Arthur, W. Brian
The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
The economy is not a container for technologies, but it arises from them.
“historians are naturally interested in how the world has formed itself.”
-> they are interested in process/evolution.
“This sort of contrast between known content and less-known principles is not rare.”
“we have no agreement on what the word “technology” means, no overall theory of how technologies come into being, no deep understanding of what “innovation” consists of, and no theory of evolution for technology.”
- “the gradual development of something, as with the “evolution of ballet or the English madrigal. I will call this evolution in the narrow sense, or more usually “development”
- “the process by which all objects of some class are related by ties of common descent from the collection of earlier objects. This is evolution in its full sense, and it is what I will mean by evolution.”
Without evolution we have the idea of the solitary genius.
“With evolution (if we can find how it works), new technologies would be birthed in some precise way from previous ones, albeit with considerable midwifing, and develop through some understood process of adaptation. In other words, if we could understand evolution, we could understand that most mysterious of processes: innovation.”
“The economy continually created the new by combining the old, and in doing so it disrupted itself constantly from within.”
“I will call this mechanism evolution by combination, or more succinctly, combinatorial evolution.”
A second thing is needed: “the constant capture of new natural phenomena and the harnessing of these for particular purposes.”
“new technologies are constructed mentally before they are constructed physically”
His theory is built from blank state -> 3 fundamental principles:
- “all technologies, are combinations. This simply means that individual technologies are constructed or put together – combined – from components or assemblies or subsystems at hand.”
- “each component of technology is itself in miniature a technology.”
- “all technologies harness and exploit some effect of phenomenon, usually several.
“[technologies are not] individual pieces of clockwork but [...] complexes of working processes that interact with other complexes to form new ones.”
“Technology builds itself organically from itself”
“Modern technology is not just a collection of more or less independent means of production. Rather it is becoming an open language for the creation of structures and functions in the economy.”
- technology-singular -> “a means to fulfill a human purpose” (computer, compression algorithm)
- technology-plural -> “an assemblage of practices and components” (electronics, biotechnology)
- technology-general -> “the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture” (technology is the hope for mankind, technology is what Silicon Valley is all about)
“Whether within a jet engine or a computer program, all parts mus be carefully balanced. [...] Each module or component must provide just the right power, or size, or strength, or weight, or performance, or data structure to fit with the rest. [...]
Together these various modules and their connections form a working architecture. To understand a technology means to understand its principle, and how this translates into a working architecture.”
-> This is what my PhD and entarch are doing!
“the partition of technologies increases with the extent of the market.”
“The modules of technology over time become standardized units.”
in mathematics, physics, computer science: “structures consist of components that are in some way similar to themselves.”
“In the real world, technologies are highly reconfigurable; they are fluid things, never static, never finished, never perfect.”
“There is no characteristic scale for technology.”
-> it can be a transistor or the Yamato.
“Phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise. All technologies, no matter how simple or sophisticated, are dressed-up versions of the use of some effect – or more usually, of several effects.”
“Phenomena are simply natural effects, and as such they exist independently of humans and of technology. They have no “use” attached to them. A principle by contrast is the idea of use of a phenomenon for some purpose and it exists very much in the world of humans and of use.”
A technology “is a collection of [NEXT PAGE] phenomena captured and put to use.”
A technology is a metabolism. It “becomes a complex of interactive [NEXT PAGE] processes – a complex of captured phenomena – supporting each other, using each other, “conversing” with each other, “calling” each other much as subroutines in computer programs call each other.”
“A technology is an orchestration of phenomena to our use.”
“Phenomena, I propose, are the “genes” of technology.”
“Biology programs genes into myriad structures, and technology programs phenomena to myriad uses.”
Definition purposed system:
All physical or non-physical means to purposes. -> He uses technology just to refer to the physical ones?
“phenomena are the source of all technologies and the essence of technology lies in orchestrating them to fulfill a purpose.”
“Stripped to its core structure, science is a form of technology.”
“Science and technology co-evolve in a symbiotic relationship.”
