The Three System Structures

In 2007 SA Umpleby published an interesting paper shedding some light on the three fundamental categories of systems: matter, energy and information (difference). Ten years before (in 1997) I was asked to write an article about “information warfare” for a defence magazine in which I presented a similar view based on the Dynamical System Model (DSM) developed a couple of years before while attending some postgraduate courses in control engineering. In the article I put forward the notion that “information” warfare should actually be “knowledge” warfare because, depending of its knowledge state, a system will extract very different information from the same set of available data. Information is then committed to the system memory changing its knowledge state. This internal learning cycle in dynamical systems is self reinforcing: better knowledge leads to better information which in turn leads to increased knowledge.

  1. Matter – tangible, static, deterministic (stability, preservation)
  2. Energy – volatile, dissipative, effector (work capability)
  3. Information – flexible, manageable, (discrimination/selection, change), generates from interactions between the first two (only in observer systems?).
  4. Adjectives: material, energic(al), informational (e.g. structures)


  • See Chaim Zins for a plethora of definitions (all wrong) or Joel Palmius for a good start but wrong direction.
  • Need energy to change matter, need matter to control (contain, channel) energy
  • The system is open to the exchange of matter and energy with the environment but closed to information
  • Consequently “transfer of information” is a misnomer. What is actually transferred is data. The “transferred” information is still present at the source while it is re-produced at the destination. Note that it is not the “same” information.
  • Information and knowledge are consequently internal to the system. Only data is external and exchanged as matter or/and energy (signals).
  • Information is extracted by the system from data received from the environment by applying existing knowledge.
  • Such information is then synthesized with and used to upgrade that same knowledge (state) that can be then re-applied to the same or different data.
  • This circular interaction within the system can be defined as learning.


  • Crucial to the workings of any dynamical system is its storage capability (memory). See Shannon’s “transducer with memory”.
  • For a proper function of the system, memory (storage) capabilities must be available for all three structures (matter, energy and information).
  • Memory is required to preserve the state of the system while the memory of past state transitions (history) defines the identity (uniqueness) of the system (machine).
  • Maturana’s autopoietic (structure defined) system is actually the same as Ashby’s state determined dynamical system.
  • Need to update the system behavioural hierarchy in Rosenblueth (1943) with autopoietic (self (re)producing) systems.