The Information Ecosystem

Putting the promise of the Information Age into perspective

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 12
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

In the ecology of media, information is the stuff of life. Like protoplasm, it is encapsuled and channeled in myriad forms all woven together in a delicate systemic harmony – and what’s more, the "life forms" in the information ecosystem are evolving. Knute Berger, former Executive Editor of Washington magazine, has been studying that evolutionary process, and he shares these thoughts on the future of media and its relationship to the individual.

I have spent most of my life either writing or yearning to write. For the past 15 years I’ve worked, in one form or another, as an editor and professional communicator. I have always been bent to a specific task, nose to the grindstone, struggling against the eternal tug of deadlines. To me, the so-called Information Age has appeared in ways that slowly filter into consciousness: the clanks and thwaks of manual typewriters slowly replaced by pecks on computer keyboards; the role of the x-acto knife-wielding pasteup artists, who so often stood between my ideas and the printed page, gradually diminished.

I have dodged many of the changes (learning to work on a word processor, for example) or have incorporated them into my life with a gradualness more evolutionary than revolutionary. This suits my temperament and my way of going through life: I challenge change by resisting it, letting it wear me down slowly. When finally forced to adapt, I know it to be out of necessity, not fashion or fickleness. Often I am unaware that I’ve adapted at all, and so the process has been relatively painless.

But holding a job – or a series of them – is fatal to perspective. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, in order to reflect, we need to "embark on some placid stream, and float with the current." So, a little less than a year ago, sensing that I was missing something fundamentally important to my life’s work, I quit my job at a successful regional magazine I had helped to launch. I made a commitment to make no commitments, other than this: to take a look at what and how we communicate these days, to assess the impact of new communications technologies, to feel around the seams of the Information Age and get a sense of what it is, and what it means.

One thing I’ve discovered is that there aren’t too many placid streams leading to the ocean of information we’re swimming in, to use poet Gary Snyder’s phrase. In fact, as it is popularly conceptualized, the Information Age is a fast-paced, high-wired, multi-media mind blitz. We’re bombarded with too much data, too much information, too many images and numbers from everywhere all at once.

Ask most people if they suffer from Information Anxiety (the title of a book by Richard Saul Wurman), and invariably the answer is yes. But ask people to describe the symptoms, and you get a rambling reply that speaks to the elusiveness of the phenomenon: some say the quantity of information is overwhelming, others that the quality is poor. Some say it leaves them feeling bad, and some report that they have stopped feeling, numbed by the deluge.

Obviously, a lot of people aren’t feeling very good. Even those who have closely chronicled the changes in contemporary media are bewildered by what’s happening and what it all means. Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and The Whole Earth Review, described it beautifully in his book The Media Lab: Reinventing the Future at MIT. "The wired world," he wrote, "is like a teenager with a new car, taking dumb risks, finding new freedoms. It’s a privilege to be around self-discovery like that, but grueling, and sometimes tragic." The analogy is a good one: how difficult it is to look at a teenager and imagine the mature adult that will emerge from the hormonal massa confusa.

EVOLUTION OF AN ECOSYSTEM

In watching the Information Age develop, I’ve been looking for an appropriate metaphor to help me understand it and assess its impact. At one time, our media were divine. We drew knowledge from dreams, revelations, visions and traditions, and from a natural world infused with spirits. Then the rise of tools and technologies made us not simply receivers, but transmitters: runners carried messages from Marathon, monks pushed pens in the scriptorium, the printing press made unlimited copies of texts both sacred and profane. Man became the message and the messenger. In the past two centuries, the mechanistic media world has been replaced by an electronic one wherein information is no longer divine or human – it is a thing in itself, an impulse transmitted by transatlantic cable, telegraph, telephone, computer, satellite, radio wave or television signal. Information has ceased to be material.

Until recently, as Brand points out in The Media Lab, a good modern information model was the central nervous system. But that no longer works: the brain is more complex than we thought, communications networks more subject to chaos, and computers a lot smarter than we once believed possible. How smart? "Well," says William Gates III, founder of Microsoft (the world’s largest software company), "when the machines are smarter than us, they’ll tell us what the limit is." If a system is dynamic, "smart," and growing unpredictably, you have a difficult job of modeling indeed.

Which is why I am intrigued with looking at our information systems – and the media in general – as ecosystems. This perspective is relatively new and still evolving. Brand has discussed "communications ecology," recognizing that our technology is creating environments, not simply lines of communication. And in a recent issue of The Sciences, Bernardo Huberman (author of The Ecology of Computation) discusses the chaos dynamics of computer networks. "A computer network is an ecosystem; it has a life of its own, just as an economic or biological ecosystem does," he writes. One computer does not an ecosystem make (nor one bird, one bear, one human) – but the linking of many computers and many users together results in a structure that makes its own rules.

