The ecology of the connecticon by Frank Rennie and Robin Mason
The utilisation of broadband technology in supporting entrepreneurial activity is explored in an attempt to understand the educational skills demanded in the new millennium. A model of a complex adaptive system is proposed that incorporates the whole technical infrastructure of the Internet, plus the human resource utilisation of the Internet users, together with increased levels of interactivity, both between users and between different types of communication devices. We have called this complex system the Connecticon, and attempt to explain some of its key emergent properties. From these we make some suggestions for optimising the changes to conventional practices that we call innovation.
Complex system cycles
Faster access: The Cambridge Ring
Complex data transfers: The Great Book of Gaelic
Hyper-interactivity: Cromarty consultants
Always on: Welsh Internet radio
The dictionary definition of an entrepreneur is 'a business person who seeks to make a profit by risk and initiative' (CED, 2001) In terms of providing education and training to support the formation of this type of person we are faced with two major problems:
- Education does not like risk; it is a constructive science that works by building something new onto something old and in doing so achieves an incremental growth in understanding.
- It is almost impossible to teach innovation, which by its definition is the introduction of new ideas and methods. It is only possible to create a culture in which innovation is able to be recognized, and if possible, realized.
In the subversion of this, and in the creation and support of this culture of entrepreneurial activity we are equipped with a powerful new technology, the Internet, and in particular broadband Internet access. We believe that this is a temporary concept. In the same way as we did not normally talk about 'narrowband' Internet access to 'ordinary' Internet connections before the arrival of popular access to broader bandwidth of data transmission, so we believe that in a short space of time broadband will become the norm, will cease to be referred to as 'broadband' and will form the jumping-off point for a new generation of technology that we can as yet only speculate about.
For the moment, however, let us remain with an examination of the roles of the Internet, and in particular broadband access, in the assistance of education and support for entrepreneurial activities.
Fundamental to the impact of broadband is the level of connectivity it affords. At this stage we want to introduce the concept of "the Connecticon." In simple terms it is a new way of looking at connected information communities. The Connecticon is constructed of three layers, or elements, that interact constructively to give results that are extremely flexible, often unpredictable, and are innovative in an almost infinite variety of combinations — the ideal environment in fact to foster the culture of entrepreurialism in business, education, and in society as a whole. The first layer of the Connecticon is the physical infrastructure of the Internet, the terminals, servers, cabling, routers and all the growing network of paraphernalia commonly known as cyberspace. Evidence shows us that this physical structure of the Internet is increasing at an enormous rate, and despite concerns about the digital gap, is truly global in its proportions (Castells, 2001).
This brings us on to the second layer of the Connecticon, which is the human resource located at the end of each terminal and node in this physical network. Many nodes have more than a single user, but even single users are enormously complicated repositories of knowledge, culture, behaviour, and potential links to other value systems. This vast human resource, added to the physical network of cyberspace is a source for learning and innovation of gigantic proportions, even and possibly because of its unstructured state. Networks are ideal for the replication of ideas, and the introduction of the human role in the interpretation and communication of data adds a rich complexity, given that even the most ardent users of the Internet do not live all their lives through the Web, nor leave behind their memories, reactions, and understanding of real world experiences when they go online.
With the third layer of the Connecticon the potential for education and innovation grows exponentially in exciting and unpredictable ways, constrained only by the mathematical probability of serendipity. The third layer is the level of high quality, high-speed interactions, both between users of the network, and between differing types of devices physically comprising the network what we have termed hyper-interactivity. When we consider these three complex layers as part of an organic structure, not simply consisting of geographically isolated academics using computer terminals, but all types of people, young and old, communicating by computer, mobile phone, digital cameras, satellite and wireless communication links, geographical positioning systems, and with access to almost unbelievably large data storage facilities, then we can perhaps just begin to comprehend the potential of the Connecticon.
