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

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9780141031637: The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

Leading scientific theorist W. Brian Arthur puts forth the first complete theory of the origins and evolution of technology, in a major work that achieves for the invention of new technologies what Darwin’s theory achieved for the emergence of new species.

Brian Arthur is a pioneer of complexity theory and the discoverer of the highly influential "theory of increasing returns," which took Silicon Valley by storm, famously explaining why some high-tech companies achieve breakaway success. Now, in this long-awaited and ground-breaking book, he solves the great outstanding puzzle of technology—where do transformative new technologies come from?—putting forth the first full theory of how new technologies emerge and offering a definitive answer to the mystery of why some cultures—Silicon Valley, Cambridge, England in the 1920s—are so extraordinarily inventive. He has discovered that rather than springing from insight moments of individual genius, new technologies arise in a process akin to evolution. Technology evolves by creating itself out of itself, much as a coral reef builds itself from activities of small organisms.

Drawing on a wealth of examples, from the most ancient to cutting-edge inventions of today, Arthur takes readers on a delightful intellectual journey, bringing to life the wonders of this process of technological evolution. The Nature of Technology is the work of one of our greatest thinkers at the top of his game, composing a classic for our times that is sure to generate wide acclaim.

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About the Author:

W. Brian Arthur is an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute and a Visiting Researcher at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). Formerly he was Morrison Professor of Economics and Population Studies at Stanford University. One of the pioneers of complexity theory, he also formulated the influential “theory of increasing returns,” which offered a paradigm-changing explanation of why some high-tech companies achieve breakaway success. Former director of PARC John Seeley Brown has said of him, “Hundreds of millions of dollars slosh around Silicon Valley every day based on Arthur’s ideas.” Arthur is the recipient of the International Schumpeter Prize in Economics, and the inaugural Lagrange Prize in Complexity Science. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Questions

I have many attitudes to technology. I use it and take it for granted. I enjoy it and occasionally am frustrated by it. And I am vaguely suspicious of what it is doing to our lives. But I am also caught up by a wonderment at technology, a wonderment at what we humans have created. Recently researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a technology that allows a monkey with tiny electrodes implanted in its brain to control a mechanical arm. The monkey does this not by twitching or blinking or making any slight movement, but by using its thoughts alone.

The workings behind this technology are not enormously complicated. They consist of standard parts from the electronics and robotics repertoires: circuits that detect the monkey's brain signals, processors and mechanical actuators that translate these into mechanical motions, other circuits that feed back a sense of touch to the monkey's brain. The real accomplishment has been to understand the neural circuits that "intend" motion, and tap into these appropriately so that the monkey can use these circuits to move the arm. The technology has obvious promise for impaired people. But that is not what causes me wonder. I wonder that we can put together circuits and mechanical linkages -- in the end, pieces of silicon and copper wiring, strips of metal and small gears -- so that machinery moves in response to thought and to thought alone.

I wonder at other things we can do. We put together pieces of metal alloy and fossil fuel so that we hurtle through the sky at close to the speed of sound; we organize tiny signals from the spins of atomic nuclei to make images of the neural circuits inside our brains; we organize biological objects -- enzymes -- to snip tiny slivers of molecules from DNA and paste them into bacterial cells. Two or three centuries ago we could not have imagined these powers. And I find them, and how we have come by them, a wonder.

Most of us do not stop to ponder technology. It is something we find useful but that fades to the background of our world. Yet -- and this is another source of wonder for me -- this thing that fades to the background of our world also creates that world. It creates the realm our lives inhabit. If you woke some morning and found that by some odd magic the technologies that have appeared in the last six hundred years had suddenly vanished: if you found that your toilet and stove and computer and automobile had disappeared, and along with these, steel and concrete buildings, mass production, public hygiene, the steam engine, modern agriculture, the joint stock company, and the printing press, you would find that our modern world had also disappeared. You -- or we, if this strange happening befell all of us -- would still be left with our ideas and culture, and with our children and spouses. And we would still have technologies. We would have water mills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and coarse linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval.

Technology is what separates us from the Middle Ages; indeed it is what separates us from the way we lived 50,000 or more years ago. More than anything else technology creates our world. It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being.

What then is this thing of such importance? What is technology in its nature, in its deepest essence? Where does it come from? And how does it evolve?

These are the questions I will ask in this book.

