[This is a text I wrote for the McLuhan Program
(http://www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca) to start a discussion about the
_structural_ properties of networks as environment.]
"New media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature."
Marshall McLuhan, 1969
Media build an integrated environment based on flows of information.
Increasingly, this environment provides the primary setting for human
The basic elements of that environment are not materials--soil, houses,
or any other tangible form of atoms--but intangible flows of information
produced by and processed through media: Information to communicate
among people, to control processes across time and distances, to check
and reevaluate existing information, and to produce more and new
information. At the interconnections of such flows nodes arise. Nodes
are structures built by the recurrent intersection of different flows
which they, at the same time, process and direct. Nodes can have the
form of large institutions, such as banks or government agencies that
depend on the constant input of information which they process and feed
back into the flow as new information but also--on the other end of the
scale--personal identities are shaped by flows of information: built
upon past experience and maintained and changed in the constant
reshaping through the exposure to new information in everyday life.
Nodes are intensifications and consolidations of flows in which they
constitute structures that process the information and by doing so
maintain themselves and the continuity of the flows.
These two elements, flows and nodes, are mutually constitutive, one
builds upon the other. Flows without elements of structure would be
noise and nodes without flows would be dead. The interconnections
between the nodes constitute the patterns in the flow of information.
They provide the stabilization within the potentially fluid environment
enabling navigation and purposeful, systematic action.
While the nodes stabilize the flows of information and endow a certain
consistency [continuity] to the environment, they are themselves subject
to the dynamics of the environment. These dynamics, produced by the
interactions of the nodes and shaped by the media that channel the
flows, are themselves not reducible to any single node but are the
result of the combination of all flows, of the interaction of all nodes
at the given time reflecting their different capacities to influence.
The dynamics, however, are not random, they have discernible patterns in
which they develop.
These patterns are the four basic dimensions of an information ecology:
All nodes are connected to other nodes through communicative processes.
Other than mechanical machines that are isolated from one another, the
very nature of the ecological environment is its connectedness. The
uniqueness of each nodes, the fact that every node embeds a singular
combination of connections to other nodes, ties them into one large
shared environment in which all elements are interdependent. What makes
this interdependency so vital is the "material" of the flow:
information. Information is not objective data, however, information is
the relation that arises within the environment, it is the difference
that makes difference (Bateson, 1972). Information results from
relationships between two otherwise meaningless pieces of data, it
relates both side of the flow to each other. Marshall McLuhan saw this
very clearly when he wrote: "The 'meaning of meaning' is relationship."
(McLuhan; Nevitt, 1972)
The economy in an integrated environment does not produce isolated
products, such as soybeans or rolled steel, but local groupings of
products that support them each other. Companies exist in mini-ecologies
structured by strategic alliances and synergetic partnerships. The
decline of Apple Computers has been caused by locking in its operating
system instead of liscencing it to other manufacturers and profiting
from the increased variety (Arthur, 1996).
The flow of information does not simply connect two sides; by being
connected they change. A bridge does not simply couple two independent
villages across a river but it creates a new city (or a new war).
The flows of information are infinitely malleable. It is their intrinsic
property to change their direction and quality instantaneously, a
characteristic greatly accelerated by electronic media. Out of such
changes new relationships arise that bring supposedly independent nodes
into a sudden interdependency. Mergers and outsourcing are but one of
the results of the changes of information flows.
Change, however, is neither additive nor subtractive in an integrated
environment. It is ecological. One significant change generates total
change. If you remove a species from a given habitat, you are not left
with the same environment minus that one species: you have a new
environment and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival. This
is how the ecology of information works as well. New flows of
information can change everything (Postman, 1992). The interdependence
of the nodes brings about that information can travel through the whole
environment and, according to the way it is reshaped in each node, it
grows or decreases in relevance and speed.
In a ecological environment where change is ubiquitous and sudden, the
mode of survival is adaptation instead of optimization as is has been
paramount under linear development in the industrial age. The newest
version of Netscape or Explorer is not more better because it has less
bugs but because it incorporates new capabilities adapting to the
fast-paced changes of the Internet.
In an environment where information flows very quickly, at the speed of
light through the computer networks, and the new interrelations arise as
fast as old connections die time is a supreme factor. Except the fact of
continuos change nothing is fixed. Quick moves in the capital markets
can wipe out institutions that were once the foundation of global
empires, as the fall of the Barrings Bank in London as demonstrated
impressively. Information, the means to act upon the flows of
information is only a resource as long as it is timely. The time span in
which information really makes a difference is neither intrinsic in the
information itself nor in the flow upon which it intends to act but is
determined by the relation between the node and flow, by the purpose of
action. For the dealer in the capital markets 15 minute old quotes are
worthless, for the journalist who prepares the daily summary for a
newspaper they are valid, and for the analyst who tries to develop
models for predicting the future movements the quotes of the last couple
of years may be of crucial importance as a testing-ground for his
Information is difference and the nodes survive as long as they can make
a difference, that is as long as they can produce information that is
valid for others. In the information ecology the basis for
cooperation--and survival--is differentiation and not similarity. Highly
differentiated nodes can group together in order to respond to newly
arising opportunities and dissolve after their mission is achieved.
Differentiation is reduction of complexity. Vast amounts of data are
reduced according to the inner structure of the node to specific
information. This information, the difference between the node and the
flow and among the nodes, is the basis upon which the flows are
redirected and new connections are established and old ones maintained.
Arthur, Brian W. (1996). Increasing Returns and the New World of
Business. Harvard Business Review, July-August
Bateson, Gregory (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unit. London:
McLuhan, Marshall; Nevitt, Barrington (1972). Take Today: The Executive
as Dropout. Don Mills, Ont.: Longman Canada Ltd
Nevitt, Barrington (1982). The Communication Ecology: Re-representation
versus Replica. Toronto, London, Sidney: Butterworth
Postman, Neil (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to
Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
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