on September 7, 2009
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.
on November 12, 2009
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.
on August 16, 2010
The author proposes what he calls "combinatorial evolution" which follows from Joseph Schumpeter's work in the field of economics. In a nutshell, the theory is that primitive technologies are used as building blocks for newer technology. Over time, the new technologies become modular components of succeeding technologies and over time technology becomes increasingly complex. "Technology creates itself out of itself." Sudden change or innovation arises because new environments arise and technology has the ability to capture the latest discoveries of natural phenomena. An interesting point is made about how complex technologies are created using subsystems. The author contends that modularity is essential for all complex systems because cognitive psychologists have found that, by necessity, humans understand complex situations by breaking a problem into chunks and repeating the process until the fundamental components are obvious.
The value of any theory is in the insight that it generates. In the concluding section of the book, the author makes a series of predictions in light of previous discussions. None of them are particularly impressive. For example, one prediction is that the economy is moving from one that values the ownership of resources to one that values the ownership of scientific and technical expertise. That would have been an insightful observation had it been made before the era of Microsoft and Google. Now it is simply a tenet of the Information Age.
Throughout the book, it is clear that the author enjoys discussing technology and at times digresses into discussions of particular technologies to elaborate his point. For the layperson, these examples will likely be informative. For someone familiar with engineering and science, the material may be superfluous. Admittedly, for this very reason, I skimmed much of the central sections of the book where the original arguments are fleshed out with examples.
In general, this book is intended for a popular audience. A specialist may be somewhat disappointed by the lack of groundbreaking material considering the publisher unwisely claims that "it achieves for the progress of technology what Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did for scientific progress." It doesn't. But, overzealous marketing aside, it is a reasonable addition to the field of technology studies.
on September 10, 2009
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.
on February 2, 2014
There are flashes of brilliance in this work. The topic is very important and the author provides fairly clear definitions and useful examples. As the author clearly demonstrates technology is what defines are standard of living. The author’s understand that all technology is build on existing elements is very important. His explanation that neither technology nor the economy is ever in equilibrium is a point that cannot made too often. His suggested definition of economics is a profound movement in the right direction. Also his explanation that both technology and biological entities are built hierarchically and higher levels of technology cannot be created until the building blocks are in place is very important. His computer “experiment” about the development of logic circuits was very interesting. Most writing on technology and “innovation” is nonsense, with no definition, no useful conclusions, no defined course of action – it is all smoke and mirrors with anecdotal facts, worthy of PT Barnum.
Here are some of couple of complaints.
1) I am constantly amazed that people can talk about technology and inventions and not even mention patents. Many of the concepts the author struggles with have been dealt with by patent attorneys for years. Now in fairness the author could teach the Supreme Court a thing or two about technology, however note that none of the Supreme Court justices are patent attorneys. For instance, the author discovers that any technology can be expressed a system or a process. This is something every patent attorney learns during their first year and is clearly explained in Landis on the Mechanics of Claim Drafting.
2) The author’s definition of invention and standard engineering needs to be rethought. Standard engineering is the creation of a specific instance of an invention to fit a particular need. For instance, standard engineering involves modifying a high pass operational amplifier to work for a specific design frequency or modifying it to handle a higher power signal. The engineer is not creating a new class of objects he is modifying an existing technology (invention) to meet a particular need.
An invention is a human creation with an objective result, while art is a human creation with a subjective result. By objective result I mean one that is repeatable, in a scientific sense like an incandescent light bulb produces light when the appropriate electrical signal is applied. This definition is consistent with what the author calls a technology and always involves a unique combination of elements and always refers to a class of objects, such as high resistance incandescent light bulbs. An invention is always a class of things, it is a creation not a reproduction (Production).
The author could learn a lot about how to define a technology or invention by studying how patent claims work (yes I am a patent attorney).
3) I think the author’s definition of economy is a step in the right direction. He states economy is “the set of arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies it needs” and economics is the study of this. This is such a good step in the right direction, but “society” should be changed to “human beings.” This may sound like a small difference but it makes clear that economics applies even in small groups, even for an individual living on a deserted island. This is important because it eliminates the nonsense that what makes no sense in isolation makes sense with a large group of people.
Overall a very admirable effort.
