Book Summary: “The Nature of Technology” by W. Brian Arthur


Book Review

Title: The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
Author: W. Brian Arthur
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Arthur builds a theory of technology and innovation. Anyone who is interested in this topic must read this book.

Key Take-aways

  • All technologies exploit some scientific phenomenon
  • Technology is programming phenomena for a human purpose
  • All technologies are combinations of other component technologies.
  • Each component of technology is itself in miniature a technology
  • Technology innovation is akin to natural selection and genetics. They are each based on combinatory evolution.
  • Humans adapt to the needs of technology

Important Quotes from Book

“More than anything else technology creates our world. It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being.”

“We know a great deal about technologies in their individual sense, but much less about technology in the way of general understandings.”

 “Technologies inherit parts from the technologies that preceded them, so putting such parts together—combining them—must have a great deal to do with how technologies come into being. This makes the abrupt appearance of radically novel technologies suddenly seem much less abrupt.”

“Early technologies form using existing primitive technologies as components. These new technologies in time become possible components—building blocks—for the construction of further new technologies. Some of these in turn go on to become possible building blocks for the creation of yet newer technologies. In this way, slowly over time, many technologies form from an initial few, and more complex ones form using simpler ones as components. The overall collection of technologies bootstraps itself upward from the few to the many and from the simple to the complex. We can say that technology creates itself out of itself.

I will call this mechanism evolution by combination, or more succinctly, combinatorial evolution.”

“Technology builds out not just from combination of what exists already but from the constant capturing and harnessing of natural 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 stone in motion. All that we have achieved since comes from harnessing these and other phenomena, and combining the pieces that result.”

“This book is an argument about what technology is and how it evolves. It is an attempt to construct a theory of technology”

“I will build the argument piece by piece from three fundamental principles. The first will be the one I have been talking about: that technologies, all technologies, are combinations. This simply means that individual technologies are constructed or put together—combined—from components or assemblies or subsystems at hand. The second will be that each component of technology is itself in miniature a technology… And the third fundamental principle will be that all technologies harness and exploit some effect or phenomenon, usually several.”

“Viewed this way technology begins to acquire a “genetics.”

 “a technology consists of a main assembly: an overall backbone of the device or method that executes its base principle. This backbone is supported by other assemblies to take care of its working, regulate its function, feed it with energy, and perform other subsidiary tasks. So the primary structure of a technology consists of a main assembly that carries out its base function plus a set of subassemblies that support this.”

 “Modularity, we can say, is to a technological economy what the division of labor is to a manufacturing one; it increases as given technologies are used more, and therefore as the economy expands.

“a general rule: what starts as a series of parts loosely strung together, if used heavily enough, congeals into a self-contained unit. The modules of technology over time become standardized units.”

“Technologies, in other words, have a recursive structure. They consist of technologies within technologies all the way down to the elemental parts.”

 “Phenomena are simply natural effects, and as such they exist independently of humans and of technology. They have no “use” attached to them. A principle by contrast is the idea of use of a phenomenon for some purpose and it exists very much in the world of humans and of use.”

 “A technology is a phenomenon captured and put to use. Or more accurately I should say it is a collection of phenomena captured and put to use.”

“In its essence, a technology consists of certain phenomena programmed for some purpose.”

“This gives us another way to state the essence of technology. A technology is a programming of phenomena to our purposes.”

“Phenomena, I propose, are the “genes” of technology. The parallel is not exact of course, but still, I find it helpful to think this way. ”

“Science is in no small part the probing of nature via instruments and methods—via technology.”

 “Innovations in history may often be improvements in a given technology… But the significant ones are new domainings. They are the expressing of 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.”

“A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses.”

 “innovation is not so much a parade of inventions with subsequent adoptions: the arrival and adoption of computers, or canals, or DNA microarrays. It is a constant re-expressing or redomaining of old tasks—accounting, or transportation, or medical diagnostics—within new worlds of the possible.”

“When we look from the inside, we see that a technology’s interior components are changing all the time, as better parts are substituted, materials improve, methods for construction change, the phenomena the technology is based on are better understood, and new elements become available as its parent domain develops. So a technology is not a fixed thing that produces a few variations or updates from time to time. It is a fluid thing, dynamic, alive, highly configurable, and highly changeable over time.”

 “The designer intends something, picks a toolbox or language for expression, envisions the concepts and functionalities needed to carry it out in his or her “mind’s eye,” then finds a suitable combination of components to achieve it.”

“So a single practitioner’s new projects typically contain little that is novel. But many different designers acting in parallel produce novel solutions:”

“All these cumulate to push an existing technology and its domain forward. In this way, experience with different solutions and subsolutions steadily cumulates and technologies change and improve over time. The result is innovation.”

“Standard engineering contributes heavily to innovation.

 “Sometimes these solutions arise as inventions proper, formally sought-after answers to unsolved problems. But more often they arise through practitioners finding a new way, a new clever combination of existing components and methods that resolves a standard problem. If the resulting design is particularly useful, it gets taken up by others, begins to spread through the community, and finds general use. It becomes a new building block.”

“if used often enough, a solution—a successful combination—becomes a module. It gets its own name and becomes encapsulated in a device or method as a module available for standard use. It becomes a technology in itself.”

. The primary mechanism that generates building blocks is combination; Darwinian mechanisms kick in later, in the winnowing process by which only some of these solutions survive.”

 “But eventually there comes a time when neither component replacement nor structural deepening add much to performance. The technology reaches maturity. If further advancement is sought, a novel principle is needed.

 “One thing very noticeable about the buildout of new bodies of technology is that their leading edge is highly concentrated in one country or region, or at most a few.”

 “Had we lived in a universe with different phenomena we would have had different technologies.”

“Certainly we can say that as the number of technologies increases, the possibilities for combination also increase.”

“In general, for N possible base elements, we get 2N – Ν – 1 possible technologies. For 10 building-block elements this gives us 1013 combination possibilities, for 20 it gives 1,048,555 possibilities, for 30 it gives 1,073,741,793, and for 40 it gives 1,099,511,627,735. The possible combinations scale exponentially (as 2 to the power of N).”

“Of course, not all combinations make engineering sense.”

“But even if the chances are 1 in a million that something useful as a building block can be made out of a given set of building blocks, the possibilities still scale as (2N – N – 1)/1,000,000 or approximately 2N–20. They still scale exponentially.”

 “The vast majority of niches for technology are created not from human needs, but from the needs of technologies themselves.

“Our mechanism—I have been calling it combinatorial evolution—is about things creating novel things by combinations of themselves.”

 “Because the economy is an expression of its technologies, it is a set of arrangements that forms from the processes, organizations, devices, and institutional provisions that comprise the evolving collective; and it evolves as its technologies do. And because economy arises out of its technologies, it inherits from them self-creation, perpetual openness, and perpetual novelty. The economy therefore arises ultimately out of the phenomena that create technology; it is nature organized to serve our needs.”

 “The economy directs and mediates all this. It signals needs, tests ideas for commercial viability, and provides demands for new versions of technologies.

“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. And ever changing.”

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