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Evolution and the Internet

Evolution isn’t just about biology. Our focus on biology is part of the world-wide (as noted in Spiegel) challenge in getting people to understand how systems evolve. Think of the resistance Galileo faced when he said that the universe didn’t, literally, revolve round us.

One reason people have difficulty accepting undirected evolution is that educators don’t give people a good sense of why things “work”. It’s a difficult problem because we tend to look for a “reason” for why things are the way they are instead of accepting how arbitrary the current state is and the degree to which the present emerged rather than was engineered. Even more so when ambiguity is inherent with meaning coming from context and there is no single measure of best nor a single asymptote.

Good fiction needs a direction and we tend to carry over that approach to nonfiction. We see this in success stories that emphasize the purposefulness of the decisions without the balance of how those same decisions would’ve yielded very different results in other contexts. Even The Innovator’s Dilemma had to play up the one, accidental, success story with a disproportionate share of the book. (There’s a separate issue in education as a profit center leading to the History channel and others to tell tales of ancient aliens and reinforce uncritical thinking).

I see some of the same issues when reading Markoff’s Internet article. Was the Internet created by intelligent designers or was it as a result of engineering decisions in accidental contexts? In my writings (and talks) I emphasize how the Internet emerged as a result of attempts to interconnect computers in the absence of a service provider (Aloha, Ether and Token Ring). This created a constraint that forced us to deal with packets in isolation rather than higher order constructs like entire messages, and voice conversations. A separate history goes from word processing in the days of the PDP-1 to HTML and the accidental confluence of these two histories gave us the Web as an application that put the Internet at the forefront of public policy.

Yet when I see articles about the Internet they tend to focus entirely on the social aspects even though the defining constraint is that the meaning is outside of the network itself and emerges from how we use the opportunities available.

The deeper message of evolution is that the future is unknowable yet physicists and complexity theorists seem to be assuming they can know the future ...

By Bob Frankston, IEEE Fellow

Bob Frankston is best known for writing VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. While at Microsoft, he was instrumental in enabling home networking. Today, he is addressing the issues associated with coming to terms with a world being transformed by software.

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