The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (My Notes)

A detailed summary of W. Brian Arthur’s book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

When I run across a book that really shifts my thinking, I write up notes, and sometimes I share those notes publicly. That is the case with W. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. This book addresses a complex topic, but Arthur wrote it with the intention of keeping it accessible to the general reader. I think he succeeded in that.

These notes go into quite some depth. This is not a book review, but an overview. I do this as a way to help me remember what’s in a book that I care about. And while I touch on most of the topics that are in this book, I don’t come close to doing it justice.

So if you are interested in technology, I recommend reading the overview below and then reading this book for yourself. It’s 256 pages and quite easy to read. This is an important book.

The Main Themes

The purpose of the book is to describe what technology is and to create a theory of evolution that is specific to technology. Arthur does this by focusing on three core principles:

  1. All technologies are combinations of elements.
  2. These elements themselves are technologies.
  3. All technologies use phenomena to some purpose.

When you put all of these together, you get a picture of technology that starts to feel like a hybrid of the mechanical and the organic, which, I believe, is where Arthur got the title for his book: “the nature of technology.” Arthur sees technology as a kind of programming of nature, a harnessing of it to human purposes.

Arthur goes out of his way to be clear about what he means by technology, and it covers three meanings. The first is individual technologies, which he defines as “a means to fulfill a human purpose.” The second is bodies of technologies, such as semiconductors, or robotics, or what he describes as “an assemblage of practices and components.” The third meaning of the word technology is its largest sense, “the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.”  This latter definition is what Kevin Kelly calls the “technium” in What Technology Wants (another favorite book of mine).

In seeking to understand the evolution of technology, Arthur looks at two primary factors: combination and the harnessing of natural phenomena.

Combining Blocks:

In looking for evolution, Arthur is drawn to heredity:

“If evolution in its fullest sense holds in technology, then all technologies, including novel ones, must descend in some way from the technologies that preceded them.”

But what about things like the laser printer – didn’t that just seem to emerge out of nowhere? Well, yes, if you look at it from the outside, as a kind of black box. But when you look inside, you see that there is a history at work; you see that the laser printer is made up of technological elements that can be traced back in time – with a kind of heredity. And this is where Arthur’s first two principles originate.

By combining parts in novel ways, in a kind of “combinatorial evolution,” we end up with an eever-growingbody of technology. When seen this way, technological evolution has a history, a heredity, where what we have today is the result of a particular set of earlier technologies. In this sense, what Arthur is talking about is consistent with another of my favorite books, Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, and his concept of the “adjacent possible.”

Arthur never uses the word “holon” in his book, though this perspective is deeply embedded throughout. A holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. Your lungs are a whole organ, and a part of your body. Leaves, branches and trees are also holons: parts nested in parts, coming together as a whole.

As Arthur explains it, the elements that combine themselves as building blocks of technology, are themselves technology. And once a new technology appears, it becomes a potential building block for future technologies that utilize it as a building block for something new and (usually) more complex. In short, “technology creates itself out of itself.” Here, he is drawing from the concept of “autopoeisis,” a systems biology term for a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself.

Arthur separates the idea behind a technology from the physical instance of it. The idea is the essence of a technology, its fundamental principle – a kind of backbone off of which hang other sub-principles. It is arranged in a kind of modular manner that forms an overall architecture for the technology. This modularity is critical because it improves testing, repair and, more importantly, allows for specialization and the kind of division of labor written about by Adam Smith.

Another way of looking at this kind of modularity is through the lens of the fractal. Technologies are recursive in nature, just like the fractal – technologies within technologies, all the way down to the elemental parts and up to large societal systems.

When you look inside a piece of technology, its components are changing all the time. That’s one of the main benefits of modularity. It allows the insides to morph in a dynamic way that speeds up technology’s evolution.

“Standard engineering” is the design process. It involves finding the optimal set of architected assemblies to meet a certain set of purposes. This starts with articulating the core purpose, a kind of backbone for the technology, off of which sub-purposes hang, like the skeletal structure of an organism. The overall technology development process is far from tidy, and at its core it is a question of problem solving, or solution building. Over time, it is a learning process as designers learn the building blocks within a technology domain and the most successful designs are repeated, or replicated like Richard Dawkins’ notion of memetic replication. This is one of the main ways that selection plays out in the evolution of technology.

As technology solves problems, it also creates them. Engines need to be cooled as they become more powerful, which introduces the need for cooling systems to hang off the main assembly. As more and more sub-solutions hang off the core, or backbone of a technology, it undergoes what Arthur calls “structural deepening” and this is one of the ways that systems grow more complex over time.

At a certain point, there is tremendous momentum around a particular solution or approach, and the comprehensiveness and sophistication of a network of solutions makes it hard for new comers to match, that is until, as Clayton Christensen notes in the Innovator’s Dilemma, someone comes in from the outside with a radically new approach (see below).

Harnessing Nature’s Phenomena:

Combination isn’t the only explanation for technology’s evolution. It also involves harnessing the forces of nature:

“Technology builds out not just from combination of what exists already but from the constant capturing and harnessing of natural phenomena. At the very start of technological time, we directly picked up and used phenomena: the heat of fire, the sharpness of flaked obsidian, the momentum of stone in motion. All that we have achieved since comes from harnessing these and other phenomena, and combining the pieces that result.”

Humans harness natural phenomena through essential principles, which use a particular phenomenon for some specific purpose. You could say that through technology, we program phenomenon to our purposes.

