How the Internet is Really Evolving

Sometimes really smart people, perhaps because they are harried or busy, help perpetuate badly flawed models of important ideas. Memes that get traction because they are easy to repeat, not because they are right. One that I’ve noticed a lot in recent times is what I call the sequential fallacy in talking about the Internet. This fallacy is at the heart of the story that goes ARPANET…Web 1.0…Web 2.0…Web 3.0/SemWeb. Here is how to get away from the fallacy and think more accurately about how the Internet is really evolving.


The Sequential Fallacy

Here is a picture of the sequential fallacy in the classical domain of evolution: biology. It is an “ascent of life” type of visual model that starts with single-celled primordial life and makes it way through increasingly complex stages to the magnum opus of the Blind Watchmaker — homo sapiens! No biologist or educated amateur thinks this way anymore, but a surprisingly large number of otherwise educated people still do (Daniel Quinn’s rather clever parable, Ishmael, has a neat episode where a starfish tells the story of evolution, ending with a triumphant “and then there was the starfish!“).

Evolution

The more accurate model to keep in your head is the one at the bottom. Evolution is a branching process of exploration, constantly trying out various semi-randomly-constructed selfish-gene package designs for survivability, against a changing environment.

Occasionally bursts of branching speciation occur (such as the well-known Cambrian explosion) followed by bouts of extinction-pruning. There are relatively calm periods where much new differentiation focuses on minor variations on “trunk” branches, and more explosive periods, with a lot of major forking. The exact morphology of this branching, creeping process may involve subtle debates like the one around punctuated equilibria, but no serious biologist believes any sort of sequential model. At best you could say that sequencing the tree by means of one arbitrary metric (brain complexity) might put humans at the front of the line.

The Sequential Fallacy and the Internet

Now, computer scientists are smart people and possibly understand evolution better than biologists themselves do. After all, they invented genetic algorithms, and if you’ve ever seen a Subversion tree, you know they really do get it. But when it comes to introspection about their own technology, a curious sort of oversimplification seems to creep in, perhaps because it is easier to draw linear-sequential diagrams in Powerpoint (or maybe MBAs force them to dumb things down). Here are the sequential-error view and the more accurate branching view of the evolution of the Internet:

Web Evolution

Even if many smart people actually believe the second kind of picture, the fact that they communicate using the sequential model helps perpetuate the fallacy.

A consequence of the fallacy is that some of the common critiques heard in “Web evolution” discussions are misguided. For example, “Web 2.0 is a distraction from the real goal of Web research, the Semantic Web.” This is not misguided in terms of content;  the Web 2.0 branch really could be a dead-end that is sucking resources away from a more deserving SemWeb front. What is misguided is canonizing any particular vision of the Internet as the goal. The Internet is, and always will be, the outermost fringe of an exploration tree. Not a march towards a Promised Land.

How to Think and Talk about Web Evolution

Here is a worked example. With the tree picture in mind, zooming in on just the Web 2.0 and SemWeb parts, reveals many possible futures — the colorful lines. Either or both might be a dead end, or they might both successfully go different or convergent ways. That corner of the Internet might become the SemWeb, the SocWeb (my term for one potential asymptotic manifestation for the Web 2.0 line), a mix, or something else entirely.

Of the other major and relatively independent lines of development, the 3d Web that could take the Web from external-symbolic-metaphoric entity to submersive-sensory entity, is suffering the consequences of its own inflated-expectations phase in its hype cycle. But I still have hopes for it. Second Life is not a dumb idea.

The other, which I call Sensor Web, is a line of development that could potentially transform the Internet by flooding it with ubiquitous distributed sensor-network and RFID data. This line is currently under the stewardship of electrical and control engineers rather than computer scientists. I like to think of it as an Asimov-like Second Foundation. Perhaps I am biased, since by training I am a control engineer, but I find the vision of a SensorWeb the most exciting. More exciting than Web 2.0 or SemWeb.

But back to the model itself. There are legitimate reasons to use the sequential simplification. If you want to talk about the broad signature design themes of a particular “burst-extinction-calm” evolutionary epoch, and use one flourishing branch to represent the whole bush (“Web 2.0” for the whole diagram above) then the sequential model is fine. So long as you qualify what you are saying with a “but within these major phases, Web technology is evolving as a constantly branching, Darwinian exploratory process.”

So to summarize today’s lesson, think and talk in terms of the tree to the extent possible.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. You have Web 2.0’ed, Biology and Computer Science – really nicely. Thanks!

  2. Looking for reviews on Carr’s new book and found your site – love your Biology lesson and will spend more time on your other links here – I am the CRM go to for Webex/Cisco and have been very vocal about disruptive technology. I would like to personally buy you a cappuccino is you are in the Silicon Valley. Keep me posted.