“There is a nice circle of causality here. We can say that novel phenomena provide new technologies that uncover novel phenomena; or that novel technologies uncover new phenomena that lead to further technologies.”
“What delineates a cluster of technologies is always some form of commonality, some shared and natural ability of components to work together.”
“A technology is invented; it is put together by someone. A domain – think of radio engineering as a whole – is not invented; it emerges piece by piece from its individual parts. A technology – an individual computer, say – gives a certain potency to whoever possesses it. A domain – the digital technologies – gives potential to a whole economy that can in time become transmuted into future wealth and political power.”
“An era does not just create technology. Technology creates the era.”
“And just as utterances in a language must be put together according to the rules of that language, so must designs be architected according to the rules of allowable combination in a domain.”
“One result of this heavy investment in a domain is that a designer rarely puts a technology together from considerations of all domains available. The artist adapts himself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of his paintbox.”
“So a technology is not a fixed thing that produces a few variations or updates from time to time. It is a fluid thing, dynamic, alive, highly configurable, and highly changeable over time.”
“Technology does not just offer a set of limited functions, it provides a vocabulary of elements that can be put together – programmed – in endlessly novel ways for endlessly novel purposes.”
“[Innovation] was used [NEXT PAGE] by Schumpeter (confusingly, to my taste) to denote the porcess by which an invention is co-opted into commercial use. I will use the word in its popular sense of novelty in technology.”
Definition standard engineering:
“it is the planning, testing, and assembly of a new instance of a known technology”
“A design is a set of compromises.”
“Design and development is a very human process of organization and action.”
“a new project always poses a new problem.”
“as with language, intention comes first and the means to fulfill it – the appropriate combination of components – fall in behind it. Design is expression.”
“experience with different solutions and subsolutions steadily cumulates and technologies change and improve over time. The result is innovation.”
“The primary mechanism that generates building blocks is combination; Darwinian mechanisms kick in later, in the winnowing process by which only some of the solutions survive.”
“The solution that comes to dominate of course has to have merit, but may not necessarily be the best of those competing. It may have prevailed largely by chance.”
“This process of chance events, prevalence building further prevalence, and lock-in, is something I hae written about extensively before, so I will not go into further details here.” -> Arthur, WB ~ Competing Technologies
“novel purposed systems can arise nondeliberately as practices or conventions, solutions to some problem in the economy or society; and if useful they can go on to become components in wider systems.”
-> entarch? if useful becomes dominant?
“Darwin’s solution, as I have said, does not work for technology.”
“A change in principle then separates out invention – the process by which radically novel technologies arise – from standard engineering.”
“At the creative heart of invention lies appropriation, some sort of mental borrowing that comes in the form of half-conscious suggestion.”
“Just as a composer has in mind a main theme but must orchestrate the parts that will express it, so must the originator orchestrate the working parts that will express the main concept.”
“Invention at its core is mental association.”
“In fact, I do not believe there is any such thing as genius. Rather it is the possession of a very large quiver of functionalities and principles. Originators [inventors] are steeped in the practice and theory of the principles or phenomena they will use.”
“an invention tends to show up when the pieces necessary for it, and the need for it, fall into place.”
“The mechanism [behind invention] is certainly not Darwinian; novel species in technology do not arise from the accumulation of small changes. They arise from a process, a human and often lengthy one, of linking a need with a principle (some generic use of an effect) that will satisfy it. This linkage stretches from the need itself to the base phenomenon that will be harnessed to meet it, through supporting solutions and subsolution And making it defines a recursive process. The process repeats until each subproblem resolves itself into one that can [NEXT PAGE] be physically dealt with. In the end the problem must be solved with pieces – components – that already exist (or pieces that can be created from ones that already exist). To invent something is to find it in what previously exists.”
“at bottom all inventions share the same mechanism: all link a purpose with a principle that will fulfill it, and all must translate that principle into working parts.”
“Typically the initial version of a novel technology is crude – in the early days it is sufficient that it work at all.”
“There is no neat separation between the origination of a technology and its development.”
