Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Perceptual Illusion About Technology

An Ant Hill in Australia
Brian Arthur uses the coral reef as a metaphor for technology. The reef is a structure that grows by the action of the corals that live at its fringe, but the living coral organisms do not understand the structure that they are expanding nor do they rationally plan its growth. Indeed the reef can be seen as an unintended byproduct of actions by the living coral organisms.

I suppose an ant hill might be an alternative metaphor. We perceive the structure, but we can not assume that the ants that built it had any understanding of that which they were building. Like the living coral organisms, each ant carries out its very limited activities according to very limited information and with very limited purposes. Yet a large architectural structure emerges from the independent actions of many ants.

Technology in this view is a growing body of knowledge and practice. It grows by the accretion of models and knowledge created by inventors and innovators. Those people however tend only to be aware of the portion of the body of technology related to the frontier on which they are working, and their expansion of technology is not understood as or intended to build the overall structure of human technology, but rather to solve specific and local problems .

Arthur emphasizes that new technologies are inevitably built through new combinations of old technologies,  although they may also grow through the discovery of new phenomenon to utilize technologically to accomplish human purposes. I would suggest that the body of human technology is even built on technology developed by pre-human species. Stone tools, fire, and other technologies were bequeathed to Home sapiens by the species from which we evolved.

Arthur, in The Nature of Technology, uses the term "autopoiesis", created by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, to describe the process by which the body of technology grows. The term, as I understand it, refers to entities structured by processes that are themselves influenced by the structure they themselves are creating and modifying. "An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory)."

Science policy generally focuses on the research and development occurring at the margin of the body of technological knowledge. Arthur's analysis forces a perceptual shift, much like that which occurs in the optical illusion I used in a recent posting. He focuses on the overall structure growing by teleonomic rather than teleologic processes, and thus requiring a different orientation of science policy.

I note that in one way the metaphors are misleading. Technological knowledge is not only created, but it is also lost. We don't know how the ancient Egyptians created the pyramids, nor how the Incas formed the stone blocks in their monumental structures. Many of the traditional cultivars of major crops have been lost as have the cultivation practices used in their growth. Thus while technological knowledge is growing in some areas, and indeed growing explosively in some domains such as information technology and biotechnology, it is also deteriorating and disappearing in other areas.

This is one of a series of postings occasioned by reading Arthurs book:

1 comment:

jill said...

People are so puffed up with their own self importance that they have lost their true appreciation for the far more superior intricacy and delicate balance of nature. Even protected places often end up exploited and spoiled in the name of tourism -adding man made paths, barriers, groins structures of one kind and another, spoiling the natural environment and introducing large numbers of invasive pests (us). One day we will suddenly be aware that we are not as clever as we believe ourselves to be. One day soon our smarty pants technological advances will come back to bite us on the ass... we are destroying the very planet we depend upon for our lives. There's a fine line between clever and stupid.