For each individual user, the quality of this construction (quality of data and quality of access) will only be as good as its weakest link, and this is where broadband comes in. So what difference will broadband access to the Internet bring to assist business innovation in rural and remote regions? Despite the advertised benefits of broadband connection to the Internet, (BT, 2003) there are currently very few actual examples in the U.K. of these benefits manifesting themselves in the business practices of small businesses, community organizations, or remote locations. After all the hype has been stripped away, it is important to analyse real examples of the potential benefits. Like all new technology there will be gains and losses for society in general and the users in particular. In part, the paucity of examples illustrating how broadband access has changed the culture of business or educational practice stems from the relatively low uptake outwith the urban, corporate business, and academic networks. This is due to both its relatively high cost and complex technical problems in the provision of ubiquitous access. Underlying this restricted uptake is an understandable confusion surrounding new technology, new definitions, and untested working practices. We take the definition of broadband to be simply as:"Broadband services should provide sufficient performance and wide enough penetration of services reaching that performance level to encourage the development of new applications." 
As the authors of this report identify, this definition implies an evolutionary path that is both technical and economic, in which the last link to the individual user is regarded as a potential bottleneck that inhibits innovation and constrains the development of new services elsewhere in the network.
We suggest that this description of the Connecticon, and in particular broadband access to the Connecticon, resembles a complex adaptive system, an organizational structure with many connections and parts that adapt due to feedback mechanisms that gives it the ability to change and survive in a fluctuating environment. It has in fact an ecology of connectivity a scientific system of the relationships and interactions between the human resources (users) and the totality of their online environment. Like all complex adaptive systems the organization of the Connecticon has characteristic behaviours called emergent properties that function synergistically at each level of the organization to give the system a life that is greater than the sum of its parts (Marten, 2001). Three fundamental emergent properties of the Connecticon are:
- Self organization;
- Stability domains; and,
- Complex system cycles.
A key process of assembly of complex adaptive systems (social systems and natural systems) is their self-organising properties known as community assembly. In terms of the Connecticon this is translated as the ability of the system to expand, contract, and adapt structural changes through the process of fitting the parts together in other words the compatibility and convergence of the various elements of the system. In part this is determined by technical features whether one machine can communicate effectively to another, or if software can be understood and adapted. Another part of the assembly process is in the area of convenience new technical solutions, even if they are more efficient, may fail if they do not meet the needs and abilities of their users, the human resource level of the Connecticon. New networks (or sub-systems of Connecticon space) may be added or removed from the system, not simply because their users want them to be, but because their 'ecological niche' in this complex adaptive system is either realised, or rejected by the ability of the new network to be incorporated within the larger system. This leads us neatly to the emergent property of stability domains.
In a complex adaptive system there is a constant fluctuation at the sub-system level between the forces that exert a positive feedback (to promote change) and those that exert a negative feedback (resist change and promote stability). The overall balance of the tension between these processes will determine whether the complex adaptive system as a whole will grow, maintain a steady state, or decline. In terms of the Connecticon, the ecosystem state (the overall state of the system) will be influenced by a very wide range of factors, not simply the technological possibilities, but also culture, social values, human perceptions, education, and understanding. It is a complex mix that varies for a particular time, place, and part of the Connecticon system, but the mixture plays a determining factor in whether the whole system maintains a constant level of activity or makes rapid leaps forwards. In both levels of stability there are enormous opportunities for the construction of new knowledge, the combination of knowledge to raise new levels of understanding, and of course opportunities to capitalise upon this new understanding in an entrepreneurial manner that may further change the perceptions, values, and social habits of human society.
Complex system cycles
A key element in understanding stability domains lies in the emergent property of complex system cycles. It is this property that results in progressive change of the system or sudden switches in direction. In Connecticon terms it could be reflected in the steady rise in numbers of users of e-mail and of the World Wide Web; it could be in the sudden and dramatic growth of mobile phone users; it could be the ubiquitous desire of businesses to have a Web presence; or, it could be the collapse of dot.com companies on the stock exchange. In educational terms and in our context with particular relevance for how businesses learn to change and innovate, we need to consider whether these system cycles are truly new, or if they are simply a new expression of long established cycles of learning and understanding.
