Information Ecology (1997)
This is a very old text. In fact, one of the first I've ever written, from 1997. I re-post it here because it has now been included in the new MIT Publication "Information" (edited by Sarah Cook), which is "one of a series documenting major themes and ideas in contemporary art." Unfortunately, there was a mistake in editing and now it appears erroneously as "information economy". Similar, but not quite the same :)
It's still a good text, even if the McLuhanite language feels a heavy. But as a historic document I'm happy to see it re-published, particularly now that "ecological approaches" to media are once again becoming popular.
A position paper (version 1.0) McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, FIS, UofT, 1997
"New media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature." Marshall McLuhan, 1969
Media build an integrated environment based on flows of information. Increasingly, this environment provides the primary setting for human agency. Information ecology aims at understanding the properties of this environment in order to use its potential, avoid its dangers and influence its development positively.
The basic elements of that environment are not materials--soil, houses, or any other tangible form of atoms--but intangible flows of information produced by and processed through media: Information to communicate among people, to control processes across time and distances, to check and reevaluate existing information, and to produce more and new information. At the interconnections of such flows nodes arise. Nodes are structures built by the recurrent intersection of different flows which they, at the same time, process and direct. Nodes can have the form of large institutions, such as banks or government agencies that depend on the constant input of information which they process and feed back into the flow as new information but also--on the other end of the scale--personal identities are shaped by flows of information: built upon past experience and maintained and changed in the constant reshaping through the exposure to new information in everyday life. Nodes are intensifications and consolidations of flows in which they constitute structures that process the information and by doing so maintain themselves and the continuity of the flows.
These two elements, flows and nodes, are mutually constitutive, one builds upon the other. Flows without elements of structure would be noise and nodes without flows would be dead. The interconnections between the nodes constitute the patterns in the flow of information. They provide the stabilization within the potentially fluid environment enabling navigation and purposeful, systematic action.
While the nodes stabilize the flows of information and endow a certain consistency [continuity] to the environment, they are themselves subject to the dynamics of the environment. These dynamics, produced by the interactions of the nodes and shaped by the media that channel the flows, are themselves not reducible to any single node but are the result of the combination of all flows, of the interaction of all nodes at the given time reflecting their different capacities to influence. The dynamics, however, are not random, they have discernible patterns in which they develop.
These patterns are the four basic dimensions of an information ecology:
All nodes are connected to other nodes through communicative processes. Other than mechanical machines that are isolated from one another, the very nature of the ecological environment is its connectedness. The uniqueness of each nodes, the fact that every node embeds a singular combination of connections to other nodes, ties them into one large shared environment in which all elements are interdependent. What makes this interdependency so vital is the "material" of the flow: information. Information is not objective data, however, information is the relation that arises within the environment, it is the difference that makes difference (Bateson, 1972). Information results from relationships between two otherwise meaningless pieces of data, it relates both side of the flow to each other. Marshall McLuhan saw this very clearly when he wrote: "The 'meaning of meaning' is relationship." (McLuhan; Nevitt, 1972)
The economy in an integrated environment does not produce isolated products, such as soybeans or rolled steel, but local groupings of products that support them each other. Companies exist in mini-ecologies structured by strategic alliances and synergetic partnerships. The decline of Apple Computers has been caused by locking in its operating system instead of liscencing it to other manufacturers and profiting from the increased variety (Arthur, 1996).
The flow of information does not simply connect two sides; by being connected they change. A bridge does not simply couple two independent villages across a river but it creates a new city (or a new war).
The flows of information are infinitely malleable. It is their intrinsic property to change their direction and quality instantaneously, a characteristic greatly accelerated by electronic media. Out of such changes new relationships arise that bring supposedly independent nodes into a sudden interdependency. Mergers and outsourcing are but one of the results of the changes of information flows.
Change, however, is neither additive nor subtractive in an integrated environment. It is ecological. One significant change generates total change. If you remove a species from a given habitat, you are not let with the same environment minus that one species: you have a new environment and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival. This is how the ecology of information works as well. New flows of information can change everything (Postman, 1992). The interdependence of the nodes brings about that information can travel through the whole environment and, according to the way it is reshaped in each node, it grows or decreases in relevance and speed.
In a ecological environment where change is ubiquitous and sudden, the mode of survival is adaptation instead of optimization as is has been paramount under linear development in the industrial age. The newest version of Netscape or Explorer is not more better because it has less bugs but because it incorporates new capabilities adapting to the fast-paced changes of the Internet.
In an environment where information flows very quickly, at the speed of light through the computer networks, and the new interrelations arise as fast as old connections die time is a supreme factor. Except the fact of continuos change nothing is fixed. Quick moves in the capital markets can wipe out institutions that were once the foundation of global empires, as the fall of the Barrings Bank in London as demonstrated impressively. Information, the means to act upon the flows of information is only a resource as long as it is timely. The time span in which information really makes a difference is neither intrinsic in the information itself nor in the flow upon which it intends to act but is determined by the relation between the node and flow, by the purpose of action. For the dealer in the capital markets 15 minute old quotes are worthless, for the journalist who prepares the daily summary for a newspaper they are valid, and for the analyst who tries to develop models for predicting the future movements the quotes of the last couple of years may be of crucial importance as a testing-ground for his models.
Information is difference and the nodes survive as long as they can make a difference, that is as long as they can produce information that is valid for others. In the information ecology the basis for cooperation--and survival--is differentiation and not similarity. Highly differentiated nodes can group together in order to respond to newly arising opportunities and dissolve after their mission is achieved.
Differentiation is reduction of complexity. Vast amounts of data are reduced according to the inner structure of the node to specific information. This information, the difference between the node and the flow and among the nodes, is the basis upon which the flows are redirected and new connections are established and old ones maintained.
Arthur, Brian W. (1996). Increasing Returns and the New World of Business. Harvard Business Review, July-August
Bateson, Gregory (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unit. London: Wildwood House
McLuhan, Marshall; Nevitt, Barrington (1972). Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. Don Mills, Ont.: Longman Canada Ltd
Nevitt, Barrington (1982). The Communication Ecology: Re-representation versus Replica. Toronto, London, Sidney: Butterworth
Postman, Neil (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf