On ecosystems, Adam Curtis and positions of power

I have a chronic habit of reaching more for biological metaphors for to help describe how we inhabit a world of abundant technology and media. Two decades ago, when I was working on large IT systems in the civil service, Ian Franklin and I suggested a shift from thinking about these systems as engineering interventions to a more organic, gardening-style approach. We got short shrift. Kevin Kelly took this thinking much further, and more rigorously, than I ever have in Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines… (large public sector IT systems, “out of control” — hmmm…). But I’ve come back to it in writing about foraging and discovery, a central metaphor in my book. And the read-across from the natural world is very clear in my work on Ken Thompson’s SwarmTribes platform.
I don’t claim anything unique or especially prescient about about this interest in eco/bio ways of talking about things. You could tell it was becoming commonplace, if not mainstream, when Becta announced plans for a “content ecosystem” for learning (pdf). The plans themselves were old school, top-down and centralised with negligible scope for organic evolution based on selection and feedback. Practice and terminology rarely develop in sync.
With a much grander scope than technology platforms for learning, Adam Curtis, the documentary film maker and blogger, did a demolition job on the ecosystem idea during his recent BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. It’s a good thing to have your cherished notions challenged and put under the microscope, particularly by someone who you might expect to be sympathetic, like Curtis. I don’t think Curtis’s critique is watertight, but — as Alan Kay famously said of the Macintosh user interface — it’s good enough to be worth criticising.
I was on holiday when the ecosystems film (episode 2 of 3 in the series) was broadcast. I had to follow the cat-and-mouse game between YouTubers and copyright owners to see it. At the time of writing, the full episode is available here:

The film is titled “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”. Curtis wrote his own text precis of its argument and Wikipedians offer another. There are blog posts here, here and (most interesting but mainly because it takes off in a different direction) here.
I’m going to pick out two strands of Curtis’s argument and one question it seems to beg. There’s more to it than this, but these are the points that most interest me in my appropriation of eco/bio terminology and concepts.

1. Are ecosystems unstable?

In Curtis’s version, many of us like to think in terms of ecosystems because ecosystems offer a model that is self-organising, free of centralised control — there is no one entity “in charge” — and yet they seem directed to return towards stability, balance and equilibrium. Via the kind intellectual archaeology that he has made his trademark, Curtis traces this model back to a botanist called Arthur Tansley early in the 20th century, who, in turn, took the ideas of self-regulation from Freud’s self correcting psychodynamic processes, all working in service of “great universal law of equilibrium”.
Curtis boldly states that this “law” is wrong: nature is not stable (watch from 41 minutes in). The evidence from studies of wolf and moose populations in the 1970s showed that these populations fluctuated without ever settling to equilibrium. And other research also showed more flux than stability.
Well. According to Wikipedia, Curtis studied evolutionary biology at university. I didn’t, but surely even a cursory familiarity with the field suggests that whether you see stability or chaotic fluctuation depends on the frame you choose for your data collection. Equilibrium clearly does occur at some levels. For hundreds of thousands of years, the Earth keeps its temperature more stable than changes in the sun’s radiation might lead you to expect. Then it ‘flips’ into a glacial era, and stays more or less stable in that state for a long time, before flipping back again. At a quite different level, our own bodies experience stability in many respects (such as body temperature and overall chemistry) while undergoing continuous change through growth and ageing and weathering illnesses that disrupt equilibrium temporarily.

Can we agree that nature includes domains of stability, chaos and flux, all of which interact with each other dynamically?

Whether the term ‘ecosystem’ is appropriate in all the contexts in which it is used is open to question. Scientists like James Lovelock seem wary of the vagueness of referring to ecosystems beyond biology, ecology and Earth system science. To some extent this is surely down to their hypersensitivity to what is lost in translation when technically precise terms are applied more generally. But such translation is part and parcel of all metaphorical thinking, and perhaps ‘ecosystem’ has become a kind of boundary object.
We can argue the toss on terminology and the fine grain of concepts, but can we agree that nature includes domains of stability, chaos and flux, all of which interact with each other dynamically? Where and how you focus determines which of these will seem most dominant. Where you place the boundaries of the ‘system’ in an ecosystem is crucial.

2. Does systems thinking ignore power?

For Curtis, it’s not just that the concept of ecosystems-in-equilibrium does not fit the evidence from ecology: he has two further, related criticisms. Firstly, it is bogus to believe that that thinking in terms of ecosystems somehow captures the wisdom of nature and the natural order. Secondly, that thinking in these terms blinds us to the exercise of power, especially by those who already have it.
Curtis says there’s more system and not so much eco in ecosystem. Far from having its roots in nature, the language of feedback mechanisms and self-regulation is actually the language of machines. He’s right that the field that defined itself through its studies of systems thinking and self-regulation is cybernetics. Cybernetics, according to Curtis, is “a computer’s eye view of the world”. And, thanks to our post-William Gibson perspective, where cyber is the prefix of disembodied virtuality, it’s easy to go along with this. But long before Gibson and cyberspace were even conceived, the cyber prefix was in fact derived from the ancient Greek word for a steersman — not a number-crunching machine, but an active, sentient human making his way by adjusting his actions to adapt to unfolding circumstances, Quite organic, then.

