The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves

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Brian Arthur’s treatise is a little ponderous but, all the same, is most encouraging in its philosophical disposition — assuming as it does the “recursivity” of society and technology, rather than holding the (usual) view that one is strictly a product of the other. This is a path-dependent model for not just technology, but society and even knowledge itself.

But for some, this is dangerous stuff. It opens the door to all that crazy post-modern stuff.

Because he doesn’t have to, Arthur doesn’t go there, but he does cast a kindly glance at Thomas Kuhn. (I like people who cast kindly glances at Thomas Kuhn: these days, they’re few and far between). He doesn’t have to go there because technology by definition, operates entirely within the “paradigm” in which it was implemented: if “science” is its philosophical principle, technology is its practical implementation — the sort of thing Nancy Cartwright would call a “nomological machine”: an intellectual construction designed to give a dependable result in constrained circumstances. The machine not only prescribes the parameters for a “successful” result, but constrains the environment and operating circumstances in which it generates outcomes, to ensure the result is within those parameters, and then, reliably, forces that outcome. (A technology that cannot force an outcome within its own parameters for a successful result is simply “a machine that doesn’t work”).

But this leaves a gap: If technology is just the practical implementation of normal science, it it hard to explain how innovation happens. As Arthur puts it:

Combination [of existing technologies] cannot be the only mechanism behind technology's evolution. If it were, modern technologies such as radar or magnetic resource imaging ... would be created out of bow-drills and pottery firing techniques, or whatever else we deem to have existed at the start of technological time.

How do we account for the “onward” development of technology? Arthur is clear that it is “path-dependent” (“had we uncovered phenomena over historical times in a different sequence, we would have developed different technologies”) but even this risks under-cooking the importance of the narrative conversation: it is not just that combinations of technologies through time let us develop existing theories and give us better and more powerful and enabling answers to our original questions; they prompt completely new questions: they afford new ways of looking at the world. New ways of looking generate new opportunities, and new problems.

This is a significant point.

For example: before the digital era, information was hard to categorise, and any taxonomy was inherently limited (and, actually, biased): the physical nature of information storage (books in a library) necessitated a single filing taxonomy —the Dewey decimal system — with a single hierarchy: unless you have more than one copy of a book, you can’t file it in two places. Digitisation changed that forever: Dewey solved a problem we no longer have, but at the cost of forcing our hand in a way we no longer need. Digital technology has enabled us to entirely re-evaluate what information really is.

As he goes on, Arthur keeps in mind two “side issues” that constantly recur in writings about technology: the analogy to Darwin’s program of evolution, on one hand, and the analogy to Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution on the other. But these are only different articulations of the same idea: that “questions” and “answers” (whether you characterise these as “environmental features” and “biological adaptations which evolve to deal with them”, or “observational conundrums” and “scientific theories which purport to explain them”) are, to a large extent, interdependent: something is only a conundrum if it appears to contradict the prevailing group of theories. What both Darwin and Kuhn suggest is that “linear progress”, insofar as it implies a predetermined goal to which an evolutionary algorithm is progressing, is a misconceived idea. Evolutionary development is better characterised as a move away from the status quo, rather than a move toward something evidently “better” anything (in hindsight, both will seem the same; to confuse them is a fundamental error).

Yet, and while Arthur clearly recognises this, he continues to frame his explanatory theory in terms of “forward progress”, as if that is the “conundrum” to be solved. Even our traditional conception of it has this the wrong way round: “the invention of the jet engine” wasn’t what was going on; it was “finding a way to fly in thinner air”. The jet engine was the first solution arrived at that met that purpose (as, in a totally different context, Richard Susskind elegantly points out, when you shop for a Black & Decker, it isn’t a drill you want; it’s a hole). Technology (and science, and biology) isn’t an end, it’s a means. The more means you have, the more ends are available to you.

I had therefore wondered whether Arthur had missed a trick in his account: the fact that any novel solution to an old problem creates new questions that we did not think — or need — to ask previously. But as he closes, by viewing technology through the prism of the economy (contending the two are independent; the former is not merely the handmaiden of the latter), he nails this, too:

The coming of novel technologies does not just disrupt the status quo by finding new combinations that are better versions of the goods and methods we use. It sets up a train of technological accommodations and of new problems, and in doing so it creates new opportunity niches that call forth fresh combinations which in turn introduce further technologies - and further problems.

The implications of this are striking. They completely undermine the idea of technology as a “forwardly moving” phenomenon. It recalibrates to our changing needs and perceptions, just as we recalibrate to the changing perspectives and vistas it affords us. That is a million miles away from Ray Kurzweil's carefully plotted (but absurd) logarithmic charts of technological progress that will see machines eventually “waking up”.

Even if there were no other reasons for favouring Arthur’s less ambitious (but actually more radical) view, one is its humanity. Arthur closes the book with a neat bit of lit crit: the forces of good and evil in Star Wars, he observes, can be differentiated by their relationship with technology: the Empire’s clinical, cold, efficient, android heartlessness, against the temperamental, jury-rigged, cantankerous and fallible technology of the rebels: in one case technology is our weapon: it relies on us, on our skill, on our judgement and our humanity: we are the necessary homunculus; in the other the humans are, more or less, the “necessary evil”; the impediment to the technology achieving its ends.

Recognising that the special sauce in technology is, for the time being at least, the bit supplied by the meatware, is a comforting thought.

See also