Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The internet is not an ecosystem, but…

The “internet ecosystem” metaphor is ubiquitous; I’ve used it myself, though with some trepidation. I think I can now reconcile why it’s both wrong and useful.

It’s wrong, strictly speaking, since many aspects of the ecosystem-internet mapping are questionable. As I blogged in 2007 about the “business ecosystem” terminology, the validity of the metaphor is undermined by quite a large number of mapping mismatches:
Number: a food web consists of billions of interactions among animals and plants; a business web comprises a relatively small number of companies

Metrics: Biomass a typical rough measure of an ecosystem; does that map to total revenue, profitability, return on investment, or something else?

Topology: An ecosystem is a lossy, one-way energy flow; as each organism is eaten by the next, energy is lost. Business relationships are reciprocal, and generate value.

Time scales: Species change slowly, but companies can change their role in a system overnight through merger, acquisition or divestiture.

Choice: Interactions between firms can be changed by contract, whereas that between species is not negotiable except perhaps over very long time scales by evolution of defensive strategies.

Foresight: Humans are pre-eminent among animals in their ability to anticipate the behavior of other actors, explore counter-factuals, think through What If scenarios, etc. The response of a system containing humans to some change is therefore much more complex than that of a human-free ecosystem. “Dumb” agents in an adaptive system respond to the change; humans respond to how they think other humans will respond to their response to those people’s responses etc.

Goals: Biological systems don’t have goals, but human ones do. There are no regulatory systems external to ecosystems in a state of nature (if such things still exist on this planet), but there are many, such as rule of law and anti-trust, in human markets. Natural processes don’t care about equity or justice, but societies do, and impose them on business systems. If ecosystems were a good model for business networks, there would be no need for anti-trust regulation.
The connotations of the metaphor are also misleading. Ecosystems are often used to connote stability and vibrant self-regulation; in fact, they often suffer catastrophic collapses. Companies are exhorted to invest in their ecosystem with the goal of becoming a keystone species. It’s not clear why they should do so, from the ecosystem perspective: keystone species don’t typically represent a lot of biomass. Their “bottleneck position”, however, is attractive from the perspective of a company that wants to extract rents through market power.

However, the ecosystem concept has gained traction because there is a deeper truth: both the internet and ecosystems are both examples of complex adaptive systems. (A complex adaptive system may be defined as a collection of interacting, adaptive agents; other examples include the immune system, the human body, stock markets, and economies. Note that adaptive systems are often nested.)

Thus, the internet is to an ecosystem as a whale is to an elephant. It could be useful to think in terms of elephants if one has to manage oceans but doesn’t know much about whales, since both are large, social mammals. However, one can just as well explain whales in terms of elephants – and the differences, e.g. living on land vs. in water – can be decisive in some cases.

With this realization, the utility and limitations of using an ecosystem metaphor when thinking about the internet, as I did in my Internet Governance as Forestry paper, have become much clearer to me. Lessons from managed ecosystems can illuminate the dynamics and pitfalls of managing the internet, and principles (such as the Resilience Principles I outlined in my recent talk at Silicon Flatirons; my presentation starts around time code 01:36:00 of the video) derived from one can be applied to the other.

No comments: