Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ecosystem as descriptor

     One of the key concepts in the argument for a sound commons for all living beings is the ecosystem, an ecological paradigm that stresses the interconnectedness of animals, plants, and minerals within a bounded geographical area. Interconnectedness is also one of the four principles I identified in my work on musical and cultural sustainability.[1] Of course, there is much more to an ecosystem than interconnectedness; and fifty years ago when the concept governed ecological science, ecologists worked with mathematical models to determine the flow of energy among the components of ecosystems. Nowadays, the word ecosystem is cropping up all over the place. I began to notice this a while ago, in the phrase “the Apple ecosystem.” Today it’s difficult to find an article about a new Apple or Google product that doesn’t speak metaphorically of their ecosystems. Now that I’m watching for it, I also see the term to describe the financial ecosystem, the urban ecosystem, and the digital ecosystem. Ecosystem hasn’t yet become as ubiquitous as the word sustainable, but it won’t be long before it does.
    What can ecosystem mean outside of its ecological science context? I’ve seen it used, first, as a synonym for system where “eco” appears to add value but doesn’t because “system” will do just as well by itself. Second, it's used as a synonym for an integrated but closed system. Third, it appears as a descriptor for an open, interdependent, co-evolving community, a complex system with a degree of uncertainty--predictions of its behavior cannot be more than probable. It is this last usage that is of particular interest to me. Tellingly, although they imply opposite kinds of systems (closed vs. open), both the second and third usages arose from interpretations of Apple’s business model.
     As a synonym for an integrated but closed system, it comes up in phrases such as “locked into the Apple ecosystem.” Here it refers to how Apple components (hardware, software and media) work with one another but not with non-Apple components.  For example, writing in The Guardian (UK), Benjamin Cohen reviewed the new iPhone 5: “. . . the real reason this device will still be a success and why I upgraded to another iPhone recently, is that all the applications and content I've purchased over the past four years will only work on an Apple product. I'm locked into the Apple ecosystem just like tens of millions of others. That's the true magic of Apple, luring us into using their pieces of technology and then selling us applications, music and video that are locked to their proprietary formats and products. It's a clever tactic and one that looks like it'll keep us hooked for a years to come.” [2]
    Such descriptions of the Apple ecosystem emphasize the pleasure as well as the pain of the tender trap. Here is another: “Every couple of months articles crop up on the Internet calling Apple’s ecosystem a ‘walled garden’ or a ‘golden cage.’ These articles usually try to convince the reader that Apple has lured users into a trap using design/popularity/marketing, shut the door behind them and thrown away the key.” [3]
    The third contemporary usage of “ecosystem” also describes an integrated system, but one that is open rather than closed. Interdependence and evolution are emphasized. A recent book review is a case in point: ”Might DNA be likened to a digital program, and might computer programs themselves evolve within our complex ecosystem of information technology and assume virtual life?” [4] The ideal digital ecosystem is similar: an open, collaborative platform.
    James F. Moore, a systems theorist, applied this open system ecological model to business communities. In a 1993 article, Moore argued that successful contemporary corporations were changing from traditional, vertically integrated, competitive organizations to innovative, collaborative institutions working with partner organizations (suppliers, distributors, accessory-makers) as well as customers in co-evolving communities of common interest and purpose. In his view, successful corporations did not compete with each other so much as build business ecosystems. For an illustration he compared Apple's successful computer community with the older logic of the Tandy organization. Readers born before 1975 might remember the Tandy TRS-80, a popular personal computer from the mid-1980s that ceased manufacture. By contrast, Steve Jobs was said to have built not just computers but the business equivalent of a surviving ecological community. [5]
    Moore’s 1996 book, The Death of Competition, elaborates the business ecosystem analogy explicitly and in great detail. He defines a business ecosystem as follows: “An economic community supported by a foundation of interacting organizations and individuals—the organisms of the business world. This economic community produces goods and services of value to consumers, who are themselves members of the ecosystem. The member organisms also include suppliers, lead producers, competitors [sic] and other stakeholders. Over time, they co-evolve their capabilities and roles . . ." [6].
    As I pointed out earlier in this blog, back in 1984 I published my thoughts on how music cultures were ecosystems, with music in a musical community circulating like energy in an ecological community. [7] But although I made a comparison to a biological ecosystem to describe worlds of musical activity, as Moore used it ten years later to describe worlds of business activity, I did not publish an article and a book elaborating the concept. Ten years later, Moore did, and his remarkable work deserves further attention, which I will reserve for the next blog entry.
     Suffice it to say now that while Moore views business ecosystems as politically revolutionary, progressive and positive, those who think of them as closed systems regard them as dangerous manifestations of late capitalism. For another, as the word ecosystem becomes increasingly ubiquitous in public discourse, its meaning diffuses outside of its original and precise context in ecological science; and this must be taken into account in descriptions of communication among creatures—perhaps “ecological community” rather than ecosystem is a more worthy term, though the word “community” has problems of its own.
     Finally, of course, whereas ecosystem as a concept can fairly be said to have organized the discipline of ecology for most of the 20th century, challenges eventually arose to the idea that nature behaved systematically at all. Ecosystem’s association with the increasingly problematic paradigm of stability, climax, holism and the balance of nature seemed too teleological, lessened its usefulness, and after about 1980 displaced it from the center of ecological science, even as it was gaining ground as a metaphor elsewhere. Yet despite its lowered status, other aspects associated with ecosystem, such as biodiversity and interdependence, retain their central importance in contemporary ecological science.


[1] Jeff Todd Titon, “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint,” The World of Music, Vol. 51, no. 1 (2009), pp. 119-137.
[2] Benjamin Cohen, “Caught in an Apple World,” The Guardian (UK), Sept. 13, 2012, at
[3]  “The state of Apple’s Ecosystem lock-in, and where we’re at today,” Macgasm essay (no author named),  Feb. 9, 2012, at
[4] Michael Saler, review of George Dyson, Turning’s Cathedral, Times Literary Supplement, nos. 5725 & 5726, Dec. 21 and 28, 2012, p. 31.
[5] James F. Moore, “Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition,” Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1993, pp. 76-85.
[6] James F. Moore, The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems, New York, HarperCollins, 1996, p. 26.
[7] Jeff Todd Titon, Worlds of Music, New York, Schirmer Books, 1984, p. 9.

The photo at the beginning of this entry shows new growth of skunk cabbages arising from roots in the fall as the old spring growth decays. The new, green spaeths and decaying, blackened spadices are apparent. Click on the photo to enlarge it for better viewing. Photograph by Jeff Todd Titon, East Penobscot Bay, September, 2012.


  1. Casting electronic media corporations as ecosystems is really putting the horse before the cart, speaking from a media ecology perspective. The vast assortment of phones, pads and computers is not the Apple ecosystem, it's an Apple (mono)culture that depends upon the same digital transmission medium that supports all the other device cultures.


  2. Apple shares the digital transmission medium with other device cultures, yes. Moore is not writing about Apple from a media ecology perspective, but a business ecology one.