“This is where Darwinian variation and selection really come in, in technology. The many versions of a technology improve in small steps by the selection of better solutions to their internal design problems.”
-> Darwin explains the survival of technologies, not their emergence?
“we need to think of a technology as an object – more an organism, really – that develops through its constituent parts and subparts improving simultaneously at all levels in its hierarchy.”
“to overcome limits, a technology will add subsystems or assemblies that (a) enhance its basic performance, (b) allow it to monitor and react to changed or exceptional circumstances, (c) adapt it to a wider range of tasks, and (d) enhance its safety and reliability.”
“eventually there comes a time when neither component replacement nor structural deepening add much to performance. The technology reaches maturity. If further advancement is sought, a novel principle is needed. But novel principles cannot be counted on to arrive when needed. Even when they do, they may not easily replace the old one. The old design, the old principle, tends to be locked in.”
“Even if a novel principle is developed and does perform better than the old, adopting it may mean changing surrounding structures and organizations. This is expensive and for that reason may not happen.”
“The old principle lives on because practitioners are not comfortable with the vision – and promise – of the new. Origination is not just a new way of doing things, but a new way of seeing things.”
Definition adaptive stretch:
“When a new circumstance comes along or a demand for a different sphere of application arrives, it is easier to reach for the old technology – the old base principle – and adapt it by “stretching” it to cover the new circumstances.”
“At some point of development, the old principle becomes ever more difficult to stretch. The way is now open for a novel principle to get a footing. The old principle of course lingers, but it becomes specialized for certain purposes. And the new principle begins to elaborate.”
“Elaboration and simplicity alternate in a slow back and forth dance, with elaboration usually gaining the edge over time.”
“Development is very much an internal process. The whole of a technology and all of its parts develop simultaneously in parallel.”
“A new version of the economy slowly comes into being. The domain and the economy mutually co-adapt and mutually create the new.
It is this process of mutual change and mutual creation that we call a revolution.”
“the enabling technologies of digitization, the microprocessor and the Arpanet (the forerunner of the Internet), were available by the early 1970s, but again, their impact in digitizing the economy has still not been fully realized.”
“It is not enough that the base technologies of a revolution become available. A revolution does not fully arrive until we organize our activities – our businesses and commercial procedures – around its technologies, and until these technologies adapt themselves to us. For this to happen, the new domain must gather adherents and prestige. It must find purposes and uses. Its central technologies must resolve certain obstacles and fill certain gaps in its set of components. It must develop technologies that support it and bridge it to the technologies that use it. It must understand its base phenomenon and develop the theory behind these. Markets must be found, and the exisitng structures of the economy must be re-architected to make use of the new domain. And the old dispensation must recognize the new domain and become familiar with its inherent practices, which means that practicing engineers who command the grammar of the old need to retool themselves for the new. They do not do this lightly. All this must be mediated by finance, by institutions, by management, by government policies, and by the availability of people skilled in the new domain.
Thus this process is paced not by the time it takes people to notice the different way of doing thins and adopt it, but rather by the time it takes existing structures of the economy to re-architect themselves to adapt to the new domain. This time is likely to be decades, not years. And during this time the old technology lives on. It persists despite its demonstrated inferiority.”
“It is not sufficient that businesses and people adapt to a new body of technology. The real gains arrive when the new technology adapts itself to them.”
“Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work. Knowing [blah blah blah].”
“once a region – or country for that matter – gets ahead in an advanced body of technology, it tends to get further ahead. Success brings success, so that there are positive feedbacks or increasing returns to regional concentrations of technology.”
“This is why countries that lead in science lead also in technology. And so if a country wants to lead in advanced technology, it needs to do more than invest in industrial parks or vaguely foster “innovation.” It needs to build its basic science without any stated purpose of commercial use.”
-> He really likes science.
The way individual technologies develop is focused, concentrated, and rational. Domains develop slowly, organically, and cumulatively.
“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.”
“innovation emerges when people are faced by problems – particular, well-specified problems. It arises as solutions to these are conceived of by people steeped in many means – many functionalities – they can combine.”
