Intelligent Design, Evolution and the Tech Industry

In the last week or so, highly connected members of the popular professional networking site LinkedIn have complained vociferously about waves of invitations to join competing networking site Doostang.
According to Mareza Larizadeh, co-founder of Doostang, the problem was that their utility that let people import their LinkedIn connection network was buggy and the excessive invitations sent were due to that improperly tested software subsystem.
Be that as it may, what most intrigued me about the discussion that ensued was how eerily it paralleled the societal debate on evolution versus so-called intelligent design. Upon reflect, I believe that the hype surrounding Web 2.0 also falls into just this same category.

Let me start by laying out my perspective of the core foundation of both evolution and intelligent design, so we have a common framework. I’ll try to be agnostic here.
Evolution is built around the idea that things change over time and that the most successful changes, the best adaptations for the environment, are then favored in future generations, creating entirely new and more sophisticated creations over a period of time.
Intelligent design postulates that there are creations that are just too complex, too sophisticated, to have been produced by random chance and that a conscious “being” must have been involved for us to have the creations with which we’re surrounded.
Keeping that in mind, what can one make of the debate between “why do we need another networking site? They’re all just bad rip-offs and imitations” versus “more sites help us figure out what really works on a networking site and helps all sites ultimately improve. Without more competitors, we’d never have improvements at all.”
To me, the former is the argument for intelligent design applied to the world of the Internet; improvements can’t just happen randomly through exploring multiple possible adaptations / implementations, they need someone to control and manage things to ensure the best and most efficient possible outcome.
The latter is exactly the premise of evolution, however; Change and even reimplementation begets different possible directions for a system, and while some of those changes will fail, there will be others that will advance the state of the art. It’s inevitable that there’s a lot of wasted effort along the way, unfortunately, but without evolutionary change, without constantly trying to make things just a bit better, improvements are almost impossible to attain.
This all seems crystal clear to me, and just as in the question of theology, I’m a firm believer in evolution and in the evolutionary path of invention and creation. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in a higher being, a more powerful force than just human will, from a spiritual perspective, but from all of my studies and research, evolution works darn well.
And so what does all this have to do with Web 2.0, you may be wondering? First off, I think it’s important for people to toss out the entire concept of “Web 2.0” because it falsly presents itself as a marker, an important milestone in the development of the Web and in particular Web-based applications. But there’s no “intelligent design” in this new wave of Web solutions, no site that just revolutionized everything.
Instead sites and technologies evolve. The Web came from gopher systems, among other things, for example, and highly-lauded Web 2.0 sites are just evolutionary steps on the road from our collective Internet past to whatever the online future has in store for us.
Blogging, in a similar vein, is just a toolkit, and it is a powerful business solution precisely because it evolved over generations of software development from rudimentary guest book-style online journals into a powerful infrastructure for managing content and community dialog. But there’s no “Blog 2.0” solution, no watershed event or conceptual leap surrounding the release of a particular blogging application or solution.
As David Mamet’s film of the same name neatly states it: Things change.
And that’s just what makes the Internet such an interesting pressure cooker for technological evolution. Things do change, and, sometimes, they get better.
The best part? The intelligent designers are you and me, the users and developers of the Web, the Internet, and the world around us.

7 comments on “Intelligent Design, Evolution and the Tech Industry

  1. What’s missing from LinkedIn, I think, is face-to-face. I think any really successful networking effort is going to have to provide some face-to-face component paired with fabulous web tools. Are there any networking groups successfully doing that that you’re aware of?

  2. If we’re going to use the biological example, what you’re talking about here is more adaptation than evolution.
    Adaptation (in biological systems) is minor changes made by individuals or groups of living things in order to accomodate some environmental variable and are usually behavioral. An example would be bears learning to take food from people instead of hunting it themselves.
    Unlike evolution, adaptation doesn’t require DNA-level changes in order to occur. Also unlike evolution, adaptation is something that every can agree upon.
    Taken into the networking world, these different networking sites are trying to adapt to their surroundings. Doostang essentially got non-fatally shot when it started spewing out invitations to all of the contacts that were put into the system. They are adapting that away.
    LinkedIn was not expecting a large quantity of people who wanted to connect to thousands of other people. They are in the process of adapting their membership model.
    Mass communication (of which Blogging is another method) continues to adapt to what makes sense for the recipients.
    It is discussions like these and missteps like Doostang’s that lead to more and better adaptation.
    And that, regardless of your “origin of species” views, is something we can all get behind.

  3. Good piece, Dave. You wrote: “Change and even reimplementation begets different possible directions for a system, and while some of those changes will fail, there will be others that will advance the state of the art. It’s inevitable that there’s a lot of wasted effort along the way…”
    One of the very first pieces of science journalism I did, while still in college, was an interview with a fairly famous molecular biologist. I still remember something he told me in that interview. To paraphrase (because it’s been a long time), his point was:
    “People who doubt that evolution exists should check out what DNA really looks like. It’s loaded with dead ends and junk, things that didn’t work. It’s not clean at all. I’d hope that God would be tider than that.”
    …I think that’s kind of like the internet in general, and blogs in particular. Yes, it’s loaded with lots of awful crap and cobwebs. But the stuff in it that works is astounding.
    – Amy Gahran

  4. I agree there are problems with the system and I find it hard to get on at times, but as a Harvard MBA who is going to graduate in a few months, I am using Doostang more than any other tool I have at my disposal. The quality of their jobs is incomparable to anyone/where else, from finding a position at hedge funds to a Director of Sales at MTV in Europe, to Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts and even internships for my classmates who are MBA 2007. Also to invite your LinkedIn contacts you need to go through SIX steps
    1 � Sign into
    2 � Click on the LinkedIn icon.
    3 � Enter your LinkedIn email address as well as your password
    4 � Select the contacts you want Doostang to invite. Yes, you need to select the contacts.
    5 � Click on INVITE
    6 � Customize your message and finally click on SEND
    Doesn�t sound very automatic to me, does it now?
    I suggest that we support them, like Gary who liked them so much he offered Doostang free servers ! There are problems, but miss an invite at your peril�..

  5. The continuous problem with people approaching the terms “evolution” and “intelligent design” is that ignorance seldom begets much more than stupidity. In all of your cases, intelligence is required to sift the possibilities and select what works best. Even “accidents” such as teflon required some intelligence to realize a use/application before it became more than a laboratory mess cleaned up and thrown away.
    If you put 1,000,000 monkeys at 1,000,000 keyboards, the keyboards would still have been designed by someone more intelligent than the monkeys. Add monitors and Basic and they still would not produce a usable program, just feces encrusted broken parts.
    Both the planning of intelligent programmers and the useful suggestions of users with intelligence must have more than accidental occurances.
    In nature, the bombardier beetle would never have made it if the chemicals he uses to defend himself came together by random chance; as Dr. Bolton Davidheiser so aptly pointed out in the 1970’s, they would have blown themselves to extinction before they found the right combination.
    Try again, and this time put more intelligence into it. Ignorance is a great place to start an investigation, but a lousy one on which to base conclusions.

  6. I appreciate the comments posted by Ted Bruner, but I’ll go one further–the intelligent human beings needed in order to make the changes allegedly evolving must be orchestrated; thus, the Supreme Being is the primary cause of all things, and I thank God for you and every intelligent techie for making my life easier with computer technology.

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