Monday, October 15, 2012

The Cybernetic Cycle

Let's take another look at Abel's energy diagram. Moving from left to right, the diagram shows flows of energy, or eMergy, as it is transformed into more complex embodied forms. However it doesn't show emergent levels. It depicts transformations as if it were one continuous flow from solar energy to "legal codes." But there are stages of emergence that structure these flows, transformations that happened over tens of thousands of years. Solar power produces plants, which leads to human agriculture as an emergent stage. Agriculture creates the possibility of complex civilizations, including learning and cultural complexity at various stages of development. Complex civilizations create the possibility of fossil fuels and technology, which makes possible an advanced technological society. Finally, the knowledge sector grows until it becomes the dominant system of the planet. Unfortunately, what is missing from the diagram is "economic" and "scientific" data, which are the information sectors that control most of the human activity on the planet, and reshape the entire terrain of minerals and living things.

Moving from right to left on the diagram are the backward pointing arrows, which depict what I call the Cybernetic Cycle. At the point of agriculture, developed by human intelligence, energy is transformed into a civilization that can produce and store information. From that point on, at each successive stage, more information and energy is generated and stored in more complex forms, in cultural products and institutional routines. But knowledge and information is also deployed "backwards", demanding, extracting and controlling more energy from the root sources (solar, plants and fossil fuels) in order to drive the transformation "forward" to new stages of emergence and new levels of complexity. At the end point, human information in the form of economic and scientific data is controlling the entire chain of energy and materials, continuously demanding and extracting more energy, and continuously driving the production of culture and institutions that store more information and energy.

1 comment:

  1. . . . and the drive to store information and use more energy is because everyone seeks to maximize their power and the power of the system. Nice one. Abel drew this diagram as an illustration of hierarchy to portray the imbalance/overshoot that the injection/introduction of fossil fuels created. So it is not a complete systems diagram, just a teaching tool :-}