18 December 2006

Agre-avating Ecology

I took an immediately dislike to the first reading for the week of 10 October for my course in digital history. It is a chapter written by Philip E. Agre entitled, Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic and Political Contexts.

The first aspect of the article that irked me was, I must admit, that Agre proposed a vision of the future that was in stark contrast – in fact almost the exact opposite – to what I envision. In class that week, I put forth the argument that by using technology and representations of things real, as often occurs on museum websites, we are, in essence, eliminating the physical world, putting in its place a world made up of images with less depth than the objects they replace. I didn’t exactly say all of that, but I sure was thinking it.

The second aspect of Agre’s chapter that bothered me was his use of the word “ecology” to describe the environment in which he feels people will find themselves in the future. Specifically, Agre writes: “Everybody's daily life will include a whole ecology of media.”

I investigated the etymology of the word “ecology,” using two online sources, wikipedia and dictionary.com (Before continuing, I should state, for Agre’s benefit, that wikipedia was not even an idea when Agre wrote his piece in 1995, and dictionary.com had only just launched in May of that same year).

Wikipedia’s entry defines ecology as “the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of living organisms and how the distribution and abundance are affected by interactions between the organisms and their environment.”

Dictionary.com brought up nine different entries for “ecology.” Seven of those entries are relevant, and each of those seven had at least two definitions for the term.

Summarily, the first relates to the branch of biology within which ecology generally falls. The second term, I believe, is that which more easily applies to Agre’s use of the term, yet is still somewhat troublesome (The point of this exercise will eventually become clear, I promise). The second (or third, as it applies) definition provided in most of the dictionary.com results presents “ecology” as a branch of, or relating to sociology; that is, how humans interact with their physical and social environments. Some of the results also label this definition “human ecology.”

Now, some may argue that I am merely squibbling over details, but my distaste for Agre’s argument lies in how he applied the term ecology to mean the interaction and relationship between technologies, not organisms.

The wikipedia entry and all the dictionary.com results specify that “ecology” is an organic term. An “ecology of media” is, therefore, impossible. Unless Agre meant to infer upon these particular media an organic nature they, thus far, do not possess. Perhaps Agre, at the time of writing, felt that these media would have sufficient levels of artificial intelligence to be able to label them organic.

Granted, Agre wrote this chapter over ten years ago, and I am sure that if written today, much of his argument would change given the reality he would see around him. Nevertheless, it was a reading assigned in my class in the year 2006, and therefore must have some resonance in the digital community.

And that was just the first paragraph.

1 comment:

John said...

Hi, Bryan...
Found your blog in a random google, and just wanted to leave a comment to in support of your thinking.

Agree completely with your assessment that the digital world increasingly comes to replace the "real" -- you might want to check out Baudrillard's "Simulations," which is particularly good on this.

One suggestion -- words don't always have to mean what they used to, and they can have metaphorical value when used in new contexts. Media may not "be" an ecosystem (those trained in general semantics are always suspicious of the word "be") but the idea of technology having a relationship to people *like* an ecosystem can be a fruitful metaphor.

There is, for example, a whole communications discipline called Media Ecology; you can google for more.