We will return to these general properties towards the end of the paper, but firstly we identify those properties specific to broadband access that are challenging the constraints of 'traditional' learning and are resulting in new forms of entrepreneurial activity.
- It is many times faster;
- It allows transfer of more complex data;
- It enables much greater interactivity between users (hyper-interactivity); and,
- It is always on (avoiding dial up connections and line sharing).
In the following case studies we look at each of these features in turn and explore the implications of the technology shift for e-learning (electronic learning or enhanced learning is it is being called in some areas) (Reynolds, Caley, and Mason, 2002).
Faster access: The Cambridge Ring
The Cambridge Ring North East (Carnet) project was started by local residents in 1998 when they realised there was no prospect of either BT or cable companies providing broadband in the foreseeable future. The ring of villages around Cambridge has a high concentration of computer literate residents, many with University connections and others who work from home in related industries such as IT and graphic design. A few early adopters championed the cause, so sure were they that there would be sufficient take-up of broadband to defray the start-up costs. The supplier, Invisible Networks, is working with Carnet, a not-for-profit organisation, and is bearing the capital cost of renting a leased line from Cambridge to the Bottisham telephone exchange and providing wireless antennae and receivers to connect local homes and businesses (Carnet, 2003).
Community uses of broadband are developing as the number of subscribers grows. One example of a much valued service is a Webcam on the main commuter route into Cambridge, so that residents can plan their journeys to work.
The major advantage of broadband, however, is for those who are self-employed or work from home, and need to send and receive large files, images and diagrams. The increased speed now available through broadband has had a significant effect on the working practices of these people:
- Before broadband, information had to be sent on CDs through the post, or be broken up into smaller files to be sent individually;
- Working practices used to revolve around setting things running for several hours while other tasks were done;
- Access to clients’ products used to be through printed brochures received by post. Now these products can be accessed online more readily and in a more up-to-date version; and,
- Before broadband, employees had to drive in to the head office to pick up training material and large data files. These journeys are no longer necessary.
The conceptual barrier to working from home has really disappeared for these people. They produce work more quickly than before and can pace their work more appropriately.
Complex data transfers: The Great Book of Gaelic
The example of An Leabhar Mor (the Great Book of Gaelic) illustrates some of the advantages of broadband for the transfer and access of complex digital data. This is a large, complex, and innovative cultural project that includes poetry, new artwork, a travelling art exhibition, a new glossy book (MacLean and Dorgan, 2002), Web site, educational pack for children, and a documentary film. Each aspect of the project has innovative and entrepreneurial elements, but for our current purposes we will focus on activities related to the Web site, though it is necessary to first describe the central concepts of the project.
The idea was conceived as an exploration of the cultural links between the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland and Ireland. A steering group and selection panel invited 15 Scottish and 15 Irish poets to nominate one of their own poems, plus two others of their choice, with a further 10 poems nominated by a panel to give 100 poems in all, spanning writers from the sixth to the 21st centuries. One hundred visual artists were selected by nomination and open submission and then paired with a poem for which they then produced a creative response. Finally a team of calligraphers was selected to provide an additional response to the individual poems.
The interactive Web site (PNE, 2003) contains the text of the entire book with hypertext links, plus thumbnail illustrations of all of the original works of visual art. Broader bandwidth is undoubtedly advantageous to view these complex illustrations speedily, but the real benefit of broadband access is realized by the next stage of project development. In this phase audio clips of each of the pieces of poetry are being added as hypertext links, combining digital sound with the literary and visual experience. Further plans for Web site development include invitations for new contemporary Gaelic poets to write their own interpretations of the visual art, and for new artists to respond in different ways to the poetry hosted on the site. In this way the site becomes both an archive of 'classical' culture, an organically growing vehicle for the contemporary expression of Scottish and Irish cultural links, and also a powerful teaching and learning resource.
