Why Technologists Should Think Like Biologists

Why Technologists Should Think Like Biologists

Why Technologists Should Think Like Biologists
Our technologies are far from pristine constructions. Frankly, they’re a mess.

Our software evolves over years, or even decades, with bits and pieces being added over time. The IRS uses technologies from the 1960s, and the Space Shuttle used computer chips that were decades old. The code in our automobiles is fantastically baroque, and in many cases may be too complex to understand. Everything from our kitchen appliances and medical devices to our legal codes and bureaucratic structures are, in a word, kluges. A kluge — a term from the engineering and computer science world — refers to something that is convoluted and messy but gets the job done. Think Rube Goldberg contraption meets MacGyver, but without the playfulness. Kluges often have been adapted and constructed over a period of time, with band-aids upon band-aids, serving their function. But woe betide the person who must maintain or fix such as monster.

We think of ourselves as logical and rational beings, ones that build beautiful constructions, but this is not always true. The systems we build grow and evolve over time, with a messiness and complexity that almost borders on the organic.

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In the face of this complexity, we try to impose a simple logic and understanding upon these technologies. This kind of approach, such as what physicists might do when they write a single equation to explain a large system’s behavior, can sometimes work. But all too often, in the face of massive of complexity, we do not succeed. These systems are not amenable to the single equation or a grand theory of how they work. They are too interconnected, with too many exceptions and edge cases, or even too much overcomplication that has arisen as a result of poor design over many years. For example, while it might be relatively simple to construct a piece of software that allows a car to drive on a highway on a sunny day, once a program must contend with one-way streets, lane closures, inclement weather, capricious drivers of other vehicles, and pedestrians darting into traffic for entirely unknown reasons, the complexity of the system balloons. These kinds of systems grow, become more complex, and can no longer be understood by our linear-thinking mammalian brains.

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It might be time to take the organic nature of these technologies seriously. Technologies are enormously complex and have evolved over time. Simply put, if they have a biological quality, perhaps we need to look at how biologists examine living systems, from individual cells and organism all the way up to ecologies. We can examine how biologists examine their own field, querying the world of the organic, and then import some of these ideas into how we understand the world of human-made systems.

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