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Reproductive Ecology, Dispersal and Innovation in the ICT Ecosystem

The maintenance of species populations at hydrothermal vent sites through reproduction and dispersal is a further feature of the ‘black smoker’ phenomenon (Giese and Kanatani 1987). The analogy of ICT ecosystems for species reproduction and dispersal at vent sites allows us to examine in detail precisely what is involved in processes of innovation and particularly innovation within the micro-competitive environment of high-technology companies. This builds on the macro-environmental innovations that cause such events to occur such as the shifting of tectonic plates and volcanic style eruptions that lead, in turn, to the development of black smokers and hydrothermal vent sites.

As organisms reproduce and develop larvae, the larvae represent new technology products and businesses which undergo incubation, a process essential for the future growth and survival of the species concerned. Similarly, in the micro-competitive environment of the ICT ecosystem, high technology companies have to innovate continually and re-invent themselves in order to survive. Their innovations build on the types of radical breakthroughs that cause vent sites to form. This may take the form of incremental innovation that has potentially radical side-effects. The continuous nature of reproduction at vent sites correlates to the unending innovation taking place within the ecosystems of modern technology companies. Therefore, innovation is not episodic.

However, there are threats to the robustness and longevity of the ecosystem from both external and internal influences and repressive governments seeking to censor the Internet and intelligence agencies pursuing surveillance operations. This impacts upon the robustness of the ecosystem and can potentially cause lasting damage. Repressive governments’ moves to prohibit Internet companies from operating beyond their borders (the great Chinese Firewall) and/or from transferring data outside a country (the German government) has the potential to damage any prospects of long-term innovation (Travis 2013). This type of activity slows up the amount of mineral-rich bacteria (data) being discharged and dispersed by the vent chimneys, thereby reducing overall innovation in the ecosystem which moves from being an open to a semi-closed ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the Snowden revelations, NSA espionage and the demands for the release of private data, have damaged relationships between governments, Internet firms and consumers (Lyon 2015). This could potentially have damaging long-term effects by preventing access to new data as well as blocking data sharing which is essential to successful innovation. However, the constant volatility of the hydrothermal vents, which are complex and chaotic (McMillan and Carlisle 2007) means that these ecosystems can recover quickly to disruptive influences.

Cyber-attacks are another form of serious disruption in real world ICT ecosystems (Talbot 2015). In HTV ecosystems these can occur in two ways. Micro-earthquakes erupt on a regular basis influenced by the tidal currents (Tolstoy et al. 2008) resulting in new vent chimneys forming and new bacteria/data entering the ecosystem. This is outside the large scale eruptions that occur periodically leading to new fields and vent sites. These new innovations may often contain corrupt data and viruses resulting in disruption. If new, non-corrupt data does not enter the system to counterbalance this, then a cataclysmic eruption could occur which would destroy any existing ecosystem. This could be equated to a major cyber meltdown as the bacteria bearing organisms become starved of fresh bacteria/data (Talbot 2015). This would push the ecosystem from a state of complexity to chaos and randomness (Mc Millan and Carlisle, 2007).

Within the ecosystem itself, data theft, intellectual property infringements and minor virus and security breaches also occur. As mentioned earlier in the chapter, these are inflicted by the Tube Anemones and Dandelion Siphonophores (jellyfish) which attach themselves to the seafloor and capture organisms using stinging tentacles. These organisms are scavengers and can be likened to patent trolls and hackers who sting companies in high innovation ecosystems (Watkins and Shughart 2013).

Moreover, within the comparatively stable and regulated ecosystem (which is still complex and has high levels of bounded instability) the dispersal of eggs and larvae equates to the dissemination of new products and new product concepts by technology companies as they seek to monetise and commercialise their innovations. The ability to disseminate and disperse new products and concepts (larvae and eggs) over long distances via vent plumes and currents is also comparable to the ICT ecosystem analogy. According to Van Dover (2000: 281-284), reproduction at hydrothermal vent sites occurs predominantly through asynchronous gametogenesis as opposed to synchronous gametogenesis. This means that reproduction is continuous and all year round, rather than being seasonal or episodic. There is also a high potential for the larvae to disperse over long distances.

In fact, the Internet’s extensive geographic scope and range of technologies mean that new concepts and products are regularly (and rapidly) diffused or dispersed over long distances, by a variety of means, even as they are undergoing incubation and development. Good examples of this are the live beta-testing or crowd-sourcing of new products undertaken by both Microsoft and Google. App development by third-party software developers (Google Plus and the Apple App Store) and the open-source Android software platform are also relevant in this instance (Arthur 2014).

Further direct analogies exist between the methods of larval development and the different types of innovation. Traditional innovation, for example, is closed in nature and takes place within secretive laboratories and R&D centres, with outputs from the process protected by patents, design rights and copyright. The alternative approach is open innovation (Chesbrough 2003) where a broad base of stakeholders make inputs to the development of a product/service. Direct development (Shank et al. 1998), as a larval development strategy, is rare in hydrothermal vent ecosystems; however, it can be compared to the closed form ofinnovation. Direct developers are characterised by a larval stage that has very low dispersal potential and usually looks like the adult form of the animal. These larvae are also known as ‘crawl-away larvae,’ since their larvae crawl away from the egg mass: the larval stages are protected (closed innovation) because they take place within the egg membrane and there are no free- swimming larvae (open innovation), as is the case with other development strategies. The product concept is, therefore, protected and kept secret until final launch in the same way as the larvae (within the egg membrane). Amphipods, primary consumers of vent bacteria (see Table 5.1), would belong to this category. This protection would include patent streams and intellectual property rights in a modern ICT ecosystem. This means that the ‘crawl-away-larvae’ is in a strong position to resist early predation from patent infringement which would otherwise reduce its productivity or useful life expectancy (Watkins and Shughart 2013).

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