Hyper-interactivity: Cromarty consultants
Calico UK (2003) is an Internet service provider (ISP) and consultancy company that operates from a small fishing village on the northeast coast of Scotland. The company was established in the early 1990s with the specific intention of bringing fast access Internet services to a wider range of small businesses and individual households in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. To this end Calico UK was an early adopter of a dedicated fibre optic connection and though they work with large-scale corporate players, the majority of their clientele are small and micro businesses across the U.K. and specifically in this region. This has given them unrivalled access to customer and business intelligence on the requirements on the installation and use of telecommunications applications. After seven years of broadband use they are established regionally, nationally, and internationally as a small and flexible group combining the ISP with communications consultancy and training.
They identify two strong elements in their successful adoption of extensive bandwidth in their business, the always-on property, and the fostering of trust between users of their online community. This includes a range of links and support for customers without broadband but who wish to adopt communications technology for their own purposes. Calico UK’s use of broader bandwidth has resulted in changes to working practices that include a blurring of job demarcation in the company, and making use of the always-on property to share business information and workloads. Enquiries by e-mail to the ISP helpline are posted to an internal staff conference where a number of staff are able to comment and respond with solutions. Other staff conferences are used to deal with work scheduling and specific tasks, as well as overtime and management records. Being pioneers in their area they were largely unable to utilise conventional training methods for staff, and have relied upon informal Web learning and a high degree of knowledge-sharing, both between staff, and within a network of other companies. Online business relationships have frequently developed into reciprocal business relationships for their mutual benefit. The combination of ISP, training, and consultancy roles places Calico UK in a uniquely informed position to respond to a very varied network of customers and users, and to incorporate their use of broadband as a fixed asset of their business practice rather than simply a utility. They characterise the strengths of broadband in their business as "being able to find a good idea and share it with your colleagues" as well as "not just being what you bring to your online work, but also the added values to online and offline relationships."
Always on: Welsh Internet radio
The example of Radio Acen (Radio Acen, 2003) demonstrates one of the advantages of the 'always on' property of broadband by utilizing 802.11b technology (digital wireless) to operate a learning community, entertainment, and merchandising operation through the medium of Internet radio. In 2002 the Welsh National Assembly backed a community-based initiative called e-fro (e-fro, 2003) to demonstrate the value of 802.11b wireless technology, to stimulate the demand for broadband, and to create online communities to trial innovative projects in Wales (Welsh Assembly Government, 2003). After background research in the Ogwen Valley, west of Cardiff, into the potential links between broadband access and economic and cultural development, a number of pilot initiatives were tested, including wireless demonstrations at the Royal Welsh Show, the National Eisteddford, and a community link between Bangor and Bethesda.
From these initial trials grew a number of cultural and broadcasting initiatives, including the idea of a Welsh language Internet radio service, based upon a schedule of Welsh music with occasional topical pre-recorded programmes in Welsh. In effect, the radio service is offered as a soft 'front' for both informal and structured opportunities to learn the Welsh language. A number of online courses in learning basic Welsh are available from the radio station home page, along with a selection of programmes that can play on request. Listener feedback provides evidence of an international audience, with asynchronous access, largely among the diaspora of Welsh expatriates and their descendants. Online learning courses in this initial phase are being offered free, with the costs being recovered through online merchandising associated with the music and other cultural activities. The radio service was established as an entrepreneurial, private sector initiative, pooling the resources of a Welsh language development agency, TV broadcasting expertise, and a music recording company. The success of the venture is not only in capturing the interest of an international expatriate market, but in the ability to provide high quality digital sound reproduction on request, across time zones and times of day convenient to the users.
There are some fascinating insights to be observed in the treatment of the complex layers of connected technology, the human resources represented by the users of this technology, and the interaction between them. We have analysed these processes as an example of a complex adaptive system, that we have labelled the Connecticon. It has some key emergent properties in common with other complex adaptive systems. The capacity for self-organization is one such key component, and in fitting the parts together the Connecticon is shaped by elements of compatibility, convergence and convenience in terms of both the technological and human social systems. If machines are not able to speak to each other then the transmission of information is impaired, similarly the human contacts require a certain degree of trust and common interests in order to fruitfully exchange information, let alone achieve reciprocal benefit.