    Ian Moore

  3. Hi Ian,

    Thank you :)

    I am in the Bay Area every couple of months or so. Should be able to bump into each other at some point.

    Venkat

  4. Wow, your yet another shortsized but bang-on-target post. Some thoughts that occur are:

    1. I see your main point as unthinking oversimplification of the evolution process. One sub-point clearly made by you is that of wrongly identifying The Destination of the path (a segment of the path at a given point in time). This arises partly or wholly due to the sequential fallacy. This penchant of people to identify their topic of interest as the Promised Land can be seen in other areas. A recent example is Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind (disclaimer: this is surmised from reviews, I still haven’t read the definitely-seems-worth-reading book) that talks of our moving from the information age to the conceptual age. The giveaway of the predicted destination/culmination of a path is the sub-title: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Many spiritual groups similarly extrapolate facts from the past and the present ills to confidently state that the whole world is soon converging to their model/practice. Starfish is an especially brilliant choice by Quinn, with no central brain.

    2. To me, this post neatly fits in and extends your earlier posts on triangles and grids, extending the theme of limitations and pitfalls of visual thinking, highlighting the importance of choosing the appropriate visual to explain and explore a theme. I do believe it fulfils my suggestion, but no, I am not saying your posts have sequentially evolved from 3-point triangles to 4-square quadrants to multi-branch trees! :-)

    3. One fascinating aspect to analyze is the way we have changed out thinking of what the Internet is. Initial concepts were a huge, accessible library and a global transport for email. Transactions (banking, shopping and B2B ecommerce) came next, and there was talk of the executable web being more important than the static web. Intelligence in the form of personalization using analytics, along with the Google era of search hinted at semantic web and other possibilities leading, among other things, to social networking. So now the web is all of the previous things and more. Luckily, it has always mostly remained self-regulated and self-organizing.

    Similar to the sequential fallacy of evolution, the dominant metaphor we use to think of the Internet also enables or misleads in terms of what we do with it. This actually seems to be a candidate to analyze orthogonally with the evolution bit, in case you suffer from grid-quadrantitis (and if you accuse me of the affliction, I could easily blame your earlier post as the infecting agent ;-)).

  5. Well, as it happens, this post is older than the grids post and the triangles post too I think. I am a fan (though never uncritical of course :), of Pink’s and I reviewed whole new mind alongside a similar book by Gardner, a long time ago: Dan Pink, Howard Gardner and the Da Vinci Mind. This post was back in August 2007, so my views have evolved quite a bit since then.

    Your point about the dominant metaphor for the ‘net itself is an interesting one. I agree we started with ‘library’ but now we are borrowing all the ones that apply to organizations in general (brain, organism etc…).

    And yes, I do hope to write a lot more about visual thinking. Not exactly a crowd pleaser as far as traffic goes, but then, if traffic had been the point, this blog would have had thrice as much by now :) There is a presentation/exposition aspect (the books of Edward Tufte for instance), but a deeper visual-thinking aspect as well.

  6. Tufte’s two books, Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, published in the 1980s I believe, were landmarks but they fall under a category I would like to call, “Too good and of long-term relevance but minimal impact on world”. Everybody gushes about the books but continues to make misleading charts using inappropriate visuals. Yes, his focus is specific: correctness, elegance and compactness of data representation.

    Two recent interesting efforts are by Jessica Hagy who has successfully converted her long-running blog into a book, and the highly rated The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam, described as “a visual thinking consultant”. Both use handmade diagrams.

    What metaphor we use for organizations is itself worth exploring: from sports teams to trees to even “fractal corporation” credited to an Indian company known for its aggressive growth with a string of mergers and demergers. Someone once made a mention of replacing the traditional pyramid with concentric circles to depict an organization structure where the lower-rung front-end staff are shown in the outermost circle, in daily contact with customers. It’s thought-provoking but needs to get more complicated to represent the reality of organization structures.

  7. LOL @ your characterization of Tufte. I admit I’ve had the books for a while but haven’t done more than browse them. I find Hagy amusing, but too whimsical to hold my attention for long (xkcd, I find, is actually more ‘serious’ even though it is more like a comic strip). Saw the napkin book, so it is on my radar too. In this same lighter vein, you should add the books of Scott McCloud on comics and sequential art. These are brilliant explorations of visual thinking, not restricted to comicbooks. Finally, there is the comedian Demetri Martin, and his sketch comedy show “Important things” which relies on tongue-in-cheek philosophizing and dodges philosophical scrutiny by being framed as comedy.

    And for the last point, organizational metaphors, Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organization” is of course the bible there. Even though it is metaphor analysis rather than visual, each of the metaphors he tackles is fundamentally a visual one.