Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ecosystem alert

When you see references to ecosystems in a business story, raise the shields. Someone is trying to mess with your mind.

The current Business Week has two good examples. An adulatory story about the "Apple ecosystem" (Welcome to Planet Apple, which ran as Welcome to Apple World in hard copy) describes how the company has built its network of partners. Implicit is Iansiti and Levien's notion that the most influential companies are "keystone species in an ecosystem." As I argued in Eco mumbo jumbo, the analogy is flawed in a long list of ways. For example: species don't choose to be keystones; companies interact vountarily, but one organism consumes another against its will; and biological systems have neither goals nor external regulators, whereas industries have both.

The ecosystem analogy is used unthinkingly in this story, judging by the hodgpodge of other metaphors that are used: "[the] ecosystem has morphed from a sad little high-tech shtetl into a global empire," "[its] new flock of partners," "a gated, elitist community," "the insular world of the Mac," "the Apple orchard . . . is still no Eden." Note, though, that most of them refer to places, with a nod to nature.

To get a sense of what's really going on when the ecosystem metaphor is used, let's look at another story, Look Who's Fighting Patent Reform. Computing companies have been pushing for patent reform on Capitol Hill, but "[t]he past few weeks have brought an unexpected surge of opposition from what one lobbyist calls the 'innovation ecosystem'—a sprawling network of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, trade groups, drug and medical equipment manufacturers, engineering societies, and research universities." It's a term used by the special pleader. The only substantive resemblance to an ecosystem is that these groups connect to each other in network. The rhetorical benefit, though, is to invoke the commonplace Nature Is Good. Nature is unspoiled, bountiful, self-regulating: the antithesis of concrete-covered recklessly-regulating partisan politicking. Nature is a metaphor that appeals to both sides of the political divide: it's organic, but competitive; it's an inter-related, but dynamic; it's nurturing, but stern in its consequences. It's therefore ideal when trying to put a halo around an otherwise unsympathetic subject.

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