- Series: Cambridge Studies in the History of Science
- Paperback: 260 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (February 24, 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521296811
- ISBN-13: 978-0521296816
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #379,949 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science) Reprint Edition
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"Mr. Basalla argues his case ingeniously and cites a variety of examples...the reader is astonished again and again at the ease with which Mr. Basalla overturns many cherished prejudices and preconceptions about inventors and their creations." New York Times Book Review
"George Basalla has done scholars a valuable service...(his)own insights at an intermediate level of analysis may well provide the building blocks for a more rigorous and sophisticated theory of technological change." Science
"A thoughtful and thought provoking analysis drawing on a wide range of historical examples that will be of use to scholars and students." - Science, Technology and Society
"a refreshing book...a lively and revealing perspective on the history of technology. This book should find its way into undergraduate courses." American Scientist
"Both the tech-happy and the tech-wary will find news in this view of technology as an evolutionary system. Fascinating case studies show how society-bending inventions - even 'breakthroughs' - proceed from small, incremental variations upon earlier inventions." Whole Earth Catalog
Three emerging themes challenge the popular notion that technology advances through the efforts of a few who produce a series of revolutionary inventions that owe little or nothing to the technological past.
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Top customer reviews
There are a few million living species. Our material artifacts outnumber them easily. The author is correct in pointing out that diversity of artifacts is a distinguishing characteristic of human life. Necessity is not the reason for this stupendous diversity: "it is a testimony to the fertility of the contriving mind and to the multitudinous ways the peoples of the earth have chosen to live." (pg. 208)
The author explains this diversity of artifacts not so much by invention as by evolution: "the prevalence of artifactual continuity has been obscured by the myth of the heroic inventive genius" (pg. 208) and postulates continuity, even if convoluted and rhyzomic (my term here), rather than directed and progressive. At each point in time the potential for technological innovation is far greater than any society can hope to exploit. Play, fantasy, and emulation all collaborate to create this potential. So do psychological and intellectual factors (Chapt. III). Socio-economic and cultural factors should not be discounted (Chapt. IV).
Selection may be based on economic and military factors - we could call them "necessity" (Chap. V). In many cases, however, social and cultural factors are deeply involved (Chapt. VI). "Ultimately the selection is made in accordance with the values and perceived needs of society and in harmony with its current understanding of "the good life"." (pg. viii).
It is the author's great merit to have chosen Darwinian evolution as the overarching explanatory metaphor explaining the evolution of technology. He should be commended for this. A generation later, and with deeper knowledge of Darwinian processes, new authors are picking up this metaphor is picked up and deepening it (See Alex MESOUDI Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences).
Metaphors constrain as much as they explain. Contrary to speciation we do have discontinuities with artifacts - when they are used for a different purpose, so as when first a hammer was used as a weapon. Chance and whimsy probably play a larger role than they do in nature. Just an example: I've read somewhere that the race between the steam and petrol car was decided by foot-and-mouth disease. An outbreak of this disease among horses led to the elimination of troughs on public highways, which may have spread contagion. Such troughs were used to refuel steam cars, so their refueling stations were eliminated.
The author discounts somewhat path-dependent outcomes and "autonomous technologies". I'd be more reserved. As long as the laws of scarcity are not repealed, efficiency will be a main criterion for technology choice. Once efficiency enters the realm of choice, it tends to overshadow other criteria. It is also the lowest common denominator when values conflict. In fact "efficiency" has become a very hard task-master, ruling us impartially.
Individual agency remains the source of invention in the book's paradigm. Is it really so? If we are truly social animals, creativity is also social - though we may perceive is as personal, nay solitary. I would be wary of the "lone tinkerer" as much as the "lone genius". The act of creation arises from the "meeting of minds" - Newton spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants. It is in dialogue that most brilliant ideas emerge, and one is loath, as the creation unfolds, to assign its original spark to anyone. The inventor's reception of the emergent spark and the kindling and nurturing of the emergent fire assigns authorship to him. Fair enough. If one writes a history of technology, however, the social aspect should be highlighted, for it is the bed from which new ideas spring. Clustering great minds is often a winning proposition - unless the great minds drift into a tiring game of establishing a pecking order among themselves.
The author is liberal in the use of examples and "stories". Some are apt, some fascinating, and the best are "paths not taken" (pg. 189 ff.). Others tend to be overlong. And one quibble: fire antedates the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens by about one million years. Cooking food was a prerequisite for our large brains. In this sense it was not a choice, but a necessity.
The author uses the example of barbed wire, but he does not just report a lot of historical details. He also places those details in perspective by using an evoluationary model of technical change. That makes this author 100 times more interesting than had the author that just gives us historical facts.
Basalla's argument is therefore a practical method for thinking about the history of technology--one of a number of different methods (for other alternatives see anything by Arnold Pacey, or the 'Short History of Technology' by Derry and Williams). And in this respect Basalla offers a fine approach. In fact, his book may well be the most readable history of technological progress available, but it is also one that places more weight on a single analogy than the analogy itself may be able to bear.