Towards a theory of technology evolution

The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves by W. Brian Arthur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Arthur sets out to articulate a theory of technology, and to a certain extend succeeds, at least in articulating the importance of technology and the layered, self-referencing and self-creating nature of its evolution.

The two main concepts I took away were the layered nature of technology, consisting of these three points:

  1. Technology is a combination of components.
  2. Each component is itself a technology.
  3. Each technology exploits an effect or phenomenon (and usually several)

Secondly, Arthur lays out, in four separate chapters, the four different ways technology evolves, as summarized on page 163 (my italics added):

There is no single mechanism, instead there are four more or less separate ones. Innovation consists in novel solutions being arrived at in standard engineering – the thousands of small advancements and fixes that cumulate to move practice forward. It consists in radically novel technologies being brought into being by the process of invention. It consists in these novel technologies developing by changing their internal parts or adding to them in the process of structural deepening. And it consists in whole bodies of technology emerging, building out over time, and creatively transforming the industries that encounter them. Each of these types of innovation is important. And each is perfectly tangible. Innovation is not something mysterious. Certainly it is not a matter of vaguely invoking something called "creativity." Innovation is simply the accomplishing of the tasks of the economy by other means."

I liked the book for its ambition, view of technology as something that evolves, and clear-headed way of thinking about and expressing a beginning grand theory. The concepts are intuitive and beguiling, but I did miss references to – and attempts to build on, or differentiate itself from – other valuable concepts of technology, such as sustaining vs. disruptive, competence-enhancing vs. competence-destroying, architectural vs. procedural, and so on. There is a lot of research going on in this area – we are about to break up the formerly black and mysterious box called innovation and show that it really comes down to subcategories and the interplay of quite understandable drivers. Arthur’s contribution here is significant – but it is, at least the way I read it, the way of the independent thinker who would have a lot more influence if some of the language and some of the categories were a bit closer to, or at least distinctively positioned in relation to, what others think and say.

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