Monday, April 16, 2007

Speciation in Mass-Produced Devices

As humans learned to produce elaborate tools, they began to want to duplicate the best ones. This eventually led to the Industrial Revolution, but even as that took shape, creation of mechanical devices retained some qualities of art.

The ideal, finally achieved in the Twentieth Century, was to create production facilities as automatic as sexual reproduction, in which queen ants could pump out thousands of identical offspring, tended by workers who had only to follow very standardized patterns of motion and behavior to make their contribution.

While the system remains imperfect, the majority of products do represent the descendants of the original common ancestors: the wheel, the lever, the inclined plane, infused with lightning and bred in vast nests from which they issue forth across the landscape to compete or cooperate with each other for dominance, survival and further replication.

While more individually-crafted devices represent their creators, mass produced devices tend more and more to represent an agentless replication in which no individual person has responsibility. Humans at some level still decide which ones live or die, but the large populations have some resiliency. They emerge, flourish and become extinct like living things, as conditions change to favor them and then to take them away.

A species gains security when it becomes a vital part of human life. Telephones, automobiles, refrigerators, luxuries which became necessities achieve species stability when standardization makes more economic sense than wild mutations in engineering and savage competition for market share based on real technological differences. A daily-use device needs to be able to function in its environment immediately. If it does represent a radical departure, it must prove itself quickly enough to displace established competitors.

Think of cats arriving on an island full of flightless birds. Or mass-produced, affordable automobiles arriving in a market previously held by artisan car-builders catering to the carriage trade. Soon the new species has branched and the world is overrun with subspecies that do not cross-breed, but aim to function in the same niche.

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