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The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves Hardcover – August 11, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

What is technology in its nature, in its deepest essence? Where does it come from? How does it evolve? With contagious enthusiasm, Arthur, an economics professor and a pioneer of complexity theory, tries to answer these and other questions in a style that is by turns sparkling and flat. Technology is self-creating, though it requires human agency to build it up and reproduce it. Yet technology evolves much like organisms evolve, and Arthur cannily applies Darwin's ideas to technologies and their growth. All technologies descend from earlier ones, and those that perform better and more efficiently than others are selected for future growth and development. But radical novelty in technology cannot be explained by this model of variation and selection, so Arthur argues that novel technologies arise by combination of existing technologies. For example, a hydroelectric power generator combines several main components—a reservoir to store water, an intake system, turbines driven by high-energy water flow, transformers to convert the power output to a higher voltage: groups of self-contained technologies—into a new technology. Arthur's arguments will likely alter the reader's way of thinking about technology and its relationship to humanity. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Brian Arthur's brilliantly original analysis of how technology develops and evolves reminds me of Euclid's Geometry -- it's clear, simple and seemingly self-evident now that a master has spent years working it out. The Nature of Technology is a seminal work, thrilling to read and rich in implications for business as well as engineering and the social sciences." -- Richard Rhodes, Winner of a Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction for The Making of the Atomic Bomb

"The Nature of Technology is the most important book on technology and the economy since Schumpeter. In clear, lucid prose and with fascinating examples, Arthur describes how technology 'creates itself' in an evolutionary process that has taken our world from stone tools to iPods. A work of deep and lasting importance that deserves to be widely read -- you will not think about technology the same way again." -- Eric D. Beinhocker, author of The Origin of Wealth

"The refreshing clarity that Brian Arthur brings to the most overwhelming force in the universe will benefit anyone trying to tame technology -- critics, eager boosters, and the perplexed alike." -- Kevin Kelly, author of New Rules for the New Economy

"Hundreds of millions of dollars slosh around Silicon Valley every day based on Brian Arthur's ideas." -- John Seeley Brown, former director of PARC

"We launched Java based on Brian Arthur's ideas." -- Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition first Printing edition (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416544054
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416544050
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,099,066 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven Forth on September 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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