Friday, July 23, 2010

Technology Deepening

Brian Arthur in his book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, has a chapter on technology deepening. I usually think of the term "technology deepening" as related to the capacity of a country or an industry with respect to a technology. Thus as newly industrializing countries began to learn how to manufacture computers and electronic devices they began with relatively simple tasks for which they had a relative advantage due to their low labor costs. With time their industries improved the efficiency of production and the quality of their products, while they developed the capacity to produce more complex products, to innovate technologically and eventually to make independent improvements in product and production technology.

Arthur uses the term in a more restrictive sense, focusing especially on what he perceives to be a tendency for the technology for a specific class of devices to become more complex over time. Thus combat aircraft and commercial jet aircraft have become more and more complex over many decades, as have many if not all of their subsystems.

It occurs to me that although this is true of his examples, I can also think of examples in which related technologies have become simpler. While combat fighters have become more complex we have also seen the development of ultra light airplanes, unmanned areal vehicles, hang gliders, and even human powered aircraft capable of crossing the English channel and kite-like devices capable of carrying a person when towed by a boat or car. Indeed, Brazil and Indonesia stand out in my mind as having airplane manufacturing industries that developed by producing aircraft for civil aviation that focused on market niches for simpler craft to meet the needs of the commercial airlines of developing nations. All these devices are all less complex than the high performance military airplanes or the planes intended for long-range commercial airline flights.

What seems to me to have happened is that over decades the market for aircraft has expanded and diversified, with many different devices becoming available for different niche markets, each satisfying a different set of purposes.

In this respect, the theorists who have advanced concepts of the social construction of technology seem to provide a useful perspective. Perhaps the most famous example provided by this school is the evolution of the bicycle. It was originally construed as a device for use by athletic young men, and thus one saw bicycles that were difficult to ride, such as the one pictured above. Bicycles construed as suitable for a wider population were different in form, as were bicycles construed as toys or locomotion devices for children again were built differently. The latest edition of bicycles for the racers in the Tour de France, which are made of extremely high tech materials and extremely precise standards, are construed for the very extreme needs of a very small set of users.

Extending this approach, society has constructed a large number of different purposes for aircraft devices, and industry has responded by developing and commercializing products satisfying the social demands. The technology has improved in the sense that designers know much more about wing design, power plant design, control design, etc. The technology has also improved in that much more is known about how to manufacture aircraft (e.g. robots are available now for some functions, which was unthinkable in the early days of airplane manufacture). Some of the aircraft are simpler than those of the past, some more complex.

This is one of a series of postings occasioned by Arthur's book.

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