on September 8, 2015
In many respects, this is a book of propositions about what technology is and how it
develops or evolves. For example: (1) Technology uses phenomena, i.e. things in (some)
real world. (2) Technologies are built up out of other (earlier?) technologies. (3) A
technology is a solution to one or more problems. (4) A technology has a purpose, in
other words, to is an attempt to fill a need. (5) Technologies create opportunity niches,
i.e. a technology creates needs that other technologies can be created to fill.
Arthur mentions briefly, but does not dwell on one consequence of the ideas and technology
creates needs and that technologies are created to satisfy the needs created by other
technologies, which is the question of whose needs are being satisfied. Perhaps they are
not ours. Perhaps technology, i.e. the collective technology organism, is evolving to
satisfy its own needs, not ours. I have to start to wonder whether we human users are
just becoming the excuse for technology's existence and development; and I wonder whether
we'll become somewhat run over in the process.
One thing that Arthur does not consider is that perhaps we and our technologies are
becoming too successful. Perhaps as our technologies become increasingly powerful, we
will have *too* much control over Nature and other humans. We have ample evidence that we
are able to resist using power when we have it. And, we have developed the power to use
more and more of the available resources, until acquiring those resources became too
costly and that society collapsed. We can look at these books for an analysis of that:
(1) "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", by Jared Diamond; (2) "The
Collapse of Complex Societies", by Joseph A. Tainter. The book "The World Without Us",
by Alan Weisman is also a very interesting read in this respect.
Arthur's main point and agenda is to explain how we can understand the progression and
development of all societies. The main points of that understanding are something like
these: (1) New technologies are created out of combinations of existing technologies. (2)
New technologies are responses to needs and problems. (3) New technologies create new
needs and problems to be solved (what Arthur calls new "opportunity niches"), and, if
fact, this may and often does result in a cascade of creation of new technologies. (4)
New technologies cause the disappearance of old, existing technologies (e.g., by making
them unneeded), which, as with the creation sequences, may result in cascades of
redundancy and elimination of technologies. (5) These cascades of creation and
elimination of technologies are contingent, i.e., although this activity may be somewhat
deterministic, it is not predictable, and is chaotic in some sense.
Arthur is reasonably careful and diligent in illustrating his points with examples,
usually by describing how a particular technology illustrates a point he is trying to make
about technology in general. It's important that he does so, because his level of
discussion is a very abstract and general one.
Arthur tries to make the connection between technologies and an economy. An economy, he
claims, is a creation out of or is built upon the technologies that create the goods and
services and wealth that make up the economy.
Arthur wants to claim that technologies (i.e., the cluster of technologies) in a society
are self-creating ("autopoietic" is the word he uses); the technologies that make up a
society's goods, services, and wealth are self-creating. It's an organism that grows
outward and maybe inward and downward, too. Possibly because of this, he frequently
describes technology in terms such as "structural deepening", "building out", etc. And,
because of his emphasis on growth and organism, Arthur believes that the collective
technologies evolve, although since that evolution is not a biological or genetic
evolution, it's a bit difficult to make out what the term "evolution" adds to the
Arthur does try to make the process (of evolution of technology) clear by giving a series
of steps that a cluster of technologies proceed through. (see p. 178 in the 2009 edition;
chapter 8, "Revolutions and redomainings"). If you follow that recipe, which Arthur calls
algorithmic, you get a reasonably clear idea of how Arthur believes this process goes. He
thinks these steps are discrete, whereas I'd say that they blend together in all kinds of
complex ways, although I suppose that if you analyze the process into small enough parts,
you will find pieces that seem discrete and separate at some level.
The steps in that process go something like this: (1) a new technology appears; (2) it
replaces some existing technologies; (3) the new technology creates needs and opportunity
niches for yet newer technologies; (4) the disappearance of old technologies eliminates
the need for still other technologies and they disappear and so on; (5) the new technology
is used in still newer technologies; (6) the economy readjusts to these steps, causing
changes in costs, prices, and incentives. (p. 178)
If you follow Arthur's discussion, then you are, I believe, drawn to a pattern of thinking
about changes in technologies that is based on challenge and response, problem and
solution, needs or opportunity niches and attempts to fill those needs.
Arthur stresses the point that understanding a technology requires that we think
recursively and that we do a recursive analysis. We need to think about how a technology
is built out of and supported by other technologies, which are in turn built out of and
supported by still other technologies. This recursion works in several ways: (1) a
complex technology may be composed of components that are technologies and which in turn
are made up of other components. And, (2) a technology may be supported or enabled by
other technologies which are in turn supported by other technologies. This branching
pattern or network forms a lattice, not a tree, that is, we cannot say that any given
technology has a single parent (it does not support only one technology nor is it
supported by only one technology).
Arthur is associated with the Santa Fe Institute, where they do lots of thinking about
chaos theory, so it is natural for him to think in terms of dynamic systems. Thus, for
him, the process of evolving technologies form a system and that system is (1) dynamic;
(2) poised for change; (3) autopoietic or self-creating; (4) exhibits "creative
disruption" (cf. Joseph Schumpeter); (5) sets up trains or chains of (branching)
technological accommodations and new problems and new solutions; (6) is always in a
For those of us who want to get above the level of thinking only about individual
technologies (though that's interesting and valuable, too), this is a fascinating book.