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Applying “ecosystem” concept to network governance

QUE TIANSHU and MO FEI | 2020-09-17
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The current close interaction between people and the world requires a friendly interface to promote comprehensive development of the society. Photo: FILE 
 
Through exploration and practice, global society continues to rein in science and technology to achieve more humanist aims. Each time a development bottleneck is broken, human civilization is rewarded. The internet, which feeds on digital information and relies on code, is a recent example of how technology can immensely increase productivity. 
 
The internet has fundamentally changed the way we live, think and act. In the digital era, as information technology rapidly permeates every corner of our life, a brand new cyber ecosystem, closely linked to the real world, has already taken shape. When online ecosystems help to promote social equality, a friendly atmosphere, and appropriate social behaviors, it can be deemed a “friendly interface.” 
 
To drive social development in a holistic way as online and offline worlds merging, we need to start by analyzing the exact nature of cyber ecosystems, their key components and their interactions. In addition, we need to explore more policy instruments that could be used to govern the online ecosystem. Only when we have achieved good governance of the cyber ecosystem can we better regulate people’s social behaviors, coordinate social relations, resolve social conflicts and enhance social attachments. 
 
Social attributes of a “cyber ecosystem” 
“Ecosystem” is a biological term. When used in the context of social sciences, the term calls us to observe the development state of all ecological elements, also noting correlations between elements and the environment. Three key elements which make up the cyber ecosystem are network technology, online users and online information. Network technology is the material basis of the ecosystem, users are the builders, and data is the carriers of value and meaning. 
 
The “network environment” refers to the entire online space. On the one hand, it is a physical environment in which technology, equipment, and so on exist. On the other hand, the network environment can be seen as a social environment which is made up of online activities, regulations, etc. Interactions between elements and the environment result in a positionality that combines virtuality with reality. This is exactly what Nicholas Negroponte mentioned in Being Digital by naming the online ecosystem a virtual reality. 
 
New technologies such as big data, cloud computing and 5G have improved the speed and effects of information production, storage, dissemination and acquisition, while also increasing online storage. They have made it possible for users to access the internet faster and with ease. 
 
Currently, the digitization of our social life has become a defining feature and major trend in the information era. Cyber technology has vastly blended with our real lives, which has fundamentally changed the way society formed post-industrialization. The internet has become our key channel for information transfer, social interactions, political participation, and more. As Friedrich Rapp pointed out in Analytical Philosophy of Technology, technology is the display and construction of social life. The genesis of web technology stems from humans’ understanding and transformation of the world, while our social activities are the developing force for the cyber ecosystems. Therefore, the fundamental feature of the cyber ecosystem is its social attribute. 
 
From the perspective of interactive relations, a dynamic landscape in the cyber ecosystem has taken shape due to interactions between users and technologies, users and information, and among users themselves. Cyber ecology’s social attributes determine that user interactions are the key to ever-evolving online landscapes. This is because we humans are the ones who have built the ecosystem, and the administrators, operators and netizens are all important constructors of the cyber ecosystem. 
 
The virtual world stems from reality. Cyberspace not only reflects basic social relations that exist in the real world, but also helps generate new social relations and social structures as users interact with one another in new ways. Furthermore, people’s behaviors and perceptions are also influenced by the cyber ecosystem. Information carries with its meanings and values. Therefore, during the process of information production and exchange, various forms of humanized domains will take shape virtually in cyberspace. This in turn, will either gather value for, or repel netizens to some degree. Cyberspace has exhibited astonishing capabilities in “virtual integration” and “process compression,” which allows the results of the interactions among multiple users to be amplified maximally in a short period of time. 
 
Integrated governance of cyber ecosystem 
Traditional modes of rigid management and control may not work for the cyber ecosystems, as these management modes overlook how the system runs itself, as well as its technical and social attributes. 
 
As Jürgen Habermas expounds in The Theory of Communicative Action, the interest in mutual understanding is intrinsically human, through language, social actors can coordinate actions and interaction within groups (for maintaining solidarity and social harmony). Thus, improving the cyber ecosystem requires integrated efforts and positive stimulation. 
 
