Survival of the Fittest Technology
I already outlined the ideas of author and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, currently Engineering Director at Google, on exponentially accelerating technological change. His ideas are based on what he calls the Law of Accelereting Returns — the fairly intuitive suggestion that whatever is developed somewhere in a system, increases the total speed of development in the whole system.
The counter intuitive result of this is an exponentially increasing pace, which on the other hand is supported by observations; at this moment the pace of development doubles about each decade, leading to a thousandfold increase in this century compared to the last.
I have also discussed the thoughts of Kevin Kelly described in his book What Technology Wants. Kelly suggests, i line with Kurzweil, that technological development is a natural extension of biological evolution, keeping up the exponential pace that can be observed all the way from single celled organisms (although you could discuss whether DNA actually has had the time to evolve on Earth).
I find also Kelly’s suggestion intuitive. If you consider spoken language as one of man’s first technological inventions, you could ask if it’s not so intimately linked to the human brain that it could be regarded as part of the evolution. Spoken language is a grey zone between evolution and technology that high lights the links between them and their dependence on each other — both having a similar nature if you see them as a whole and if you look beyond the molecules and atoms they are made out of.
This leads to a concept that I have been surprised to observe as being hardly mentioned before — The Survival of the Fittest Technology.
It’s the idea that technological inventions obey the same rules as evolutionary steps in nature. Only the most fit (best adapted, best conceived) inventions will reach the market and gain massive support and usage among people and thus survive and be subject to further development, refinement and combination with other technologies.
This idea is intimately linked to what the biologist and researcher Stuart Kaufmann calls the adjacent possible—that new inventions are based on fundamentals and skills already in place–a concept that the author Steven Johnson develops in the book Where Good Ideas Come From, The Natural History of Innovation (2010):
“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”
Some of the adjacent possibles are inherently strong and more fit than others. When you already have the telephone, the idea to make it cordless and then mobile is so natural and strong that it just cannot avoid being realized. Different details in the development of the mobile phones are equally exposed to the survival of the fittest, defining the path to a robust and useful technological solution.
What you could ask, and what has been discussed by several people, is whether there are multitudes if different paths that evolution and technology development could take, or if the adjacent possible and the survival of the fittest have so strong inherent patterns that there’s basically only one way with small variations. This would mean that if we would replay everything from the Big Bang, the result would be essentially the same.
Kevin Kelly also discusses along these lines. He suggests that there’s a third driving mechanism behind evolution, besides random changes/mutations and natural selection/survival of the fittest. The third vector is structure, inevitable patterns that form in complex systems due to e.g. physical laws and geometry.
He then proposes that technological development is based on a similar triad where the natural selection is replaced by human free will and choice.
I like this link between evolution and technology. But I believe that it’s the random change that is replaced by, or at least mixed with human free will and choice. Accidents and random changes happen, but the function of mutations in nature would largely correspond to human’s intentional design of technology, changing different aspects at will.
My point is, however, that natural selection is not replaced by human choice. It is as present in technological development as in biological evolution. Although the survival of the fittest technology is a result of human choice and free will, it’s a sum of many individuals’ choices, a collective phenomenon, that is not possible to control by any single mind.
And therefore Survival of the Fittest Technology appears to be what survival of the fittest is in nature–an invention/species being exposed to a complex and interacting environment where only the best conceived and best adapted thrive.