Lots of new papers added this week—more that we can list here. Check the Reports and Papers Archive for more.
[tags]diversity, complexity, monocultures[/tags]
In my last post, I wrote about the problems brought about by complexity. Clearly, one should not take the mantra of “simplification” too far, and end up with a situation where everything is uniform, simple, and (perhaps) inefficient. In particular, simplification shouldn’t be taken to the point where diversity is sacrificed for simple uniformity.
Nature penalizes monocultures in biological systems. Monocultures are devastated by disease and predators because they have insufficient diversity to resist. The irish potato famine, the emerald ash borer, and the decimation of the Aztecs by smallpox are all examples of what happens when diversity is not present. Nature naturally promotes diversity to ensure a robust population.
We all practice diversity in our everyday lives. Diversity of motor vehicles, for instance supports fitness for purpose—a Camero, is not useful for hauling dozens of large boxes of materials. For that, we use a truck. However, for one person to get from point A to point B in an economical fashion, a truck is not the best choice. It might be cheaper and require less training to use the same vehicle for everything, but there are advantages to diversity. Or tableware—we have (perhaps) too many forks and spoon types in a formal placesetting, but try eating soup with a fork and you discover that some differentiation is useful!
In computing, competition has resulted in advances in hardware and software design. Choice among products has kept different approaches moving forward. Competition for research awards from DARPA and NSF has encouraged deeper thought and more focused proposals (and resultant development). Diversity in operating systems and programming languages brought many advancements in the era 1950-2000. However, expenses and attempts to cut staff have led to widespread homogenization of OS, applications, and languages over approximately the last decade.
Despite the many clear benefits of promoting diversity, too many organizations have adopted practices that prevent diversity of software and computing platforms. For example, the OMB/DoD Common Desktop initiative is one example where the government is steering personnel towards a monoculture that is more maintainable day-to-day, but which is probably more vulnerable to zero-day attacks and malware.
Disadvantages of homogeneity:
Advantages of homogeneity:
Disadvantages of heterogeneity:
Advantages of heterogeneity:
Reviewing the above lists makes clear that entities concerned with self-continuation and operation will promote diversity, despite some extra expense and effort. The potential disadvantages of diversity are all things that can be countered with planning or budget. The downsides of monocultures, however, cannot be so easily addressed.
Dan Geer wrote an interesting article for Queue Magazine about diversity, recently. It is worth a read.
The simplified conclusion: diversity is good to have.