The agent’s context

With an inclusive, non-recursive definition of agency in place, we can now take a detailed look at the essential characteristics that describe the agent. The natural agents did already offer some indications, but we need to consider these characteristics fully abstracted from biology. The definition of agency provides us with the backdrop against which to describe the essence of what makes an agent an agent.

For any agent to fulfil the definition of agency, that agent needs to have a context (in which to exist), a purpose (what to achieve), some means (to interact with the world), some decision-making (to figure out what the next action should be), and choice (more than one way to go).


Agency can only exist within a given context, and the same applies to agents themselves. These concrete environments or abstract situations can take many different forms; the following offers an indicative, non-exhaustive overview.

  • Natural agents can exist in a puddle, a pond or a river; they inhabit the ocean from the sunlit surface to the lightless seafloor; they populate the sky and the soil; you will find them on a mountain or in a desert, a meadow or a forest (they actually are that meadow, that forest); they live on other organisms, and some even flourish inside other organisms (such as the myriad of microbes that support your digestive system at this very moment).
  • Humans of course exist first and foremost in a natural environment (across almost all climate zones on planet Earth). In addition, they inhabit a broad range of abstract settings, which can be social (family, clan, tribe, or state), economic (market, trade network, employment, banking), political (Thing, council or parliament), legal (ownership relations and contracts), religious (parish, congregation, or community), or infrastructural (hamlet, village, city, or metropolis). Any individual human being is engaged in many (if not all) of these settings at the same time, creating a multitude of complex overlaps and feedback loops between those various contexts.
  • Artificial agents like organizations, technologies, and socio-technical systems provide vital context for humans; and those humans thus are part of the context of those artificial agents. At the same time, artificial agents are embedded in wider contexts, as they interact not only with humans, but with other artificial agents as well: organizations with technologies, socio-technical systems with organizations, and so forth. Any interaction with something or somebody else becomes part of the agent’s context, as it is a potential source of influence, be that a threat or an opportunity.

From natural agents to humans to artificial agents, you will find increasingly abstract, ever less tangible contexts. Yet regardless of an agent’s fundamental nature, its context essentially shapes the agent’s outside. This ‘exterior world’ is necessarily dynamic, i.e., it changes over time. And these external changes are the force that urges the agent to respond.

This is the nineth in a series of posts on the agency and how it matters to innovation.

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