April is the month when apple trees start to bloom up here in the Pacific Northwest. All across Oregon’s Willamette Valley, from Portland stretching south to Eugene, long-barren branches sprout white, 5-petaled blossoms tinged with pink. Any other year, our family would be taking weekend trips southwest to Sherwood or east towards Hood River to visit their orchards.
Like the Fuji and Gala varieties that predominate in this region, most apple cultivars are self-unfruitful — which is to say that they require cross-pollination to produce a good crop consistently.
When fertilized by the pollen of Fuji apple blossoms (or those of Braeburn, Honey Crisp, or McIntosh varieties), a Gala apple tree can yield 20 kilograms of fruit each season. Those Gala trees, in return, endow their pollen on the Fuji apple trees so that they too may blossom and bear one or two bushels of fruit, each.
The Dance of the Honey Bee
Appletree pollen is sticky. In contrast with the windborne pollen of Alder, Birch, and Ash trees (whose allergenic quality gave the Willamette its name, meaning “valley of sickness” in the indigenous Kalapuya dialect), appletrees rely on insects to transfer pollen — particularly the honey bee.
Honey bees eat the pollen of flowers and convert their nectar into honey. Some of the pollen sticks to their furry bodies, which is inadvertently spread as they move from plant to plant.
When a scout bee encounters a food source, she flies back to the hive and communicates the location of that food source to male worker bees by performing what’s called a waggle dance. Performed in darkness on the vertical honeycomb surface in the hive, she’s able to convey the precise location of new food sources to them by flying a coffee bean-shaped pattern oriented in the direction of the sun. It’s an incredible feat, made all the more remarkable by the fact that bees are not, individually, very intelligent. Bees have brains on the order of 1 million neurons, compared to the 100 billion neurons of a human brain.
If you move a food source closer and farther away from a hive, you can see how the dance changes to convey this new information. But move it just past some critical point, and the dance becomes something entirely different: instead of the waggle dance, the bee performs a round dance with a totally different cadence and flight path.
For many years, the dance language of the bumblebee eluded all those who studied it. That is until a mathematician named Barbara Shipman made the connection between a bee’s dance language and the six-dimensional geometry of flag manifolds, of all things. What was the unique insight that allowed her to see what others couldn’t? She grew up in a family of beekeepers and cultivated an interest in mathematics and biology that carried throughout her studies.
The leap from furry, buzzing insects to abstract geometry is inconceivable unless you’re accustomed to looking at the world in that particular way.
The Rose that Grows From the Dunghill
When Apple first announced the Swift programming language in 2014, it generated a flurry of excitement as we all tried to understand it. One of the most powerful tools at our disposal for understanding is analogy:
New Thing is like
Familiar Thing crossed with
Last year, we saw something similar with at WWDC 2019. Anyone familiar with React or Elm immediately recognized their influence on SwiftUI and Combine (even if Apple hadn’t come out and acknowledged it explicitly).
And yet, there are countless examples of good ideas from “them” being criticized and mocked until they’re incorporated into an Apple product:
- ⌥⇥ app switching on Windows (⌘⇥ on macOS)
- Dark mode in Android (added in iOS 13)
- Generics in Java and other languages (a core feature in Swift, later added to Objective-C)
- JSX-style DSLs declarative UI (function builders in SwiftUI)
All of which begs the question:
Why did we consider these good ideas heretical until Apple did it?
Us vs. Them
Another flavor of this arises from the dichotomy between “Native” and “Hybrid”.
Whenever a company writes some blog post about React Native, what inevitably follows is chorus of developers who either praise the decision as courageous (if switching away) or call it idiotic (if adopting it).
As developers, we tend to align ourselves with enlightenment ideals like objectivity. We say that we make decisions based in the indisputable reality of fact. We consider ourselves reasonable and our decisions well-reasoned.
But to what extent is this actually true? Do our thoughts lead us to our preferences, or do we use thoughts to rationalize them after the fact?
In the 1960s and 70s, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel and his colleagues ran a series of experiments that demonstrated how little it takes for people to engage in intergroup discrimination.
In one experiment, a group of boys were shown pictures with clusters of dots and instructed to guess how many there were as a test of their visual judgment. The researchers split the group between those who overestimated or underestimated the number. Except, they only pretended to do this — the boys were, in fact, randomly assigned to one of the two groups. They were then given the task of allocating a fixed amount of real money to other boys in the study.
The results surprised even the researchers:
Overwhelmingly, the boys chose outcomes where their assigned group (under- or over-estimators) received more money than their counterparts — even when that meant getting less overall.
Successful replication of these results in follow-up studies since then presents compelling evidence of this peculiarity in human nature. That a willingness to engage in “us vs. them” discrimination can arise from completely artificial distinctions, irrespective of any rationale of self-interest.
How else could you explain the intense tribalism around how we talk to computers?
The Dream of Purity
If you see the existence of competing technologies as a fight between good and evil, perhaps there are more important battles to fight. If you can’t evaluate solutions as a series of trade-offs, what chance do you have at accomplishing anything at all?
Yes, there are real differences between technologies and reasonable people disagree about which one is best-suited to solve a particular problem. But don’t mistake this for a moral contest.
Purity is an ideal; a vision of the condition which needs yet to be created, or such as needs to be diligently protected against the genuine or imagined odds. Without such a vision, neither the concept of purity makes sense, nor the distinction between purity and impurity can be sensibly drawn.
– Zygmunt Bauman
It’s of no practical consequence that the grounds on which Apple Park sits today were fruit orchards a hundred years ago. But it’s poetic. Long before it was “Silicon Valley”, the stretch of land between the San Andreas and Hayward faults was called “the Valley of Heart’s Delight” for all of its fruit trees and flowering plants.
Dwelling on this, you might reflect on how humans are like apple trees. That we need a variety of different influences to reach our potential. (Even self-starters benefit from a unique perspective).
You might then consider what we share in common with the bees that pollinate apple trees. Like them, our success comes not from our individual intelligence, but in our ability to share information.
Whether we’re like bees or like apples, we come away learning the same lesson: We can achieve remarkable results by working together.