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George Dyson & John Brockman, A Dialogue

Charles Simonyi , Tom Standage, George Dyson, J. Doyne Farmer, Charles Simonyi (2), J. Doyne Farmer (2), J. Doyne Farmer (3), Charles Simonyi (3), J. Doyne Farmer (4), and Steve Quartz on Code.

From: Charles Simonyi
Date: 6-29-98

With the Appelate Court siding with Microsoft's position it becomes much easier to discuss these issues in the abstract. I mean that when the Law is engaged in metaphysical matters, abstract metaphysical discussions can easily have very concrete physical results.

I thank George for his very generous comments regarding my project, Intentional Programming. I employ a lot of biological metaphors, for example when I talk about an "ecology of abstractions". I compare trying to separate abstractions from computer languages to Dawkins' insight to focus on the reproduction of genes instead of the more obvious reproduction of gene-carrying organisms. But one has to be very careful about extrapolating from metaphors, and this is where I would advice caution.

George makes a very good point that the old metaphors of cyberspace being a computer or a communications network are not helpful. There IS something organic about how cyberspace is developing and George describes very well why we should feel that way.

However I feel that the specific connection between cells and Windows-based machines is far fetched. I suspect that one reason for George's metaphor is that the evolutionary steps leading up to DNA themselves are so poorly understood (I understand little documentation was done during development and then most of the documentation was lost during the last 5 billion years and now we have to try to reverse-engineer the bootstrap process from code fragments). So we may have had some clay crystals for templates, amino acids forming at the edges of temperature gradients, RNA, DNA, what have you. It was probably a 12 step process. Because none of these is agreed on, George HAD to chose cells as the simplest biological representative in his metaphor.

Since we all believe in the eventual emergence of cyberspace, by continuity we know that Windows will have to have a place in its evolution, just as Jacquard, Babbage, Boole, Hollerith, Zuse and v.Neumann will have. I just do not think that it would be helpful to draw parallel lines from each of these to some specific complexity of organization in the evolution of life especially given our current state of ignorance of the initial stages.

From: Tom Standage
Date: 6-29-98

I was very interested to see exactly how George Dyson likened software development to biological processes. But I can't help thinking that it's a rather woolly analogy; the "programmers write code, code doesn't self-evolve" objection is valid, because although code has to prove it is "fit" in the marketplace, it doesn't arise randomly (despite appearances). There isn't really any mutation going on, either.

I've often wondered whether the three pillars of Darwinism (mutation, inheritance, competition) could somehow be aligned with the three pillars of Object Oriented Programming (encapsulation, inheritance, polymorphism). I haven't figured out a satisfactory way of doing this, though.

But if OOP is not Darwinian, perhaps some day a form of software engineering will be devised that is (and I'm ignoring the various artificial life experiments here, because they tend not to result in commercial software). One possible candidate is Genetix, a programming system based on machine code fragments called "genes"; see http://www.ieee.ca/genetix/ for more information. In the mean time, I remain not entirely convinced by software/biology comparisons.


From: George Dyson
Date: 6-29-98

Charles and Tom are right. It's a woolly analogy and a metaphysical discussion.

To Tom, I would say that I think "random mutation" is overplayed in natural evolution, and underplayed in technological evolution-but treacherous ground, there. I'm not being teleological, just arguing that less-than-random recombination does the heavy lifting in biology-and in technology-it seems to me.

To Charles, I would confirm that yes, the use of "cellular" and "multicellular" is used to convey the notion of distributed process, not the suggestion that even our most complex machines (Windows coded or otherwise) resemble biological cells in any but the most rudimentary ways. Charles mentions genetic takeover, from clay crystal templates to nucleotides, or however the unknown steps played out-and this, I think, is one of the keys to imagining how the otherwise unimaginable future might unfold.


From: J. Doyne Farmer
Date: 7-20-98

I don't think that the connection that George Dyson has made between cells and operating systems is far fetched at all. In any case it doesn't really matter; the key point is that there are enormous advantages to having a standardized platform that all applications run on, and it is bound to happen. I agree that the implications and consequences of this monopoly are much more far reaching than Rockefeller's control of the oil industry. This is much more than a monopoly -- it is control of society's replication machinery for ideas.

