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A deep look at the sources of what we make and use.

What It Is and How It Evolves
by W. Brian Arthur, Free Press 2009
246 pages

As a noted economist who first trained as an engineer, W. Brian Arthur has long been intrigued by complex systems. Indeed, he helped pioneer the study of complexity, urging scientists and economists alike to examine the intricate and evolving connections within various fields, as well as interconnections among fields – particularly as they influence market developments. In the late 1990s, Arthur gained prominence as an opponent of the government’s antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., based on his concept of “increasing returns.” Positive returns in industries reinforce and often multiply subsequent successes, Arthur said. Successful businesses therefore should not be penalized with excessive government regulation, which only serves to impede further innovation.

In this new book, Arthur, who now serves as an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute and visiting researcher for the Palo Alto Research Center’s Intelligent Systems Lab, is once again concerned with complexity. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves presents a theory of technology that looks far beyond “a study of machinery and methods” – as his engineering professors once defined it. Instead, Arthur seeks to examine technology in its greatest complexity, compelled to do so because too little attention has been paid to “this thing of tremendous importance.” While most of us take for granted the daily modern technologies in our lives – toilets and stoves, computers, steel and concrete buildings, modern agriculture – “more than anything else, technology creates our world,” Arthur declares. “It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being.” Is it not worthwhile, then, to develop a true study of technology, one that scrutinizeo what it is “in its deepest sense”? Where does it come from, and how does it evolve?

What follows is a probing though sometimes highly theoretical exploration of these issues. Arthur conceptualizes technology as a self-generating organism, which, like a coral reef, produces itself from itself, with early generations contributing to new development and growth. At a basic level, the model is evolutionary. Yet, unlike biological species, new forms of technology may emerge not just from existing ones but also from combinations of different forms. The jet engine had no immediate predecessor, Arthur points out; and “you can vary 1930s radio circuits all you like . . . and you will never get radar.” Yet both of these emergent technologies came into being as fresh combinations of what had existed previously: Open a jet engine, and you find compressors, turbines, combustion systems – all components of earlier technologies. It helps recognize this “autopoiesis,” or process of self-creation, in part because it reveals that even seemingly novel creations have a genealogy. It also suggests “that the value of a technology lies not merely in what can be done with it but also in what further possibilities it will lead to.”

Prism readers will not be surprised by the author’s declaration that engineering contributes to technology advancement. But they may be heartened by his championing of engineers’ work, and his explanations of how their creativity, design, and problem-solving draw up on existing technologies to produce future ones. Engineers understand technology and its complexity from the inside, Arthur asserts – and so are perhaps the ones who should write about it. Yet he recounts having once questioned the aeronautics specialist and Stanford University engineering historian Walter Vincenti as to why engineers lack a clear theoretical foundation for their discipline. “Engineers,” Vincenti responded, “like problems they can solve.”

Arthur concludes his book by suggesting that a firm understanding of technology – and how it shapes human existence – can help us anticipate and direct its future developments. Particularly as we intervene more directly with nature, employing sophisticated forms of bionics, artificial intelligence, and genetic and climatic engineering, that understanding and direction will become increasingly important.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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