The Selfish Artifact

Reading Richard Dawkins ‘The Selfish Gene’ even 35 years after it was first published, one can appreciate the radical perspective and insight that made this a seminal book. Dawkins thesis was that it is the gene that is the central entity in evolution and that we (meaning all living things) serve to propagate, nourish and evolve the gene. The gene will outlast any living creature, transitioning from generation to generation as it recombines and evolves over time. At the time, such a perspective was radical and controversial. Yet this one idea transformed evolutionary study and, one could argue, gave rise to whole new fruitful lines of thinking, research and development. It was an idea that was adopted.

As Dawkins did in ‘The Selfish Gene’ some are now hinting at the possibility of applying the same perspective to the evolutionary nature of technology. Even the title of Kevin Kelley’s recent book ‘What Technology Wants’, hints, not too subtly, at this new perspective – of technologies, and the artifacts that embody them, as themselves inevitable agents in the evolutionary system of the ‘Technium’.

Without getting into a philosophical discussion (although one is always enjoyed), is it useful to see what this ‘inverse’ perspective can illuminate about the nature of innovation? What would happen if we viewed the Artifact (the manifestation of a designed collaboration of technologies) as the entity that survives and evolves in an environment of human needs and desires? In this model, the technologies are the equivalent of the genes and the artifact design is the equivalent of the species. Such a perspective has some very interesting implications for human’s role in the creation of new artifacts that thrive in the constantly changing environment – in other words, for innovation.

Consider, for example, the Smartphone. It represents a new family of ‘organisms’ with many emerging and rapidly evolving ‘species’ that try to adapt to the demand environment of people who need and desire mobile connectivity, content and interaction. Some species make it, some do not. Some become dominant, some find niches. Most all of the evolutionary analogs of natural biological systems can be found in this interplay between the Artifact and the human demand environment.

There are two differences between these evolving systems –  of Artifacts and of natural biological systems, The first  is that in the Technium the underlying technologies –  in the case of Smartphones, their capacitive touch screens, cellular and wifi radios, app stores, etc. – are themselves artifacts that are evolving as well to adapt to their specific ecosystems which, in this case, are both constrained and driven by the human demand environment. This can be thought of as analogous to the many microorganisms that live in and adapt to our bodies except that in the Technium, there can be a very deep hierarchy of technologies and artifacts involved.

A second key difference between the technical and biological evolutionary systems is the nature of creation. In the Technium, creation is achieved intentionally through human action – in a human design environment. Thus intelligent agents comprise both the design and the demand environments of an artifact. Indeed, the design environment for one artifact can be, and usually is, the demand environment for other artifacts. This recursive nature of the human demand and design environments creates much of the complexity that innovation must accommodate.

This view of artifacts, as the evolving entity, can provide unique perspectives and insights into the innovation process. Artifacts use us for their creation, survival, propagation and evolution. Their technologies (genes) outlive us and, in some form or another, will be around longer than any one of us individually. We are merely the means of their continuing existence and evolution. Looked at in this way, one can start to see the beginnings of a unified model of innovation in which the artifact, as the key evolving entity, is much more than the sum of its designed atoms and bits. More on this later.

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