To me, this makes it vital that the government step in and block Microsoft from gaining absolute control. If this were a public domain, free-ware product such as Linux, this would be a different story. Nobody complains about UNIX because it is not really a commercial product. But to give total control of such a key element of society's information processing apparatus to a private company is very dangerous. Even if the government is likely to be inept, they are at least subject to the checks and balances of a democracy. Ineptness is the conservative course of action. Of course it is true that this is much more than a monopoly, and the anti-trust laws were not designed to deal with this kind of thing. But laws are just like blocks of DNA code: In typical evolutionary style, entirely new, fully formed parts are rarely created from scratch; rather, existing parts are adapted to perform new functions. An analogy is the endangered species act: What is really needed is an "endangered ecosystems act", but since no such thing exists, environmentalists stretch the endangered species act to its limits in an effort to make do.

George's analogy breaks down because the innovation mechanism for memes is not random variation -- it is conscious design. It is one thing to settle on a standard mechanism for replicating RNA, and entirely another to give this control to a consciously directed, profit making entity.

From: Charles Simonyi
Date: 7-22-98

It is evident that two different metaphors can be read from the biological / evolutionary analogy that George Dyson has advanced.

People concerned with monopolies rely on classic examples such as the power utility grid. I view utilities as entities that occupy difficult-to-acquire land, accommodate expected future growth, that operate at a very high level of efficiency (well over 50% and probably more like 95%), and where technological advances (superconduction, or hydrogen-economy) would not be expected before the investment is completely amortized. Similarly old-time telecommunications operated in the difficult-to-acquire lower frequencies, and until recently did not have serious technological competition. Government created and government enforced monopolies (such as AT&T was until recently) required government regulation.

My view of Dyson's analogy is that the standards are necessary and useful but they are as dynamic and as ephemeral as what I jokingly surmised the first "eleven" steps of the creation of DNA must have been. Compared with the utility, there is no limited resource of any kind, future growth is expected to be exponential, efficiency (measured against theoretical limits of performance) is very low (yes, I believe that), and the product will be obsolete relatively quickly. So in this sense it is important to locate ourselves in the evolutionary map: are we at some pinnacle where we are so flush with our incredible luck that we crave security and conservatism, or are we at the bottom of Ōmount improbable” (to borrow Dawkins' phrase) where we feel good about the progress but want more. I submit the latter is the case in software. Look at the movie 2001: we are not even 5% there. Until a few years ago the government was worrying about DOS. The biggest problem with nationalizing Windows would be having to use Windows 98 in 2010! Windows 98 will be obsolete in a few years. It will be replaced by a Microsoft product, if we do our job right, or by a competitor's product if we don't. Or do you really believe that millions of consumers would shun brand X's superior voice-recognizing natural language based operating system because of some former network efficiency?

One alternative to nationalization that is proposed is to "regulate" software development because of the control software producers have. I have to admit I am unsure what is meant by control: I understand the control the utility company exercises: I can not trespass on their right-of-way to build my transmission lines, I can not send energy or even signals up or down their lines, and if I do not pay my bills they shut off the supply at my doorstep, and there is only one line to the house. Now software is a simple one-time transaction: you pay the bill, you get the license for the bits on the diskette, very much like a newspaper. You can keep it, run it, replace it. It will do what it does forever, it will never be shut off. And many can and will write software at the least provocation and incentive, for example a Finnish hacker called Linus Torvalds (who wrote Linux). How the software can control anything that YOU the user did not explicitly put in charge of, has always escaped me. Now I understand the general lament that YOU feel obligated to have to put it in charge of things and YOU feel obligated to update to a newer version because that is how network efficiencies work out and that you may resent that obligation. But are your feelings of obligation absolute? If the competition saved you money, offered you a box that was more stylish, had a friendlier user interface, more direct or wider access to the Internet, and it handled data formats which mattered to you the most, would you still go for some abstract network efficiency instead? Of course not: but in a sense network efficiency IS having all those things, so I am not denying that network efficiency exists, just claiming that network efficiency is not different than customer satisfaction and therefore that network efficiency can not be maintained by ANY other means than by maintaining customer satisfaction. That is a kind of control, and a legitimate one.

