UX Week: The Computer as Extended Phenotype

by Luke Wroblewski August 23, 2011

In his The Computer as Extended Phenotype presentation at UX Week 2011 in San Francisco, Steven Pemberton described how computers can be considered part of the phenotype of humans. Here are my notes from his talk:

  • Back-tracking is a style of problem solving. You start at one point and try to find a solution until it fails, then back up to try other solutions until one works. This method can solve an amazing range of problems serially or in parallel. Sometimes you need heuristics to figure out what to try.
  • Backtracking is comparable to how evolution works. Three requirements for evolution: variation, replication with inheritance, and competition.
  • In early evolution the only solution for variation was for mutation, but it is rarely successful. Sex is a much better source of producing variations. Death (without offspring) is evolution's way of backtracking.
  • The environment is changing and therefore redefining success. This is how species happen. As humans, we may have speciated yet but we just don't know it.
  • Camouflage (and inverse camouflage) is an obvious change effected by environment. Selection does not just effect a single attribute, it applies to many attributes. Example: breeding foxes for tameness ultimately made them look more like dogs.
  • The accretion of genes is a form of learning and memory. Examples: sugar & fat had higher calories so an orientation to these foods stayed in our genetic memory; orientation toward sex; age differences in couples; etc.
  • True memory allowed learning new behaviors: you no longer need genetic memory (built in things) to survive, you can use recent outcomes to decide how to act.
  • Hypnosis has shown that you may not always be aware of the reasons why you do things. Some believe we don't have conscious free will at all and instead we rationalize everything after the fact.
  • Genetically we remain pre-disposed to water, heights, and fire (but perhaps this is more towards a flicker effect than a flame). E-ink screens might not be as successful LCD screens because we are pre-disposed to flicker effects.
  • Phenotype is a visible manifestation of genes: hair color, strength, aggression, etc.
  • Language allows us to pass memories on to others. This creates the concept of memes: carriers of information that help you to survive.
  • What memes mean is that having ideas is as successful as having babies. Your ideas are as important as people to helping others to service.
  • The extended human phenotype is using memes not genes. Repair: glasses, medicine. Abilities: houses, planes, boats. Location: satnav, weather radar.
  • The computer is a part of our extended phenotype. We've developed them as a way of surviving better in the future.
  • Your current laptop is far more powerful than all your previous laptops put together. Moore's law means this process is continuing.
  • Paradigm shifts (i.e. bronze age) are happening more frequently. The rate of change is getting faster too. There is a point in the future that paradigm shifts happen once a day.
  • Humans have survived so well because of the development of language and the ability to share memes. Successful memes cause paradigm shifts which fuel the next generation of development. The rate of paradigm shifts has been accelerating making memes more important than ever before.