Short works

Books : reviews

W. Brian Arthur, Steven N. Durlauf, David A. Lane.
The Economy as an Evolving Complex System II.
Perseus Books. 1997

W. Brian Arthur.
The Nature of Technology: what it is and how it evolves.
Penguin. 2009

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 22 June 2011

This slim but densely-packed important book is a joy to read. Technology is a crucial feature of our lives, and the genesis of certain individual artefacts are well-studied, yet technology as a whole is little studied. Arthur sets out to discover just what technology is, and how it changes.

He gives three definitions of technology, covering three different scales (p28): technology-singular, a means to fulfil a human purpose, where the means is a device, method or process; technology-plural, an assemblage of practices and components; and technology-general, the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture. The book is about examining these definitions, and examining how technology changes at each of these scales.

Technology does not exist in isolation from the physical world: it crucially comprises artefacts that harness natural phenomena. Those phenomena themselves need technology in order to be harnessed, particularly the more "advanced" ones.

p22. 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.

He considers mainly physical phenomena in the natural world. He later touches on, but not in much depth, more abstract phenomena of mathematics, information, and computation.

Once technology has started, it can bootstrap by combining components in many ways, to fulfil more and more human purposes (some of which are themselves created by technology). And as we get more technologies, we can combine them in more ways. Soon the potential combinations outnumber the base components.

p25. 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. Slowly, at a pace measured in decades, we are shifting from technologies that produced fixed physical outputs to technologies whose main character is that they can be combined and configured endlessly for fresh purposes.

Once combinations outnumber components, we are in the realm of infrastructure, where the technology can be used in ways never intended, or foreseen, by its inventors.

p31. A technology embodies a sequence of operations; we can call this its "software." And these operations require physical equipment to execute them; we can call this the technology's "hardware." If we emphasize the "software" we see a process or method. If we emphasize the "hardware," we see a physical device.

I am going to stop including quotations at this point. The whole book is so rich with ideas and illustrations that I would end up quoting a large proportion of it. Just read the whole thing.

The trip through technology-singular, -plural, and -general is fascinating, and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in living in modern society. Towards the end, where Arthur is considering technology-general, and how its ever-changing nature generates a necessarily ever-changing economy, is particularly important today, when governments seem to be hell-bent on restoring some non-existent equilibrium state after the recent economic collapse. His description of "deep craft", and why technologies cluster in geographical locations, is important for people interested in "technology transfer" (short answer: it's really difficult). And his comments on the need for a fundamental science base to provide the seeds of the next generation technology and deep craft are a crucial message for today's short-termist, make everything have a return in the next quarter, policy makers (not that they will listen).