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From high-energy to high-information society

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 16 May 2007


To meet the global crisis caused by our prodigal use of fossil fuels we need to change the basic character of our now global society. Specifically, we need to move from a society with very high energy use to one that requires much less, and the way to make this change while losing little or no real prosperity and security is to optimise information use.

Global warming is caused by too much pollution from our use of fossil fuels. The other major problem, the fast decline of oil and gas reserves, is also due to this particular socio-economic strategy. Technological development may eventually generate entirely new energy sources, such as hydrogen fuel cells or the long-heralded nuclear fusion reactor. But in the shorter term and as a matter of priority there are two basic responses that make sense: one is to conserve energy; the other is use the least harmful energy sources more efficiently.

The reason why we live in a high-energy society is because we use lots of energy, and we use it inefficiently. For example, the basic material conditions of our society that shape our cities, the use and design of mass transportation systems, were determined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At his time the dominant energy technology was steam, with the internal combustion engine coming up fast.

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These were both relatively inefficient technologies. The available materials and designs were still comparatively primitive, but as the first reliable high energy sources, they were a huge leap in providing energy. We accepted the inefficiencies and the pollution, not to mention the accidents, as the cost of the great advantages provided by steam engines for factories, steam trains, steam ships, cars, trucks, buses, tractors, planes, helicopters, and all the rest.

These energy technologies drove the rise of mass industrial society which created the wealth and security we take for granted. Suddenly, the average westerner had more energy to command than a medieval king.

At the same time steam was being developed into a useful technology the first real information technology appeared on the scene in the form of telegraphy. This was the real start of the Information Revolution as technologies dedicated to information generation, storage, processing and communication proliferated. Telegraphy was followed by telephony, calculating machines, radio, TV, computers, satellites and fibre optic, the Internet, cell phones, and all the rest.

The new information technologies were critical in the development of the newish energy technologies. Telegraphy made rail safe and efficient, while radio did the same for steamships and then aircraft; computers and telecommunications became essential for managing all transport systems on land, sea and air, and in space. These technologies were behind the rise of mass air travel and the management of ever greater volumes of automobile traffic.

They also had an impact on which transport technologies rose and declined. They encouraged the use of high energy technologies, like cars and planes, while some of the more energy efficient technologies, like shipping and rail, declined.

The impact of information on modern society has been effected through two main developments: the rise of experimental science and the development of new technology. Increasingly it has been science that has provided the new technological breakthroughs, especially since science has been routinised in the form of corporate R&D programs.

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The rise of modern science and sustained technological innovation both reflect the growing impact of information. Science is basically a system for generating information about the world through experiment and the development of theory. Technology is essentially the materialisation of information, natural materials transformed by research and organised work.

This emphasis on R&D and new products has transformed business and the world economy over the last half century. Whole new industries have arisen, all sectors have been affected, and only those firms able to manage the innovation cycle have prospered.

The focus on innovation has created new technologies, like the Internet and Ipod, but also transformed older industries. For example, extra light but tough materials are revolutionising the design of bicycles, cars, aircraft, trains and boats so they are more fuel efficient and safe. The growing use of electronics in these vehicles is another aspect of the Information Revolution.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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