The large market share some software enjoys is very similar to the extreme popularity of a relatively few entertainment and sport stars which started when broadcast radio and broadcast TV became available. See "When Winners Take All," The Economist, November 95. In case of entertainment, it is not argued that popularity somehow implies control and that it may be unrelated to performance. Yet the same kind of mechanisms are at work: the second best in any category gets nonlinearly less attention if the supply of the best is unlimited as is the case in broadcast media

From: J. Doyne Farmer

The question is how to achieve this standardization. To what extent and in what manner should it be regulated? Here we are necessarily thrust into politics, as government is the mechanism that society normally uses for regulation. Regulation is necessary in situations where the incentive mechanism of capitalism fails to do its job. Global warming provides a good example. There is no incentive for a corporation to address the problem of global warming on its own. Action in this area will necessarily have to be driven by governments.

Arguing for government regulation is by no means arguing against evolution. Governments have evolved through precisely the same cultural evolution mechanisms that have created everything else in our society, from financial markets to computer software companies. Governments may be imperfect and inefficient, but they play a very important role. I'm sure we all have opinions about how government could work better than it does. But I doubt that any of us want to argue that we want it to go away completely. There are many historical examples where too much government has caused problems, but there are also many examples where too little has caused problems. This is all to say that arguing for a larger role of the government is not per se in any sense to argue against evolution. It is a matter of judgement to say what level of government will produce the best results in the future of evolution of culture in any particular situation.

Nor would I in any way suggest that we are at some kind of evolutionary pinnacle. This is silly. It has nothing to do with the point I am trying to make.

The anti-trust laws were developed precisely to deal with a situation where capitalism breaks down. When one company gains exclusive control over any given good or service the mechanisms of competition that normally regulate capitalism are removed. In this regard the problems with monopolies in oil or matches are very similar to the problem of a monopoly in computer software. Only as George Dyson has pointed out, the stakes are even higher.

There are many examples, such as telecommunications, where the government plays a an important, and I believe necessary, regulatory role. My wife, Letty Belin, happens to run the division of the New Mexico Attorney General's office that regulates our telephone and utility companies. So I have heard some horror stories about the things these companies would do to the consumers were it not for the regulatory oversight of the government. Again, these companies are singled out for regulation by the government because they are monopolies.

As I mentioned before, there is a fundamental difference between cultural and biological evolution: Where the innovations in biological systems are generated by random variation, in cultural systems they are based on designs originating from groups of human beings. On thinking about it some more, however, I don't think this is the main point.

Perhaps more important, in nature there is no global entity whose survival is enhanced every time a DNA molecule replicates. I don't disagree that in some analogy cells can be viewed as profit making entities. But they don't have to give energy to "MicroWet" to reproduce themselves. The code that they use to replicate is, so to speak, in the public domain. All organisms use it, they own it themselves, and no species can lay any special claim to it.

So, in response to the issue at hand, I am stating a political opinion. I see the need for standards. They will happen no matter what we do. But because of the dangers and known problems with exclusive ownership of standards, this is an area where I want my government to perform the regulatory function that it has evolved to perform. I don't doubt that they will do this in a less than optimal manner. But I think this is a situation where imperfection is better than nothing. I don't know what the right approach to this particular problem is; my guess that the right answer is not to break the monopoly up, but rather to regulate it, as we already do for telecommunications and utility companies.

In the long run, I think we all agree that we do not want the internet to get stuck in a local maximum. The question is how to avoid this. My opinion is that giving exclusive control of the replicating machinery to a profit making entity without any regulation would have a very negative result.

From: J. Doyne Farmer
Date: 7-22-98

I don't disagree with a lot of what Charles Simonyi says. But I never claimed standards were static, or any such silly thing. This doesn't mean that dynamic and evolving standards don't exist; WindowsXX, provides a good example. This is reminiscent of the standard joke: Question: "What will the computer language of 2010 be?" Answer: "I don't know, but it will be called Fortran."

To get at the meat of what is going on here, I think we need to discuss the specifics of this particular situation, which I don't think is very complicated.

