1 September 02011

On ecosystems, Adam Curtis and positions of power

I have a chronic habit of reaching more for biological metaphors for to help describe how we inhabit a world of abundant technology and media. Two decades ago, when I was working on large IT systems in the civil service, Ian Franklin and I suggested a shift from thinking about these systems as engineering interventions to a more organic, gardening-style approach. We got short shrift. Kevin Kelly took this thinking much further, and more rigorously, than I ever have in Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines… (large public sector IT systems, "out of control" — hmmm…). But I've come back to it in writing about foraging and discovery, a central metaphor in my book. And the read-across from the natural world is very clear in my work on Ken Thompson's SwarmTribes platform.

I don't claim anything unique or especially prescient about about this interest in eco/bio ways of talking about things. You could tell it was becoming commonplace, if not mainstream, when Becta announced plans for a "content ecosystem" for learning (pdf). The plans themselves were old school, top-down and centralised with negligible scope for organic evolution based on selection and feedback. Practice and terminology rarely develop in sync.

With a much grander scope than technology platforms for learning, Adam Curtis, the documentary film maker and blogger, did a demolition job on the ecosystem idea during his recent BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. It's a good thing to have your cherished notions challenged and put under the microscope, particularly by someone who you might expect to be sympathetic, like Curtis. I don't think Curtis's critique is watertight, but — as Alan Kay famously said of the Macintosh user interface — it's good enough to be worth criticising.

I was on holiday when the ecosystems film (episode 2 of 3 in the series) was broadcast. I had to follow the cat-and-mouse game between YouTubers and copyright owners to see it. At the time of writing, the full episode is available here:

The film is titled "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts". Curtis wrote his own text precis of its argument and Wikipedians offer another. There are blog posts here, here and (most interesting but mainly because it takes off in a different direction) here.

I'm going to pick out two strands of Curtis's argument and one question it seems to beg. There's more to it than this, but these are the points that most interest me in my appropriation of eco/bio terminology and concepts.

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