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H807 – Information ecologies (A13.1)

May 4, 2011

I heard about ecologies in my science course during my BA study, but information ecologies seems to define the traditional definitions in a slightly different way.

Wikipedia provides the following definition:

Ecology from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of”) is the scientific study of the relation of living organisms  with each other and their surroundings. Ecosystems  are defined by a web, community, or network of individuals that arrange into a self-organized and complex systems and several levels of bigger systems constituting systems of smaller systems within them.

However, Wikipedia does not provide a definition for information ecology, but e.g. for human ecology, cultural ecology, industrial ecology or agroecology.

Nardi and O’Day (1999) developed and defined information ecology as complex system of parts and relationships. It exhibits diversity and experiences continual evolution, because different parts of an ecology coevolve, changing together according to the relationships in the system. Several keystone species are present and necessary for the survival. Information ecologies have a sense of locality.

Well, so far that definition given by Nardi and O’Day does not differ so much from the definition given by Wikipedia. Let’s find out in what respect information ecology differ from the ‘original’ definition given about ecology.

I have to be honest, I was sceptic at first, and thought well it is just another version of communities of practice and /or Activity theory (AT), but it is more.  I was pretty fascinated by the reading and I guess what struck me most and what really distinguish it from communities of practice, AT or any other models, theories, metaphors however you want to call it, is the ‘work with heart’ as well as head and hands,  the humanity that is emphasized throughout the whole chapters. Working with heart, hand and head is one of the principles highlighted in care which I try to teach my students, but so far I did not really came along this phrase in computer technology. But that is the main differences, all the other models take a pretty rational, pragmatic and technical stance. Sure values are part of communities and the activity system as well, but not in this degree as in the ecology systems. This models do not talk about the importance of the human heart, they focus mainly on the physical – on what you see. Nardi and O’Day (1999) refer thereby to a Zen notion, and the importance of the spaces between things, that you don’t actually see, but which are nevertheless critical and essential for a health information ecology.

The authors give an example about an office with all its computer, networking, handling applications, etc and how we look at the shape, color, texture and functions of the technology, and how we creatively think about how to make them more usable, appealing, and effective. But less attention is paid to the space between these things – where people move from place to place, talk, have meetings, go to lunch, etc.. The focus is on how questions, considering logistic and tactics, but not necessarily on why questions which explore motivations, objectives and values.

Well, I could continue that an information ecology refers to a system of people, practices and values and technologies in a particular local environment, emphasis here is on locality, and that the focus is not only on relationships involving tools and people and practices, which pretty much sounds again like the activity system, but the authors want us to

‘travel beyond the dominant image of the tool metaphor, an image of a single person and his or her interactions with technology.’

Just read the paper and decide yourself how you like it. A little bit more humanity would suit us well.

And I could need right now one of this little Zen gardens where I could rake the sand to find my inner space and balance 😉


References: Nardi, B.A. and O’Day, V.L (1999) ‘Information ecologies’ in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, pp.49–58.

References: Nardi, B.A. and O’Day, V.L (1999) ‘Values and technology’ in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, pp.59–64.

References: Nardi, B.A. and O’Day, V.L (1999) ‘How to evolve information ecologies’ in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, pp.65–75.

The chapters can be found in Google books.


From → H807

  1. Thank you, Sylvia for the kick up the butt. I have now published my thoughts on Information Ecologies to my blog, although I actually wrote them a few days ago, I left them tucked away in the forum, knowing that we need to get a certain number of words for the next assignment, which is very soon….

    Anyway, I found it interesting that we both firstly went to Wikipedia for our intitial definition of Information Ecology. And I found it interesting that you picked up on parallels in nature, since that is where the majority of us (not just you) have first heard the term. I had never realise that ecology was a way of describing the relationships between aspects of nature…. I had always thought it was simply another word for environment. But, just as the sea depends on the rocks for it’s form, and the grass depends on the sea (water cycle) for it’s survival; so do all the elements of education depend on each other…

    So, all Information Ecology is, in my situation, is a simple metaphor to explain how community, tools and rules are all interdependant. In fact, put like that, it sounds like a metaphor for Engestrom’s triangle!

    • I agree with you and the similarity to Engestroem, but as well to communities also Nardi and O’Day highlighted the differences. But Nardi and O’Day put much more heart into their theory, which I greatly like and which I think is often lacking in the technology dominated and rational, pragmatic world. Therefore XOXO, for a better world 😉

      However, you already a step ahead of me, considering how much more words you have possibly left. I flagged some of the messages I might use, and collected them in a word document, but I need to indentify key themes and think a variety of key themes is what is required, therefore more considerations are required to make wise choices. Not to forget, we are allowed to include one blog post, which will be quite difficult.

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