ICTs and ecosystems

david_stoddartAs a young geographer, I had the privilege of learning from the extraordinary David Stoddart, and can never forget reading the numerous books and papers on small island ecosystems that he recommended to us in the mid-1970s – and being jealous that he was able to be doing research on beautiful far-away places such as Aldabra!  Likewise, Richard Chorley and Barbara Kennedy’s Physical Geography: a Systems Approach was required reading on several courses.  Although not quite as inspirational as David Stoddart’s physical presence,  I recall being enthused by this book to go back and read some of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work on General Systems Theory, and struggling to balance this with my own increasing interest in structuralism and Marxist theory.

Hence, I have always adopted a principled and historical understanding of the origins and development of the systems approach in academic discourse.  This has made me ever more infuriated by the irritating, and quite simply inappropriate, usage of the word “ecosystem” by so many people, particularly in the business sector, who persist in using the word ecosystem to describe the system of digital technologies, ICTs and telecommunications.  Better argued than most is the use of the word “ecosystem”, for example, in Martin Fransman’s The New ICT Ecosystem (Cambridge University Press, 2010), but it remains fundamentally misguided, and little is gained by adding the “eco” to the “system”!  Despite my constant pleading that such usage is quite simply wrong, and corrupts the meaning of the word “ecosystem”, I have never made headway on this, and so want to try to capture here the basis for my critique.

There are two main reasons why I am so offended by the usage of the word “ecosystem” to refer to digital ICT systems:

  • Perfectly camouflaged dragonflyFirst, the word “ecosystem” is fundamentally a biological concept, and refers to the interaction between organisms and the physical environment in which they live.  The term originated in the early 1930s in the work of Arthur Roy Clapham and was made popular through the writings of the ecologist Arthur Tansley, who particularly emphasised the flows of materials between organisms and the environment.  As an ecological term, it is the “eco” that differentiates “ecosystems” from any other kind of system (the notion of “eco” being derived from the ancient Greek οἶκος meaning “house” or “dwelling”).  I absolutely agree that the context of ICTs is complex and that a systems approach can be of help in understanding and describing it, but I simply cannot see what value there is in adding the fundamentally “biological” attribute implied by the addition of “eco”.  Moreover, the physical, technical character of most ICTs is so fundamentally non-biological, that it seems even more inappropriate to keep using this term.  To be sure there is  exciting work going on at the interface between biological humans and non-biological machines, but this is rather different from the ways in which the word “ecosystem” is traditionally used in the ICT sector.
  • Starehe computer gravey#C4CSecond, and linked to the above, the advent of ICTs has itself actually had huge, and often very negative, implications for the environment, and thus for the very essence of  the “eco” that lies at the heart of the meaning of “ecosystem”. It is great that certain technology companies and organisations are now beginning to take a more environmentally responsible attitude to the environmental implications of their work.  The GSMA for example has placed great emphasis on trying to ensure that its annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is carbon neutral.  Likewise, since 2009 Apple has placed considerable emphasis on environmental agendas, including environmental footprint, renewable energy and product reports.  However, many of the reports on the benefits of ICTs and telecommunications in terms of reducing human impacts on the environment are only partial, and vastly overstate the beneficial aspects of ICT use for the environment.  Again, there are interesting initiatives in this area, as for example with Ericsson’s environmental programme, or the ITU’s environment and climate change work.  However, insufficient research of rigorous quality has yet been done in this area, and the impact of ICTs is such that it seems fundamentally inappropriate to use any word that seeks to impute some kind of positive biological linkage.

So, can people please stop using the word ecosystem to refer to the field of ICTs and telecommunications.  The word “system” alone seems just fine to describe the complex interrelationships and flows of energy between components in whatever integral whole those working in the ICT field want to talk about!


Filed under ICT4D, ICT4D general

7 responses to “ICTs and ecosystems

  1. Reblogged this on Po Ve Sham – Muki Haklay's personal blog and commented:
    An excellent critique of why ICT is not an ecosystem – although I do recall a critique on the discourse of high-tech in which it is demonstrated how, from the mid 1980s, technology companies started appropriating concepts from sociobiology and a very bad interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution to justify business practices and actions. By coincidence, probably, the first time I’ve read about sociobiology was in an IBM-sponsored magazine in the early 1980s. ..

  2. Emergent properties could be taken purely as products of complex interactions, but a whole dimension would still be missing: I do not believe that the Internet can be understood as a system dissociated from its social substrate. So maybe not an ecosystem but at least a sociosystem.

    • unwin

      I completely agree that “system” is appropriate – and systems thinking can indeed contribute to our understanding (albeit with some reservations about boundaries and need also to consider “structures”)

  3. Tim – thanks for venting my own feelings on the mis-use of the term ecosystem. I completely share your views although I could not have put it so eruditely!

    A year or so ago I participated in a MOOC led by Stanford Education Development Professor Paul Kim called Designing a New Learning Environment. I have to say the course was excellent and I learned a good deal but the Prof constantly referred to ecosystems in the way you describe – and it grated on me every single time.

    I shall now direct anyone who mis-uses this term to your blog!

  4. Pingback: ICTs for the SDGs: economic agendas | Tim Unwin's Blog

  5. Pingback: ICTs and the SDGS: an economic perspective – UNESCO Chair in ICT4D

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