VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Monday, June 18, 2012

VISTA and the Classic Definition of Life

A buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)
[A symbiotic relationship between two living systems, each of which unambiguously satisfies the classic definition of life. Photo credit: Joaquim Alves Gaspar Source: Wikipedia]

Does VISTA satisfy the classic definition of life? Let's answer this point by point.

1. Some VISTA software exhibits homeostasis (Task Manager for example), but a lot of VISTA software does not - or, at least in isolation it does not. Once you add users and programmers into the equation, VISTA's software lifecycle exhibits strong homeostasis; but as plenty of organizations have proved, it is possible to impose alternative software lifecycles on VISTA that destroy this higher-level homeostasis. Also, some systems within VISTA that started out without homeostatic mechanisms had them added later, and many more can still be added. So the answer is yes, some of it does, sometimes, under some conditions, but the answer is also no, not all of it, not even most of it, and not always. Yes and no seem entirely inadequate for this point.

2. Ah, organization! VISTA has lots of it, lots of structure built up from basic units to create many higher layers of order. To those of us who understand VISTA's architecture, its overall organization is elegant and often beautiful (though plenty of it is ugly and in need of refactoring). Unfortunately, the classic definition of life pretty much demands cells as the basic unit, and this is not true of VISTA (metaphorical cells don't count).

3. No, VISTA definitely does not have a metabolism (metaphorical metabolism does not count, either). VISTA is completely dependent on an electrical supply, which is the mechanical equivalent of an animal that is only "alive" as long as it is plugged in - we call that a machine. That's pretty much the opposite of a metabolism, so a big no on this point.

4. Yes, VISTA has growth. Oodles of it. Its data multiplies, its software extensions increase, its routines and globals, its files and options, even its extensible frameworks and documentation grow in number over time. At all its layers it grows. Some of this growth requires interaction with other living things (like people); some happens even when VISTA is left to itself. Controlling VISTA's growth is often the real challenge in managing a VISTA system.

5. In isolation, most of VISTA does not adapt, though some of it does, but with programmers and users involved much of it adapts very well indeed, both in the short term and the long. VISTA's adaptabillity is one of its core strengths. Adding heredity to the question, as this definition does, only muddies the picture. VISTA has nothing really like DNA or heredity, but neither is it limited to mechanical copying for its reproduction, as we'll discuss below. What it has instead makes it in some ways amazingly more adaptable than most biological organisms. As with homeostasis, the answer here is mixed and can improve over time, leaving us with more ambivalence.

6. Yes, VISTA is extremely responsive to stimuli, just not the kinds of stimuli or responses biological organisms are tuned to (not motion, for example). In terms of both quantity and variety of information it responds to, VISTA has all biological organisms beat many, many times over. In terms of survival-positive responses to the kinds of stimuli that might threaten its survival, VISTA flunks out with a big fat zero. It has no survival common sense at all, leaving it utterly dependent on its caretakers for its survival. Of course, it does have a strong symbiotic relationship with biological organisms that leads them to fill in this defect completely; most VISTA systems are better protected than most people.

7. Freud said it's all about the sex, so how fitting that we end with this characteristic. We've put it off long enough. Now it's time to answer the question we've all been waiting for (unless we haven't): does VISTA reproduce? The answer is: not like any biological species does. First, like many overbred domestic species, it cannot reproduce without human help - a lot of help. Second, new VISTA systems are derived from existing ones, yet are not clones; each VISTA system is unique. Third, VISTA systems do develop and adapt mainly by exchanging new features with one another to create new combinations of features; dozens of VISTA systems supply new features to each other and all other VISTA systems. It is as though animals were continuously mutating and then sharing their mutations with all the other animals, advancing their DNA while still alive - and not just a little bit, but dramatically over time. So, VISTA systems are overbred, domestic, polygamous, repeat-offender mutants that reproduce asexually from a single parent organism. VISTA has completely separated the twin goals of reproduction: increase in number of entities and genetic change. In other words, weird reproduction and weird sex, requiring the dedicated help of its biological symbionts.

So, no VISTA cannot be called alive under the classic definition of life. There were too many noes on the list above, and too many yeses are partial.

But that being said, there are also too many yeses to simply dismiss them. VISTA may not be a living organism, but it has more than a few of the characteristics of one.

And more importantly, before resting our case we need to explore these questions: Does something have to satisfy the classic definition of life for it to actually be alive? Is this definition complete? Does it actually define life?


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