I don’t know a great deal about computer networks, but I can appreciate the attempt to apply an environmental model or metaphor to account for their complexity, the inter-relatedness of their elements, and the synergy that results. I can also sympathize with the effort to animate the model by giving it the characteristics of a life form. Technology, data, information, media all become more approachable if we can see them as parts of a living organism – not as the cold, heartless products of hardware. A Gaian view of the Information Age may help us deal with the current phenomenon by reducing our fears of technology – fears that are abundant and, I believe, symptomatic of failure to come up with a workable model for understanding the new systems we’re bringing into being.

Humanizing technology isn’t the point: no one really believes that our lives will be run by HAL, the friendly-yet-sinister computer of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But looking at the systems we create as living, breathing entities – systems which can be made healthy or unhealthy in large measure by our own interaction with them – is important. It awakens our parenting and nurturing instincts. It puts the onus on us for seeking to comprehend what we are creating, as we create it. It makes us aware that we must think in terms of wholes, because that is where wisdom and understanding lie.

This way of seeing also tends to put humanity in its place. Traditional science has taught us that if we have all the right data, we should be able to predict the outcome of events – and eventually to control the process. This notion is active in environmental studies: if we know enough about an ecosystem, we can "manage" it, as though it were some sort of company. The problem, however, is that we cannot handle all the data necessary to fully comprehend how a system works. Formulas for predicting the weather have existed for decades, but the variables are so great that no computer could run the numbers in time to tell you precisely what the weather’s going to do tomorrow. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz speculated that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could eventually result in a tornado, but working the equations back to that level is, for now, impossible.

NEEDLES IN A GROWING HAYSTACK

It is not necessary to control the weather, nor even predict it with daily or hourly precision, to live here well and comfortably. Likewise, controlling the media and information technology and transmission is not the answer to a healthy Information Age. Wise and responsible use of the technologies and media at hand is all we can strive for – that and the cosseting of this new creation, giving it the care and feeding our offspring deserve.

What does this wise use entail? That we find ways of making the media inclusive rather than exclusive, encouraging the proliferation of technologies that make individuals more powerful and link us to the growing global network. That we keep information sources diverse, recognizing the value of a healthy diet consisting of words, images, music, poetry, scientific data, news, oral traditions, dreams, reflections, etc. That we favor communication systems that are at least three dimensional, allowing information to flow between all parties in an interactive environment. And that we take personal responsibility for what is communicated by adapting Kant’s categorical imperative: evaluate what you say, write, or transmit as if you were the sole source of knowledge.

We must not lose sight of wisdom in the information avalanche. We have increased our computational capacity (the amount of computing power you can buy for a dollar has increased a quadrillion times since the turn of the century), and we have generated more text (the average copy of the Sunday New York Times contains more words than the average colonial New Englander used to read in a lifetime), and we have feasted on the image-rich diets of television, films, videos and color photography. But we feel no better off than before.

A researcher recently concluded that England’s Henry VIII died of malnutrition, obese but suffering from scurvy. Despite all his wealth and relish for food, his diet lacked a source of vitamin C, and that, eventually, did him in. It could be argued that we’re the informational equivalents of Henry VIII – "informavores" – who ingest great quantities and assume that a full brain is a well-fed brain. Our anxiety may be a symptom of informational scurvy. The great quantities of information we produce and deliver with such flair and abundance make finding wisdom more difficult: the number of needles in the haystack doesn’t change, but the haystack gets bigger all the time.

But another characteristic of the Information Age is that nothing runs constantly in one direction: the river is full of eddies, backwaters and anomalies. While we may be overloaded, we are also gaining increased control. The "mass media" are breaking down – becoming miniaturized – because various other media are proliferating and competing for our time and attention. And new technology is increasing our ability to control the information that comes into our personal environment: VCRs allow us to choose what we watch and when, cable gives us more stations to choose from, new phones tell us who’s calling before we pick up.

Also helping to fracture the mass media is the growing ability (because of increased computer power and new software) for corporations – or any organization that can afford it – to communicate with huge numbers of people individually. In the direct mail industry, there’s an old axiom: "It isn’t junk mail if you want it." By keeping detailed track of your purchasing history, utilizing surveys and demographic information, knowing where you live, where you work and what your income is, marketers gain insights into your desires and interests that help them anticipate what you may want to buy. And by sending you personalized mailings – or eventually by customizing advertisements on TV or in the magazines you subscribe to – they can give you information about only those things that interest you. In a sense, today’s marketers are reinventing the revelation – only it isn’t God calling, it’s Land’s End.

