The Ecology of Ideas

The Ecology of Ideas

“Lisa’s at a party where she hears Joe talk about the rash his son has on his knee. Just earlier that day, Lisa had a conversation on Twitter with Julie, her friend who’s a pediatrician, so she tweets Julie from her iPhone and asks if she had any suggestions for Joe. Julie just happens to be on Twitter, so she does some quick reading in her library and sends Lisa a few suggestions. Lisa then tells Joe, who drops by the pharmacy on the way home to pick up a few of the ointments that Julie recommended.”

Situations like this happen so often now that we often don’t think about how fundamentally different our access to people and ideas is than just 5 years ago – let alone 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, Joe would have had to get his recommendations from the local pharmacy and hope that the pharmacist was a reliable authority on children’s rashes. More importantly, though, a random conversation at a party probably wouldn’t have yielded a free answer from an expert.

The interesting thing here is not just how quickly we can get information, but how smoothly ideas jump through mediums. Twenty years ago – before cell phones, Twitter, Google, the grown-up Internet, and such – there was a lot less jumping through channels. You either got your information from the newspaper, television, books, or real-time (usually face-to-face) interactions with people, and most of the information you got from the first three of those sources was broadcast in nature; you had to hope that someone was putting out information relevant to your situation.

That we can get the ideas that we want, when we want it, and how we want is remarkable, but it’s been changing so slowly for us that we don’t see how radically the social landscape has changed. Were these changes to happen overnight, we’d react like the frog thrown in hot water – but instead our social awareness is boiling because we’re oblivious to the gradual rate at which the water has been heated.

Technological Changes Precede Cultural Changes

For most of human history, there was a relatively small minority of people who had the capability to share their ideas. For most of that period, the hurdles to sharing ideas were a result of two factors: 1) it was expensive to produce the physical products that transmitted ideas and 2) few people were literate.

With a low literacy rate, ideas had to spread from one person to another – or at most, from one small group of people to another small group of people. Idea transmission was slow and the natural limits of human memory meant that the only real way an idea could survive is if it eventually found its way to someone who could write, and by that point the idea was so diluted or modified that it was fundamentally different.

But even as technology matured, the social and political factors that limited the sharing of ideas endured. Only the Church and State had the right, authority, and credibility to share ideas until the cultural ripples of Gutenberg and Luther washed over the sands of that social landscape. As technology raced forward, those who could share ideas increased and those who did lagged behind substantially.

The mass adoption of Social Media is the latest extension of this march, and what makes it such a fascinating time is that we’re seeing a true ecology of ideas emerge. Because the real cost and effort of sharing ideas has effectively dropped to zero, more people are sharing ideas. And as more people share ideas, the basic social understanding that you had to be “qualified” to share ideas is eroding at an unprecedented rate.

The Epic Earthquakes That Richter Can’t Gauge

Earthquakes happen when the physical landscape shifts and buckles too quickly, but what we’re experiencing in the social landscape is a global earthquake with disparate epicenters, and many of us don’t catch the breadth of what’s going on because of how localized these epicenters are.

We forget that our academics are still questioning the credibility and legitimacy of Wikipedia, but it’s a fault line of the new social landscape and the old. The music labels’ battles with the peer-to-peer sharing platforms are another – Digital Rights Management is nothing if not a mechanism to prevent the sharing of ideas. The proliferation of open-source software is yet another shift. Lastly, we’re not sure what counts as news anymore precisely because independent digital publishing is rubbing up against the old model of news broadcasting.

In each case, the quakes and aftershocks are the result of the tension around who shares ideas, how they share them, and how we determine what’s worth keeping and what isn’t. And just as in the physical world, as a landscape is transformed, new ecosystems emerge. It starts with the agents that are able to harness the raw resources available, and slowly, but surely, those resources are distributed from one layer to the next.

