by KELLY HONDULA
A recent article in Wired magazine about user interface design (“Why a New Golden Age for UI Design is Around the Corner”) captured my attention by describing the proliferation of smart technology and wearable computers, such as Google Glass, as an “ecosystem” of devices. As both an ecologist and a lover of words, I couldn’t help but dissect this metaphor—how could something so artificial be comparable to the natural world?
What makes this metaphor work is that it is about the interactions between each piece of technology—instead of species and energy or nutrients, computers are tracking data and sharing information. Primary producers “create” data by recording GPS signals, your voice or text messages, or information about the external world in your smartphone or other device. That data is recorded in a way that can then be shared with other devices across time and space, to the consumers of that information—your friends, a colleague, or you at some point in the future. The network even evolves over time when a new generation of products is released. Version 2.0 keeps and improves upon the best components of the previous product while adding new features.
I recently spent a week thinking about ecosystems—albeit of a very different nature—at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference. Ecologists devote a lot of time to understanding the complexity and value of ecosystems by studying the way biological communities interact with each other and with their physical surroundings. Many of the motivations and procedures for research, however, are motivated and influenced by society. Therefore, it should be no surprise that one theme that emerged from the meeting was the need to study ecological systems from social perspectives—there was even an entire session devoted to the role of philosophy in ecology. How and why ecologists study natural systems have much to contribute to and gain from other disciplines, especially the social sciences. Ecology, therefore, is one component of an interacting community of disciplines—an academic ecosystem.
Whereas the ecosystem of devices that gather and share information about our lives is built for compatibility and interaction, the network of academic disciplines is rife with jargon, disciplinary silos, and irreconcilable assumptions. These disciplines should be “compatible” with each other so that they can share information and knowledge, and in the process add value to each other. After all, the “primary producer” of data in the technological system adds value when it shares information across platforms. It’s neat for a “smart” refrigerator to be able to count how many eggs you have and display that information on the door—it’s useful for the fridge to give you that information on your smartphone, while you’re at the grocery store.
The communication network between these devices requires them to share information, speak the same language, and perceive the same information from many different perspectives. These are the same challenges of compatibility facing discipline-bound academics. A “smart” academic ecosystem would be where developments, or primary production, in each discipline have the potential to be leveraged by consumers in other disciplines who study the same phenomenon. Each discipline would be like a new device that can communicate the data it senses or records across platforms: in other words, “smart.”
Photo: Dave Lawler, Creative Commons