"Control" for a software provider comes about when they have such a large fraction of the market share that a large fraction of software products run only in that software environment. For example, at the moment I am stuck using Windows for some purposes because the only terminal emulator that can really keep up with Xwindows, GoGlobal, runs in Windows and not on a Mac. This product is not better because it is running on Windows; rather, it just isn't worth it for them to write a version for other operating systems with much lower market share. If there were a viable non-Windows alternative I would take it. Its dominant market share forces me into a situation where dealing with Windows is unavoidable unless I am willing to take a sacrifice in performance.

Fine. This is one of the rewards reaped by Microsoft for getting the dominant market share. What is bothersome is when that same company begins to use its monopolistic position to its advantage by doing things like bundling their own net browser, and making it difficult to use other net browsers. I don't deny this is a smart business tactic — if you can get away with it. But I don't see how one can argue that it helps consumers. Okay, you say, the browser is free. But not really — why couldn't you just lower the price on the operating system and sell them separately. (Answer: This wouldn't help Microsoft get the business away from Netscape). From a distance, it looks like the classic tactic used by a monopoly to strengthen its position as a monopoly. Use the monopoly to lower the price, drive the competition out of business, and then raise the price again. Monopolies have a long history — this strategy has succeeded many times, for matches, oil, and many other "non-government created" monopolies, and without government intervention would have gone on working, to the detriment of the consumer. To an external observer this interpretation of the microsoft situation just seems like common sense. But perhaps I am missing something.

No one is talking about "nationalization" when a judge rules that Microsoft has to unbundle their net browser. It is just a simple regulation of a monopolistic business practice. And I don't think it hurts anyone, except Microsoft.

I don't begrudge Microsoft their large market share, or even their attempts to take advantage of their monopoly. But what bothers me is the disingenuous whining and moaning about how unfair and backward the government is when they enforce the laws that have been created to prevent just the kind of scam that they are attempting.

To bring this back to the theatre of evolution, I think that what the government is doing is precisely what is needed to keep us out of the evolutionary rut that exclusive dominance of everything in the software business by Microsoft would drive us into.

From: Charles Simonyi
Date: 7-22-98

Dear Doyne,

I admit I have never heard of the match monopoly. I am naturally interested in the fiendish devices they must have used to coerce the public into buying their monopoly matches and to frighten away the competition from dipping pieces of wood into phosphorus. I must also add that in my elementary school I was told that safety matches were, yes, a Hungarian invention.

Your message then departs from the evolutionary issue and becomes a straightforward restatement of the DOJ's anti-Microsoft case which has been rebuked recently in large part by the Court of Appeals. The details are on the net (e.g. microsoft.com/presspass/doj lists all the rulings). Maybe you are against bundling but accept the need for integration of needed functionality - then you would be agreeing with the Microsoft position. DOJ is against bundling, claims - wrongly, according to the Court of Appeals - that we bundle, and just to be on the safe side they are also against integration, i.e. extended or evolved functionality, too. We admit to having committed integration and claim that it is good and legal. And evolutionary. Where do you stand?



In response to Charles' latest:

My memory of the match monopoly is dredged from a high school social studies class. I only remember that there was someone who was called "The Match King" who managed to corner the market, I think around the turn of the century. A trip to my Encyclopedia Britannica fails to help on this point. However, it does offer the Swedish as the inventors of safety matches (1844), and credits an American, William Gates, Jr., as the inventor of the first mechanized match manufacturing machine!

Looking up monopolies is even more interesting. They point out that Ōcorners and combinations were prohibited by the most ancient laws of China, India, and Babylonia”. They then trace the history of monopolies and their regulation from Greece, Egypt, and Rome through medieval times and this century. Particularly interesting is the discussion of the emergence of monopolies in the US in the last part of the 19th century. Apparently it was originally impossible for US corporations to own stock in other corporations, which suppressed the formation of monopolistic combinations. But in 1882 Standard Oil figured out a legal maneuver getting around this, and by 1890 monopolies were widespread; they mention sugar and distilling as examples.

