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Ecology, The Internet and Networks

June 22, 2010

There is a great article in this Sunday’s Observer by John Naughton entitled ‘The internet: Everything you ever need to know‘. It gives 9 points of understanding that really get to the meat of understanding the Internet without getting overly technical. There is also a strong cultural/historic rooting to the piece that gives good context. I do recommend reading the whole article, but I also wish to comment on one point he makes about ecology:

As an analytical framework, economics can come unstuck when dealing with the net. Because while economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources, the online world is distinguished by abundance. Similarly, ecology (the study of natural systems) specialises in abundance, and it can be useful to look at what’s happening in the media through the eyes of an ecologist. Since the web went mainstream in 1993, our media “ecosystem”, if you like, has become immeasurably more complex. The old, industrialised, mass-media ecosystem was characterised by declining rates of growth; relatively small numbers of powerful, profitable, slow-moving publishers and broadcasters; mass audiences consisting mainly of passive consumers of centrally produced content; relatively few communication channels, and a slow pace of change. The new ecosystem is expanding rapidly: it has millions of publishers; billions of active, web-savvy, highly informed readers, listeners and viewers; innumerable communication channels, and a dizzying rate of change. To an ecologist, this looks like an ecosystem whose biodiversity has expanded radically. It’s as if a world in which large organisms like dinosaurs (think Time Warner, Encyclopaedia Britannica) had trudged slowly across the landscape exchanging information in large, discrete units, but life was now morphing into an ecosystem in which billions of smaller species consume, transform, aggregate or break down and exchange information goods in much smaller units – and in which new gigantic life-forms (think Google, Facebook) are emerging. In the natural world, increased biodiversity is closely correlated with higher whole-system productivity – ie the rate at which energy and material inputs are translated into growth. Could it be that this is also happening in the information sphere? And if it is, who will benefit in the long term?

I think he is totally right – ecological principles are vital to understanding the Internet – indeed all human technology, but in the interest it is more apparent because of the pace of change there and the ability to track easier which bit of technology came from where. I note with interest the point about ecology as metaphor – this question is central to my current thesis – I think it is a stronger link than that. The evidence suggest to me that networked technology works on a evolutionary principle – thus it is also an ecological one (as you can’t have one without the other).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    July 5, 2010 5:52 pm

    I always loved that George Dyson quote “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature and machine. I am firmly on the side of nature, but nature, I suspect, is on the side of machines.”

  2. July 6, 2010 5:03 pm

    Nice quote! Thanks for that.

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