Trophic Cascades in Technology

When the first explorers came to North America you could have apparently clubbed cod to death with paddles from small boats. By the late 1990s, however, northwestern Atlantic cod populations had collapsed by more than 95% of maximum historical biomass; the species didn’t even respond to the banning of commercial fishing.
The collapse created a classic trophic cascade. The essence of such things, at least in theory, is that the removal of top predators from an ecosystem can result in cascading consequences through the nutrient levels below, completely restructuring the food web. For example, the removal of cod stocks caused the herbivorous zooplankton population to increase in density, while the nitrate concentrations fell with as the zooplankton rose. All ended at very different levels from where they were when cod were at their peak.
With the recent upheaval in technology markets — new companies rising and former top predators falling — there is a trophic cascade underway in technology. And it is important for all sorts of reasons, not least because we forget how much markets rely on having top predators, the equivalent of sharks or bears, a species that predictably occupies the uppermost rung in the food chain. While such things can be scary, the same way that dipping your toe into the ocean frightens some, it also creates a kind of systems-level certainty, where you know where everything fits in, and where it is safe and where you need to be careful.
The upshot: As existing alpha predators like Microsoft cease being as important in technology, and as new companies like Google rise, the technology trophic cascade is underway. There will be rampant speciation in some areas of the ecosystem, but overall uncertainty is going to rise dramatically. But even though top predators are crucial in the long run, and new ones will emerge in technology, the temporary absence of such things doesn’t have to be catastrophic: To return to the cod fishery example with which I started, in the current north Atlantic fishery the inflation-adjusted value of the combined shrimp and crab taken in now far exceeds that of the cod fishery that it replaced. Opportunities are everywhere, even during radical changes in ecosystems.


  1. It may stun you, but some of us value wildlife species on something other than an “inflation-adjusted basis”. If I take your argument, and assume steady depopulation of the oceans–a sound assumption given rapidly rising seafood consumption worldwide and sushi restaurants in every strip mall–then by the time humans have wiped out everything but hermit crabs, the resulting growth in hermit crab market values makes it all OK.
    What utter silliness, Paul.
    Stick to technology-talk.

  2. Keith — Whether you (or I) like it or not, some species of marine life have market value, and that value can legimately be expressed in numeric terms. Is that the only value that such creatures have? Of course not — saying so would be silly, and I wasn’t saying that.
    Instead, I was making the broader point that trophic cascades have consequences, good and bad, from economic, to moral, to, of course, biological. I was also trying to show that as a _metaphor_ trophic cascades has value in understanding the dynamics of markets.
    After all, most technology markets tip toward having a dominant competitor, and eliminating said company — or even just reducing its potency — has interesting cascading effects …

  3. Paul, I understand perfectly the point you were arguing. It was just a crass way to do it. Humans annihilated a tremendous fishery with unparalleled arrogance and greed. So while I know what you were aiming to say, it still offended me. I know you are better than that.
    Your argument–that removal of a key participant in a business eco-system triggers large disruptions and new hierarchies and relationships–could have been made without resort to that analogy.
    In fact, if you really wanted to make nature-based comparisons–& I think they are dubious anyway–then you might have looked at what happens when apex predator mamals go missing. Take away the wolves, and the deer overpopulate, and eventually overshoot their resource basis (much as humans are doing now).
    All that said, you have a great blog.