This Blogasbörd

Swedish MeatballsOne of my earliest jobs in high school was as a waiter at Griswold’s Restaurant, a smorgasbörd eatery in Claremont, Calif., now long defunct. Griswold’s was famous for all you can eat at one reasonable price with dozens of hot and cold delicacies from main courses (Swedish meat balls, of course) to salads and desserts.

Every night the place was packed with tables turning over many times and, on some days of the year such as Mother’s Day, lines would stretch for hundreds of yards and involve waits longer than an hour. Needless to say, as a high school waiter, the tips and money were pretty good, and I thought I was rolling in dough.

All you can eat meant everyone ate a lot, though some were broad grazers while others chowed down on just a few items. Every dish was touted by at least a few as the best and tastiest, though certainly not all looked tasty to me. But variety was immense and even as an employee eating many (most) of my meals there through the week, something always whetted my appetite.

In thinking of this site the name blogasbörd popped into my head, I suppose and in part, because of these fond memories of Griswold’s. Like many Americans I have a romanticized view of my ethnic heritage, often as a means to throw light on distinctions that don’t really exist anymore in our melting pot amalgam. The smorgasbörd, the surname (mine means miner), the Saabs my family used to favor, the few words of the mother tongue I speak, all, I think, are expressions of mild allegiances to a Swedish background long diluted by our American uniqueness.

But besides the Swedish affectation, I do think that the real attraction to me of the concept of the blogasbörd is that not everything will be tasty to everyone, but perhaps there is something of taste, interest and sustenance to many. So, welcome to all you can eat, even though my recipes are limited. I hope the variety that does exist encourages you to come back and sample some more.

My Passion

A common thread has run through all of my professional interests from botany and population genetics through the environment, energy and engineering to software and documents and searching and the semantic Web: the essential role of information to confer adaptive advantage. At first blush, these seemingly disparate interests and vocations lack a consistency, a thread of continuity. And, indeed, it was many years before I realized myself what this constant was at the heart of my passions.

I don’t know if one, five or ten years from now I will continue to have an interest and passion for setting the table at the blogasbörd of adaptive information, but I have now for more than three decades. I retain that passion today and pledge for the foreseeable future to offer my services and thoughts to that end.

Adaptive Information

My earliest passion as an evolutionary biologist was concerned with how genetic information packaged in DNA conferred or not competitive advantage. The degree of this advantage is known by the term “fitness.” The nature and types of adaptive genetic information are a complex interplay of the stability or not of the environment and the lifespan and life cycle of the organism, all mediated through reproductive strategy. In other words, living DNA is information that has survived the stresses of the past to inform the future; this information is passed into the future through reproduction (sex).

First through verbal allegory and then through written symbols and communications, humans have broken the boundaries of genetic information to confer adaptive advantage. The knowledge of how to create and sustain fire altered our days (and nights), consciousness and habitat range. Information about how to make tools enabled productivity, the creation of wealth, and fundamentally altered culture. Humans learned how to codify their experience and observations through notations and then writing.

Unlike for other organisms, the information which humans have to adapt to future conditions is not limited to the biological package. Systemic innovations in encoding and organizing information has (and is) causing it to increase (and rapidly!) over time. No organism but humans has more potentially adaptive information available to future generations than what was present in the past. Passing information to the future is no longer limited to sex. Indeed, it can be argued that the fundamental driver of human economic activity is the generation, survival and sustenance of adaptive information.

Thus, information, biological or cultural, is nothing more than an awareness about circumstances in the past that might be used to succeed or adapt to the future. Adaptive information is that which best survives into the future and acts to sustain itself or overcome environmental instability.

Adaptive information, like the beneficial mutation in genetics, is that which works to sustain and perpetuate itself into the future.

Adaptive Innovation

Innovation is the process application of information. If information is more akin to the product or the what, innovation is the how or sequence by which information gets applied. Successful innovations, that is, adaptive ones, affect the pace and productivity by which information (or as economists say, widgets) is generated.

The most radical and important innovations, therefore, are those which affect the creation and generation of information itself. It is perhaps for good reason that among the most fundamental human innovations are the alphabet, writing and papyrus, the printing press, pulp paper and universal printing, and electronic data and transmission. Even other important innovations — fire in extending day and habitat, the wheel in extending distance and contact, electricity and communications in reducing time and distance, and computing to further leverage human intelligence — can arguably be strongly linked with impacts on the pace of information generation.

Rapid, adaptive innovations shift the pace, nature and degree of information generation. When they occur, it is like shifting into a higher gear.

As Peter Drucker first did with the discipline of management, he began to show that innovation itself can be an object of purposeful study and innovation. Since innovation is the engine that fuels the ability to respond and adapt, it is increasingly one of my primary interests. A fundamental premise is that adaptive innovation can be understood, guided, forecasted and promoted. The past acceptance of innovation as Eureka! moments or lightning strikes has proven to be a too simplistic interpretation.