Dale B. Halling, Author of Pendulum of Justice and The Decline and Fall of the American Entrepreneur.
on December 31, 2009
iPhone brought in host of existing techology together in an elegant way, but didn't bring a new phenomena into the product. They took the next step in combinatorial technology evolution by combining 100s of technologies in a unique way; it built upon these 100s of technologies built over many decades. Once you have a new technology like this, this (iPhone iteself) will be another tool to be used in combination with numerous other technologies to create even more technologies (eco-system)... This is the avalanche effect this book is explains. There are other technologies which bring to practice nature's phenomenon in nature or new observation in math (e.g. algorithms) and bring into product. The combination of these two (application of new phenomenon and (new) recombination of existing technologies) applied recursively explain the technology evolution. Given the number of technologies, trillions of combination are possible. The real advances are made when the newer technology meets the economic constraints of the given time. I was working on a new product proposal while I was listening this... I thought, the product was JUST a new combination. Recombination explanation made me realize this was progress too (hopefully).
This book will help you put technology in an economic context, but unlikely to help you to come up with a new product (combination) or predict if a technology is going to be successful. It's intended to provide a coherent theory of technology evolution. So, the author is addressing the needs of academicians as well as general business/technology readers(like me). So, it's a bit long for the core message author wants to present.
See also: Seeing What's Next: Using Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change
on May 22, 2010
I have never written a review before of a book I haven't finished but I may not finish this one and want to both applaud it and warn potential readers. As most of the existing reviews say this is a creative and philosophical discussion of innovation in technology. I find the best parts are the ones describing the specific technology developments. But the book is maddenly repetitive. Each idea is repeated 3, 4, 6, 8 times in sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. It reminds me of the famous chapter in John Barth's "The Tin Drum" where each sentence reiterated the previous with a little addendum that carried the story forward with a exciting cadence. Except in Arthur's book it is just repetition. I admit to skipping paragraphs and pages, with just brief looks to see if anything new had snuck in. This is the sort of book that would make a fascinating article in the "Atlantic" magazine.
on December 11, 2013
Imagine that a college professor assigns you this topic, you write a book that doesn’t contain a single picture, flowchart or diagram, you give it a dull title, and it’s hit! A page turner! The crowd goes wild! It’s immediately clear that Arthur has not only spent a lot of time thinking about his topic, he’s brilliant in how he presents it. If you sell technology, or just work with it every day, I can’t think of a more important book to read right now. Among Arthur’s insights: 1) technologies inherit capabilities from the technologies that preceded them, 2) components of technology are themselves systems, and 3) all technologies harness and use at least one physical phenomenon.
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.
on July 7, 2010
Brian Arthur's treatise is somewhat ponderous in its beginning (and in truth, throughout) but all the same is most encouraging in its epistemological disposition - assuming as it does the recursivity of society and technology, rather than toting the (conventional) view that one is strictly a product of the other. This points you towards a path-dependent model for not just technology, but society and indeed knowledge itself.
But for some, this is dangerous stuff. It leads in turn to uncomfortable conclusions (at least for the neo-enlightenment brigade) which open the door to all that crazy post-modern stuff.
Because he doesn't have to, Arthur doesn't go there, but he does cast a kindly glance at Thomas Kuhn. (I like people who cast kindly glances at Thomas Kuhn: these days they're few and far between).
Arthur doesn't have to go there (at first) because technology, as implemented, is almost by definition infra-paradigmatic: if "science" is its philosophical principle, technology is its practical implementation - very much the sort of thing Nancy Cartwright would call a "nomological machine": a construction designed to give a dependable result in a constrained set of circumstances, where the machine not only prescribes the parameters for a "successful" result, but constrains the environment and operating circumstances in which outcomes are generated to ensure the result is within those parameters, and then, reliably, forces that outcome. (A technology that is unable to force an outcome within its own parameters for a successful result is simply a machine that doesn't work).
But this leaves a gap. If technology is merely the practical implementation of "normal science", it has a hard time explaining innovation. As Arthur puts it:
"Combination [of existing technologies] cannot be the only mechanism behind technology's evolution. If it were, modern technologies such as radar or magnetic resource imaging ... would be created out of bow-drills and pottery firing techniques, or whatever else we deem to have existed at the start of technological time."
