Friday, January 02, 2009

The evolution of avian flight and parallels to technology-centric systems

If you find yourself in a bar with a bunch of paleontologists and want to start a fight (who wouldn’t?), bring up the topic of evolutionary development of flight in birds. You see, there are multiple schools of thought on how avian flight evolved—jumping from trees, wing-assisted running and hopping, pouncing on prey—and no clear winner has emerged. But all schools generally agree on the physiological factors required for flight to occur, and even a layman like me can appreciate that flight is a very expensive proposition. The muscle-to-weight ratio has to be high, so birds lose heavy things like teeth and solid bones, and develop structural characteristics like a large “keel” bone to which the powerful wing muscles attach. If you’re a flying bird, especially a flapper rather than a glider, you spend a good portion of your waking hours eating, to supply the fuel you need to get around in the air. Species that can fly have great advantages over flightless competitors. Flyers can cover a lot of ground, migrate to accommodate seasonal weather, escape from predators, and attack prey from above.

It is an interesting evolutionary phenomenon that occurs when the advantages of flight no longer outweigh the cost—birds stop flying. For example, bird species that live on isolated islands with sufficient food to support the population and lack ground-dwelling predators no longer need to fly, and therefore, they lose that ability. They get skeletally heavier, larger, and lose their strong flying muscles. Of course these adaptations to the local environment make these species particularly vulnerable to the introduction of external species that compete for food or become predators. But I think it’s interesting that evolution is not just survival of the fittest, it is survival of the most efficient. A more efficient species will thrive when the conditions are right.

So why am I writing about avian flight when I usually write about technology and digital media? I think there are some relevant parallels to technology-centric systems and the impact of the environment on how these systems evolve. In a highly competitive environment, particularly when the needs of the consumer challenge the technological state of the art, solution providers must take relatively costly measures to compete. For example, a digital media distribution system might have to control all aspects of the solution—including production, hosting, and presentation—to provide an offering that meets the needs of the market and satisfies the consumer. As the state of technology develops, certain facilities that used to be the core intellectual property of the solution provider become commodities. It is no longer necessary for the provider to own all aspects of the overall solution, and in fact, it is not efficient to do so. The cost of owning and controlling all aspects of the solution is no longer an advantage, and solutions that leverage commoditized technologies without owning them are able to compete more efficiently. And any business environment, like nature, favors a competitor who can meet the needs of the market (i.e. survive effectively in the ecosystem) most efficiently.

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