This makes it clear that the emergence of monopolies is very sensitive to the nuances of the legal structure and in particular the legal definition of a corporation. It is also clear that monopolies and their regulation by governments are almost as old as commercial civilization, and the proper way to regulate monopolies has always been controversial. So the debate we are having is nothing new.

Regarding the Microsoft situation, my only assertion is that there is a proper regulatory role for the government. The mere fact that there have been a series of court cases puts heat on Microsoft not to take advantage of their dominant role to squash all the competition. Personally I am quite happy with integration as long as the hooks are made available so the competition can integrate their products as well. I don't know if the appellate court agreed with me on this, but the fact that the decision went first one way and then the other illustrates that it is not a simple issue.

It seems that Microsoft is just the latest chapter in a 4000 year old debate.

From: Steve Quartz
Date: 8-18-98


George Dyson's intriguing comments on biological systems and code development have helped me think about the issues in the news lately involving Microsoft and the Justice Dept. Several commentators have already raised one issue George anticipated, problems in the analogy between random genetic change and the directed or Lamarkian change governing programming. These are essentially the same sorts of objections raised against memes and the process of their discovery and innovation. In mulling the dialogue over, I think there's a more basic difficulty with the use of biological metaphors as a framework for thinking about code in general and the more specific issue of antitrust law and monopolization, one that distorts much of the issue.

What I've read in the press has colored the antitrust probes of Microsoft with the language of classical commodity-production economics. We've thus seen comparisons to Rockefeller, Standard Oil, and cartels. Even Robert Kuttner suggests that "though the industries and technologies change, the economic fundamentals do not" (http://www.epn.org/kuttner/bk980518.html). In contrast, Bill Gates has tried to argue that the assumptions behind the antirust laws are inapplicable to the realities of a new economy. Although he's met limited success in terms of public persuasion, after mulling it over, I think he's right on some key measures. In fact, as I'll suggest, I think the biological metaphor that's at the core of George Dyson's intriguing comments also belongs to classical economics. Like much of the debate in the press, I think it misdiagnoses the key issues involved. As interesting as Dyson's comments are, the biological metaphor commits us to a mental model that distorts the principles of an emerging economics of ideas. To understand it, we should either choose new metaphors or approach it on its own terms.

One of the cardinal principles of commodity-production economics is the law of diminishing returns, a growth-limiting principle that among other things shapes a model of competition. As voiced by such economists as Paul Romer and Brian Arthur, a key proposal concerning the emergence of a knowledge economy is whether the law of diminishing returns applies. One of the most intriguing proposals is that in a knowledge economy a new rule applies, the law of increasing returns. In terms of the process of discovery, this basically says that ideas lead to more new ideas without diminishing some fixed pool of ideas. In terms of production and distribution, it means that costs per unit are low and go lower per unit produced (but not to be confused with a scaling principle). An example is the cost of distributing software over the Internet, where the cost per copy to the company is almost nil.

What rules apply to biological systems? As physical things, they face a number of diminishing returns, ranging from scarce resources in the environment to parental investment in offspring. Although I don't know the history well enough to try, a case could probably be made that diminishing returns is the central notion behind both Darwin and Wallace's theory. They were, for example, both influenced by Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population in which diminishing returns figures centrally. In fact, in biological systems there's diminishing returns with a vengeance: gaining too much "market share" by becoming too successful can actually decrease fitness as per frequency dependent selection.

Seeing that biological systems and diminishing returns are highly intertwined isn't a minor point. It reveals that the biological metaphor is only applicable to a physical economy of resource extraction and commodity production. As I intimated briefly with the influence of Malthus on both Darwin and Wallace, the biological metaphor has had a major role in shaping how we envision economics. In a physical economy, for example, diminishing returns generally ensures that some equilibrium will be reached among competitors. But this is just Spencer's justification for laissez faire policies on the basis of Darwinism. If, however, a knowledge economy is characterized by increasing returns, then the biologically-derived notions of competition no longer apply and the dynamics of competition will be substantially different. And so, biological metaphors don't help us understand the nature of a knowledge economy. The lessons of Ford and GM as seen through a biological metaphor don't hold for Netscape and Microsoft.

