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The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

Written on:July 28, 2010
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The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

“More than any thing else technology creates our world. It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being,” says W. Brian Arthur. Yet, until now the major questions of technology have gone unanswered. Where do new technologies come from — how exactly does invention work? What constitutes innovation, and how is it achieved? Why are certain regions — Cambridge, England, in the 1920s and Silicon Valley today — hotbeds of innovation, while others languish? Does technology, like biological

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  1. Steven Forth says:

    Review by Steven Forth for The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
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    An engaging and thought provoking book, Arthur provides a powerful framework for understanding how technologies evolve and are a key driver of productivity growth. According to Arthur (and he does a good job of demonstrating his case), technologies are based on interactions with natural phenomena that are composed into modular systems of components that grow into domains with their own conceptual languages. Because the systems are modular, they can leverage the combinatorial explosion and once a certain technology reaches a critical mass of components and interfaces it can evolve rapidly, entering new domains and exposing new natural phenomena to interact with. Arthur provides many examples that are interesting in their own right – from the evolution of airplanes and turbojets to genetics and even gearing systems or sorting algorithms.

    One test of a book is if it draws you towards additional reading that you might not have otherwise discovered. Arthur’s book caused me to run out (to Amazon) and order Colum Gilfillan’s 1935 book Inventing the Ship and decide to finally read Donald McKenzie’s book Knowing Machines. Thank you.

    I do have a few quibbles. I think Arthur makes a serious conceptual error in making natural phenomena the `genes’ of his system. I understand the temptation, but I think the metaphor is based on a misunderstanding of how genes actually function in living systems (see for example Lenny Moss’ book What Genes Can’t Do). The primitive elements in technology evolution can not be natural phenomena themselves but how humans (and other species) interact with these phenomena. I am not sure how to formalize this, probably something like a `theory in use” of cause and effect for natural phenomena, not something as formal as a scientific theory, more the rules of thumb and satisficing that we use as we interact with our world.

    There are also some conceptual frameworks that could be used to complement Arthur’s approach. I think the most important of these is that of design spaces, and the idea that technological progress is based on the expansion of and improved search over design spaces. For me, Stuart Kaufmann’s work is foundational here. Other work that complements Arthur’s is Baldwin and Clark’s wonderful book Design Rules (I hope that Volume 2 actually comes out one day) and the many applications of design patterns that are spreading from Christopher Alexander to the software industry to many other areas of endeavor. I personally find work in mereology useful in thinking about part-whole relationships and in converting combinatorial explosions into navigable design spaces, see for example Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi on Parts and Places.

    Arthur’s approach is going to need some formalization and a lot more application, but I think it proposes a useful way forward. It will be interesting to see how these ideas are applied to technologies such as markets and financial instruments, as well as new designs for organizations such as the fourth sector.

  2. Jay C. Smith says:

    Review by Jay C. Smith for The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
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    W. Brian Arthur, who is both an engineer and an economist, has thought a lot about the logic of technology. The strength of this book resides in how he pulls his observations together into a clear and coherent theory of how technology evolves. Arthur repeats himself to some degree throughout (one could read just the preface and the last chapter to grasp the main elements of his theory), but the prose is relatively jargon-free and straight-forward.

    All technologies, as Arthur defines them, (1) entail a means to fulfill a human purpose and (2) involve an assemblage of practices and components (both devices and methods). “Technology” can also mean the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.

    The essence of technology, Arthur suggests, is a phenomenon or set of phenomena captured and put to use, a programming of one or more of “truisms of nature” to our purposes (for example, burning certain fuels produces energy we can employ in many ways). The history of technology, he proposes, is one of capturing finer and finer phenomena, enabled by earlier technology.

    As he sees it, technology provides a “vocabulary” of elements that can be put together in endlessly new ways for novel purposes. Technology is “autopoietic,” or self-creating, Arthur believes. It creates new opportunity niches and new problems, which call forth still more new technology. The economy is in a state of perpetual novelty, unsatisfied, roiling constantly.

    According to Arthur, technologies often group together into “domains” based on the natural effects they exploit. He believes that, “A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses” (for example, a shift from mechanical to electronic controls, or from analogue to digital electronics).

    Just because we have a theory for how technology evolves does not mean, however, that we can accurately predict the technological future. There are many indeterminacies, Arthur says. He recognizes that the investment and publicity environments, for example, matter in determining what gets developed and adopted, and at what speed, but he doesn’t say much about these matters.

    Yet if technology has a logic of its own, why does it proceed at a different pace and on a different course in different places? The obvious answer is, I believe, that culture matters too, in all its manifestations (business systems, religious beliefs, governance structures, and so on). To be fair, Arthur says he made a deliberate choice to focus on the logic of technical creation (and not on the people or institutions who do it), and he treats societal institutions themselves as technologies, but as a consequence he sometimes comes across as too techno-centric.

    While Arthur does an admirable job of presenting historical examples (drawn mostly from the past two centuries), he has been selective, naturally latching on to cases that support his contentions. Do not expect a broad history of technology in the sense of a systematic survey of a wide range of developments in any given historical era. Thus we don’t know for sure from this volume alone how well his theory might hold up against a more inclusive consideration of historical developments, especially across cultures.

    Because Arthur’s concept of technology is so broad (pretty much anything that fulfills a human purpose counts), it raises several boundary issues; for example, where should one draw the line between science and technology? He concedes that it would be stretching things to call Newton’s explanations, for instance, “technologies” and proposes that it is better to think of scientific explanations as purposed systems that are “cousins” to technology.

