01 April 1999

A fossilized warning for the digital world

Lovelace was amused to read of Hallucigenia, one of the denizens of the early explosion of bizarre Cambrian species found in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. This animal, it was thought, walked on fourteen jointless spines and sported a row of stubby tentacles on its back: until a better specimen revealed that palaeontologists had the creature upside-down! We may smile, but this shows how easy misinterpretation can be, when we meet unprecedented biology.

This problem may arise, too, when we begin to encounter digital life. Can we trust our perception of its possibilities? The growing uses of digital life-forms show striking parallels to our treatment of organic creatures: for exploitation, study, amusement, artistic and scientific inspiration, modification for supposed aesthetics, and so on. Yet it seems that the caucus of civil servants and scientists, whose speculations on Internet life-forms so exasperated Babbage recently, failed to see these parallels. They talked, for instance, of extermination. Yet in the organic world, as experience with DDT and the mosquito testifies, this measure hardly has a track record of success. Far more species, indeed, have been eliminated by accident than by design.

Conversely, decision-makers seem equally incapable of applying to real-world biology the understanding of genetic processes given us by digital life. As the Digital Burgess Conference shows, the Burgess Shale is inspiring to firms such as BT, who hope to evolve real-time systems from a diverse ‘digital soup’. Artists, too, delight in exploring a medium open to boundless mutations. The mutability of such models should, however, sound a note of caution over real-world genetic modification.

A world populated with creations such as a bean with a scorpion gene may well represent a new analogue of the Burgess Shale. This system is no longer stabilised by aeons of unmitigated competition: new mutations can be leap-frogged past initial risks to compete in fully established form, and will probably cross-breed with unmodified forms. We may be on the threshold of a world in which neither digital nor biological life follow evolutionary paths predictable from past patterns.

Human beings are notoriously slow to learn the lessons of the past. Lovelace fears that we are destined to repeat, in both digital and biotechnological arenas, the mistakes of our own ecological history.