The Good Life

Over the last few years, so much accepted wisdom has been found wanting.

Banking on rising property prices, investing in top-rated overseas accounts that tempt with higher interest rates, the immediacy of electronic share trading, omniscient investment advisors, infallible derivatives – even globalisation, the mantra of the 90s and early 00s, has been called into question. If you are staring shell-shocked at the future, wondering what to try next, pick up a good biology book.

Software engineers have been borrowing from the natural world since the earliest computer systems. The whole field of ‘artificial intelligence’ has cribbed ideas from the nervous system (neural networks), evolution (genetic programming and its relatives), immune systems, and more.

But there are some profound lessons to be learned from nature, that can help us pick up the pieces and move onward and – with a bit of luck – upward.

Generally speaking, biology proceeds slowly, from small to great.

Whether in plants or animals, life starts in the small, but with features that support growth and development. Tiny seeds, each containing the information and potential to become much larger and more complex, germinate and grow into huge trees and beautifully fragile flowers. Each of us started as a fertilised egg, a single cell with the DNA required to form our elaborately differentiated tissues and organs, building bodies that are so versatile in function. Regardless of the ultimate size or complexity of the adult, the real world starts small.

So with computers, it is far better to start with something simple, elegant, but profoundly capable. If you want to develop data management that will help your business grow for the next decades, capability is vital, or the system will soon have to be abandoned, much as animals with external skeletons have to shed their shell – a process for arthropods like insects that rejoices under the name of ‘ecdysis’ (a gem for the Scrabble player). Ecdysis is tricky, renders the arthropod exceedingly vulnerable to predators until its new cuticle has hardened, and inefficient.

There is no parallel in biology for the project that is grand at the outset – humans are too complex to reproduce by binary fission, and mighty sequoias too large to drop pre-formed trees from their branches.

So whilst each of us underwent a couple of decades of growth and development to reach our adult size, some adults see nothing wrong in establishing projects that from the outset are massive in scale and complexity. Examples abound from central government and large corporates, the only organisations capable of hiring large consultancy firms to try to manage the impossible, and of meeting the ever-escalating costs as the inconceivable runs away from reality. It is as if someone came along one day and wanted to build the whole Internet from scratch in a single project, rather than allowing it to evolve into what it is today.

Biology provides us with yet more models that we can employ to our benefit. Harking to evolution, we could start with a diversity of small potential solutions, and progressively evolve the optimum. Alternatively we could borrow from social sciences, and use many similar replicas assembled together to accomplish more than the simple sum of the parts.

What we need to do is to build on concepts and technologies that will scale well, that are proven at all levels: SQL-based databases, the rich array of Internet protocols and services, XML, PDF, and many other key features built into modern operating systems such as OS X.

Tackling great problems is not easy, but best summarised by the late Fritz Schumacher: “Perhaps we cannot raise the winds. But each of us can put up the sail, so that when the wind comes we can catch it.” Despite the ravages of ‘globalization’, his seminal work is still in print, and captures the essence in its title, “Small is Beautiful”.

Updated gently from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 25 issue 01, 2009.