This is a very specific, almost arbitrary, example of the systemic nature of the reality in which we live, and an illustration of the coherence of systems across levels and disciplines. The relevance, for me (other than exercising the sense of wonder that I believe should be driving us), is to draw attention once again to the ways in which we can better understand the context within which we live, both “human” and “natural” (it’s all natural, really), and, by doing so, can be better equipped to interact with that context wisely and productively. It stands in opposition to the movement advocating self-governance by shallow platitude, and in support of the movement that insists we are conscious entities, forever summoned to cope with the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.
The October 11 issue of Time Magazine has an article in it about Blockbuster’s “failure at failing” (i.e., its failure to manage its demise in shareholders’ best interests), which made me think of what an excellent example audio-visual entertainment is of the parallels between economics and evolutionary ecology, with the distinction (among others) of far more cross-over synthesis involved in the flow of innovations (like “breeding” of genetically dissimilar species to produce dramatically different ones). It is a story of dominant successors displacing eclipsed predecessors, combining with other dominant successors from other distinct lines of evolutionary descendance
Like a whole new species emerging from the combination of photographs (flipped in rapid succession) and, eventually, phonographs, first silent movies and then talkies spread like Eucalyptus trees in California. Movies shown at movie theaters became a dominant form of entertainment. Breaking this down a little, silent movies were the Neanderthals to the Homo Sapiens Sapiens of talkies, a dominant sub-species either displacing or interbreeding with the “inferior” one, driving it into extinction.
Then, by improving and adapting the technology of broadcasting signals encoded with sound (radio) to this form of entertainment, incorporating moving images as well, a new ecological niche was formed, one that would prove to be immensely robust: Television, in one’s own home (again, television being the dominant successor to radio, with the synthesis of audio-visual entertainment with broadcast technology being its genesis). The various species (audio recordings, radio, movies, and television) have found different ecological niches ever since, sometimes competing at one another’s expense, sometimes contributing to one another’s reproductive success. Silent movies were the only species from these various braided lines of development to go (virtually) completely extinct.
Within the television industry, various micro-ecologies evolved, with three major networks in the United States swallowing up and revitalizing local stations, forming a very robust symbiosis. Different content formats were tried and evolved: Talk shows, variety shows, news broadcasts (all off-spring of radio predecessors in form). Sit-coms, courtroom dramas, cop shows, and other archetypical forms, emerged and evolved, and occasionally blended into new forms (Ally McBeal and Boston Legal each blending comedy and courtroom drama, for instance).
Meanwhile, movies evolved as well, with special effects, and various genres, and various motifs developing and cross-breeding and displacing predecessors in a variety of ways. And some cross-breeding occurred between movies and television (and novels), with mini-series briefly enjoying a heyday (though short-lived due to the expense of production, a species-killer, at least in television, at least thus-far).
Enter video cassettes, a technology cross-pollinator of movies and TV. Now movies produced for cinemas could be watched at home on television sets. This seemed to threaten the survival of the movie industry for awhile, reducing box office revenues dramatically, until the movie industry adapted, and found that home rentals and sales could be every bit as lucrative.
Then the separate evolutionary thread that produced the computer revolution cross-fertilized with these, as with virtually all other evolutionary threads, producing compact disks, and, eventually, streaming video (as well as downloadable songs and i-pods, and downloadable movies).
Blockbuster was an innovative business piggybacking on the invention of video cassettes, which made more sense to rent than to buy. It was a niche waiting to be filled. But like ostentatious displays such as huge antlers on elk or bright plumage on peacocks, signalling to potential mates a surplus of male prowess, few qualities contribute more to reproductive success of products sold in the modern market than increased convenience. So, with the invention of the compact disk (and more manageable postage rates associated with smaller size), Netflix swept in to occupy that niche, ultimately spelling doom for the far larger and richer Blockbuster.
Netflix itself had to adapt to streaming or downloaded video via computer, or it would have been displaced by dominant successors just as it had displaced Blockbuster (which failed to adapt in time, though it might now). In fact, Netflix faces stiff competition from others eager to fill the streaming and downloadable video niche, including Amazon and Apple. And a separate niche exists for supermarket and store based CD rental vending machines, in which Redbox enjoys an early dominance.
I’ve traced above just one set of strands of a far vaster and more complicated net, with, for instance, the evolution of audio recording devices (phonographs to reel-to-reel tape to cassettes to digital, with the various forms of vinyl recordings evolving alongside of magnetic tapes); different filming and projecting technologies and types (as well as production styles); television sets (from small black-and-white to slightly larger, then color, then much larger, then projection, then plasma screen); different television signal delivery technologies (local over-air broadcast, cable, satellite, digital, which catalyzed a proliferation of channels and networks); and, of course, evolving computer hardware and software intertwined with all the others.
Any aspect of the ”anthrosphere” (human social institutions, technologies, products and constructions, and cultural motifs) can similarly be zeroed in on as one aspect of the evolutionary process discussed in “The Politics of Consciousness ,” and “Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future.” We can trace building construction, or aviation, or land transportation, or clothing, or medicine, or money, or markets, or warfare, or farming, or mining, or law, or political forms, or religion, or any other aspect of the human-produced sphere of our existence, in exactly the same way as audio-visual entertainment, and then trace the linkages and cross-fertilization’s among them. By understanding the anthrosphere in these terms, and contextualizing those human systems within the similar biological evolutionary ecological systems (the “biosphere”) that they mimic and echo, all within the framework of other natural systems (e.g., the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere), we have a single, coherent paradigm within which to understand the entire global system, applying complex dynamical systems analysis adapted to the particular forms of analysis evolved to address various subsystems, focusing on different aspects in different ways, zooming in more tightly or panning out more broadly, but not arbitrarily divorcing any one branch from the others with which it is ultimately interconnected.
(see also Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix for more on this general theme).