The language of feedback mechanisms and self-regulation is actually the language of machines

This skirmish over what counts as natural and right, and what is artificial and suspect, is part of running battle that has been waged throughout the history of ideas. I’m not going to settle it in a blog post.
Curtis makes the case that applying cybernetic/eco systems thinking to society cannot encompass the role of power and politics. Hence it doesn’t give the whole picture. One solution to this would be simply to say “OK, let’s add power to the model, just add another feedback loop”. One reason Curtis rules this out may be that the commitment to self-regulation in ecosystems should not admit regulation by “outside” forces like politics. In his portrayal, ecosystems = natural forces, while power = human forces, and he honours the Cartesian/Enlightenment divorce that set humans outside nature.
Tellingly, Curtis titled his film “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts” (taken from Arthur Tansley’s reaction to what he saw as the misapplication of his early ideas about ecosystem self-regulation). What we now know about ecosystems is that they are messy and impure, riven by forces at many levels. Of course, vegetation isn’t a system apart from the rest of the organic, and inorganic, world (in Lovelock’s Earth-as-ecosystem Gaia hypothesis rocks and oceans play important regulatory roles).
Again, if Curtis’s criticism of ecosystem models stems from them being ‘vegetational’, I’m tempted simply to correct this by adding the ‘animism’ of power, as well as any other forces that might be missing.
But in order to do that, I have to heal that Cartesian rift and make humans a part of nature rather than set apart from it. Curtis would say I risk falling into another trap here: the science of seeing ourselves as part of nature and natural equilibrium, he says, can easily be used by those in power to maintain the status quo. This is exactly what led Tansley to protest about ‘abuse of vegetational concepts’ when an early advocate of apartheid sought to justify white supremacy in terms adapted from Tansley’s ideas about ecosystems.
Is this risk unique to ideas such as Tansley’s? Surely not. Show me the metaphors for social organisation that have never been used in this way, the ideas so pure and unequivocal that lead those in power to buckle at the knees and surrender. Don’t people in power resourcefully adapt whatever beliefs, values and research findings have currency to suit their own ends? There’s a whole field of study into how they do that. I don’t buy the idea that recognising my position within nature automatically leads to my becoming a cog in someone else’s machine.

The science of seeing ourselves as part of nature and natural equilibrium can easily be used by those in power to maintain the status quo.

Saying that ecosystems models can be are no more prone to abuse than other models is not to dismiss the cases where they have been used and abused. We must stay alert to the question: Whose interests have actually been served by ecosystem and cybernetic approaches? Adam Curtis’s film helps do this, as does work like Fred Turner’s (Turner appears briefly in the film). This analysis goes back at least as far as Cameron and Barbrook’s Californian ideology, which described a syncretic convergence of free love, free software and free markets, and it continues up to Brian Appleyard’s reflections on Curtis’s film:

… the idea of the ecosystem echoed the idea of the global mechanised markets. It also threatened our existence as active, involved individuals by turning us into mere nodes in a network. We would have no power over this network, we would merely have to be its janitors, ensuring its efficient and stability. It is this politically quietist view that leads to the cult of managerialism, the dominant and — Curtis and I agree — probably most pernicious ideology of our time.

It’s one of the paradoxes of open democracy that it is often in the interests of power to be less than transparent about its own existence. “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player.” The power that hides itself avoids stimulating resistance and opposition. Hence the appearance of managerialism, even when the managers are serving vested, ideological interests.

3. If not ecosystems, then what?

I’m not yet convinced by Adam Curtis’s case for dismissing ecosystems models as a way of understanding at least some parts of society. When you pick it apart there are a several points at which it could unravel. And he offers no alternative framework for mapping the complex interactions of dynamic societies. “Follow the power” is not enough. This spoof of Curtis’s approach is a caricature, but accurately points to the sleight of hand he uses in his storytelling craft (it’s also quite funny, if you’ve seen the original films).

But let’s admit, with Curtis, that thinking in terms of ecosystems has its limitations. First we need models that explain and predict flux as they do self-regulation. Not just the dynamics within a system, but the forces and events that morph the very boundaries and constitution of the system.

The power that hides itself avoids stimulating resistance and opposition.

Second, and related to this, we need the conceptual means to step outside the system in order to change the system. This balances out our awareness of the complex web of power in which we are embedded, which may make us feel less able to change things and challenge existing power. As Curtis himself puts it at the end of his film,

What we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, then it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organising things — even rebellions — but it offers no ideas about what comes next. And just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.

The move outside the system is not without hazard, however. It’s the Cartesian break of human from nature, again; the move to Planet Craft in Stewart Brand’s terms when he says “We are as gods and have to get good at it“. It’s a cut-the-crap, don’t-get-bogged-down-in-details attitude. Very male, and flirting with hubris. The risk with trying to improve the world, as John Cage reminded us, is that you will only make matters worse.

3 thoughts on “On ecosystems, Adam Curtis and positions of power

  1. Stable // Unstable seems to me a classic Gestalt Shift thing. (As do most things, to me, if I’m honest.)
    And I think there’s a gestalt shift going on with most ‘powerful’ words (eg ecosystem) where they’re both object and boundary object. (Quite where Hyperobjects fit in, I don’t know – I’ve never seen a ternary gestalt shift, and can’t even visualise one http://contemporarycondition.blogspot.com/2010/03/hyperobjects-and-end-of-common-sense.html)
    Whilst these debates are fun, and even productive, I always wonder why we don’t just cut the drama and drag on the deus ex machina of polysemy – it would work wonders here :-)
    Wish I could make it into town more often for the RFH Wednesdays – this would make a fascinating conversation.

  2. Thanks, Simon, I fear we’re so addicted to the drama and fun of these debates that we’ll continue with them well beyond the limits of comedy (if we’re not there already) and onwards to tragedy. And perhaps I’m just perpetuating that.
    Would be lovely to see you one Wednesday (or another day, at another place) — tomorrow we’ll be having a discussion on and around similar themes to this post.

  3. I enjoyed this post-I enjoyed ‘Machines of Loving Grace’ too. It was an intelligent documentary-perhaps part of the problem is that there aren’t many of these so it is quite easy to be bamboozled by the makers claims, thesis whatever-you have done an admirable job of unpicking these.

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