I think about that every time I go out to the mail box. A catalog from a book company is welcome, therefore not junk; but an envelope filled with a million coupons from K-Mart is irritating. Marketers don’t want to waste your time (and theirs) sending you junk – they’d rather send you only what you want (and, most importantly, will respond to).

The ability to be the recipient of only what you want is a tempting vision. Expanded, it’s easy to view our entire society returning to the era when everything was custom made. That is one promise of a high-tech society. Could companies know so much about each of us that not only are their marketing efforts customized, but their products too? It is already happening, particularly in service industries, and may not only enhance our lives, but make for a much more efficient allocation of resources: no manufacturing of products that can’t be sold or used; no paper or energy wasted trying to persuade the unpersuadable; no intensifying the informational barrage to compete for our attention or confront us with meaningless choices.

Now, it should be noted that information is a currency (our economic systems are based on it), and the seductive vision of a customized culture has its price. That price is information about yourself. In a customized society, the butcher, baker and candlestick maker have to know a lot about you in order to fulfill your needs and desires. This isn’t so threatening in the rural small town, but in the global village it’s a different matter. If large companies gather a great deal of information about millions of people, what’s to stop them from abusing it? Who controls how it is used? How can you know if you’re getting the truth?

While the public has not heard much about these databases, people within the marketing and advertising industries are very aware of the potential power they possess. Recently Don Peppers, an advertising executive with the agency Lintas:USA, asked "Is this Big Brother, or is this Paradise?" No one seems to know the answer. If it is Big Brother, he’s not the ubiquitous visage of a totalitarian state that we’ve been expecting. He’s more like Mister Rogers turned salesman – willing to put on a comfortable sweater, sit down over a cup of coffee, and find out about your needs.

But the second you begin dreading the emergence of Big Brother, the current changes direction again. Yes, databases are big. Yes, corporations know more about us than ever before. But they are rarely as powerful as we fear. Companies only operate in their own self-interest, and their self-interest is largely determined by the public’s response to what they are doing. They also compete rather than cooperate, so they are hardly monolithic. In addition, companies are limited to methods that work: if they don’t operate in their customers’ best interests, ultimately they fail. Finally, they are run by humans – a thin line of defense, admittedly. But most are people sensitive to the quality of their own lives and reluctant to employ methods they themselves will be subjected to. If there is to be an Exxon Valdez disaster of the Information Age, it will probably be in the corporate abuse of customer databases – but this will undoubtedly mobilize people to regulate the industry and bring attention to the sensitivity and complexity of the information ecosystem.

WE ARE THE MEDIA

Another trend that mitigates the centralization of information is the growing power of the individual to be the media. Desktop publishing, electronic mail and computer bulletin boards, portable video cameras, cellular phones, Fax machines, photocopiers: these technologies are giving individuals more power to communicate, to publish, to broadcast. This trend may raise the informational noise level, but it also gives voice to cultures and peoples that have been suppressed. It allows them to end-run the traditional, often state-controlled media (TV, radio, newspapers) and take their cases to a larger, global audience. The students in Tiananmen Square, the Palestinians on the West Bank, the mujahedin guerrillas in Afghanistan, the Tamils in Sri Lanka – all have used these new, personal technologies to their advantage. What will happen when everyone is actively participating in creating and fueling the global information network? If diversity is an evolutionary advantage, this empowerment of individuals and cultures should make the system stronger, more adaptable – and less predictable. We have no idea what kind of mutations and new species it may produce.

This scenario reminds me of the old Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who. An entire civilization that exists on a speck of dust makes itself heard to the disbelieving friends of Horton, the elephant, by crying out together at once. Will our joining together – the linking of our cultures, hopes, dreams, ideas and imaginations – into one communications lattice or membrane give us a single voice with which our planet can be heard by others greater than ourselves? Is this vast, multi-media ecosystem really a single medium for an audience we haven’t discovered yet? Will it have a consciousness all its own – or is it vital to expanding ours?

Having looked up from the professional media grindstone to consider such things, I find myself reluctant to take on narrow tasks without regard for the larger picture. Looking back, I feel like the woodsman who cut timber "to put food on the table," never considering the consequences to the forest or its inhabitants. No members of the media, nor any participant in the Information Age – be they writers, broadcasters, reporters, editors, artists or producers, professional or otherwise – should ply their craft without an awareness of the greater being their work has brought to life, and the potential it holds for the planet.

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