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 technological (eco)systems.


"The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter." (The Progress & Freedom Foundation's Magna Carta)

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.


"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.


"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 Naisbitt)

"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 resulting conflicts?

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.