Monday, June 30, 2003

georgio's web as human stigmergy is refering to Clay Shirky: in praise of evolvable system (about internet, 1996)

Despite the Web's ability to usurp the advantages of existing services, this is a story of inevitability, not of perfection. Yahoo and Lycos have taken over from Gopher and WAIS as our meta-indices, but the search engines themselves, as has been widely noted, are pretty lousy ways to find things. The problem that Gopher and WAIS set out to solve has not only not been solved by the Web, it has been made worse. Furthermore, this kind of problem is intractable because of the nature of evolvable systems.


Evolvable systems -- those that proceed not under the sole direction of one centralized design authority but by being adapted and extended in a thousand small ways in a thousand places at once -- have three main characteristics that are germane to their eventual victories over strong, centrally designed protocols.

Only solutions that produce partial results when partially implemented can succeed. The network is littered with ideas that would have worked had everybody adopted them. Evolvable systems begin partially working right away and then grow, rather than needing to be perfected and frozen. Think VMS vs. Unix, cc:Mail vs. RFC-822, Token Ring vs. Ethernet.

What is, is wrong. Because evolvable systems have always been adapted to earlier conditions and are always being further adapted to present conditions, they are always behind the times. No evolving protocol is ever perfectly in sync with the challenges it faces.

Finally, Orgel's Rule, named for the evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel -- "Evolution is cleverer than you are". As with the list of the Web's obvious deficiencies above, it is easy to point out what is wrong with any evolvable system at any point in its life. No one seeing Lotus Notes and the NCSA server side-by-side in 1994 could doubt that Lotus had the superior technology; ditto ActiveX vs. Java or Marimba vs. HTTP. However, the ability to understand what is missing at any given moment does not mean that one person or a small central group can design a better system in the long haul.
Centrally designed protocols start out strong and improve logarithmically. Evolvable protocols start out weak and improve exponentially. It's dinosaurs vs. mammals, and the mammals win every time. The Web is not the perfect hypertext protocol, just the best one that's also currently practical. Infrastructure built on evolvable protocols will always be partially incomplete, partially wrong and ultimately better designed than its competition.