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The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science) Reprint Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521296816
ISBN-10: 0521296811
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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

Book Description

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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Product Details

  • 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: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #360,024 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Steve R VINE VOICE on February 25, 2007
Format: Paperback
Basalla's 'Evolution of Technology' makes the analogy to biological evolution to explain the development of technologies: the Paleolithic chipping stone becomes the crude stone-and-wood hammer which later becomes a cast-iron hammer which eventually becomes the giant mechanical steam hammer. Of course, thinking of technology in such evolutionary terms can ONLY be analogical--tools don't have genes, and they certainly don't procreate. What tools and technologies have is diversity (a key component in evolutionary change); however, it takes human needs--necessities--to bring about technological developments. This historical combination of technological diversity and human necessity is "evolution" for Basalla.

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.
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Heroic historiography of science and technology has dominated well past the moment when historians had despaired of kings and heroic battles as shapers of human history. The lone scientist and inventor still hogs today's narrative. These heroes have been joined lately by visionary entrepreneurs à la Steve JOBS, who "invented the future". Humbug, says the author, and I concur wholeheartedly. This splendid book, easy to read ans understand, explains why.

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).
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In considering the role of major inventions in history, there have been two major views. This book puts forward one of them. Namely that technological progress can be understood in part by analogy to biological evolution, as a series of continuous and incremental innovations, that arise out of the gestalt of the inventor's environment. The authors argue eloquently, with much cited research to buttress their arguments.

Certainly, most inventions are indeed incremental gains in understanding. But one might say that if you take the evolution analogy, there is also a corresponding hypothesis akin to punctuated equilibrium. Namely that sometimes, an inventor or scientist really does make a fundamental discontinuity in understanding. In a way that a continuously innovative procedure would have been extremely unlikely to garner. In science at least, the best examples may be Einstein's General Relativity, and Claude Shannon's Information Theory. Nothing like either was even remotely contemplated by their contemporaries. Ok, granted, the book talks about technology, not science. But at some fundamental level, the discussion of progress encompasses both.
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Read it as part of an assignment for an Evolution of Technology PhD course. The book seemed to polarize readers. Most folks were put-off by what they perceived as "socialistic" influences in the writer's analysis. Personally, I enjoyed reading it. But I did find that the examples case studies that are used, tend to be a little on the... dusty side. Meaning this: most case studies were drawn from renaissance, middle ages, and occasionally even from pre-history. For a class filled with tech-fans, itching to hear and read about the future, this was rather... boring.
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