Maybe we can simply accept technology and not concern ourselves much with the deeper questions behind it. But I believe -- in fact I believe fervently -- that it is important to understand what technology is and how it comes to be. This is not just because technology creates much of our world. It is because technology at this stage in our history weighs on us, weighs on our concerns, whether we pay attention to it or not. Certainly technology has enabled our children to survive where formerly they might have died; it has prolonged our own lives and made them a great deal more comfortable than those of our ancestors just two or three centuries ago; it has brought us prosperity. But it has also brought us a profound unease.

This unease does not just come from a fear that technologies cause new problems for every problem they solve. It wells up also from a deeper and more unconscious source. We place our hopes in technology. We hope in technology to make our lives better, to solve our problems, to get us out of predicaments, to provide the future we want for ourselves and our children. Yet, as humans, we are attuned not to this thing we hope in -- not to technology -- but to something different. We are attuned in the deepest parts of our being to nature, to our original surroundings and our original condition as humankind. We have a familiarity with nature, a reliance on it that comes from three million years of at-homeness with it. We trust nature. When we happen upon a technology such as stemcell regenerative therapy, we experience hope. But we also immediately ask how natural this technology is. And so we are caught between two huge and unconscious forces: Our deepest hope as humans lies in technology; but our deepest trust lies in nature. These forces are like tectonic plates grinding inexorably into each other in one long, slow collision.

The collision is not new, but more than anything else it is defining our era. Technology is steadily creating the dominant issues and upheavals of our time. We are moving from an era where machines enhanced the natural -- speeded our movements, saved our sweat, stitched our clothing -- to one that brings in technologies that resemble or replace the natural -- genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, medical devices implanted in our bodies. As we learn to use these technologies, we are moving from using nature to intervening directly within nature. And so the story of this century will be about the clash between what technology offers and what we feel comfortable with. No one claims that the nature and workings of technology are simple; there is no reason to think they are simpler than the nature and workings of the economy or of the law. But they are determining for our future and our anxieties about it.

This book is not about the benefits or evils of technology, there are other books that look at these. It is an attempt to understand this thing that creates so much of our world and causes us so much unconscious unease.

And this brings us back to the same questions. What is technology? What is it in the deepest sense of its nature? What are its properties and principles? Where does it come from -- how does it come into being? How does it develop? And how does it evolve?

Missing: An "-ology" of Technology

One good place to start is to ask what we really know about technology. The reader might expect the answer here to be straightforward, but actually it is not. In fact it is almost paradoxical: we know a great deal about technology and we know little. We know a great deal about technologies in their individual sense, but much less about technology in the way of general understandings. We know all the particularities about the individual methods and practices and machinery we use -- or at least some people, the designers of these, do. We know every step in the production of a computer microprocessor, and every part of the processor, and every part of every part. We know exactly how the processor operates, and all the pathways of the electrons inside it. And we know how the processor fits with the other components in a computer, how it interfaces with the BIOS chip and the interrupt controller. We know exactly these things -- exactly what lies within each technology -- because we have placed them all there in all their detail. Technology in fact is one of the most completely known parts of the human experience. Yet of its essence -- the deep nature of its being -- we know little.

This sort of contrast between known content and less-known principles is not rare. Around two centuries ago, in the time of the French zoologist Georges Cuvier, biology (or natural history as it was then called) was a vast body of knowledge on individual species and their comparative anatomy and their interrelations. "Today," he said, writing in 1798, "comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged." Cuvier was only slightly exaggerating. Naturalists did have detailed knowledge, and they were deeply aware of the family relationships among animals. But they had few principles to hold all this knowledge together. They had no clear idea of how animals had come to be; no mechanism by which evolution -- if it existed -- could work; no obvious idea of whether animals could modify their parts or how this could happen. All this came later, as principles were found.

We are in the same position with technology. We have detailed studies about the history of individual technologies and how they came into being. We have analyses of the design process; excellent work on how economic factors influence the design of technologies, how the adoption process works, and how technologies diffuse in the economy. We have analyses of how society shapes technology, and of how technology shapes society. And we have meditations on the meaning of technology, and on technology as determining -- or not determining -- human history. But we have no agreement on what the word "technology" means, no overall theory of how technologies come into being, no deep understanding of what "innovation" consists of, and no theory of evolution for technology. Missing is a set of overall principles that would give the subject a logical structure, the sort of structure that would help fill these gaps.

Missing, in other words, is a theory of technology -- an "-ology" of technology.

There is no clear reason why this ...

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