Wednesday 7
Histories of Innovation and transformation in complex systems
Ola Tjörnbo
› 11:35 - 12:30 (55min)
› Rondelet
The Internet as a Social Innovation: The Role of Initial Conditions and Ideological Landscapes in Shaping the Development of the World Wide Web
Ola Tjörnbo  1@  
1 : Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience

This paper forms part of the panel entitled “Histories of Innovation and Transformation in Complex Adaptive Systems”.

The Internet is almost certainly the most disruptive new technology to have emerged since the Second World War. It has had an enormous transformative impact on the way people socialize, on the entertainment industry and, latterly, on politics. In all of these areas it is changing the way complex systems operate despite opposition from incumbents who stand to lose the most from this change. In the usual story about transformation in complex systems, such dramatic change is usually attributed to a sudden shock that undermines the legitimacy of the existing regime and allows a new one to emerge (e.g. Geels and Schot 2007), but the Internet has not been the beneficiary of any such moment of disruption, rather it is itself the disruptive force and it has created new regimes were previously there were none. How does such a radical social innovation come to fruition when one would normally expect that it would fail in the face of resistance from the status quo?

The origins of the Internet give few clues about its ultimate disruptive impact. It is a product of both the Cold War and the telecommunications regime that existed at the time of its creation, which was a highly centralized system typically controlled by state monopolies (Abbate 1999). Seen from the perspective of socio-technical transformations theory, it looks like they typical story of a niche innovation that came to colonize and ultimately transform the whole system. But to just look at it this way is to ignore the fact that the radical and disruptive nature of the Internet was intentionally part of its design. It was in fact created by a shadow network of computer engineers and scientists, many of whom were ideologically committed to counter-cultural ideas of individual liberty, freedom of information and values of meritocracy over hierarchy (Castells 2001). The fact that the modern Internet still carries the imprint of these ideas despite the intervening decades of development carries an important lesson about the impact of initial conditions and path dependency on transformations in complex systems.

If we look instead at the emergence of the Internet using the language of fitness landscapes, and Arthurian (Arthur 2009) notions of elective affinity we see the way in which innovations can be shaped simultaneously by the forces of co-existing landscape level ideologies each giving rise to adjacent possible regimes. Using these tools, transformation becomes less a story about one regime being thrown over for another, but rather an ongoing tug-of-war between juxtaposed alternatives, where new regimes and alternative configurations are continually being posited. Thus while the Internet of today seems to be a force for disruption, it is only a few small changes away from being a force for stability and the status quo.


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