“a new domain of significance (think of the digital one) is encountered by all industries in an economy. As this happens, the domain combines some of its offerings with arrangements native to many industries. The result is new processes and arrangements, new ways of doing things, not just in one area of application but all across the economy.”
“Novel technologies are therefore brought into being – made possible – from some set of existing ones. Always.”
“technology is autopoietic (“self-creating,” or “self-bringing-forth,” in Greek).”
“the value of technology lies not merely in what can be done with it but also in what further possibilities it will lead to. The technologist Andy Grove was asked once what the return on investment was for internet commerce. “This is Columbus in the New World,” he answered. “What was his return on investment?”
“The presence of opportunity niches calls novel technologies into existence.”
“[Human needs] depend delicately and delightfully and intricately upon the state of society, and they elaborate as societies prosper. And because societies prosper as their technologies build out, our needs grow as technology build out.”
“We can think of [the economy] as a system that determines costs and prices and therefore signals oportunities to be fulfilled by novel elements, as well as deciding which candidate technologies will enter the active collection.
“We can start by supposing that a candidate novel technology appears. It has been made possible by a combination of previous technologies and has bested its rivals for entry into the economy. Six events or steps then follow. [...]
- The novel technology enters the active collection as a novel element. It becomes a new node in the active collection.
- The novel element becomes available to replace existing technologies and components in existing technologies.
- The novel element sets up further “needs” or opportunity niches for supporting technologies and organizational arrangements. [NEXT PAGE]
- If old displaced technologies fade from the collective, their ancillary needs are dropped. The opportunity niches they provide didsappear with them, and the elements that in turn fill these may become inactive
- The novel element becomes available as a potential component in further technologies – further elements.
- The economy – the pattern of goods and services produced and consumed – readjusts to these steps. Costs and prices (and therefore incentives for novel technologies) change accordingly.
“Collapses caused further collapses in a backward succession. This is not quite the same as Schumpeter’s “gales of creative destruction,” where novel technologies wipe out particular businesses and industries broadly across the economy. Rather, it is a chain of domino-like collapses – avalanches of destruction, if you prefer to call them that.
The creative side to this is, as Schumpeter pointed out, that new technologies and industries take the place of those that collapse. We can add to this that new technologies can as easily set up new opportunity niches to be occupied by further new technologies, which set up further niches, to be occupied by yet further technologies. There are also avalanches – should we call them winds – of opportunity creation.
All this activity is going on at many points in the network at the same time. Like the buildout of species in the biosphere, it is a parallel process, an there is nothing orderly about it.” -> the list above is not as orderly as it seems
He describes his algorithm of the evolution of technology.
“as first, progress is slow.”
“The overall collective of technology always increases. But the active set varies in size, showing we would expect, a net increase over time.”
“This does not mean the evolution of technology is completely random. The pipeline of technologies coming in the next decade is reasonably predictable.
-> technological evolution is path-dependent -> near future is predictable -> far future not at all
“Change begets spates of change, and between these, quiescence begets quiescence.”
“In biology, combinations [as in combinatorial evolution] do form, but not routinely and by no means often, and not by the direct mechanisms we see in technology. Variation and selection [Darwin] are foremost, with combination happening at very occasional intervals but often with spectacular results.”
“In technology, combinatorial evolution is foremost, and routine. Darwinian variation and selection are by no means absent, but they follow behind, working on structures already formed.”
“By these criteria [in systems language] technology is indeed a living organism. But it is living only in the sense that a coral reef is living. At least at this stage of its development – and I for one am thankful for this – it still requires human agency for its buildout and reproduction.”
Definition economy / economics:
“I will define the economy as the set of arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies its needs. (This makes economics the study of this.)
“The economy is an expression of its technologies.”
“The economy forms an ecology for its technologies, it forms out of them, and this means it does not exist separately. And as with an ecology, it forms opportunity niches for novel technologies and fills these as novel technologies arise.
