The Information Cycle: A Framework for Understanding Culture


ic‘Culture’ remains a conundrum in anthropology.  When recast in the mold of ‘information cycles,’ culture is transformed.  New fault lines appear.  Information is splintered into parallel or nested forms.  Dynamics becomes cycling.  Energy and material artifacts are essential.  And culture has function in a directional universe.  The ‘information cycle’ is the crowning component of H.T. Odum’s theory of general systems.  What follows is an application of the information cycle to the cultural domains of discourse, social media, ritual, education, journalism, technology, academia, and law, which were never attempted by Odum.  These forms of cultural information differ from one another in how quickly they degrade, their energy and material inputs, the impact each delivers, how widely they are shared, the fidelity of intermediate ‘carriers’, and how much work is required for their construction (and reconstruction).  In information cycles, cultural information is perpetuated—maintained against Second Law depreciation.  Conclusions are that culture is in fact a nested hierarchy of cultural forms.  Each scale of information production is semi-autonomous, with its own evolutionary dynamics of production and selection in an information cycle.  Simultaneously each information cycle is channeled or entrained by its larger scale of information and ultimately human-ecosystem structuring.  The value of the information cycle is to untangle information, to expose its formation and utility, and to reconnect cultural information of all forms.

The Function of Information

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.

The Information Cycle for DNA and Culture

With the evolution of 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.

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.

Related Publications:

Abel, Thomas 2014  Culture in Cycles: Considering H.T. Odum's 'Information Cycle'.” International Journal of General Systems. 43(1):44-74, DOI:10.1080/03081079.2013.852188

Abel, Thomas 2013 “Culture in Cycles”, blog on the PWD website.

Abel, Thomas 2013 “Emergy evaluation of DNA and culture in ‘information cycles’.” Ecological Modelling 251 (2013) 85– 98.

Abel, Thomas 2011 “Culture in Information Cycles: An Emergy Evaluation of Conversation.” Proceedings from the 6th Biennial Emergy Research Conference, Pp. 9-26. January 14-16, 2010, Center for Environmental Policy, Gainesville, FL

Abel, Thomas 2010 “Human transformities in a global hierarchy: Emergy and scale in the production of people and culture.” Ecological Modelling 221 (2010) 2112–2117.

Abel, Thomas 2003 “Understanding Complex Human Ecosystems: The Case of Ecotourism on Bonaire.” Conservation Ecology 7(3):10. [online] URL: