Friday, July 30, 2010

Final Comments on The Nature of Technology

The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

I finished reading Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. The final chapter exploits the picture he has drawn of the body of technology evolving by its own logic, unpredictable and beyond any simple control, on a skeleton of social institutions.

Technological knowledge is growing faster than ever before. The $70 billion global economy and population of 6.7 billion people is greater than ever before, and the more people and more wealth, the faster the body of technology grows. Indeed, globalization has resulted in a greater portion of the world's population and economy developing technologies that would be useful to those of us moderns as might read this blog. Science has grown and continues to grow exponentially, and the body of phenomena available to be incorporated into technology also grows exponentially. So too do the number of niches to be filled by new technologies. I would also guess that the greater the cultural diversity, the more different cultural approaches would be brought to technology. Finally, there has been an important development of institutions that support technology development, including such things as research intensive universities, industrial research laboratories, agricultural field stations, government programs for research funding, intellectual property rights, and professional societies and journals. Arthur points out that there is a "messy vitality" to this self-directed growth of technology, and that the vision he has drawn is likely to be even more applicable in the future than in the past.

The final chapter of the book suggests that the managers of enterprises will be increasingly challenged in finding ways to adapt their enterprises to this messy vitality, as will those who lead and make policy for our governments and societies. I would add that the intellectuals who, like Arthur, seek to make sense of our society and our world will also be increasingly challenged to deal with the messy vitality not only of technology and the economy, but of the way people and society respond to a more rapidly evolving techno-economic system.

As more and more phenomena are incorporated in technology, and as more and more of us live in a man-built technological world, our view of nature changes. Certainly we experience nature more as technology-captured phenomena, and certainly there are many who see nature primarily as a source of phenomena to be captured and resources to be exploited. Yet, it is the most technologically advanced societies that seem most concerned with the environment, indeed most interested in preserving the natural heritage of mankind and the world's wild places. Our modern technology allows us to protect ourselves from the dangers faced by "natural man" of our species distant past, while enjoying the most diverse and rewarding natural sites the globe has to offer.

The series of postings I have produced on The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves indicates how closely I have read the book. I have not always agreed with the author, but I suspect he would be pleased by a reader challenging and probing the theory of technology he advances. The book is deceptively easy to read -- short, lovely prose, filled with illuminating examples -- but worthy of serious consideration, Brian Arthur is a very impressive person, trained as an economist and an engineer, with a serious body of contributions to our thinking even before this book, which is obviously much influenced by his work with the Santa Fe institute. I recommend the book wholeheartedly!

Here are my previous postings on the book:

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