, studies of human-ecosystems that explore and document the units of social convergence have not been produced and tested, with the exception of my ongoing research project.  This new research is improving the comprehensive demonstration of human-ecosystem hierarchy as it explores the production of information within regional hierarchies of economic production.

Related Publications:

Abel, Thomas 2003 “Understanding Complex Human Ecosystems: The Case of Ecotourism on Bonaire.” Conservation Ecology 7(3):10. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss3/art10