The Information Cycle: A Framework for Understanding 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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