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Dr. Youngjin Yoo, Temple University – Evolution of Digital Materials

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Youngjin Yoo of Temple University explores how digital materials evolve in way their creators never imagined.

Youngjin Yoo is an associate professor in the Fox School of Business at Temple University where his teaching and research interests are focused on how digital technology transforms our work and life experiences. With a broad interest in digital innovation, he is specifically interested in integrating design approaches into the management of information technology. He holds a Ph.D. in information systems from the University of Maryland.

About Dr. Yoo

Dr. Youngjin Yoo – Evolution of Digital Materials

The rise of digital technology is changing the way man-made systems develop or, perhaps more appropriately, evolve. Consider the YouTube video “Charlie Bit Me.” In 2009, a man posted a 56-second clip of his toddler, Charlie, biting his older brother’s finger. Within a few months it attracted 130 million views. More interestingly, by 2010, over 5,600 creative adaptations – what we call mash-ups – saw Charlie’s antics reenacted by puppies, senior citizens, Lego blocks and even Charlie Brown.  

It’s common for new digital objects, like those video adaptations, to develop in an uncoordinated fashion quite divorced from their designer’s original intent. My research suggests that unique aspects of digital technology cause its development to look less like “intentional design” and more like natural evolution. For example, unlike the days in which video required a VCR and music a CD player, we can now combine video, audio, text and software on mediums ranging from phones, to iPads, to car consoles. And the content of a digital object is not fixed like that of a videotape. It can instead be reprogrammed without limit – and at very little cost.

Since technologies’ natural evolution increasingly strays from designers’ intent, we have begun researching the science of the artificial by drawing on a natural science: evolutionary biology. Technological mash-ups can breed a nearly infinite variety of new digital objects. Consider the range of outcomes generated when iPhones began hosting user-made apps. It is practically impossible for researchers to understand such objects’ underlying similarities by studying their diverse surface-level traits – or their phenotypes, in biological terms.

Just as modern theories of evolution showed connections between seemingly disparate biological species, so are we seeking to identify digital objects’ building blocks, or genotypes, to bring clarity to the evolution of business processes and technological innovations. This new field of organizational genetics may help businesses and innovators gain more understanding, and even more control, of the technological evolution shaping our world.  

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