An Explosion of Diversity

Years ago, I heard Richard Dawkins give a talk on the evolution of evolvability. His thesis was that every once in a while, Nature invents something that allows creatures to evolve in new ways. His example was segmented bodies: as soon as you have multiple segments, they can specialize to do different things. Another (more contentious) example is the theory that the Cambrian Explosion is the result of creatures evolving eyes. Before that happened, nothing needed hard body parts, because predation was too inefficient to be a major selective force. Once creatures could hunt one another, though, shells and bones became the iPods and Diamarti shades of the shallow ocean. The “explosion” is therefore an illusion; diversity was already present — it was just too squishy to leave a fossil record.

Which brings us to this site, which maps things New Yorkers have been overheard saying to one another. Some are funny, some are sad, and more than a few are offensive; what blows me away is that someone thought to put the whole thing on the web, as a map. I wouldn’t have (the proof being, I didn’t). I wouldn’t have thought of JobLoft, either, but some undergraduate students at Ryerson University did. As has happened several times before, a few key technologies (in this case, HTTP and its kin) have created ways of evolving that simply didn’t exist before, and thousands of bright minds are busy filling the new niches with strange new creatures. Contrast that with the answers my CSC207 and CSC407 students gave me to the question, “What do you think the hottest technology is going to be in five years?” The answers ranged from glib to thoughtful; what they weren’t was surprising. Speech recognition, security and privacy, interactive games… As one of my fellow instructors pointed out, we would have received the same list five years ago, or even ten. I know it’s because students and instructors alike are too busy with courses, assignments, and marking to explore what’s evolving in the lush jungle outside the walls that surround the ivory tower. What I don’t know is, what can we do about it?