First, “tension” is required to govern cyber ecosystems. This means we should not only govern the system from the technology perspective, but also look through the lens of “behaviors” and address issues at the spiritual level. A society can only make improvements when it is guided by a rational hand. It is the same for social activity in cyberspace. In other words, it is essential to offer appropriate guidance, regulation and limitations for online activities. This means that the process of governing the online ecosystem involves the self-organizing, self-governance, self-adjustment and the self-development of netizens. Throughout the process, a netizen will ideally become more rational. This governance process requires synchronized efforts and coordination between all users and all parties. 
 
Cyber ecosystem governance should be resilient. That means it should dissolve imbalance among different groups, maintain the public interests of the network and uphold justice in social networks. All public opinions and events online are related to real society, reflecting a real-world contradiction. China has pushed aside long-term discordance in social structures, which has influenced all facets of social life, and it is necessary to make special laws directly designed for the internet’s virtual interface and online behaviors. In the context of unresolved traditional online chaos and emerging security difficulties, the Provisions on Ecological Governance of Network Information Content has officially come into force, serving as an important step and a necessary condition for promoting the healthy development of online society. 
 
Tenacity is also required. The principal objective of online governance is to maintain the order of online society, but the final goal is to realize online actors’ freedom and comprehensive development. Combined with online information technology and digital resources, human beings have constructed a virtual domain——the cyber ecosystem. The continuous progress of technology and improvement of online space construction has made the cyber ecosystem a new space for humans to obtain free and comprehensive development. Therefore, cyber ecosystem governance, guided by the government, has managed to build a positive cyber ecosystem order and provided a more civilized and orderly environment for people to show their personality.
 
Interactive multi-participant mechanism 
Cyber ecosystem governance is an orderly process aiming to realize a law-abiding society. Since relying on technology alone cannot provide orderly cyber ecosystems, it is reasonable and justified for the government to adjust network content and online behaviors. Influenced by the cultural tradition of “great unity” and the current top-down governance convention, China’s network construction has adopted a government-led model, and regulatory tools remain central to network governance. However, the flat structure of cyber ecosystems has established a new link between the government, companies and netizens. Meanwhile, growing awareness also motivates positivity, initiative and creativity of the multiple participants who are involved in ecosystem network governance. 
 
In the process of moving from being an oarsman to being a navigator, the government should enrich voluntary mechanisms of ecosystem network governance through moral cultivation and specification, including online individual control and online bureaucratic control. Under the influence of rigid systems and flexible education, netizens should improve their inner qualities and personality, containing the spread of rumors, fake information and inappropriate statements, and creating an objective and harmonious online ecosystem for public opinions. At the same time, as mediators between the government, companies and netizens, network organizations should take the initiative to uphold the responsibility of governance, implementing rules to ensure that network members follow legislative regulations and a moral code. 
 
The emergence of the network ecosystems has changed the outer environment for traditional politics, bringing visibility and transparency to political operations. Efficient use of new media platforms could defuse trust problems and negative emotions, bridging the trust gap between society and the public. Modern life blends virtual world and reality, resulting in online public issues have continuously increased social tension as unrestrained online public opinion has challenged the existing order and social stability, likely stirring long-term negative emotions in both online and offline society. The network ecosystem requires not only material support but also psychological guidance. 
 
Overall, cyber ecosystems are a combination of network and reality and represent the unity of virtuality and reality. China has instilled the ecosystem concept into network governance, which means our country has put forward more systemic, comprehensive and all-encompassing requirements for internet construction. This promotes the building of a network governance system that can maintain prolonged stability and a governance pattern which features benign interaction. 
 
Que Tianshu is deputy director of the Center for Rule of Law Strategy Studies at the East China University of Political Sciences and Law. Mo Fei is an academic assistant from the School of Political Science and Public Administration at the East China University of Political Sciences and Law. 
 
edited by NIU XIAOQIAN