Up until the proliferation of Social Media – just for ease of conversation, I’m including blogs, forums, and chatrooms as Social Media – the ecology of ideas was dominated by a few species of agents that structured the flow of ideas. It was if radio, television, and printed media were their own continents with their own ecosystems, and, while there was a flow between them, even that flow was restricted – mostly by technology, but the aforementioned cultural factors were still prevalent.

Social Media has served to pull those discrete continents together. I can read something and share it with you on my blog nearly instantaneously, so you get the main ideas from the book without having to interact with the printed media ecosystem. You can hear a song on the radio and share it with me via Twitter, so I don’t have to interact with the radio ecosystem.

In short, we don’t have to be an established agent in one ecosystem to share or receive the resources from that ecosystem. This threatens the established agents – after all, their role in the network depends on things going through them.

The Academic Continent: Where Free And Paid Ideas Collide

I’d like to pause here and talk about the academic continent, since I still have my feet enough in that ecosystem to feel the tension that’s going on there. The modern academic institution is a fascinating ecosystem on its own, and one of the most interesting facets of it for this discussion is the fact that you have to pay to get the ideas within the institution.

Paying money for ideas use to be the norm, but now the general knowledge that had to be paid for through the academic ecosystem and its agents can now be acquired online – for free. It requires a lot of self-discipline, time, and the meta-skill of teaching yourself, but a sufficiently motivated and skilled student can potentially learn in one year what it historically has taken four years to learn at a university.

That said, the academic institutions can no longer compete by providing information that’s common enough to be found online. They have to compete by either providing a learning/teaching experience that you can’t find online or providing high-end, cutting-edge ideas that aren’t widely known enough to be acquired and assimilated online. Given the nature of specialization, non-specialists can’t understand the free specialized information that we have access to, and there’s a divide between the people who can understand it and the people who are prone to share it online.

Teaching doesn’t bring in the millions of dollars required to grow and maintain a university, so there’s an increasing pressure on academics to do the aforementioned research. As more academics respond to that pressure and it becomes the accepted social norm, the degree to which universities provide a novel and quality learning/teaching experience diminishes. Yet students still need to be taught, and to address this, universities now employ a host of adjunct professors and graduate students to handle that requirement.

And here’s the interesting thing: many of those adjunct professors and graduate students are the people who are growing up in the world of Social Media, and guess what they’re doing? Sharing their insights and understanding online. They are the people who are transferring the resources from one ecosystem to another, and as they do it more frequently, it’s going to alter the nature of academic research and teaching.

There are ripples and aftershocks here that we’ll see play out over the next few decades, but keep your eye on the changes. At a certain point, that small reef will become an island, but it won’t have happened overnight.

A Few Insights About the Ecology of Ideas

The journey into the academic ecosystem is instructive because we see a few trends that can be generalized. Let’s take a look at them:

  1. Conditions outside of a particular ecosystem influences changes within the ecosystem
  2. As the ecosystem adapts to outside pressure, new roles and functions emerge
  3. As those new roles and functions emerge, new agents rush in to fulfill them.
  4. Those new agents also bring new characteristics and dispositions into that ecosystem – one of which is the capability to bridge the gap between this particular ecosystem and others.
  5. Species of agents that bridge the gaps between ecosystems do two things: 1) they cause changes to both of the ecosystems they’re bridging and 2) they create their own ecosystem. The ecosystem that harnesses and distributes the resources most effectively wins in time.

Human social ecosystems are different, though, because the value of the resources we share is malleable, and the agents at the top of the chain of a particular ecosystem often have the capabilities to influence many other ecosystems so that there’s an equilibrium in their own ecosystem and others that keeps things at a stasis.

In the next part of this series, we’ll take a closer look at the different roles that we play in the ecosystem of ideas. Stay tuned!

About the Author: Charlie Gilkey writes about meaningful action, creativity, and entrepreneurship at Productive Flourishing. Follow him on Twitter to get bite-sized slices of his musings.

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