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.