This way of thinking carries consequences. It means that the [NEXT PAGE] economy emerges – wells up – from its technologies. It means that the economy does more than readjust as its technologies change, it continually forms and re-forms as its technologies change. And it means that the character of the economy – its form and structure – change as its technologies change.”
“Normally we do not see this technology-creating-the-economy-creating-technology. In the short term of a year or so the economy appears given and fixed; it appears to be a container for its activities. Only when we observe over decades do we see the arrangements and processes that form the economy coming into being, interacting, and collapsing back again.”
“The whole moves forward in a sequence of problem and solution – of challenge and response – and it is this sequence we call structural change.”
“Structural change is fractal, it branches out [NEXT PAGE] at lower levels, just as an embryonic arterial system branches out as it develops into smaller arteries and capillaries.”
“Technology determines the structure of the economy and thereby much of the world that emerges from this, but which technologies fall into place is not determined in advance.”
“within this stasis lie the seeds of its [the economy's] own disruption, as Schumpeter pointed out a hundred years ago.”
“From within, the system is always poised for change.”
“The economy therefore exists always in a perpetual openness of change – in perpetual novelty. It exists perpetually in a process of [NEXT PAGE] self-creation. It is always unsatisfied.”
“The result is change begetting change.”
“Stated as a general rule, every technology contains the seeds of a problem, often several. This is not a “law” of technology or of the economy, much less one of the universe. It is simply a broad-based empirical observation – a regrettable one – drawn from human history.”
“The economy therefore arises ultimately out of the phenomena that create technology; it is nature organized to serve our needs.”
“The economy therefore is not a homogeneous thing. It is a structure – a magnificent structure – of interacting, mutually supporting arrangements, existing at many levels, that has grown itself from itself over centuries.”
“Economics as a discipline is often criticized because, unlike the “hard sciences” of physics or chemistry, it cannot be pinned down to an unchanging set of descriptions over time. But this is not a failing, it is proper and natural. The economy is not a simple system’ it is an evolving, complex one, and the structures it forms change constantly over time.”
“The economy, in a word, is becoming generative. Its focus is shifting from optimizing fixed operations into creating new combinations, new configurable offerings.
For the entrepreneur creating these new combinations in a startup company, little is clear.”
“The environment that surrounds the launching of a new combinatorial business is not merely uncertain; particular aspects of it are simply unknown.”
“In this situation the challenge of [NEXT PAGE] management is not to rationally solve problems but to make sense of an undefined situation – to “cognize” it, or frame it into a situation that can be dealt with – and to position its offerings accordingly. Again here is a seeming paradox. The more high-tech technology becomes, the less purely rational becomes the business of dealing with it.”
“In the generative economy, management derives its competitive advantage not from its stock of resources and its ability to transform these into finished goods, but from its ability to translate its stock of deep expertise into ever new strategic combinations.”
“as a more technological economy comes to the fore, we are shifting from the machine-like economy of the twentieth century with its factory nodes and input-output linkages to an organic, interrelated economy of the twenty-first century. Where the old economy was a machine, the new one is a chemistry, always creating itself in new combinations, always discovering, always in process.”
“Order, closedness, and equilibrium as ways of organizing explanations are giving way to open-endedness, indeterminacy, and the emergence of perpetual novelty.”
“Messy vitality, says Venturi; and richness of meaning. Yes. I too am wholeheartedly for these.”
-> Me too.
“These two views, that technology is a thing directing our lives, and simultaneously a thing blessedly serving our lives, are simultaneously valid. But together they cause an unease, an ongoing tension, that plays out in our attitudes to technology and in the politics that surround it.”
“for all human existence we have been at home in nature – we trust nature, not technology. And yet we look to technology to take care of our future – we hope in technology. So we hope in something we do not quite trust. There is an irony here. Technology, as I have said, is the programming of nature, the orchestration and use of nature’s phenomena. So in its deepest essence it is natural, profoundly natural. But it does not feel natural.”
“Thus our reaction to technology as represented unconsciously in popular myth does not reject technology.”
“our unconscious makes a distinction between technology as enslaving our nature versus technology as extending our nature.”