Bit by Bit: Information, Energy & Time‏

¿Dónde se encuentra la sabiduría
que hemos perdido con el conocimiento?

¿Dónde está el conocimiento
que se nos ha perdido con la información?

                                   T. S. Eliot

Sólo se retiene aquella información
para la que existen marcos conceptuales previos
y aquellos en las que se está vitalmente implicado.

                                  Jorge Peña Vial

Algo es el azar si su información
es de una complejidad irreductible.

                               Gregory Chaitin

Desde nuestro punto de vista
parece que cada vez sabemos más;
al mismo tiempo, parecer ser
que cada vez comprendemos menos
lo que nos está ocurriendo.



en la línea de la Pobreza enseñada en los Evangelios...

Cuánto más tenemos, menos poseemos.  

                                    Meister Eckhart

La esencia de la civilización no consiste
en la multiplicación de los deseos,
sino en su renuncia deliberada y voluntaria.

                                   Mahatma Gandhi

La producción de alimentos 
es suficiente para saciar el hambre del mundo 
pero no para saciar la avaricia de los hombres.

                                   Mahatma Gandhi

No es posible maximizar simultáneamente
la energía, el tiempo y la información 

El triángulo de Spreng

Spreng has a background that is noteworthy. 
Trained as a physicist, he later worked as engineer 
and developed an interest in economics. 

His triangle is an attempt to connect 
these areas, and as such is very interesting. 

The example he starts with is purely thermodynamical. 

A reversible process, without loss of energy, 
would take an infinite amount of time. 
Any faster, and the process becomes irreversible. 

The faster it is, the more energy is needed 
(at least in the examples Spreng discusses). 

So there is a trade-off between time and energy 
that carries over to manufacturing. 

Information then comes in 
as an improved technology 
that makes the process more efficient, 
and so, more information saves time or energy. 

That is the basic idea.

Spreng's original paper is here

but I couldn't get access to it, 
so I settled for the 1993 remake
and the following is my summary. 

I've redrawn it for your convenience, click to enlarge.

Spreng's Triangle

Spreng's triangle is a plane with 3 axes at 120° to each other. 
The 3 axes are energy (E), time (T) and information (I) respectively. 

I have drawn lines with constant time in blue, 
constant information in red, and constant information in green. 

In the lower right E=0 corner, 
that Spreng refers to as the "starving philosopher," 
one needs no energy, but has an infinite amount of time 
and all the information in the world.

In the lower left, I=0, corner, 
that Spreng refers to as the "primitive man," 
one has no information and needs an infinite time 
to get anything done with maximal energy. 

In the upper corner, the "industrial man," 
one has plenty of information and energy 
to get things done in zero time. 

The corners are however unrealistic limits 
that shouldn't be taken too seriously, 
they're just to show the trends 
if you move around in the diagram.

Now to define a point in a plane 
you only need two axes, 
so the relevant statement here 
would be that all possible points 
of combinations E,T,I lie in a plane. 

I say "would be" because I will argue 
in the following that though 
superficially plausible and appealing, 
I don't think it is actually the case.

In his paper, Spreng discusses 
in which way energy, time, and information 
partly substitute for each other 
from several different aspects.

At some point, he claims for example 
that in industrial countries 
on a national level working hours 
substitute for energy use, 
citing himself in mentioned earlier paper 
that I had no access to. 

So I plotted the working time per year per worker from this table
against the annual energy consumption per capita from this table 
(in kilogrammes of oil equivalent per year).

I don't know about you, but I can't see any correlation or anti-correlation in that. 

Well, the data I used is from 2003, so, possibly 40 years ago that looked different, 
but I can't say I am very convinced. 

However, this turns out not to be of much importance later, 
he just uses this because he wants to send a message 
that civilization should slow down the hamster wheel (invest time) 
to instead save energy:
"Whether the time saved is simply used to produce and consume more, 
or whether some saved time is set aside as time for cultural development 
is of prime importance."

One easily sees from Spreng's discussion, 
that the "information" he is referring to is ill-defined. 

To be fair however, it does become clear 
that he is talking about manufacturing processes
 and their improvement. 

So Wikipedia isn't really a counterexample. 

At some point he specifies information 
to mean 'relevant' information, 
yet one doesn't know relevant for what. 

Maybe it's the information 
needed to decrease energy or time, 
but then the argument becomes circular.
I think the name "information" is very misleading. 

What he seems to mean is something 
like the complexity of a technological process. 

Not that this is better defined.

However, just when I was about to throw the paper in the garbage, 
Spreng goes and admits that the "relevant information" 
is totally ill-defined and pulls the following trick 
that helped me to make more sense out of his triangle. 

He says, let's just consider information 
as an unknown parameter 
and assume it is measured by the market: 

"[T]he market measures the information content of goods and services." 

So, let Y be the market value of a good or service, 
then he defines information (I) by the following equation

    Y = pL L+ pE E + I

where L is input to production of the good in working hours, 
pL the price per hour, E is the energy input in some units, 
and pE the price for that energy unit.

That would indeed define a surface if this equation 
would be fulfilled,  so the question is, does it work? 

First, we note that this equation almost certainly 
isn't fulfilled for goods with cultural value like, say, Marilyn Monroe's dress

I don't see what difference it should make 
for the right side of the equation whether Marilyn or I 
wear a dress before auction, yet I have some doubts 
anybody would pay me some million bucks for that, 
so it does make a difference for the left side 
of the equation which is no good.

So then let's look at goods without cultural value, 
if such exist, maybe a banana will do. 

Still, something seems to be really funny with this equation. 

The alleged market value of the good 
doesn't at all depend on supply 
and demand for that good. 

I mean, I don't know a lot about economics, 
but if you're growing bananas in your backyard 
with input E,I,L and suddenly all bananas in Brazil 
fall victim to epidemic monkey obesity, 
your backyard bananas would be in high demand 
and up goes Y without any change to the right side of the equation.

This is not to say that it is not possible to make sense out of Spreng's triangle, 
but at least from what's in his 1993 paper it seems to me it would take more work 
to integrate this idea with economics. Spreng concludes his paper with the words

The importance of new information technology, NIT, 

in respect of future  energy use can hardly be overstated. 

new information technology can do two things. 

It  can be used to substitute time by information 

or to substitute energy by  information. 
new information technology can, in other words, both be used 

to speed up the pace  of life (work and leisure), 

thus promoting a society of harried mass  consumers, 

or it can be used to conserve precious natural resources 

(energy and non-energy) by doing things more intelligently 

and improving  the quality of life 

without adding stress to the environment. 

It is up to the  society as a whole, 

politics of course included, to decide 

which of the two roads are taken.”

You could then summarize my criticism as these are not the only two roads. 

Your new information technology can also cost you more energy and more time. 

Like this damned Windows that never seems to finish updating 

and keeps popping up a message that I have to restart.

Bottomline: Plausible ideas are the most dangerous ones.

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