Stability domains in the Connecticon can be represented by the consolidation of the 'background' of Internet traffic the e-mail that is simple but effective and continues to grow despite the rise and wane of other 'revolutionising' technological innovations. It provides a steady state to balance the rapid leaps forward in other areas of the Connecticon. In both of these elements, however, the steady state and the radical change, there are startling new opportunities for new constructions of knowledge and increased understanding. A crucial factor in the communication of ideas is the ability for these ideas to replicate and therefore spread themselves throughout human society, and in this the first layer of the Connecticon, the infrastructure of the Internet, there is an excellent dispersal mechanism. From the entrepreneurial perspective, the creation and exploitation of new ideas, there is a dualism required in order to communicate high fidelity knowledge (e.g. shifting prices, or specific confidential information) together with the cultural transmission of knowledge (e.g. contextualising and adapting) that need not be 100 percent accurate. A view of cultural evolution is becoming understood that treats the "self-replicating elements of culture passed on by imitation" as "units of information residing in a brain" and has labelled them 'memes' by analogy to genes as the drivers of biological evolution (Rose, 1998). Looked at in this manner we can appreciate,"that for cultural evolution to occur the fidelity of transmission must lie within a particular range. The fidelity cannot be 100 percent because culture would have no variation, which is required for differential survival to drive evolutionary change. The fidelity must still be very high, or else culture would have no continuity between individuals and 'good tricks' would be lost as quickly as gained, and again evolution would not occur." (Rose, 1998)
The numerous changes to information that occur in its transmission around the Connecticon is another emergent property of the system complex system cycles. It is supported by the actions of the second layer of the Connecticon, the human resource that interfaces with the technological infrastructure. The changes made by the human interface in amending, adapting, and contextualising information occur both by accident and design, but do not occur with every communication of the information. It is this very mutation of an idea to create a slightly different meme that can be used to interpret progressive change of knowledge and understanding. Like its counterpart the gene, the meme does not control its own mutation, and with the infinitely large number of connections (possible and actual) the information is communicated across the super-network of the Connecticon, and an infinite number of potential innovations will be created. These innovations may be copied and communicated to other parts of the system, but their persistence over time, like their counterparts in biological evolution, will depend upon natural selection of the ideas that are adapted to the environment that they reach. From the business or development perspective, the ideas that provide a useful function, whether it is a new source of profit, a more efficient way of operating, or a better organisational structure, will survive. If their survival persists they may help to form a new domain of stability. If the mutation is only successful in the short-term, or the environment changes, then the meme will cease to be culturally appropriate, and like the collapse of dot.com companies, they will be replicated less frequently.
Most mutations are small scale, resulting in gradual evolution. Occasionally, an 'entrepreneurial idea' comes along a large scale mutation and this results in a sudden and complete change of direction that changes the way people think and operate. In order to create an environment in which entrepreneurial ideas flourish, we need both the stable environment of progressive evolution as well as the openness to recognise the potential of novel ideas when they appear. The Connecticon is fundamental to understanding the survival of entrepreneurial ideas. The emergent properties of fast speed, complex data exchange throughout the network are matched by the properties of the human resource to provide the mutation and to interpret the good ideas. The mechanism for recognising good ideas amongst the millions of mutations that provide no useful function is natural selection in a business context.
