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Technodiversity

January 14, 2017

The year is 2048. Migration to IP-V6 has just been completed. Every object in the world, including your coffee mug and the chair you’re sitting on, comprises a manycore RISC-V cluster, running Linux, with its own unique IP address. Haskell, because of its mathematically provable superiority, has come to supplant every other programming language. Writing code in any language other than Haskell is now a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 64 days of bandwidth throttling and a fine of up to 0.125BTC.

Wouldn’t things be much simpler if every computer system was built on the platform, ran the same operating system, and every program was written in the same programming language? I think that in many ways, this is the wet dream of many programmers. No more dealing with cross-language boundaries, portability issues, and multiple incompatible implementations of subpar standards. Things could be much simpler and more efficient than they are now.

The biggest problem, however, is that in a world where every computer system runs the same software, the same version of the same operating system, on the same hardware, every computer system has exactly the same bugs and security weaknesses. Given that some security flaw exists, a single computer virus could potentially contaminate every computer system in the world in a very short amount of time. In today’s world, this Hollywood-like doomsday scenario seems extremely implausible. The real world is too messy, or too diverse, for it to be practical to build a single virus or worm that could infect every system.

In a lot of ways, the chaos of the technological world resembles that of nature. Like animal species competing for survival, various technologies and standards compete for funding and mindshare. In nature, species specialize to exploit new environments. Diversity, in the technological world, exists in part because specialization makes systems more efficient, which allows the exploitation of new market niches. In nature, genetic diversity, or biodiversity, makes it near-impossible for a single virus to wipe out the entirety of life on earth.

Today’s technological world is definitely messy, but we can take comfort in the fact that competition really does foster innovation. The technological diversity that exists right now is a sign that we live in a thriving ecosystem, as opposed to one that is stagnant. With self-driving cars and a variety of home automation devices on the horizon, we can also take comfort in the idea that technodiversity may actually be keeping us safe.

 

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4 Comments
  1. Space Ant permalink

    Well, not all parts of the modern technological world are diverse. For instance, Google pretty much dominates the market for search engines.

    I do think there’s such a thing as “excessive competition”. The automotive companies have been competing fiercely with each other for decades, and while this has definitely encouraged innovation (hybrid cars, ADAS, etc.), I think this is also one of the reasons for the recent wave of corporate crime in the industry (environmental violations, safety violations).

    The tech industry seems to be in a local optimum, though. The large degree of innovation and investment in IT nowadays is beneficial both to consumers and employees. I just hope it’s not all going to explode a-la the dot-com-bubble. :/

  2. When I read the post title, I totally expected musings on workforce diversity. Either way, the lessons learned for technical diversity apply just the same — the more different we are, the more robust we are as a whole. Diversity in thought and experience is equally important :)

  3. If all the world used the same tech, companies would copyright all the best algorithms, which would be terrible.

    We’re already approaching a world lacking diversity through browsers. Just look at how many problems those bring. Making a new browser doesn’t solve the problem. Web standards are broken, and the JavaScript API is sadly the smashing success. We need a competing web standard. Engineers have been wanting to reinvent the web for years to “do it right”. The problem is that it’s hard to compete with something so universally accepted as the current standards.

    That said, I have no doubt that even if there was a single standard language for all software, people would eventually invent a new one anyways.

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