Digital ecology

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In evolutionary biology digital ecology is a current of thought that posits the fusion or union of the virtual (digital information) and the real (basic life forms). It suggests that all life forms are networks. An important writer in this field was Lynn Margulis, with the speculations on her work made by the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson.


In the early stages of development, simple cells act in a random chaotic way and there is no creative development because the individualistic behaviors cancel out each other. At some point, perhaps by accident, the cells fall into an entrainment or union that networks or yokes their behaviors into some common purpose. A bunch of cells may suddenly find that they are all pointing in the same direction. Then the whole group (herd, gaggle) is propelled through space creating the function of directed (non-chaotic) motion which may be very important for locating new food sources or getting away from enemies.

Once a function is established by evolutionary advantage it becomes firm and will be included and built upon in future developments creating an endless process of transcending and including. As these functions are networked into increasingly complex and coordinated behaviors, life forms emerge and maintain vitality so long as they can "hold it together." What we refer to as "death" is simply the loss of union. To be "alive" means that there is a functioning network of information and behaviors.

At first there is much chaos and randomness of individual behaviors. Then the individual comes to see advantages in networking - often it can be little more than the search for friends by isolated and alone people - communities and functions are born. In this context, creative intelligence can be defined as the ability to interact. The advantage will fall to those whose ability to adapt to and evolve with changing conditions is greatest. The new paradigm of the information age simply gives higher priority to networking and process than to ownership and property.

The maintenance of established forms (property) is essential as a tool but, as is the case for a wise carpenter, it is important to know when not to use the hammer. The maintenance and defense of established forms may be so energy depleting that the advantage lies with those who can move unencumbered into the flow. This is the game plan of the free culture, open source, creative commons crowd. But it is not an either-or situation. It is, rather, a shift of emphasis and attention away from possessiveness toward creativity. The activist of the information age is simply placing faith in an evolving creative intelligence that can be made firm in a network.

A notion of future interconnection environment was described as follows: "An Eco-Grid is an open worldwide interconnection environment reflecting the characteristics of natural ecological environments. Its versatile resources and social roles coexist harmoniously yet evolve, provide appropriate on-demand services to one another, are transformed from one form to another, and communicate in terms of information, knowledge, and service flows through social and economic value chains. It maintains a reasonable rate of expansion of useful resources and assimilates waste resources in light of overall environment capacity." [ Zhuge, H. and Shi, X. Toward the Eco-grid: A Harmoniously Evolved Interconnection Environment. Communications of the ACM, 47(9)(2004)78-83].

The notion of digital ecology is extended to the Cyber-Physical-Socio Ecology. [Shi, X. and Zhuge, H. Cyber-Physical-Socio Ecology, Concurrency and Computation: Practice and Experience, 23(9)(2011)972-984.]


"Digital ecology" is the medley of digital code and environmentalism. The clearest version of this theory, taking it from the abstract and putting it into the practical, is one put forward by James Boyle, a professor of law at Duke University who compares the politics of intellectual property and copyright to the politics of the environment.

According to Boyle, there is need for a politics of intellectual property so as to counteract intellectual property claims which, in his view, have structural tendencies towards over-protection. What is more, intellectual property has no corresponding place in popular debate or political understanding, something which is desperately needed at this point in time.

This is where the notion of a "digital ecology" comes in. Boyle uses the environmental movement for an analogy to describe how a political economy of intellectual property can come about. He explains how the concept of "the environment" enabled different groups with different (and sometimes conflicting) interests to come together within a broad coalition. What is needed in terms of digital media, therefore, is a similar political framework in order to effectively defend "the public domain".

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