Part of the difficulty in recognising and managing innovation in the Information Age is that information is not the only, or even the main economy that we are dealing with. It has been argued that we have too much information flowing around the system, and this superfluity has tended to lower the value of information while at the same time it has caused an increase in the value of attention (Goldhaber, 1997). As more demands are placed upon our attention, this becomes a more scarce resource, spread more thinly to cope with the attention seeking demands of dealing with greater volumes of information. As we spend more effort on attention to information, we transform it into something that humans can use, and move with greater sophistication from 'raw data' through 'useful information' to 'wisdom' (Lankshear and Knobel, 2001). This reinforces the importance of the concept of the Connecticon as an interaction between the infrastructure of cyberspace and the human resource that uses investments in attention to sort out the overpowering flow of information into useable commodities (Lanham, 1994). A key feature in reading the emerging ecology of the Connecticon is the construction of filters and gateways that will allow the human users to "facilitate attention to information, to turn it into something useful for users and to enable users to use it more usefully in terms of their wants and goals" (Lankshear and Knobel, 2991). These intermediaries (filters, search engines, bots, etc) will enable more meaningful use of collaborative online technologies online, and in this respect "the 'virtual' is not the opposite of the 'real' it is a medial term, between the real and the artificial or imagined" (Burbules, 2001). Another way in which connectivity can be harnessed to facilitate information processing is through 'user profiling'. We already see the way in which Amazon capitalises on this albeit for selling more books. So instead of notifications such as 'others who purchased this book also purchased these other titles', we could envisage in an educational setting the notification, 'others who accessed this article, also accessed these other resources'. Related to user profiling is what Rheingold calls 'reputation systems' and these also are beginning to find online equivalents:"Note the rise of Web sites like eBay (auctions), Epinions (consumer advice), Amazon (books, CDs, electronics), Slashdot (publishing and conversation) built around the contributions of millions of customers, enhanced by reputation systems that police the quality of the content and transactions exchanged through the sites. In each of these businesses, the consumers are also the producers of what they consume, the value of the market increases as more people use it, and the aggregate opinions of the users provide the measure of trust necessary for transactions and markets to flourish in cyberspace." 
These examples assist us in envisaging scenarios that construct conventional data in new ways and that challenge our conventional predictions of the future, and the values or critical uncertainties that can be explored for new, innovative, and more appropriate solutions for future societies. In short, the Connecticon is creating new social affordances through broader bandwidth, always-on connectivity, increased personalisation and globalised interactivity (Wellman et al., 2003).
- The complex merging of a networked technological infrastructure with the flexibility of the human resource of knowledge users and their opportunities for hyper-interactivity can be regarded as an example of a complex adaptive system that we have termed the Connecticon.
- Key emergent properties of the Connecticon are exemplified by four of the key characteristics of broadband access to the Internet, namely 1) It enables information to be communicated many times faster than previously; 2) It allows transfer of more complex data sets; 3) It enables much greater interactivity between users (hyper-interactivity); and, 4) It is always on and therefore truly global in its application.
- Although our analysis of the Connecticon does not enable us to predict where or when innovation will occur, it suggests two conditions that will allow us to maximise the benefits of entrepreneurial activity: 1) the need to foster a culture of openness to new ideas; and, 2) the need to support the emergent trends towards new ways of team working that include greater collaboration, transparency of knowledge communication, and multi-functional tasking.
Innovation, in business or in education is not something that can be taught, but clearly it can be learned.
About the Authors
Dr. Frank Rennie is Convenor of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Research School of Sustainable Rural Development at the UHI Millennium Institute in Scotland, based at Lews Castle College. He is Course Leader of the MSc in Managing Sustainable Rural and Mountain Development and divides his time between online tuition and research activities relating to a broad range of rural development subject areas including human ecology, and the application of information and communication technology for the support of rural development activities.
Robin Mason is Professor of Educational Technology at the U.K. Open University, where she has been a leader in online teaching and learning through both research and practice. She has extensive experience in designing, tutoring and evaluating online courses for The OU and other institutions in the U.K. and abroad. For many years she was director of a global online Masters Programme and more recently has designed and directed the first pilot course for the new U.K. eUniversities Worldwide. She is a well known author in the field of e-learning, having published five previous books and many journal articles, book chapters and Web pages. She is a regular keynote speaker at international conferences and is often called upon to review online learning provision, courses, articles and conference proceedings.
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Paper received 9 June 2003; accepted 28 July 2003.
Copyright ©2003, First Monday
Copyright ©2003, Frank Rennie and Robin Mason
The ecology of the connecticon by Frank Rennie and Robin Mason
First Monday, volume 8, number 8 (August 2003),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.