Indeed, as Romer, Arthur, and others note, increasing returns predicts the emergence of monopolies and one should expect them. For one thing, the impediments to market dominance stemming from diminishing returns no longer apply. Increasing returns make it reasonable to pursue first-in strategies like gaining market dominance by flooding a product into a market for free (to leverage another product). You'd never expect GM to give away their cars to gain marketshare. For software, there's a further push toward market domination: bandwagon, or network, effects like becoming the market standard increase the momentum of a product.

If that were the end of it, then things would be pretty pessimistic-someone comes along and establishes themselves as a monopoly and no one can budge them from their dominance by introducing a similar product. This is the typical image of Microsoft in the press. But this seems to be an artifact of applying the biological metaphor and its model of competition. Increasing returns suggests a different model, one known as monopolistic competition. As I mentioned, increasing returns has two senses, one regarding innovation and the other regarding production and distribution. The feasibility of monopolistic competition rests on the increasing return of ideas. Monopolistic competition doesn't involve the competition among similar products for marketshare on the basis of pricing and other competitive factors. That's the biologically-derived one based on diminishing returns. Instead, it occurs when a new innovation results in a new product or piece of code that makes a dominant one obsolete-they're not called killer apps for nothing. This replaces one monopoly, or market-dominating product, with a new monopoly. Integrating a browser into an operating system seems like a classic case of monopolistic competition. But that's OK in the new economy. And wasn't Netscape trying to integrate an operating system into their browser? That's monopolistic competition too.

This brings up another point against the standard biological metaphor. The biological metaphor embraces incremental change, the gradualism Dyson's comments frequently invoked. In physical economies, incremental change is the kind of continual improvement production methods strive for. Schumpeter's phrase "creative destruction" gets tossed around a lot in discussions of an emerging knowledge economy. But if it approximates the kind of instability and dynamics we can expect in a knowledge economy, then gradualism is the wrong model of change. If one were tempted by biological metaphors, punctuated equilibria and speciation would seem better ones, operating in what's sometimes called Internet time. Netscape's phenomenal growth was akin to a speciation event, owing to their first-in position and increasing returns. But the lack of stable equilibria in such environments implies equally fast declines. What that suggests is that the successful corporation will be one that doesn't adopt a continual improvement model of product development, but instead sees their product line as a succession of replacement events. Historically, companies whose products have market dominance tend toward conservatism, since short-term returns typically dominate longer-term interests. Tom Peters has been screaming for years now against this conservatism. What it suggests to me is that the whole issue of the "fairness" of integrating a browser with an operating system misses the point-it assumes a model of incremental change and doesn't recognize the requisite model of change in an idea economy as akin to speciation (though I'm wary of the biological metaphor). If Microsoft stuck to a model of incremental change the way Ford changes the headlights of a pickup on a new model year, you'd wonder how long it would take to lose their market position. If I were Netscape, I'd take the fact that its stock is trading below its IPO price as a pretty good signal that it's time for their own "speciation" event. But that also makes practicing creative destruction easier than defending market position, and a viable corporation over the long run will be one that is ready to replace its own products. That seems to me the kind of normal life cycle to expect. Though jarring from the perspective of a physical economy, it also enables the growth rates that make an idea economy so enticing. And it points to the kinds of instabilities indicating why monopolies will be temporary and that a succession of monopolies will be the norm.

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't facets of antitrust legislation that pertain to this case. My only point is that much of the discourse in the press seems distorted by inappropriate economic assumptions, which the biological metaphor plays into. The flipside of this is that some of the really difficult and pertinent issues like intellectual property rights have been neglected. Actually, if I were a Fed, I'd be most concerned about the acquisition of startups. That's where the innovative ideas that make monopolistic competition a feasible idea are likely to come from.

There's lots of intriguing things about this new economy. The impact of information technology on productivity, for example, is still poorly understood, perhaps because traditional GDP accounting misses their contribution. My own interest lies in the intellectual capital challenges the new economy presents and how organizations from schools to corporations should organize themselves to maximize that capital. Rather than limiting our understanding with potentially misleading metaphors, though, responding to the new economy's challenges and opportunities requires understanding it on its own terms. The dialogue that George Dyson has prompted is the kind needed to sharpen our understanding

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