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Information ecosystems and environments

Glen Edwards, January 2024

Information ecosystems: from the outside in

Information ecosystems are complex adaptive systems that include information, infrastructure, tools, media, producers, consumers, creators, and sharers. They are complex organisations of dynamic social and technological networks within which information moves and transforms in flows. Through information ecosystems, information appears as the master resource, like energy, the lack of which makes everything more difficult.
(modified definition from Internews 2015 via the UNHCR)


An "information ecosystem" serves as a conceptual umbrella that intentionally integrates the physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions of our vast and interconnected world to better account for how these dimensions interplay into complex networks, behaviours, and outputs. Picture an ecosystem as the vast web of nodes and interconnections that define the information landscape of a nation or even the world. From the digital infrastructure that facilitates data transmission to the realm of human cognition and interaction shaping narratives, the information ecosystem encompasses the entire tapestry of how information is obtained, evolves, spreads, and influences outputs and behaviour. 

Information ecosystems can vary significantly in their nature, size, and behaviour. They reflect the diversity of the entities, societies, and nations they aim to describe, with variances as stark as the contrast between a cosmopolitan and technologically innovative city to a conservative and remote group sceptical of electronic technology. Understanding these divergences is crucial; it's about recognizing that information ecosystems are shaped by the unique amalgamation of physical, informational, and cognitive factors inherent to each entity plus the influences of external entities. Whilst the term is generally used in relation national or global entities, such as the Australian information ecosystem, it can also be used to refer to other entities such as the information ecosystem of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

An information ecosystem, by its very nature, adopts an actor-agnostic perspective, transcending the perspectives of constituent entities, systems, or audiences. It is lens that perceives the system as a complex and interdependent set of entities, where the dynamics between physical infrastructure, informational content, and cognitive processes precipitate complex and adaptive outcomes. It enables an outside-in exploration that goes beyond the singular viewpoints of actors, offering insights into the collective dynamics that shape the ebb and flow of information within the ecosystem.

Information environments: from the inside out

[Information environments are] the aggregate of social, cultural, linguistic, psychological, technical, and physical factors that affect how humans and automated systems derive meaning from, act upon, and are impacted by information, including the individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or use information.
(US Department of Defense 2023)

For information environments, the focus shifts from the agnostic view of the entire ecosystem to the nuanced exploration of the ecosystem in relation to one or more actors or networks within the system. Whether examining the information environment around a specific demographic, a particular community, or a network of actors, this viewpoint seeks to understand the contextual dynamics at play. It delves into how the broader information ecosystem exerts its influence on these selected entities and reciprocally, how the actions and responses of these entities reverberate within the larger system.

At the heart of information environments are the actors, systems, networks, and audiences whose interactions within the broader ecosystem become pivotal. Whether it's assessing the media environment surrounding a political figure, scrutinizing the information flows within a community, or understanding the dynamics of a specific computer network, the information environment viewpoint unveils the intricate relationships between these entities and the encompassing ecosystem. This focused exploration allows for a more detailed understanding of the impact, perceptions, and shaping influences that occur within these specific pockets of the information landscape.

In the exploration of information environments, the concept of influence takes centre stage. It becomes a two-way street where the broader ecosystem influences the selected entities, and conversely, these entities contribute to the evolution of the overarching system. The reciprocal nature of this influence underscores the dynamism and adaptability inherent in information environments, offering insights into how localized interactions contribute to the shaping of narratives, the propagation of information, and the outputs of information systems.

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