Information ecologies in another context

This post is a partial response to a post at the CLIR blog on information ecology and morality by Timothy Norris.

In 1999 Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day published the book Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart with the MIT press. The book summarizes some of the common metaphors used to describe technology, such as tool, text, system, and ecology. At the same time it reviews some of the major technological critiques of the twentieth century by authors such as Jacques Ellul, Langdon Winner, and Neil Postman. Nardi and O’Day propose the idea of an information ecology as a response to the pessimistic system-level critiques of technology launched by Ellul, Winner, and Postman. An ecology, in contrast to a system, has properties that may help to integrate humans with technology instead of alienating them through some kind of technological determinism.

We define an information ecology to be a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local economy. In information ecologies, the spotlight is not on technology, but on human activities that are served by technology…

An information ecology is a complex system of parts and relationships. It exhibits diversity and experiences continual evolution. Different parts of an ecology coevolve, changing together according to the relationships in the system. Several keystone species necessary to the survival of the ecology are present. Information ecologies have a sense of locality. (Nardi and O’Day, 49-50)

Information ecologies are systems at a human level of comprehension and interaction. They are flexible and evolving to reflect the needs of the people involved in the system and their relationships to the world and to other ecologies. According to Nardi and O’Day “ecology suggests diversity in a way that community does not” because a community can be quiet homogenous, excluding as much as it includes.

In addition, using the term ecology makes an explicit connection to the current crises in the natural environment. It gives the concept a sense of urgency. Community breakdown is recoverable while ecological breakdown is disastrous and irreversible.

The final, and perhaps most important, benefit of using the idea of an information ecology is the idea of locality. Information ecologies are systems but they are one among many different systems which operate at multiple local levels. Because they are local they can be influenced by individual people. This is pitched as as a direct contrast to the work of Ellul, Winner, and Postman who describe technology as an autonomous force which is beyond the control of the individual human being.

So an information ecology allows us to borrow some useful metaphors from ecologists, such as diversity, coevolution, keystone species, and locality. At the same time the metaphor is an intervention against those who would describe technology as a form of autonomous or deterministic systems which are increasingly in control of our lives. I would argue that Nardi and O’Day are at the tail end of the argument about technological determinism that started with people like Ellul in the 1960s and worked its way through the science and technology studies community into the 1980s and 1990s. See the wikipedia entry for some summaries of the ideas involved in the debate over technological determinism

Nardi and O’Day provide a brief discussion of values and technology. They begin by acknowledging that values are negotiated processes. Values change over time as the social structure of the world is altered and as new technologies influence how we engage with the world. Technology is never a neutral tool in the process of value negotiation. The adoption or spread of a particular technology suggests certain actions and precludes others. In other words, to follow Winner, technologies have definite politics.

To continue the theme of pessimism, Nardi and O’Day refer back to an argument made by Postman that the explosive growth of communication technologies over the past 200 years has negatively impacted our fundamental values, to the point that we may no longer have sustainable values. According to Postman the speed with which information comes and goes makes it very difficult for anyone of us to absorb the information and integrate it into a value system. “Information appeared indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.” (quoted in Nardi and O’Day, 62)

It is interesting to note that an information ecology as described by Nardi and O’Day is necessarily part of an ethical dialog. Technologies are not neutral, the people within an information ecology are moral beings who have distinct interests and stances toward technology and information. This differs quite a bit from the criticism raised by Richard Stallman that an ecosystem implies non-judgment. I don’t believe these different uses of ecosystem/ecology can be reconciled because they seem to be completely in opposition. What one person sees as a beneficial metaphorical adoption, capable of making it easier for human beings to intervene in a complex world steeped in technology, another, equally capable thinker, sees as a failure that surrenders any possibility of speaking about morality. There may be no agreed upon idea of what it means for something to be an information ecology.

Nardi, B. A., & O’Day, V. (1999). Information ecologies using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.