Metaphor or Analogy? Mutation and
Selection in Silicon and Carbon
In periods of equilibrium, mutations occur beneath the
surface. In the case of technology, the mutations are
not random: Their internal organs are getting smaller,
cheaper, and faster. The PC’s external appearance may
have changed little, but in the early 1980s the “box” was
crammed with boards, whereas two decades later it held
mostly empty space. From 1984 to 1987, the original
Macintosh, the 512K Mac, the Mac Plus, and the Mac II
were released; all looked much the same on the outside.
Inside, memory increased from 128K to 512K to more than
1MB, and processor speed from 8MHz to 16MHz. These
changes were crucial. The 1984 Mac was a commercial
failure, with too little memory and speed to both handle
a GUI and do real work. (If you are skeptical, look up
Apple’s stock-price history or reports from that time.) By
1986, the Mac had succeeded. Its new hardware could
support products that arrived in 1985: laser writers, Aldus
Pagemaker, and Microsoft Word and Excel for Macintosh.
A few more cranks of Moore’s Law were needed to launch
the GUI era.
Is the parallel between biological and computer systems just a metaphor, or is there an underlying principle?
Why don’t fossil records change steadily? For example,
why didn’t PC boxes shrink gradually? Were efficient
manufacturing supply chains for boards, boxes, and other
components too costly to abandon? Had offices been
designed with niches for PCs that size? Was it marketing,
the size inspiring a sense of heft and value? Correspondingly, why do animal species seem to be static,
although they too may be undergoing internal changes
not apparent in the fossil record? A significant change in
size might catch the attention of new predators and make
hiding more difficult. It might frighten familiar prey, require
new feeding habits, and so on. Only if changes bring
substantial advantage can they overcome the drawbacks
to abandoning a successful niche (or, environmental
change could remove the niche itself). Being able to
slip a computer into your pocket—that’s cool enough to
motivate a break from the past, even if it requires learning
to type with your thumbs!
tions, but that research appears in
GROUP, Collaboration Technologies
and Systems, and information systems conferences, not CSCW.
At a CSCW 2010 Town Hall
meeting, European participants
expressed unhappiness over the
diminished presence of research
into workplace activity. Taking the
“W” in CSCW seriously, they objected to studies of multiplayer gaming
and other consumer or online community activity. An ECSCW 2011
manifesto by Bannon, Schmidt, and
Wagner concluded “CSCW’s focus
is not just any kind of ‘socially
organized activity’ but ordinary
cooperative work: work in hospitals and factories, administrative
agencies and research laboratories,
software engineering bureaus and
lawyers’ offices, and so on” [ 4]. This
view has no vocal adherents in the
North American CSCW community.
CSCW 2012 had few sessions on
these topics and many on studies
of Wikipedia; social networking
in war, crisis, and consumer settings; online communities; crowdsourcing; and multiplayer games.
In the 1980s, networked PCs and
workstations were found only in
workplaces, but today, studies of
multiplayer games, leisure, and
consumer activity are of high interest to the American companies and
academics that dominate CSCW.
are accumulating. Large European
organizations will be using social
networking software, productivity
games, and other technologies that
CSCW is exploring. Data miners,
hopefully in concert with ethnographers, will assist in building a new
bridge. And then, when amicability
reigns, another disruptive wave may
arrive, adding another layer to the
digital fossil record.
CSCW is one example; other
fields and regions might be similarly reassessed. Punctuated equilibrium is found in nature. Pressure
on tectonic plates builds steadily
beneath the Earth’s crust, but
instead of gradual change at the
surface, earthquakes punctuate
periods of equilibrium. It could help
explain why so often organizations
and entire industries are caught
flat-footed by waves of technology
change. Explorations of history can
reveal the power of unseen forces
to shape events. To influence where
we go, we must understand the
waves we surf.
September + October 2012
1. Grudin, J. A missing generation: Office automa-tion/information systems and human-computer interaction. interactions 13, 3 (May + June 2006), 58-61.
2. Biuso, E. The 100 most creative people in business: Chief Almir / Surui Amazon Tribe; http://www.
3. My colleague Tomoo Inoue has informally
described the evolution in Japan as being closer
to the North American experience with research
driven by vendor companies, but with differences.
4. Bannon, L., Schmidt, K., and Wagner, I. Lest
we forget—The European field study tradition and
the issue of conditions of work in CSCW research.
Proc. ECSCW 2011, 213-232.
developers were North American:
Google, Facebook, You Tube,
Twitter, Wikipedia, Blizzard
(World of Warcraft), and so on.
As before, interests were pushed
in different directions by technological change. Studies of consumer
phenomena and online communities moved to the fore in CSCW. In
Europe, companies and agencies
were not interested in these. They
focused on improving the collaborative use of complex internal systems
and promoted sophisticated basic
research in specific domains such
as medicine, manufacturing, and
telecommunications. Similar concerns naturally affect U.S. organiza-
Forecast and Conclusion
CSCW 2010 Town Hall participants
seemed to blame each other for
choices over which we may have
had little control. When this latest
wave of technology has swept across
the world, researchers may coalesce
as they did 20 years earlier. Having
harvested the low-hanging fruit,
North Americans will realize that
deeper understanding of Web 2.0
phenomena requires the domain-specific knowledge that Europeans
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Grudin (http://research.
microsoft.com/~jgrudin) is a principal researcher in the Natural
Interaction Group at Microsoft
Research. He attended the first
CSCW conference in 1986, co-chaired CSCW ‘98, and was program co-chair of
CSCW 2012. He has participated in ECSC W as
author and program committee member.
© 2012 ACM 1072-5520/12/09 $15.00