Book Review: The Nature of Technology

The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves by W. Brian Arthur is an attempt to put a framework around all types of technology, from “computer algorithms and beer brewing, power stations and pencils, handheld devices and DNA sequencing techniques.” Arthur wants a unifying theory (an -ology) of technology: what they are, how they evolve, and how innovation really happens. This is important because, as he rightly notes, “technology creates our world. It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being.” “The story of this century,” Arthur writes, “will be about the clash between what technology offers and what we feel comfortable with.”

Arthur defines technology in three ways: a means to fulfill a human purpose; an assemblage of practices and components; and as the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture. Technologies are deeply concerned with processes. They are not, Arthur claims, different categories from devices.

A device always processes some thing…a technology embodies a sequence of operations; we call this its “software.” And those operations require physical equipment to execute them; we can call this the technology’s “hardware.”…The two categories are merely different ways of viewing a technology.”

Technologies are rarely fixed; they are constantly changing and adapting, frequently becoming more complex as it matures.

Technology is also “always based on some phenomenon or truism of nature that can be exploited and used for a purpose.” Technologies harness natural effects and puts them to use. Science uncovers these effects “by picking up intimations of something that operates differently than expected” then engineers figure out a potential use for them.

Technologies, Arthur posits, arise via combinatorial evolution: “Novel technologies must somehow arise by combination of existing technology.” Existing technologies provide the parts or building blocks for combining into new technologies. Old technologies become the parts for new technologies. “Technology creates itself out of itself.”

Technologies innovate when they are redomained:

Innovations in history may often be improvements in a given technology—a better way to architect domes, a more efficient steam engine. But the significant ones are new domainings. They are expressing a given purpose in a different set of components, as when the provision of power changed from being expressed in waterwheel technology to being expressed in steam technology.

The reason such redomainings are powerful is not just that they provide a wholly new and more efficient way to carry out a purpose. They allow new possibilities.

Arthur addresses design as “an expression within [a given domain’s] language.” Any new device or method is formed from the rules of a particular domain, what Arthur calls the grammar.

The key activity in technology…is a form of composition. It is expression within a language (or several).

This is not a familiar way to look at design. But consider. There are articulate and inarticulate utterances in a language; the same goes for design. There are appropriate and inappropriate choices in language; the same goes for design; There is conciseness in language; the same goes for design….For any willed purpose of expression in language there are many choices of utterance; similarly in technology for any purpose there is a wide choice of composition. And just as utterances in a language must be put together according to the rules of that language, so must designs be architected according to the rules of allowable combination in a domain.

Good design in fact is like good poetry. Not in any sense of the sublimity, but in the sheer rightness of choice from the many possible for each part. Each part must fit tightly, must work accurately, must conform to the interaction of the rest. The beauty in good design is that of appropriateness, of least effort for what is achieved. It derives from a feeling that all that is in place is properly in place, that not a piece can be rearranged, that nothing is to excess. Beauty in technology does not require originality, In technology, both form and phrases are heavily borrowed from other utterances, so in this sense we could say that, ironically, design works by combining and manipulating clichés. Still, a beautiful design always contains some unexpected combination that shocks us with its appropriateness.

Most projects, Arthur says, “consist in applying standard solutions to standard problems.” Design is about determining which solution to apply, and when. A novel solution might eventually become part of the repertoire of solutions used by the domain, and it becomes a building block for other solutions. It becomes a technology in and of itself.

New technologies come about by “linking [conceptually and via a physical form] a need with some effect to satisfactorily achieve that need.” Sometimes this arises from borrowing from another domain that uses that effect, sometimes by combining previous concepts, other times by being suggested by a theory or a colleague. In all cases though, new principles that drive new technologies are created or suggested by what already exists, never from nothing. “At the heart of invention lies appropriation,” states Arthur.

In contrast to the now-infamous Don Norman article “Technology First, Needs Last,” Arthur says that human needs drive technology. Human needs multiply and become complex depending on the society we live in, and these needs, along with technology itself (which creates its own problems and needs), drive new technology. Technologies can usually be made faster, cheaper, or more efficient; they create problems that need to be solved by other technologies; they create ecosystems of products that have their own supporting technology.

A central problem for us in this century is, according to Arthur, “that we trust nature, not technology. And yet we look to technology to take care of our future—we hope in technology. So we hope in something we do not quite trust.”

If you have any interest in the philosophy of technology at all, I recommend The Nature of Technology. It’s a thoughtful, fascinating book.