Kevin Kelly’s Information Metaphysics

The billion-years rise of extropy — as it flings up stable molecules, solar systems, a planetary atmosphere, life, mind and the technium — can be restated as the slow accumulation of ordered information. Or rather, the slow ordering of accumulated information.

Information is its own force in the universe, which started with energy, became increasingly matter, but also increasingly dematerialized through accumulated information.

So writes Kevin Kelly in a very important review of the role of information in countering the natural entropy of the universe.


“The technium can be understood as a way of structuring information beyond biology. Foremost among all inventions is language, and its kin writing, which introduced a parallel set of symbol strings to those found in DNA. But the grammar and syntax of language far outstrips the flexibility of the genetic code. Literary inventions like the book index, punctuation, cross-references, and alphabetic order permitted incredibly complex structures within words; printing broadcast them. Calendars and other scripts captured abstractions such as time, or music. The invention of the scientific method in the 17th century was a series of deepening organizational techniques. Data was first measured, then recorded, analyzed, forecasted and disseminated. The wide but systematic exchange of information via wires, radio waves and society meetings upped the complexity of information flowing through the technium. Innovations in communications (phonograph, telegraph, television) sped up the rate of coordination, and also added new levels of systemization. The invention of paper was a more permanent memory device than the brain; photographic film even better. Cheap digital chips lowered the barrier for storing ephemeral information, further intensifying the density of information. Highly designed artifacts and materials are atoms stuffed with layers of complex information. The most mechanical superstructures we’ve ever built – say skyscrapers, or the Space Shuttle, or the Hadron Supercollider — are giant physical manifestations of incredibly structured information. There are many more hours of design poured into them than hours in manufacturing. Finally, the two greatest inventions in the last 25 years, the link and the tag, have woven new levels of complexity into the web of information. The technium of today reflects 8,000 years of almost daily incremental increases in its embedded knowledge.

For four billion years evolution has been accumulating knowledge in its library of genes. You can learn a lot in four billion years. Every one of the 30 million or so unique species of life on the planet today is an unbroken informational thread that traces back to the very first cell. That thread (DNA) learns something new each generation, and adds that hard-won knowledge to its code. Geneticist Motoo Kimura estimates that the total genetic information accumulated since the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago is 10 megabytes per genetic lineage. Now multiply the unique information held by every individual organism by all the organisms alive in the world today and you get an astronomically large treasure. Imagine the Noah’s Ark that would be needed to carry the genetic payload of every organism on earth (seeds, eggs, spores, sperms). One study estimated the earth harbored 10^30 single-cell microbes. A typical microbe, like a yeast, produces one one-bit mutation per generation, which means one bit of unique information for every organism alive. Simply counting the microbes alone (about 50% of the biomass), the biosphere contains 10^30 bits, or 10^29 bytes, or 10,000 yottabyes of genetic information. That’s a lot.

And that is only the biological information. The technium is awash in its own ocean of information. Measured by the amount of digital storage in use, the technium today contains 487 exabytes (10^20) of information, many orders smaller than nature’s total, but growing. Technology expands data by 66% per year, overwhelming the growth rates of any natural source. The planetary sum of biological plus technological information yields an incomprehensibly large 10^49 bytes. This estimate indicates how far extropy has grown on this tiny speck. Compared to other planets in the neighborhood, or to the dumb material drifting in space beyond, a thick blanket of learning and self-organized information surround this orb.

This store of order is a surprise. Earth’s great heap of structure, complexity and knowledge does not seem to be contained “in” the physics that govern non-extropic stuff. Where do you hide 10^49 bytes of organization? The rules behind the fundamental behavior of the elemental particles and energies that make up our reality are very spare, almost naked. It might take books and books to explain them in words, but the laws themselves can be compressed into a very small amount of information. If you were to take all the known laws of physics, formulas such as f=ma, E=mc^2, S= K log W, and more complicated ones that describe how liquids flow, or objects spin, or electrons jump, and write them all down in one file, they would fit onto a single gigabyte CD disk. Amazingly, one plastic plate could contain the operating code for the entire universe. Even if we currently know only 0.1% of the actual number of laws guiding universal processes, many of which we are undoubtedly still unaware of, and the ultimate file of physical laws was 1,000 times bigger, it would fit onto one high-density “disk” in a few years from now. The total code for matter/energy is an infinitesimal fraction compared to mountain of extropic information that has accumulated on this planet. In fact the genome of a single living organism contains more information than required by all the laws of physics.

Another way to say this is that the laws of physics don’t (as far as we know) improve with time, but extropic systems like life, mind and the technium do. Over billions of years they gain order, complexity, and their own self-organized autonomy — all things not present in the universe before. As Paul Davies points out, “life as we observe it today is 1 percent physics and 99 percent history.” Life, and by extension mind and the technium, are only loosely governed by physics (just 1%); mostly they are ruled by their own self-creation.

But where did this remarkable harvest of lawful order come from if it was not somehow “built into” that tiny file of physical laws? I claim that the trajectory of the technium was embedded into the fabric of matter and energy. If that is true, then one literal interpretation of that claim is that the 10^49 bytes of information now in the extropic realm were somehow dissolved into the one gigabyte of information of the physical laws, and unpacked over time. By the same logic, the dense leafy information displayed by a huge oak tree was previously dissolved into the microscopic informational packet of a tiny acorn, and unpacked over 80 years. This is true to some extent, but not entirely.

In an important way, this unfolding information is not contained in the physical realm. To be clear, I do not mean that it is supernatural. Either extropy must exist in the universe it is transforming, or it must exist outside of it as a supernatural force. If outside, then its dynamics are outside the range of science and of this book. I make the assumption that extropy is not a mystical supernatural force but operates in the lawful realm of physical reality. That is, we can measure it.

However it is immaterial. It is immaterial in the way that a bit is immaterial even though every bit must be incarnated in a physical medium of mass and energy. It takes measurable energy to accomplish computation, to self-organize, to add order. And that work must be stabilized, ratcheted, in matter. So information and extropy must flow through the physical world. Yet the results of that flow through matter and energy is a set of immaterial qualities: knowledge, increasing order, increasing diversity, and increasing sentience.

Another way to read the long-term trajectory of extropy is to view it as an escape from the material and the transcendence to the immaterial. In the early universe, only the laws of physics reigned. The rules of chemistry, torque, electrostatic charges and other such reversible forces were all that mattered. There was no other game. Self-organization introduced a new vector into the world. Evolution and life open up possibilities for matter and energy that did not exist in the pre-extropy universe. These possibilities (like a living cell) did not contradict the rules of chemistry and physics, but in a certain sense they allowed the new forms to escape the ordinary strictures of these laws, which would otherwise lead to simple mechanical forms. Paul Davies summarizes it well: “The secret of life does not lie in its chemical basis…Life succeeds precisely because it evades chemical imperatives.”

Read the whole entry here.

See also his equally remarkable essay on technological autonomy.

1 Comment Kevin Kelly’s Information Metaphysics

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    I don’t know how to find deleted comments in WordPress, but I’m assuming a mistake here, as I indeed remember approving your comment, and had no specific reason to delete it.


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