As both an entrepreneur and a venturist, I have experienced first hand the challenges and disappointments of undirected or poorly understood innovation. There are many exciting recent thinkers — Drucker, Christensen, Porter, among others — who are innovating around the concept of innovation. Blogasbörd topics specific to better success rates for identifying and promoting innovation are a key topic.

Adaptive Infrastructure

Environments and places in time occasionally arise that profoundly alter the scope, scale, magnitude and intensity of innovation and adaptive ideas. The industrial revolution in England, fiction and literature in Europe and Russia of the 1800s, impressionism in continental Europe at the transition of the 20th century, Silicon Valley in the 1980s, Renaissance Italy, and the mittelstand of West Germany of the 1950s are all examples.

One specific interest of this blogasbörd in adaptive infrastructure is in interoperable, scalable software systems. Open source, Web services, grid computing and the various standards and protocols that underlie them will more profoundly affect software trends.

For the foreseeable cycle of software innovation, the “killer app” is dead. It is the system, modularity, interoperability, and plug-and-play that will be the sources of new excitement for the coming years. Computer software and hardware have certainly gone through sine waves of where product and then process innovation is in the fore. We currently appear to be at the height of the influence for software processes over individual applications.

Melding the Themes as AI3

These three themes — adaptive information, adaptive innovation, adaptive infrastructure — come together in this blogasbörd as AI3. My central theme is information. If it confers future advantage, it is adaptive. If it is embedded in a system or process, it is innovative. And, if it is part of a broader circumstance or environment, it is adaptive infrastructure.

In prior versions of this About section, I also discussed how AI3 was not to be confused with artificial intelligence. Prior versions rejected the general AI premise. However, with the changes wrought by the Internet itself and continued increases in economical computing power, we are now seeing a much changed form of AI — and one that is manifestly working. My full reasons for shifting my opinion about AI are expressed in a related post. Consider the artificial intelligence sense of AI to now also be a theme of this blog.

The senses of AI3 on this site are concerned with process, perspective and methodology by which we as humans can (hopefully) bring more intelligence to our future. Adaptive information, adaptive innovation, adaptive infrastructure, and artificial intelligence are all contributing aspects to this vision.

The Internet as a Disruption

One of my central arguments is that an inexorable trend through history has been the “democratization” of information. What had been the domain of the priests is now becoming the option of the masses.

Literally, through human history until five hundred years ago, written documents were a limited number of manuscripts painstaking and beautifully transcribed into limited quantities by monks and priests. Though the Gutenberg printing press allowed copies to be created faster, the cost of vellum and then rag paper still limited the diversity of books and numbers that could be economically produced. Only upon the technological breakthroughs of machine papermaking in the early 1800s and then of pulp paper in the 1860s did the economics of bookmaking allow a flowering of authors and mass (“pulp”) fiction. Still, even until recently, the scope of authoring or publishing was limited. In fiction and non-fiction, publishers selected and controlled whose “voice” received attention because of the economics and risks of book publishing. In science, peer review and journal editors provided similar selective screens.

With the Internet and the availability of easy-to-use, set-up and zero cost CMS (content management system) Web publishing systems and social networks, everyone is now prospectively a publisher or author. What will be the now newer pace of information generation? How will authoritativeness and information reliability be determined? What will electronic means for sifting, organizing and packaging this tidal wave of information do with respect to information quality and adaptiveness? How do formats such as Twitter or email change our basic means of communications?

There’s a number of fun, little timelines on the Internet showing the history of paper (one of which may be found here). I have also produced my own timeline of information innovations.

I believe it can fairly be argued that no event has been more important to information dissemination than the Internet since at least the genesis of the mass publishing market in the 1800s and quite possibly since the printing press of the mid-1400s. I would not be surprised that personal authoring on the Web may be viewed in centuries to come as THE most signal information event in human history.

The Civility of the Commons

The democratization of publishing raises the specter of what information is being disseminated and the possible encouragement of hate groups or radical viewpoints. There is, and will no doubt, be some of this.

A powerful aspect of the democratization of information matched with global access (namely, blogs and other information hubs) is the ability for communities of like interests and shared values to find one another. Just as Ebay has given rise to specialty markets and sellers of all interests, the ability of intersections of interests to form on the Internet is exciting and, under some scenarios, troubling.

Yet, with unevenness, civil society has shown the ability to police itself for the greater common good throughout history. Not only in the present environment can anyone be a publisher or an author, but anyone can be a cop, priest, conscience, fact checker, and clarion.

A Final Note

The purpose of this blogasbörd is to encourage thought and commentary around AI3 as defined. All are welcomed. I only ask that you participate with civility, inoffensive language, and no personal vitriol.

First Release 5/18/05; Last Updated 6/02/14