This man is Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck. In 1809, 50 years before Darwin published The Origin of the Species, he wrote what is widely recognized as the first comprehensive theory of evolution. His book, the Philosophie Zoologique introduced the notion of an internal code within every living thing, which, when passed down through successive generations, defined the physiological characteristics of a species.
At the centre of Larmarck's theory laid what he called "the adaptive force". He believed that the experiences of an organism during its life modified this internal code, and upon reproduction, this modified version was passed down to its young.
Whilst not biologically accurate and ultimately superseded by Darwin's theory of natural selection, the epigenetic theories put forward by him are beginning to find new homes in unexpected places.
Lamarckian User Data
When we use contemporary technology, a trail of information is created in the form of data. When analysed, it described our actions, decisions, preferences, movements and relationships. This codified version of who we are becomes ever more complex, developing, changing and deforming based on our actions.
In this regard, this ledger of our data may be considered a Lamarckian epigenome: a constantly evolving representation of who we are.
This is Bill Hamilton, one of the most significant evolutionary theorists of the 20th century. His work studying the social structures of ants, bees and wasps had a profound effect on our understanding of the role of genes in social behaviours such as altruism.
He believed and went on to prove that the driving force behind evolution was not the individual - but the gene.
He stated that "the ultimate criterion which determines whether a gene will spread is not whether the behaviour is not to the benefit of the behaver - but whether it is to the benefit of the gene.
In the mid-1970s, the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins built on the work of Hamilton and others to popularise the concept of The Selfish Gene. In his book of the same name, he introduced the notion of a gene which, whilst devoid of any motives or will, could be metaphorically and pedagogically described as if it were.
In this model, the individual organism is a transient carrier - a survival machine for the gene.
User-centred design principles have dominated the world of computing for many decades.
But what if we looked at things a little differently?
What if the ledger could be given a volitional purpose, rather than simply acting as a historical reference?
What if we focused on creating a richer ledger by introducing more sources of information?
What if we thought ourselves not as the owners of this information but as custodians, transient carriers or caretakers?
Episode 1 - Il Grillo Parlante
Initially, the notion of a goal-oriented ledger may be user-driven.
As an organisation, Google would be responsible for offering suitable targets for user's ledger. Whilst the notion of a global good is problematic; topics would likely focus on health or environmental impact, to reflect Google's values as an organisation.
Once the user selects a volition for their ledger, every interaction may be compared to a series of parallel options. If one of these options allows the ledger to move closer to its goal, it will be offered up to the user. Over time, by selecting these options, the user's behaviour may be modified and the ledger moves closer to its target.
Episode 2 - The Quill of Cornelius Fudge
As this line of thinking accelerates, and the notion of a goal-driven ledger becomes more palatable, suggestions might be converted not by the user, but by the ledger itself.
In this case, the ledger is missing a key data source which it requires to better understand this user. In order to plug the gap in its knowledge, the ledger begins searching for a device which delivers the required data when used. From this list, the ledger begins sorting the options most likely to appeal to the user in question.
In situations where no suitable product is found, the ledger may investigate a bespoke solution. By analysing historical data, it is increasingly possible to discern qualitative information such as taste and aesthetic sensibility, which may be used in the creation of a design proposal. With the advent of technologies such as CNC milling and the emergent possibilities of 3d printing, a custom object may be created to trigger this user's interest. In this way, the ledger is able to plug gaps in its knowledge an refine its model of human behaviour.
Episode 3 - Unus Pro Omnibus
User data has the capability to survive beyond the limits of our biological selves, in much the same way as genetic code is released and propagated in nature.
By considering this data through a Lamarckian lens, the codified experiences within the ledger become an accumulation of behavioural knowledge throughout the life of an individual.
By thinking of user data as multi-generational, it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generations' behaviours and decisions.
As new users enter an ecosystem, they begin to create their own trail of data. By comparing this emergent ledger with the mass of historical user data, it becomes possible to make increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviours.
As cycles of collection and comparison extend, it may be possible to develop a species level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health and poverty.
Our ability to interpret user data combined with the exponential growth in sensor-enabled objects will result in an increasingly detailed account of who we are as people. As these streams of information are brought together, the effect is multiplied: new patterns become apparent and new predictions become possible.
Since the 1970s, huge efforts have been made in sequencing the human genome. Today, after many years of research and billions of data points, that sequence is known.
By adopting a similar perspective with user data, we may begin to better understand its role, just as the examination of protein structures paved the way to genetic sequencing - the mass multi-generational examination of actions and results could introduce a model of behavioural sequencing.
As gene sequencing yields a comprehensive map of human biology, researchers are increasingly able to target parts of the sequence and modify them in order to achieve a desired result.
As patterns begin to emerge in the behavioural sequences, they too may be targeted. The ledger could be given a focus, shifting it from a system which not only tracks our behaviour, but offers direction towards a desired result.
We are at the very beginning of our journey of understanding in the field of user data. By applying our knowledge of epigenetics, inheritance and mimetics to this field, we may be able to make mental leaps in our understanding, which could offer benefits to this generation, to future generations and the species as a whole
Written by Nick Foster and David Murphy
Video source: The Verge