A New Chapter to Behold as the Network of Life Unfolds
Turning what I’ve learned and gained into a nutrient life sustained
Today’s post happens to land on my last day at Microsoft. After twenty-nine years of incredible good fortune – that has given me much – it is time I give back. I’ll be spending more time and energy on Interplace and advocating for sustainable transportation and land use policies that enable better interactions between people and place. I’ll also be helping nurse some local native plants and trees back into our parks. Nature has given me much, it is time I give back.
As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.
Please leave your comments below or email me directly.
Now let’s go…
HCI AND ORGANIC NUCLEI
I had a long and successful career in the realm of human-computer interaction design. When I first started in the late 80s and early 90s, the design problems were comparatively simple. Most computers, especially in the home, were isolated appliances with little or no connection to each other or the nascent internet. For the most part, they were isolated and closed systems. The interaction and exchange of information occurred between people and the hardware and software they were using. The only real output was an occasional piece of paper emerging from a printer.
But as I wrote back in March, in A Computer on Every Desk and a Car in Every Garage, this all changed as computers became increasingly connected in the mid to late 90s. The proliferation of personal computers coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web and before long email became pervasive and people with access to a PC and a dial-up internet connection were surfing the web. Human-computer interaction was still happening mostly on a PC – often within closed, proprietary software systems like Windows and Office. But the exchange of information was happening between people around the world and increasingly between software as well. An emergent flow of energy and ideas streamed from sole producers of information sitting behind a screen typing, clicking, and altering letters, numbers, and symbols. In addition to isolated and disconnected systems, it also became an open system connecting people around the world. Absent the people, and the system grows feeble.
Ecological ecosystems are also open systems that include isolated and closed systems as well. Unlike human-computer systems where the exchange is with information, ecological ecosystems exchange energy and biochemical processes. Energy is input into the system from the sun and its energy is first exchanged with plants through photosynthesis. These plants in turn provide energy for herbivores who then provide energy for carnivores. The waste and remains of both plants and animals then provide energy for little critters called detritivores. Mice, flies, and worms are well known examples of detritivores that make most people squirm at the thought of consuming, but crabs and lobsters are detritivores too and many people can’t wait to eat them. As an evolved omnivore, that has earned and learned the power of free will, I choose to mostly avoid consuming carcass and poop eating creatures for my energy.
This food chain is thus composed of plants as the primary producer of energy, herbivores as the primary consumer, and carnivores as secondary consumers. Detritivores take care of our waste along the way leaving microbes to finish the job of decomposition. This basic food chain is taught to us at a young age and it’s easy to grasp. But it oversimplifies the ecosystem and gives the illusion of a singular closed system in a sequenced chain of events. It’s like the closed system of the early PC; information is exchanged through human-computer interaction, a document is pooped out of a printer, and then consumed by hungry knowledge seekers then left to decompose or be recycled.
Ecological ecosystems are open because energy flows through the structure with solar energy as its sole input. Absent the sun, the system is done. Light energy becomes heat energy through cellular processes like photosynthesis and respiration and is turned into heat energy. Once heat is generated it dissipates; gone forever, never to be recycled.
Growing plants then absorb and capture elements like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus from the atmosphere, soil, and water. Animals also acquire some of those same elements, but they obtain even more by gobbling up plants and animals. These elements are then decomposed creating carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and minerals. These components are all then endlessly cycled and recycled within a closed system. We have all the water we have, for example, we can’t make more. We give these lowly restricted natural components and bi-products of a closed system a powerful and lofty name – nutrients.
DESIGNING THE SYSTEM THAT DESIGNS YOU
Throughout my career designing software there have been debates on who and what controls personal computing systems; the people who buy and use these systems or the people who make them. As a human centered design and research manager, I was biased toward – and empathetic of – people using these systems. I was committed to getting out in the world, observing general behavior in the wild, collecting data through qualitative and quantitative field research in search of patterns and clues. These clues could then be studied in a laboratory setting gathering qualitative insights. My intention was to yield a bottoms-up approach to the control of the design of software; observe, gather, analyze, understand, communicate, prototype, and iterate. This is the hallmark of human-centered design; assess the needs and necessity becomes the mother of invention.
