The Darwinian iPod
It's difficult these days to read the newspaper. I keep coming across articles discussing "intelligent design" and I plunge in, thinking they might be about some smarter rejoinder to the maldesigned SUV, or perhaps some new coffee cup lid that that won't allow the contents to rise up and scald my mouth. Mostly I'm just happy to see design discussed in the mainstream media.
That's when I learn that the article is really about the science-in-religion's-clothing specter that is the Intelligent Design movement. ID, for the uninitiated, is a doctrine calling into question Darwin's theory of evolution for its supposed explanatory flaws, those moments where scientists have yet to account in evolutionary terms for some organism's "irreducible complexity." It all must be the hand of an omnipotent Designer. "Teach the controversy," goes the mantra, in a bit of Orwellian manipulation of language. For the "controversy," it turns out, consists of more than a century's worth of the weight of scientific opinion and evidence, versus a historically fringe movement, peddling a few speculative hypotheses, the spiritual ally of good old creationism, or those "young Earth" people who say that the Grand Canyon was created by the Great Flood. In Bush's going-backwards America, 80 years after the "Scopes Trial" (American legal precedent for teaching evolution in schools), ID is suddenly, chillingly, passing for cutting-edge thought.
But for the sake of a late summer day's argument, I wonder what the Intelligent Design "controversy" would look like in the world of design.
In 1802, the English philosopher William Paley, in a kind of predecessor to ID, famously used the case of coming across a rock and a watch in a field. Unlike the rock, the watch consists of the complex interplay of a number of moving parts, each of which is required to make it function. "The inference is inevitable," said Paley. "The watch must have a maker." He then extrapolated this into the realm of nature, where any complex organism an eye, for example could not have evolved and must have been designed. There are echoes of this today in ID, and the lessons are clear: Whenever scientists stumble across something they cannot explain, the supposition is that it must be the supernatural at work, the guiding hand of the Designer.
As many observers have pointed out, however, Intelligent Design is often neither that intelligent, nor that well-designed. Take humans for example. Why do we have superfluous, but potentially deadly vestiges like the appendix or wisdom teeth? Why does birth proceed dangerously through the too-small aperture of the pelvic bones? And as an aging soccer player, I've got some gripes for the Design Department about the form-factor and durability of ankles and knees. As a product, humans would be a mixed-bag at best. Our components quit, break rather easily, or are often faulty from the get-go. Recalls are all-too common, the 1-800 customer-complaint lines always busy.
Let's say that instead of a watch in that field, we take the example of an observer coming across an iPod at a trade show. It is a sleek, well-crafted device that has a clever interface and seems to hold thousands of songs. The observer is curious: How could this small object perform these miraculous tasks? He would like to pry it open and figure it out, but there is just something so compelling about the smooth white exterior. It just seems too perfect to disturb, to interrogate. Its microchip architecture is just too complex. Not to mention that this device is said to have come from Steve Jobs, and to anyone who might have seen Jobs at a Macworld show, with a giant image of an iPod looming behind him like the obelisk in 2001, there is something of a supreme nature to the man. As the stories in the Book of Jobs tell it, the iPod is only one of an entire species to come from the hand of this incredibly Intelligent Designer. It is not important to know how they work or where they come from; rather, it is enough to know they were created by a Designer, and that somehow they fit into some grand scheme.
Designers would no doubt like to inhabit a world of Intelligent Design, and to be referred to as the honorific "Designer." This would be a world of unlimited budgets, of no constraints, of no sales departments or overseas factory reps. They wouldn't have to test their designs in the real world, or compare them to other designs. Their design would simply come into being, and there it would remain, unquestioned, not to be further unpacked because, clearly, it has been Designed. There would be no need to reverse engineer it to learn of its workings, no need to conduct ergonomic research. It is Designed, and it is so.
In the real world, design is Darwinian. To consider the iPod, it did not spring fully formed from the mind of a powerful Designer, but rather it represents one distinct point on a long evolutionary timeline. We would have to go back at least as far as the introduction of recorded music, then trace the increasing portability of that music, through car radios and miniaturized transistor radios after World War II. We would then have to move from the transistor radio with single earpiece to the stereo cassette Walkman, which gave the user the opportunity to listen to what they wanted, when they wanted, in a hermetically sealed mobile environment.
The Walkman, and later the Discman (for tapes were made extinct), laid the social groundwork for the iPod: the idea and it was a radical one that it was acceptable to walk around encased in one own's music. And before the iPod, of course, there were any number of MP3 players (the latest evolutionary medium), each of which were severely limited by their capacity or clunky controls. In their fossilized remains we can see how the iPod came into being, the ideal melding of what was then the most advanced hard drive and an elegant, almost "natural" interface topped off by styling that was rather divine. We would also have to consider Apple's evolutionary history, its near-brushes with extinction, and its prescient decision that its best way to survive in the marketplace would not be to rely on computers per se, but to augment its bottom line with what was for it an entirely new market: personal music players.
Of course, it was only the final iPod that we saw, not the endless napkin sketches and clay models and working prototypes that never made it to production stage. Even the finished, designed iPod is not complete; for each week, it seems, there is some new software update being released, allowing the iPod to better adapt to the media jungle (e.g., the ability to store photos, to play Podcasts, etc.). The iPod continues to grow new "skins" as its own is not well-suited for certain harsh environments and even new "limbs," so it could more vigorously compete in arenas like the car, perhaps rendering the traditional car stereo obsolete. But some of these new iPod features have only come about by natural selection; in the same way that Darwin's theory helps explain what looks like bad design cave-dwelling species with working eyes that are covered by flaps of skin it also helps explain what looks like good design. Evolution, as described by the New Scientist, is "driven by a mismatch between an organism's needs and its abilities to meet them." That same impetus drives real intelligent design.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
writers about architecture, design, technology, science and other topics for a wide range of publications, including: The New York Times, Wired, The Financial Times, Smithsonian, Slate, Metropolis
and others. He most recent book is Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
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