Take back the monoculture metaphor

South Korea's Windows problem shows what can happen when one species prevails over all others.

Published February 1, 2007 12:46AM (EST)

The term "monoculture" usually pops up in How the World Works when quoting the rhetoric of critics of industrial agriculture. Monocultures prevail when only one species or strain of a plant (or other life form) dominates an entire farm, as in, for example, a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil or a genetically modified soybean field in Iowa. Monocultures are considered by such critics to be inherently fragile systems, more vulnerable to devastation from pests and diseases than healthy ecosystems full of a splendiferous variety of living things.

I was reminded earlier this week, however, that the monoculture metaphor has been popular for years with software programmers who warn against the computing ecosystem being dominated by any single species. Their obvious target: Microsoft, whose near universal monopoly of computer desktops the world over constitutes its own monoculture, subject to that predations of pests and diseases that we know better as malicious hackers and computer viruses.

Earlier this week Slashdot linked to a lengthy post by Gen Kenai detailing the sorry saga of a country completely in thrall to the Microsoft monoculture -- South Korea. Due to a series of decisions made way back in the late 1990s, Korean computer users managed to lock themselves into a situation where today, if they want to complete an online transaction, they are entirely dependent on Microsoft. It's bad enough that this means Apple and Linux users are a minuscule minority. But what's even worse is that Microsoft Vista, set to launch within days in Korea, doesn't work well with the old Active X technology that is ubiquitous in Korea.

So suppose you decide to buy Microsoft Vista, perhaps in conjunction with a new computer that is powerful enough to run Vista, but then you suddenly discover that you cannot bank or purchase online or do anything else that requires secure encryption. It's kooky, a huge number of people in Korea are justifiably outraged, and lawsuits are beginning to fly.

It's time for biodiversity advocates to reclaim the metaphor. The example of Microsoft in Korea shows how one bad decision a decade ago leads to unpredictable trouble years later, and how a profusion of operating systems, or interacting plants and animals, could be healthier for everyone than lonely dependence on just one. More complexity equals better.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Microsoft