But there was a competing notion that was controlled from the top down. Blending novel ideas with familiar constructs, creative individuals could invent solutions that solved problems people didn’t even knew they had. This would sometimes yield entire products, but also failed solutions in search of problems. Microsoft hired a lot of smart and creative people; many of whom were also aggressive and predatory; preying on the ideas of others and consuming competitors. But by thinning the herd of competing ideas, and sometimes colleagues fleeing whomever he or she is, the fittest ideas, and people, were left to survive. This allowed new ideas and individuals to emerge and even thrive.
These ideas came together in the form of the dominant information producing products of the information age – Office and Windows. And information from the human brain is the sole producer of the personal computing ecosystem. Absent the user, and the system’s a loser.
As much as we all like to take sides and declare clear winners, be it top-down or bottoms-up, it’s a like air and water – you need a little bit of both to survive. The same debate around control of systems exists in ecological ecosystems as well. Advocates of the bottoms-up approach will claim it’s the availability of nutrients to plants that controls abundance. As the primary producer, the more plants there are the more primary consumers emerge. With more primary consumers (herbivores) come more secondary consumers (carnivores). The more food that is added to the food chain, the more energy and natural elements will flow through the system.
But top-down advocates say control of the system is dictated by predators. As the number of carnivores increase, the number of herbivores decrease. This allows primary producing plant populations to grow. Another mechanism that has been observed isn’t top-down or bottoms-up but subsidized across ecosystems. For example, wild predators feeding on controlled populations of livestock or animals in protected rain forests sneaking over to palm plantations to gather more food. In both cases, the interaction between wild and controlled ecosystems increases energy and material production.
Again, a food “chain” is an misleading metaphor. It’s less of a chain made of sequential links and more like the internet – a worldwide web of nodes connected by links. Everything is connected to everything else. But not everything has equal influence. As my cartography professor, and geography legend, Waldo Tobler states in what became Tobler’s First Law of Geography, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." He was referring the cost of interactions between two places that increase with distance, but there are costs to ecological interactions too. If I were a monkey expending energy swinging between trees in a lush Amazon canopy and happened upon a palm plantation three swings into my journey, I’d be stalking up on fruit too. And maybe in an act of reciprocity, I might also gobble up a pesky protein rich rat sneaking their own nibbles of picked or fallen fruit.
BIG COMPANY, BIG INDUSTRY, BIG SCIENCE, BIG CHANGE
Through the course of my nearly thirty years of humble contributions to the shaping of the world’s most used information and knowledge creation tools – in a vast web of a worldwide personal computing ecosystem – a critical examination of the field of ecosystem ecology was emerging. One of the first seminal books on the history of this earth science was written in 1993, just one year after I started at Microsoft: A history of the ecosystem concept in ecology by University of Georgia professor, and Washington State University alumni, Frank Golley.
He reveals just how young the roots of ecological science are, noting the term ecosystem didn’t even emerged until 1935 when the famous British botanist Sir Arthur George Tansley coined it. Emerging out of the science of ecology and biology, the discipline of ecosystem ecology – like so many things in the world – was shaped by world wars, competition, and international politics.
And then in 2010, also at University of Georgia’s esteemed Odum School of Ecology, professor David Coleman published another influential book called Big Ecology: The Emergence of Ecosystem Science. This book is a deep dive into the development of ecosystem science and the role Big Science played in its formation from an insider’s point of view. As big budgets from big nations were filled with big money to fund big wars, big governments had a big influence over science by funding big labs running big computers crunching big numbers.
Those in control and in power were the primary producers of information and they held it close. Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things. And as the Dutch-American preacher, reformer, writer, and editor Reverend Dr. Thomas DeWitt Talmage once said, “the pen is the lever that moves the world.”1
To start my new chapter in life, I have heeded the good reverend’s advice by wielding a pen to move the world. Perhaps it’s hubris to believe such a thing, after all, Microsoft can breed its fair share of arrogance. But as I stroll down the aisle of airplanes – having gifted the detritivores with my waste – I look over the shoulders of passengers busily typing words and numbers, poking symbols and buttons, and dragging clumps of knowledge across the screen. Most all of them are using products I’ve touched in one way or another.
Settling into my seat, I can feel the energy dissipating from the brains of humans filling the cabin with heat as they turn information into knowledge. I close my eyes and imagine countless others around the world doing just the same and am humbled that my little Microsoft pen moved a small piece of their world. I take a deep breath and think to myself; the world has given me much, it is time I give back.