The Nature of Technology

I recently finished reading W. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology, which explores what technology is and how it evolves.

Evolves is an intentional word here; the concept is at the core of Arthur’s argument. Technology is not a passive thing which only grows in spurts of genius inspiration – it is a complex system which is continuously growing, changing, and – indeed – evolving.

Arthur writes that he means the term evolution literally – technology builds itself from itself, growing and improving through the novel combination of existing tools – but he is clear that the process of evolution does not imply that technology is alive.

“…To say that technology creates itself does not imply it has any consciousness, or that it uses humans somehow in some sinister way for its own purposes,” he writes. “The collective of technology builds itself from itself with the agency of human inventors and developers much as a coral reef builds itself from the activities of small organisms.”

Borrowing from Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varela, Arthur describes this process as autopoiesis, self-creating.

This is a bold claim.

To consider technology as self-creating changes our relationship with the phenomenon. It is not some disparate set of tools which occasionally benefits from the contributions of our best thinkers; it is a  growing body of interconnected skills and knowledge which can be infinitely combined and recombined into increasingly complex approaches.

The idea may also be surprising. An iPhone 6 may clearly have evolved from an earlier model, which in turn may owe its heritage to previous computer technology – but what relationship does a modern cell phone have with our earliest tools of rocks and fire?

In Arthur’s reckoning, with a complete inventory of technological innovations one could fully reconstruct a technological evolutionary tree – showing just how each innovation emerged by connecting its predecessors.

This concept may seem odd, but Arthur makes a compelling case for it – outlining several examples of engineering problem solving which essentially boil down to applying existing solutions to novel problems.

Furthermore, Arthur explains that this technological innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum – not only does it require the constant input of human agency, it grows from humanity’s continual “capturing” of physical 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 a stone in motion. All that we have achieved since comes from harnessing these and other phenomena, and combining the pieces that result,” Arthur argues.

Through this process of exploring our environment and iteratively using the tools we discover to further explore our environment, technology evolves and builds on itself.

Arthur concludes that “this account of the self-creation of technology should give us a different feeling about technology.” He explains:

“We begin to get a feeling of ancestry, of a vast body of things that give rise to things, of things that add to the collection and disappear from it. The process by which this happens is neither uniform not smooth; it shows bursts of accretion and avalanches of replacement. It continually explores into the unknown, continually uncovers novel phenomena, continually creates novelty. And it is organic: the new layers form on top of the old, and creations and replacements overlap in time. In its collective sense, technology is not nearly a catalog of individual parts. It is a metabolic chemistry, an almost limitless collective of entities that interact to produce new entities – and further needs. And we should not forget that needs drive the evolution of technology every bit as much as the possibilities for fresh combination and the unearthing of phenomena. Without the presence of unmet needs, nothing novel would appear in technology.”

In the end, I suppose we should not be surprised by the idea of technology’s evolution. It is a human-generated system; as complex and dynamic as any social system. It is vast, ever-changing, and at times unpredictable – but ultimately, at its core, technology is very human.


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