The problem, which Arthur specifically sets out to address, is how to account for the "onward" development of technology. Arthur is clear that it is path-dependent ("had we uncovered phenomena over historical times in a different sequence, we would have developed different technologies") but even this insight, I think, risks undercooking the importance of the narrative conversation: it is not just that combinations of technologies through time let us further uncover existing theories and give us better and more powerful and enabling answers to our original questions; they prompt completely new questions: they afford new ways of looking at the world. New ways of looking generate new opportunities, and new problems.
This is a significant point.
For example: prior to the digital age, categorisation of information was a difficult and inherently limited (and, actually, biased) thing: the physical nature of information storage (books) dictated a single taxonomy and a single hierarchy, and required commitment to a single filing taxonomy (without owning more than one copy of a book, you can't file it in two places). Digitisation changed that forever: the Dewey Decimal system - brilliant in its design though it undoubtedly was - solves a problem we no longer have, but at the cost of forcing our hand in a way we no longer need. Digital technology has enabled us to entirely re-evaluate what information really is.
As he goes on, Arthur explicitly keeps in mind two "side issues" that constantly recur in writings about technology: the analogy to Darwin's program of evolution, on one hand, and the analogy to Kuhn's theories of scientific revolution on the other. But these are, to my mind, different articulations of the same idea: that "questions" and "answers" (whether you characterise these as "environmental features" and "biological adaptations which evolve to deal with them", or "observational conundrums" and "scientific theories which purport to explain them") are, to a large extent, interdependent: something is only a conundrum if it appears to contradict the prevailing group of theories. What both Darwin and Kuhn suggest is that "linear progress" - insofar as it implies a predetermined goal to which an evolutionary algorithm is progressing - is a misconceived idea. Evolutionary development is better characterised as a move *away* from the status quo, rather than a move *toward* anything (in hindsight, both will seem the same; to confuse them is a fundamental error).
Yet, and while Arthur clearly recognises this, he does continue to frame his explanatory theory in terms of "forward progress", as if that is the "conundrum" to be solved. The thing is, even our traditional conception of it has this the wrong way round: "the invention of the jet engine" wasn't what was going on; it was "the invention of a way to fly in thinner air". The jet engine was the first solution arrived at that met that purpose (as, in a totally different context, Richard Susskind elegantly points out, when you shop for a Black & Decker, it isn't a drill you want; it's a hole). Technology (and science, and biology) isn't an end, it's a means. The more means you have, the more ends are available to you.
I had therefore wondered whether Arthur had missed a trick in his account of technology - the fact that any novel solution to an old problem creates *new questions* that we did not think - or need - to ask previously. But as his book closes and he views technology through the prism of the economy (on his theory the two are independent; the former is not merely the handmaiden of the latter), he nails this, too:
"The coming of novel technologies does not just disrupt the status quo by finding new combinations that are better versions of the goods and methods we use. It sets up a train of technological accommodations and of new problems, and in doing so it creates new opportunity niches that call forth fresh combinations which in turn introduce further technologies - and further problems."
The implications of this are striking. They completely undermine the idea of technology as a "forwardly moving" phenomenon. It recalibrates to our changing needs and perceptions, just as we recalibrate to the changing perspectives and vistas it affords us. That is a million miles away from Ray Kurzweil's carefully plotted (and in this reviewer's opinion, absurd) logarithmic charts of technological progress that will see machines - and, on Kurzweil's account, eventually the cosmos itself - "wake up".
Even if there were no other reasons (and there are many), one reason for favouring Arthur's less ambitious (but actually more radical) view is its humanity. Arthur closes the book with a neat bit of lit crit: the forces of good and evil in Star Wars, he observes, can be differentiated by their relationship with technology: the Empire's clinical, cold, efficient, androidal heartlessness - against the temperamental, jury rigged, cantankerous and fallible technology of the rebels: in one case technology is our weapon: it relies on us, on our skill, on our judgment and our humanity: we are the necessary homunculus; in the other the humans are, more or less, the "necessary evil" - the impediment to the technology achieving its ends.
Recognising that the special sauce in technology is, for the time being at least, the bit supplied by the meatware, is a comforting thought.