From time to time, people sometimes use the word ‘ecosystem’ when talking about technology. But what does technology have to do with an ecosystem? Surprisingly, more than you might think.
I haven’t thought about ecosystems since elementary school. I remember that they have something to do with a lot of living creatures, living together within a balanced and sometimes fragile environment. And there was always art work involved, illustrating forests, streams, tide pools, coral reefs, lakes, deserts, etc.
Meriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an ecosystem as “the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.” But what does that mean exactly? Wikipedia helps breaks this down.
1. Ecosystems include not only living organisms, but also non-living components of the environment (such as rocks, air, and water).
Our technological ecosystem also has both living and non-living components.
The living organisms within this ecosystem consist of the individual user and the people within that individual’s life, who interact with and guide technology use. At the most fundamental level, each individual user has his or her own technology ecosystem. For a child, these people could be parents, caregivers, extended family, teachers, siblings, peers, classmates, librarians, a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, and anyone else who meaningfully participates in the child’s life. Together, the individual and all of these associated people form a single technological ecosystem.
Each ecosystem is not identical and contains various combinations of living and nonliving members. If technology partners are the living organisms, then media and technological devices are perhaps the non-living organisms. Within a single technological ecosystem this could be any arrangement of devices associated with the people belonging to that specific ecosystem. This could include a television, DVD/DVR system, a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet, a smart phone, a landline telephone, and a gaming system, to name a few. But don’t forget less visible forms of technology that also provide convenience and access to information – a Wi-Fi connection, the digital weather station, and smart appliances. More traditional forms of media, such as newspapers and magazines, that are accessed digitally could also be included.
2. An ecosystem is interconnected by
“nutrient cycles” and “energy flows.”
We use technology for a multitude of reasons – to communicate, to share and receive information, to listen, to write, to create, to enjoy, and to learn, to name a few. Technology provides a tool by which to accomplish these tasks. Arguably, the essence of these functions are the very same cyclical exchanges that define human communication. Communication cycles help us connect with others as we share and learn new information. As a result, these cycles help foster a deeper understanding and connection with the world around us. Sometimes we participate in these cycles to absorb new information. Other times, we reciprocate, sharing new information and unique experiences.
These communicative exchanges between living organisms represents the nutrient cycles interconnecting the technological ecosystem, nourishing and improving the lives of those involved. Nutrients provide living organisms with the means or energy to sustain life. Communication isn’t often listed as an essential biological need, like oxygen, water, and food; but communication does help us share information that in turn supports life. For example, knowing the benefits and risks of specific foods, medications, and activities (like exercising or the dangers or electricity) help us make more informed choices, which in turn help improve the quality of life for those within our ecosystem.
The technology ecosystem is interconnected via networks of routers and modems – in other words, Wi-Fi connections, organizational networks, and the Internet. It is through these networks that we share the content that transports our communicative messages – texts, emails, online comments, articles, photos, videos, video messaging, etc. The interconnected nature of these devices within the technological ecosystem provides an avenue in which energy flows and nutrient cycles are sustained.
3. The interactive nature within the ecosystem occurs (a) among the same species of organisms, (b) between different types of organisms, and (c) between organisms and the environment.
This one’s a little trickier. Within an ecosystem, interactions occur between the same species of organisms. This is illustrated by the interactions that occur between the humans participating in the technological ecosystem. For example, during movie night, family members must collectively decide what movie to watch, the comments that no doubt ensue as the movie unfolds, and requests to pause the movie or fork over more popcorn.
This next characteristic – interactions between different types of organisms - may be the most difficult. So far, the technological ecosystem described here primarily consists of humans. However, other living organisms within our daily lives could possibly participate in interactions within the technological ecosystem. Starting with pets, kids take pictures and videos of the family cat or the class fish. While it’s not a communicative interaction, it is an interaction none-the-less. Animals may participate directly in the experience - the family dog may have an affinity for watching spots on television or the pet iguana might take a turn playing Ant Crusher alongside their human companions. On a futuristic level, what about interactions between humans and artificial intelligence?
We often talk about how we use technology in terms of entertainment, social interactions, and productivity. What about how we use technology to interact with our environment? Various forms of technology are used to report information about our environment – weather stations report the weather, doorbells tell us when and sometimes who is at the door, and a smoke detector alerts us to fire danger. Humans also interact with their surrounding environment through technology – using the thermostat to adjust the temperature, selecting media on a television, adjusting the volume of the music playing in our living room, and setting the timer on the dishwasher to run at a convenient time. Consider the smart home – technology that learns our habits and allows us to make environmental adjustments at a push of a button, whether we are at home or thousands of miles away.
4. Both external and internal factors influence
how an ecosystem functions.
In a traditional ecosystem, examples of external factors include the climate, location, and the geological make-up of environmental elements; while internal factors include the types of species living within the ecosystem.
What external factors may affect a technological ecosystem? The environment itself is probably the best place to start. While people still access and use technological devices in the same manner, they may be used for different functions in different environments. In an educational environment, apps on a tablet are used to address learning objectives in the classroom, while the same apps are used for entertainment at home. Other external factors may include technology access and rules set by users concerning technology use.
The things that make us unique individuals also shape the internal factors that affect technology use. These may include, for example, our level of knowledge or experience with technology, our values and preferences, and our own biases. We all have different levels of comfort using various forms of technology. And we each bring different perspectives to the experience. Our familiarity with issues, such as media literacy, screen time, content selection, and media effects, all color our technological experiences. Simply put, individuals don’t view and don’t use technology in the same ways.
5. Biodiversity, or the diversity of the living organisms and materials within the ecosystem, affects how an ecosystem functions.
This last one is an excellent place to end. Any ecosystem needs diversity and balance. As humans we rarely do the same thing over and over and over again. If we did, we would likely get bored, never learn new things, and never grow as humans. Instead we vary our activities, practice moderation, and try new things. What if we binge watched our favorite show day after day after day? We wouldn’t go to work, hang out with friends, exercise, or go on vacations. As a result, we wouldn’t have diversity and balance in our life. The same thing could be said of technology. We use different types of technology, for different functions, within an entire kaleidoscope of the human experience. We should consider why we are using technology, to what extent we are using technology, and how it fits within our life experiences. Exploring the streets of New York city on Google Maps, isn’t the same thing as spending a Saturday afternoon wandering the streets – hearing the sounds of the city, smelling the aroma of delicacies escaping the doors of restaurants as you walk by, or feeling the energy of the city. But Google Maps is a great way to familiarize yourself with the city when planning a trip. When the technological ecosystem lacks diversity and balance, it may affect how the entire system functions.