Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gardening the Web

I believe that it’s productive to represent the internet/web as a complex human system, but that’s an abstract concept that’s hard to grasp. A metaphor that everyone’s familiar with can enliven this idea: The internet/web as a global collection of gardens, and making policy is like gardening.

Just like a garden, the internet/web has a life of its own, but can be shaped by human decisions. A garden is neither pure nature, nor pure culture; it’s nature put to the service of culture. The “nature” of the internet/web discourse is its technology and commerce, separate from the “culture” of politics and policy. Few would claim that the internet/web should be left entirely to a laissez faire markets; it is also a social good, and some intervention is needed to protect the public interest.

Before delving further into the analogy between gardening and making communications policy, here is a summary of the properties of complex systems which apply to both:

  1. Hierarchy: systems consist of nested subsystems with linked dynamics at different scales
  2. Holism: the whole has properties different from collection of separable parts
  3. Self-Organization: systems organize themselves, and their characteristic structural and behavioral patterns are mainly a result of interaction between the subsystems
  4. Surprise and Novelty: one cannot predict outcomes of interventions with any accuracy; ny given model under-represents the system
  5. Robust Yet Fragile: a system is stable in a large variety of situations, but can break down unexpectedly

Just like the internet/web, there a many kinds of gardens. They vary in scale from window-sill planters to national forests, in governance from personal to public and commercial. Some objectives of gardening are utilitarian, and others aesthetic; some see gardens as primarily productive and others cultivate them for pleasure. Likewise, some see the internet/web as tool, and others as a source of meaning.

While most of the work in a garden is done automatically by the plants and other providers of ecosystem services, humans impose their desires regarding outcomes; similarly, internet/web innovation is driven by entrepreneurs and technologists according to their own agendas, though governments try to impose their will on the outcomes.

Just like the internet/web, managing a garden is often a futile matter; one can never know precisely how things will turn out. Plants that thrive in the garden next door inexplicably languish in yours. Plagues of pests and disease appear unexpectedly. Unexpected consequences abound. For example, people using imidacloprid to control grubs in their lawns may be causing the collapse of bee hives across North America (more).

Just like the internet/web, one can’t stop things coming over the fence from the neighbor’s garden. Birds, squirrels, slugs, and seeds don’t respect boundaries. A garden is embedded in a larger regional system, and its borders are porous. While every gardener can and should shape the garden to their preferences, there is a limit to their independence. The openness brings both plant-friendly bees and bird-chasing cats. Tension with neighbors is inevitable, but can be managed. There is management at many scales, from a gardener’s decision about what variety of tomato to plant for next year, to state-wide prohibitions on planting noxious weeds.

The old silos of traditional communications regulation are like formal gardens or regimented farming. Everything is neat and in its place. There is relatively little variety in the composition and output of the cultivation, and the managers are few and well-defined. Today’s internet/web is more like a patchwork of allotments and wilderness. Control is decentralized, and there is much more variety.

This description of the internet/web as a garden is of course incomplete – like any complex system, different perspectives of the internet will each reveal truths regarding that system that are neither entirely independent nor entirely compatible. The garden metaphor, built on the analogy of the internet/web as a complex system, captures a lot of the key dynamics. It fits with other place-based metaphors for the web (as a building, market, library, or public venue). There is a resonance with tool metaphors, since gardens are as a means to an end, whether pleasure or production. The link to the “internet as communications infrastructure” metaphor is less direct, but they don’t contradict each other.

1 comment:

Peter Haynes said...

In The Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon wrote:

“[T]here is a wisdom of counsel, and again there is a wisdom of pressing a man’s own fortune; and they do sometimes meet, and often sever. For many are wise in their own ways that are weak for government or counsel; like ants, which is a wise creature for itself, but very hurtful for the garden.”

This strikes me as remarkably relevant to your fine analogy. There are a large number of players/individuals on the Web who are “wise for themselves” but “hurtful for the garden” (spammers, keyword agglomerators, app builders, hackers, etc). And to some extent they are operating outside the hierarchy of the Web—they are both within and without the ecosystem. Or perhaps it’s merely that the ecosystem in this case is both fragmented and fractal, and that there is little productive communication between each of the fractal layers. So the ants in their self-contained, self-centered micro-ecosystem have no interest in their effect on the broader macro-ecosystem; and that macro-ecosystem has no effective signaling mechanism to modify the ants’ behavior.

Where does all this lead? Well, perhaps to the idea that top-down regulation in a system as inherently chaotic and fragmented as the Web will always have to be supplemented by the moral imperative (certainly not the Kantian categorical imperative, because that sure as hell hasn’t worked on the Web). Which means that education needs to be a large part of how we garden the Web: we need to teach every creature in the garden (warning: analogy stretching in progress :)) the consequences of their unenlightened self-interest. Which in turn means that the Web, if it is to usefully survive, must become a much closer analog to society—or at least those parts of society that function most effectively as an ecosystem.

What might that look like? My guess is: a lot like the successful big-city neighborhoods described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book I can't recommend highly enough. Read it with the Web in mind, and you realize just how poorly the virtual world of the Web maps to the real world we inhabit. Which is why when we try to regulate it like the real world, we often come up short…