    In the end, though, such fuzziness may not be much of a detriment, because Arthur’s broad conceptions lead him to provocative insights. For example, he rejects the idea that technology is simply the application of science and he observes that many technologies came into being without drawing on science directly at all (for example, powered flight). It was only when the phenomena driving technology began to fall below the threshold of unaided human observation (such as electrical and chemical phenomena) that science began to play more of a role, he proposes.

    Arthur also has engaging things to say about similarities and differences between technology and biology, about how engineers work, about how economic “needs” are generated, about our conceptions of nature versus technology, and about several other related subjects that should be of interest to many general readers.

  3. David Forrest says:

    Review by David Forrest for The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
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    Books like this are published rarely — maybe once every 10 years. Brian Arthur has done a masterful job of presenting new ideas about technological evolution and innovation in a way that is engaging and accessible. The Nature of Technology is beautifully written. That’s a recommendation in itself, but it is the new thinking that is most significant. Arthur explains how each of our technologies is a system, assembled from other technologies… ad infinitum. Every component provides an essential function in support of the whole. As components improve, or new components are substituted with enhanced functionality, the system evolves. Our technologies are now deep and complex, with many nested levels.

    Arthur’s model nicely explains accelerating change. In a simpler pre-industrial world, we had fewer things to combine. Today we have a seemingly infinite number of technologies to work with, and can combine them in an infinite number of ways. Add a new technology and the combinations multiply. One reflects on how quickly the Internet has been embedded in other technologies in ways that have created widespread systemic change.

    Technology, Arthur says, harnesses phenomena to deliver its functionality. We can see this in the evolution of computers, where calculating machines were first based on mechanics, later computers harnessed the forces of electricity and magnetism, and researchers today grapple with the challenge of creating a computer based on the counter-intuitive laws of quantum physics. This dream has not yet been realized, but it illustrates Arthur’s principle. Scientists and engineers are working on multiple fronts to transform ethereal quantum phenomena into a reliable and concrete computational machine.

    Arthur’s framework leads in some interesting new directions. While computers use natural phenomena to perform their function, they create new phenomena — in the form of information — that can be used in other ways. Emergent phenomena created by our technologies are fertile ground for still further innovation.

    It’s a rare book that presents new ideas on every page. This is one of them. The result is an important new framework for thinking about technology and how it evolves.

  4. Mark Gibson says:

    Review by Mark Gibson for The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
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    W. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology is an important book for technologists, entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, in fact anyone in the business of creating, marketing or selling innovative technology.

    This book is an ontology of the process of technological innovation and is a major contribution to the understanding of the evolution of technology and its influence on our economy and civilization.

    I write this review as a layman, from my perspective of the observer of technological change over 40 years in the computer industry, initially in engineering, then sales and marketing and for the past 5 years focused on solving sales and marketing performance problems with innovative technology companies.

    There is a clue in the title as to the main arguments in the book and few others in the World have the background to conceive, advance and prove such a powerful argument in just 216 pages. Brian Arthur is an engineer, mathematician, system theorist, economist and more recently a diligent scholar of Darwinian evolution.

    Arthur coins a new phrase to describe the advances in technology as “combinatorial evolution”; whereas in nature evolution is biological and subject to the Darwinian laws of natural selection, technology evolves as a result of combinations of existing technologies and methods to create new innovations, the critical ingredient in the process is human knowledge and ingenuity.

    Once a technology is created, it is then subject to Darwinian evolution, whereby the innovation advances through refinement of its component systems and further innovation and addition, the weaker ideas discarded to become museum artifacts and the process continually advancing.

    Arthur examines the development path that produced the steam engine, the jet engine, the laser printer, the development of radar, the cyclotron, DNA and many other innovations including the computer to create a logical and balanced argument that is self evident, yet until this book, was untold. He also cites the great thinkers on the subject of technology including Joseph Schumpeter, Martin Heidegger, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and Thomas Khun.

    Written in a clear, logical and carefully constructed prose, Arthur reminds us that our economy is the sum and manifestation of our technology and that it is becoming generative with the accelerating rate of technological change. “It’s focus is shifting from optimizing fixed operations into creating new combinations, new configurable offerings.” For high-technology entrepreneurs in startups, he captures the problems of both the innovator and the investor;

    * he doesn’t know if the new technology will work

    * nor how well it will be received,

    * who the competitors will be

    * what government regulations will apply

    “The environment around the launching of a new combinatorial business is not merely uncertain: particular aspects are unknown”

    Finally he suggests “in the generative economy, management derives its competitive advantage not from its stock of resources and its ability to transform these into finished goods, but from its ability to translate its stock of deep expertise into ever new strategic combinations.”

    Stimulating, thought-provoking and highly recommended!

  5. D. Baxter says:

    Review by D. Baxter for The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
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    I approached this book as a layperson. With no advanced degrees or formal engineering background, I read this book and found it to be both interesting and insightful. It is clear the author has brought a complex subject and a technological expertise down to earth for the non-professional person interested in science and technology.

    Even though the subject matter, the evolution of technology, is studied and debated primarily by academics and scientists, it is good to be able to delve into in a very well thought out and well written treatise.

    I recommend this book to those that are interest in how so many things in our world evolve and even those that just might be interested. Makes me want to learn more.