Phenomena can be thought of as the genes of the technology. These genes don’t have to be physical; they can also be social or even abstract, like math. Humans exchange things, and money is a kind of technology to that end. In this broader sense, you could say technologies are “purposed systems.” Arthur uses an interesting metaphor for phenomena, describing it as hidden under ground. Our earliest discoveries were near the surface and easy to get to, but as we uncover these, we have to mine deeper and deeper for additional ones.

Science, of course, plays a key role in this discovery process. Science and technology have an interesting, complimentary relationship. The contributions of science to technology come through the harnessing of principles outlined above. But particular technologies like the telescope or gene sequencers also have huge impacts on the advance of science.

As families of phenomena are mined, they give rise to groupings of technology that share a common set of theories and language. Arthur calls these groupings “domains.” An individual technology is to a domain as a computer program is to a programming language.

Some of the biggest shifts in technological evolution happen as a result of solving a purpose through shifting from one domain to another, as in the shift from vaccum tubes to semiconductors. This is how most radically new technology emerges: by using “a principle new or different to the purpose in hand.” This the process of invention, and Arthur pictures it as a chain: at one end is the purpose to be fulfilled, and the other is the phenomenon or principle that is newly harnessed to meet it. Invention may start at either end of the chain, but is a process of eventually working towards the other side. At its heart, invention is mental association.

The Economy:

As new principles emerge in new domains and bodies of technology develop, they ripple across the economy in profound ways. The economy doesn’t so much adopt a technology as encounter it. An industry is made up of its organizations, business processes and production equipment. These elements come face to face with the domain of a new technology, like the field of computing moving into the banking sector. As the impact on this industry ripples out to other sectors, if it’s large enough, the structure of the economy changes as well.

So technology is not just combining on a micro, individual technology level, it’s also combining bodies of technology together with various industries on a macro level.

Rather than thinking about demand for technologies, Arthur uses the notion of “opportunity niches,” as though it were a type of ecosystem within which the technology evolves and lives. Opportunity niches evolve over time, not just as human tastes and needs evolve, but also in response to the opportunities opened by other technologies. The automobile opened an opportunity niche for fueling vehicles, for example.

If you were to map all the existing technologies in a network, it would look somewhat organic, growing out in all directions. You can imagine the actively used technologies as lit up nodes in the network, while the light fades out on technologies that are no longer actively used in the mainstream. When these technology nodes appear and light up and when they dim, it affects not just the network of related technologies, but also ripples through the economy. Because technologies are made up of combinations of other technologies, once a certain critical mass of them exists, the potential combinations of usable parts grows exponentially, creating a kind of Cambrian Explosion of technological possibilities.

Arthur sees the economy not so much as a container for technology, so much as something that is formed by technology. There is more to the economy than technology, but technologies form something akin to its skeletal structure. Another way of seeing it is that the economy is roughly analogous to an ecosystem within which technologies exist. The economy changes the technology and the technology changes the economy, similar to the way organisms and ecosystems coexist and shape one another.

Is Technology Alive?

Arthur is ultimately quite careful about saying that technology actually evolves. He is very specific in saying that it is “combinatorial evolution,” which does happen in biology, but is far less common than Darwinian variation and selection. Combinatorial evolution, the kind of mixing and matching of parts that Arthur talks about throughout the book, does happen with very primitive life forms and in very special cases over very long periods of time, and in major evolutionary jumps such as the leap from single-celled to multicellular organisms.

In answer to whether technology is alive, Arthur is also careful. He notes that technology, like biological life, is self-organizing and self-creating (autopoietic). It responds to its environment and takes in and gives out energy like the metabolism of biological life. So, by these criteria, technology is a living organism, but only in the sense that a coral reef is. It is still dependent upon human agency for its buildout and reproduction – at least for now.

The Future:

While Arthur is interested in the history of technology, he is probably more driven personally by where it is going next.

“…Every technology stand upon a pyramid of others that made it possible in a succession that goes back to the earliest phenomena that humans captured. It tells us that all future technologies will derive from those that now exist…”

This book is not about future speculation, but it does look at important shifts that we are now seeing in technology as a result of the digital age. Whereas previous generations of industrial technology were largely fixed on achieving one purpose, today’s more connected technologies are built for recombination. Their digital nature makes them much more easily combined.

In the end, Arthur suggests that where technology is headed next is roughly akin to biology. He talks about the growing sensory capabilities that now allow systems to better perceive their environments. The increased interconnectedness of devices and systems allows a new form of “conversation” between them that is likely to rapidly accelerate the combinatorial evolution outlined in the book.

These systems become so diverse, so distributed, that they can not be managed in a top-down manner, but must now be taught to “learn” from their experience. Where we are going next are systems that are self-configuring, self-optimizing and cognitive, self-assembling, self-healing and self-protecting.

These are all concepts that seem much more biological than mechanical. And in the end, Arthur makes the observation that these systems are both mechanical and organic.

Arthur closes the book by noting our “deep ambivalence” towards technology. He recalls that “technology is nature organized for our purposes” and yet that it also has the dualistic nature of something that both directs our lives and also serves it. We trust nature, not technology. But we place our hope in technology. Technology is a part of the human condition, but there is technology that enslaves our nature and technology that extends our nature. The former is a type of death, the latter a reaffirmation of life and our essential humanness.

5 thoughts on “The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (My Notes)”

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