Monday, September 24, 2012

Collapse and Change

In this video, filmed at a Transition Towns 2011 conference, "Mike from Forrest Row" explains that collapse is a necessary and unavoidable stage that systems go through, and is the immediate cause of systemic change. It is possible and necessary to prepare materially and psychologically for collapse and the for the profound changes that will result.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Finding the Future

Browsing the web this morning I came across a pair of articles that speak significantly to one another and illustrate a general problem with forecasts of the future.

In Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Emanuel Derman reflects on life as a "financial engineer" who worked in investment banking and built financial models designed to quantify a "vast and ill-understood sea of ephemeral human passions." Two points from the article are worthy of note. First, the concept of financial engineering is hugely flawed. Engineering models, for example of the structural tensions on a bridge, involve a set of deterministic factors for which one can calculate precise answers. The notion that one can directly port such deterministic mathematical models to finance is, as noted by many subsequent to the crash, a bit of hubris. As Weber noted oh so long ago, the causes of social action differ from those found in the natural world. This underpins the second key point in the article:  the models work well when the sea stays calm, but not when a storm hits

In Trending Upward, Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock explore ways the intelligence community can better see into the future. Based on an analysis of the National Intelligence Community Global Trends Reports, they note a similar pattern. The reports almost inevitably fall into the trap of treating the conventional wisdom of the present as the blueprint for the future 15 to 20 years down the road. Thus, many of the things the reports get right were already unfolding when the report was written and the reports have struggled to make accurate non-obvious predictions of big-picture trends.  The article goes on to suggest a number of specific ways that analysts might improve their predictions. Interestingly, the suggestions largely involve various ways to quantify the process. Unlike financial engineering, which builds quantitative models of the economy itself, Horowitz and Tetlock eschew attempts to model the political future directly. Instead, they suggest various means to quantify the process of making and aggregating expert judgments about the future.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Digital Snow Days

Another brilliant article by Mary Logan on the sudden temporary loss of complexity.

As we progress further into descent, we will see more electricity brownouts, blackouts, and other events where there is a sudden failure of complexity, resulting in a shutdown of productivity. This failure of complexity has created a new urban word; "digital snow day." And since our digital snow day in Anchorage coincided withtermination dust on the mountains, the name is especially fitting. When we lose complexity suddenly, much of modern life stops, as our subsystems are highly connected. What sort of systems will be impacted when we have complexity brownouts, and what will some of those snow days look like? Does digitization make the failures worse, with a drop to a lower trophic level than would have occurred without digitization?

What's really interesting is how H. T. Odum characterized industrial energy as an extension of the food chain, as "highly embodied energy", as a higher trophic level of transformed energy that both drives and controls production. These concepts are critical to understanding the link between energy and information, a complex set of questions that I have been pursuing for the last four years.

Vulnerabilities from added levels of complexity

Odum, 1995, p. 24
Trophic levels are descriptions of organisms’ position in the energy hierarchy through their positions in the food chain. But what people do not realize is that trophic levels extend from natural ecosystems on into human economies, as higher and higher amounts of energy and other resources are transformed to build added complexity (see an example of this hierarchy in a figure at the end of the post). If we consider human economies as complex extensions of the food chain, then electricity and transmitted cultural information yield higher trophic levels that have undergone a series of energy-using transformations that exert top-down control in regulating productivity. Information is one of the most highly embodied forms of energy, and high transformity digital information can be shared over a large territory with global impact. Odum was especially concerned about the long-term storage of information in a digital age. How many of these digitized formats have paper backups that are relatively secure for the long-term in an increasingly chaotic world?

[the following selections are from my scattered 'Notes on Energy and Information']
I could not understand the concept of emergy, or embodied energy, until I understood General Systems Theory, which explains how matter/energy at each level is contained wholly in the next higher levels, up to the most all-inclusive levels. Energy/matter is embodied and concentrated within each higher level, enabling QUALITATIVE COMPLEXITY, i.e. new morphogenic forms and capacities to emerge at higher levels; GST explains how energy and information are concentrated and concatenated upward through the chain of complexity and evolution. At each higher level, more information is also embodied, which more precisely controls energy and slows entropy, and makes possible more complex functions and interactions with the environment. The concatenation of information and energy makes it possible to produce more specialized and carefully-controlled work (efficiency); the outcome of these processes alters the environment and creates new environmental conditions, which are then re-imported in a feedback system as more information. 
Energy + Information = Power. Information organizes energy to do work; at the cognitive level (the social level) cognition organizes other cognitions, as information, to control and use energy for work. Energy directed toward a purpose is power.
How is energy converted to information in social systems? Through COMMUNICATION.

Human information is potential energy. It is organized in to complex and integrated forms through communication and then stored as memory, whether in brains, books, computer systems, or institutional routines. As a stored, complex and integrated form, is has the potential to organize material energy (e.g. electrochemical, fossil fuels, electricity, muscles) for work, for a specific function. When human information is combined in a functional system with material energy, it is transformed into actual or kinetic energy (electrochemical, mechanical, chemical, physical, etc) and does work, performs a function, produces a civilization.
Cybernetic systems are systems of energy and power. Language not only generates systems, it also controls them internally. Externally, cybernetic systems do the work of controlling what’s in their environments. This requires energy and exerts power—power to influence and control other systems, or influence their outcomes.

Connectedness is the way that energy/information is organized and categorized, catalogued, and connected to prior knowledge and information. Energy drives the dissemination of information, but information organizes energy and puts it to useful work. Information overload is too much energy/information that has not been connected and organized In a useful way. 'Knowledge as power' is energy/information that has been connected and organized in such a way as to control the flow and organization of other energy/information.
Entropy is disorganized, disconnected information that does not direct energy toward a purpose, a function. Entropy is too much noise, not enough signal; entropy is dead, lost, archaic information.

Luhmann's error, if you will, is that he analyzed communication as the starting point of creating social systems. We need to go back much further, as H. T. Odum did, and begin at the level of solar and organic energy, and using General Systems Theory, understand how energy and information are successively embedded holonically in each level of complexity, up to the most complex level on earth, the human social system, and human communication, which is the end point of this planetary system. That's why Odum was right--human information systems are the most highly embodied form of energy.

The human brain, and the human ability to communicate, is the result of millennia of evolutionary development—energy/matter combined in ever more complex forms by information/feedback from the environment. Joanna Macy explains how feedback/information is encoded in patterns, and how organisms use codes/patterns, whether genetic or behavioural, to connect with things in the environment that fit those codes and thus meet their life-support needs. The human brain, and the human ability to communicate, has the capacity to generate an almost infinite number of complex codes, but only with other humans. Individuals, by themselves, do not have the capacity to generate this infinite variety of codes. Luhmann was right to focus on communication and code generation as the key to the development of complex societies. Once humans got to a stage of evolution where they were able to communicate regularly, and learn from each other, our collective intelligence generated an almost infinite variety of codes that could be used to generate every possible thing we need from the environment—in short, to create human civilization.

[note: I was going to post the above notes on Monday, Labor Day, but I got distracted with a bunch of other stuff as usual. Anyway, Happy Belated Labor Day.]