This is an appreciation of the book “The Nature of Technology” by Brian Arthur, a leading thinker on technology, the economy, and complexity science. The book was brought out in 2009 by Free Press, a unit of Simon & Schuster, Inc. W. Brian Arthur, a Ph.D. from Berkeley in Operations Research, works as the IBM Faculty Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute (1).
The book attempts to construct a theory of technology to explain its behaviour, especially its evolution. Technology can be defined as a tool to realize a goal. It is a prescription of methods and practices. An individual technology exploits many phenomena to achieve a specific purpose. He starts with the axiom that “all technologies are combinations of elements; these elements themselves are technologies; all technologies use phenomena to some purpose.”
The building blocks of novel technologies are themselves technologies. They, in turn, become “building blocks for the creation of still newer technologies”. The result is combinatorial evolution, which differs from the Darwinian variety. The evolution is sustained by exploiting novel phenomena. A culture’s compendium of crafts bootstraps upward towards higher and higher complexity.
Technologies consist of parts organised into modules and systems in a recursive manner. Some of these form the core while others provide support. “Each assembly or subassembly or part is a means to a purpose and therefore, a technology”. “This means that the assemblies, subassemblies, and individual components can be considered to be technologies.” Thus, a technology is made up of building blocks that are technologies. This pattern recurs itself down to the fundamental level of basic components.
A new technology may arise by linking a need with an effect that can fulfil it. This is a lengthy process of imagining a concept and identifying components and assemblies and their linkage that will realise the concept. “The process is recursive, moving back and forth between problems and solutions at various levels before it is complete”.
Combination of suitable parts and functionalities to form a solution is at the core. The other force driving technology’s evolution is the need expressed for alternative ways of doing things. These needs originate from limitations encountered and problems caused by technologies themselves. “These must be solved by even more technologies, so that need follows solution as much as solution follows need”.
The way in which all this happens is quite irregular and full of bumps. “The technology as a whole evolves by adding and excluding technologies, by creating opportunity niches for further technologies, and by uncovering novel phenomena. ”Bodies of technology are evolving too, in the sense of continual development: they emerge, constantly change the “vocabularies” they provide, and are absorbed into industries“. And individual technologies ”continually change their internal parts and add more complex assemblies to deliver better performance”.
The result is a situation of constant flux. New connections and possibilities appear and new technologies replace old ones. “Thus technology constantly explores into the unknown, constantly creates further solutions and further needs”. The process is organic: the new layers form on top of the old, and creations and replacements overlap in time. In its collective sense, technology is a metabolic chemistry, an almost limitless collective of entities that interact and build to produce new entities — and further needs.
The economy is an expression of its technologies. It signals needs, tests ideas for commercial viability, and generates demands for new versions of technologies. But it is not a simple receptor of technology. Its skeletal structure consists of a mutually supporting set of arrangements — businesses, means of production, institutions, and organizations — that are themselves technologies in the broad sense. These “arrangements” create opportunities for further “arrangements,” and the sequence by which they follow one another constitutes structural change in the economy. The resulting economy inherits all the qualities of its technologies. It too, on a long-term scale, seethes with change. And like technology, it is open, history-dependent, hierarchical, indeterminate.
Technology builds from harnessing phenomena discovered by science, though they may not always proceed directly from phenomena. Most technologies are created from building-block components that are several steps removed from any direct harnessing of an effect.
As families of phenomena — the chemical ones, electrical ones, and quantum ones — are mined into and harnessed, they give rise to domains of technologies that work naturally together.
The initial version of a novel technology is crude. The nascent technology must now have proper components, be made reliable, improved, scaled up, and applied effectively to different purposes. Slowly and experimentally improvements happen leading to advances. To overcome limits, technology will add subsystems or assemblies that (a) enhance its basic performance, (b) allow it to monitor and react to changed or exceptional circumstances, © adapt it to a wider range of tasks, and (d) enhance its safety and reliability. They add “depth” or design sophistication to their structures and become more complex.
The vision of technologies as a chemistry of functionalities, programmable in different configurations for different purposes, is becoming truer with developments in digital technology. Digitization allows functionalities to be represented as digital data and hence easily combined even if they come from different domains. Telecommunications allow these digital elements to be combined remotely so that virtually any executable anywhere can trigger another. With sensors, systems can perceive their environment and configure their actions. The result is a hitching together of functionalities from different domains and from widely separated locations into temporary networks, connected collections of things in conversation with things that sense their environment and react appropriately.
Representative technology is no longer a machine with fixed architecture and fixed function. It is a system, a network of functionalities — a metabolism of things-executing-things — that can sense its environment and reconfigure its actions to execute appropriately.
Increasingly, networks are being designed to “learn” which simple interactive rules of configuration operate best within different environments. Equipped with such rules, they can react appropriately to what is sensed. To some degree, it is a form of “intelligence,” a “smart” system. One simple definition of biological cognition is being able to sense an environment and react appropriately. Thus, as modern technology organises itself increasingly into networks of parts that sense, configure, and execute appropriately, it displays some degree of cognition. In the future, these systems will be self-configuring, self-optimising, cognitive as well as self-assembling, self-healing, and self-protecting.
All technologies are in a sense simultaneously mechanistic and organic. If you examine a technology from the top down, you see it as an arrangement of connected parts interacting and intermeshing with each other to some purpose. In this sense it becomes a clockwork device — it becomes mechanistic. If you examine it from the bottom up, however, you see these as integral parts forming a higher, functioning, purposed whole. It becomes organic.
Technologies are also acquiring properties associated with living organisms. As they sense and react to their environment, as they become self-assembling, self-configuring, self-healing, and “cognitive,” they more and more resemble living organisms. The more sophisticated and “high-tech” technologies become, the more they become biological. We are beginning to appreciate that technology is as much a metabolism as a mechanism.
There is a symmetric side to this. As biology is better understood, we are steadily seeing it as more mechanistic. Of course, the idea that biological organisms consist of connected parts that interact as those of a machine goes back at least to the 1620s when philosophers were starting to think of living things as possible machines. What is new is that we now understand the working details of much of the machinery. Since the 1950s, we have teased out piece by piece the finer workings of DNA and protein manufacture within the cell, some of the elaborate controls for gene expression, and the functions of the parts of the brain. Though far from complete, it reveals organisms and organelles as highly elaborate technologies. In fact, living things give us a glimpse of how far technology has yet to go. No engineering technology is remotely as complicated in its workings as the cell.
Conceptually at least, biology is becoming technology. And physically, technology is becoming biology. The two are starting to close on each other, and as we move deeper into genomics and nanotechnology, they are starting to intermingle.
All the quotes are from the book: “The Nature of Technology” by Brian Arthur (2009) by Free Press, a unit of Simon & Schuster, Inc.