Punctuated equilibrium

Posted on January 15, 2009


cc arkntinaRomi Mahajan has an interesting little piece that examines developments in computing in terms of theories of biological evolution

He explores different explanations for evolution.  After dismissing  catastrophism (change occurs in a slow, continuous process – “hyperbolic and rather useless with regard to planning and preparation”) and uniformitarianism (IT changes slowly in a continuous and predictable fashion – “not very realistic given what we’ve learned from history”), he settles on punctuated equilibrium

What this theory holds for IT is that over a significant period of time, change might appear to be continuous, but in reality there have been periods of intense and frenetic innovation. When this happens, practitioners of IT must rapidly adapt or perish.  

Romi then goes on to look at the historical record:

After the incredibly fecund late 1960s (the Internet was “invented” in 1969), no real massive changes occurred in the 1970s. The years from 1982 to 1984 saw massive changes in the computer industry, but the 1985-to-1993 era witnessed little that was truly innovative. However, from 1994 to 1995 there were massive disruptions as the client/server computing model entered a phase of maturity, and the emergence of Windows 95 created a fundamental rupture in IT.

Unfortunately this starts to look like not letting the facts get in the way of a good story:  “no real massive changes occurred in the 1970s”.  This can’t be true (I was born for starters!).  But, really, what about the 8008, the 8080, the 6502?  What about the killer app that began the real acceptance of computing, Visicalc?   It’s also not very clear if he’s talking about processes of invention or commercialisation. 

Where I think Romi’s story is useful, is in prompting us to look at the drivers for change – and suggesting a biological metaphor for that is a good thing (as I’ve previously argued). 

We have been in a massive innovation spurt since 2005, and the world of computing is being challenged once again to reinvent itself. Whether it’s “computing in the cloud” or the massive changes IT will very soon need to make to reduce our enormous tax on the environment, rapid change is upon us.
Yay, someone else is picking sustainable computing as a reinvention of computing.   He concludes with: 
The theory of punctuated equilibrium holds, however, that this spurt of innovation will soon give way to stasis. If this is true, we’ll risk becoming less relevant at the exact juncture when the relevance of IT is considered by many to be fundamental. It is up to us, therefore, to control our fate.

If this is true, then we’re in trouble.  Computing has got a very long way to go to be providing an enduring platform for sustainability without significant ongoing development.