The Nature of Technology

William Brian Arthur’s most recent book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, is a truly interdisciplinary work that will take you through a historical, philosophical, sociological and economic investigation of technology. I here expose some of its central themes and ideas.

Understanding technology

Technology can be understood in many different ways. The reason for this is that the concept of “technology” can refer to both micro and macro entities. In its broadest sense (perhaps most common in economic parlance), technology refers to the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.

In a narrower sense, technology can refer to a specific device or process, which is itself made up of different parts, which are themselves technologies, and so on. In this sense one can effectively “zoom in and out” on technology depending on context.

As Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana did before him, Arthur argues that technology is autopoietic, or “self-creating”: new technologies are not simply “inventions” that come from nowhere. All technologies are constructed from existing ones, so that when considered collectively, technology creates itself.

This implies that every technology stands upon a pyramid of others that made it possible in a succession that goes back to the earliest phenomena that humans captured, and, most importantly, that the value of technology does not only depend on what can be done with it, but also on the possibilities that it opens up for future advancements.

Combinatorial evolution

Arthur accordingly argues that individual technologies constitute potential building blocks for the construction of further new technologies. This results in a form of evolution, which Arthur refers to as combinatorial evolution in order to distinguish it from its Darwinian counterpart, and which follows a distinct set of mechanisms.

New technologies are conceptualized by linking some need with some effect that can fulfill it. Components and assemblies are then combined in order to make the concept possible. This often happens through recursiveness and complexification, as getting a concept to work creates problems, and the potential solutions to these bring up further sub-problems, thereby requiring developers and designers to constantly go back and forth between problems and potential combinatorial solutions.

Good design in fact is like good poetry. Not in any sense of sublimity, but in the sheer rightness of choice from the many possible for each part. Each part must fit tightly, must work accurately, and must conform to the interaction of the rest. The beauty in good design is that of appropriateness, of least effort for what is achieved. It derives from a feeling that all that is in place is properly in place, that not a piece can be rearranged, that nothing is to excess. Beauty in technology does not require originality. In technology both form and phrases are heavily borrowed from other utterances, so in this sense we could say that, ironically, design works by combining and manipulating clichés. Still, a beautiful design always contains some unexpected combination that shocks us with its appropriateness.

A particular characteristic of this process is that needs themselves derive more from technology itself than directly from human wants; they derive mainly from limitations encountered and problems engendered by technology themselves. As such, new technologies both satisfy needs and create new ones.

The generative economy

So what is role of the economy in all of this? Arthur argues that it both directs and mediates technological evolution: it signals needs, tests ideas for commercial viability, and provides demands for new versions of technologies.

However, the economy itself is also an expression of its underlying technologies. It is issued from our knowledge and manipulation of phenomena, as well as the subsequent combinations we make out of them. It arises out of the productive methods and legal and organizational arrangements that we use to satisfy our needs.

Arthur also makes another important point. More than ever, we are subject to a generative economy, the focus of which is shifting from optimizing fixed operations into creating new combinations and new configurable offerings.

The transition to a generative economy is not an abrupt one. Elements of the new and old styles still coexist. But overall our understanding of the economy is changing to reflect a more open and organic view, where the system has emergent properties that cannot be predicted from its individual parts.

In this new generative economy, organizations themselves become a form of constantly evolving technè, subject to ever new combinations in order to adapt to an increasingly complex and changing social environment.

[Today, the entrepreneur] often does not know how well the technology will work, or how it will be received (…) It is as if he is placing bets in a casino game where the rules and payoffs are not clear until after the bets have been laid. The environment is not merely uncertain; particular aspects of it are simply unknown (…) The more high-tech technology becomes, the less purely rational becomes the business of dealing with it. Entrepreneurship in advanced technology is not merely a matter of decision making. It is a matter of imposing a cognitive order on situations that are repeatedly ill-defined.

In the end, Arthur’s work may provide us with just as many insights as it generates scientific and ethical problems – reflecting the fact that it, too, is the result of a creative combination which opens up new dilemmas.

The book concludes with a series of questions about where we are standing and where we should be standing with regard to technology. The author brings up a point once made by Heidegger, namely that the problem does not lie with technology, but rather with the attitude technology has brought with it: where once we respected – indeed revered – nature, now we have ‘set upon’ nature and reduced it to something that merely stands by for our use.

Hence the question remains whether we really do have control over technology after all.

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