WHAT'S THE MATTER?
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
WHAT'S THE USE?
Ecology is the study of the complex interactions between living
and non-living interdependent dynamic systems. It describes the
fragile balance in which such systems equilibrate and through
which they evolve.
"The effect on ecological systems is the decisive factor
in the determination of the ethical quality of actions."
(J. Baird Callicott)
Information ecology extends this approach to the social transformations
being wrought by the rapid developments in information technology,
networking and our becoming an increasingly tele-mediated society.
The Telluride Institute has created its Information Ecology Program
to promote research into, and understanding of, the relationships
between biological, physical, social, political, economic, and
WHAT'S THE MATTER?
"The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow
of matter." (The Progress & Freedom Foundation's Magna
There are many efforts underway to apply ecological reasoning
to the Information Society. Our view is that such efforts, while
yielding significant insights, are fundamentally limited in their
view of the evolving information economy. They treat information-based
social and economic activities as something apart from previous
experience. For instance, the Third Wave (the Knowledge Age)
is seen as replacing the second, the Industrial Age, which replaces
the first, the Agricultural Age. However, we still have agriculture
and manufacturing, and matter is still of crucial importance
to biological experience, including human experience.
It is dangerous to interpret trends for the powers of mind
to replace those of physical resources as wholesale replacements
rather than evolutionary developments. This invites us to understand
interdependent systems as if they were isolated in time and space,
which they are not. It is likewise dangerous to see the real
trends towards demassification of institutions without understanding
the equally strong forces towards centralization of ideas and
systemization of society.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
"A bit of information can be defined as the difference
which makes a difference." (Gregory Bateson)
This view is one of complex interdependent systems existing
in a fragile balance, Inevitably raising questions of scale and
speed which are often over-looked by more fragmented approaches.
These are macro questions critical to the quality of the human
experience. Evolution within the economy as ecosystem requires
not abandonment of command and control mechanisms, but rather
an appropriate rebalancing of command and control with market
activities. But the economy is not an ecosystem unto itself -
an impossibility in ecological terms. It coexists in a complex
relationship with physical, biological, and social systems about
which we only have a limited understanding; systems which are
experiencing serious damage from our economic "progress"
and "success." An ecological approach requires bringing
together the research and understanding in the presently disparate
areas of ecology, entropy, economics, evolution, culture, community,
organization, and technology. Only then, can questions be raised
about the scale of the information revolution and the speed with
which it is progressing. Such questions must be asked or we risk
endangering the precarious balances necessary for improving the
quality of life.
WHAT'S THE USE?
"Judgment is required in larger measure than ever before
if Man is to succeed in balancing the adverse effects, both upon
the species and upon individuals, resulting from the increased
knowledge and improved technology that reduce the need for struggle
and also the opportunity to learn how to experience a sense of
satisfaction." (Jonas Salk)
"We have for the first time an economy based on a key
resource that is not only renewable, but self-generating. Running
out of it is not a problem, but drowning in it is." (John
"The role of the policy maker, indeed, of the legislature
- and derivatively the role of the courts - may be to balance
what we believe in and stand for as a community with what we
want and need to achieve as a functioning economy. The problem
may be to devise some way that we can relate to one another as
members of a community in search of common ideals and, at the
same time, compete and cooperate with each other in a market
to satisfy individual interests." (Mark Sagoff)
The questions of property, freedom, market, community, and
government cannot be divorced from each other, nor can they be
divorced from our living and nonliving environment, our cultures,
our histories, and our values. Separate consideration of property,
market, community, and government invites a dangerous disintegration
of the whole. The danger is that the key insight of ecological
thinking - balance - may be lost. The following questions are
based on a cursory information ecological view. They are holistic,
in that they invite and require an attempted understanding of
the dynamic balance among complex interdependent systems.
What do the laws of nature tell us about property? What is
a healthy relationship between cyberspace and physical space?
How does freedom relate to family, community, market, and government?
Where is the balance between competition and cooperation? Is
only that which is traded in markets of value? Is all of society
a market? Given that the family and the firm are institutions
based both on cooperation and competition, what is the appropriate
role of control in society? What is the intent of control?
How do we balance the freedom to pursue private needs with
the freedom to express public beliefs? How do we balance information
as a commodity with information as a process?
Are things changing more rapidly? How does speed affect our
living and non-living environments? Can we balance needs for
change with needs for stability?
International politics, economics, religion and other large
systems of social organization are imposing precarious new regimes
of control as the global market exerts its dominance. How can
we understand the jointly determined domination of the market
and growing mechanisms of control, anticipating potentially dangerous
Can we apply understandings of information ecology pragmatically?
The urgency of these task derives from what will happen if
we continue to view the information society as something completely
new and different from what preceded it. Billions of dollars
are being invested in the infrastructure for an information age
- a vision of which is unclear to most world citizens, and not
accepted by many. Attempts to allow any particular vision to
overwhelm those who are supposed to benefit, are doomed to failure:
failure in what will really be achieved, failed hopes of those
who are undertaking the investments, and social harm resulting
from the escalating effects of these potential failings.
Co-written with Dale Lehman, Ph.D., Economist.