Saturday, July 24, 2010

More on The Nature of Technology

Chapter 8 of Brian Arthur's book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, is titled "Revolutions and Redomaining". Recall that Arthur uses the term "domain" to refer to technological fields such as chemical technology, electronics technology or railroad technology. He makes the important point that once there is a breakthrough in the development of a useful and important technology in a domain, the domain tends to see other related technologies introduced. Indeed he provides valuable insights on the process of evolution within a technological domain.

I have written in the past about surgery, which I think would qualify as a domain in Arthur's definition. There are many related surgical procedures, each with its specific objectives. The surgeon uses a variety of devices such as surgical implements and diagnostic imaging devices in order to perform surgery. I would add that the surgeon has learned a great deal in order to use those devices well in achieving his surgical objectives. Thus surgery seems to qualify as a technological domain. (Indeed, surgery as a technological domain may have co-evolved with the health service industry and an number of social institutions modified by the impact of a more and more useful surgical practice,)

Surgery has been performed for a very long time. Included in the classical surgical casebook are amputations, caesarian sections and trepanning. These interventions, however were quite rare in the distant past as compared with the frequency of modern surgery, largely because they were so painful and so often deadly. Before surgery could become an important economic domain several things had to occur:
  • Anaesthesia had to be developed to eliminate the pain experienced by the patient during a surgical operation.
  • The nature of infections had to be discovered and antiseptic technology developed to prevent infections resulting from the open wounds created by surgery.
  • Anatomy and physiology had to be developed to the point that the surgeon could identify useful interventions and could perform them with a reasonable chance of success.
When these factors were in place, the field of surgery could evolve as surgeons learned more, as new devices were invented and proven, and as surgical innovators developed new operations and surgical techniques.

I suggest that perhaps other domains also require specific conditions to exist before they can evolve successfully. Electronics technology could only evolve after electrification, and computer technology could only evolve after both electrification and electronics had developed. Railroads required the Bessemer process to produce steel efficiently, the steam engine, and eventually the use of coal as a fuel to flower as a domain.

In the chapter, Arthur (although surely aware of them) does not emphasize Thomas Hughes insights relevant to technological systems. In the case of electricity, it makes no sense to generate and distribute electrical power unless there are uses for that power. Edison created the generation and distribution system, but also the first "killer app", the electric light. Other killer apps followed -- electrical motor driven trolleys, electrical motor powered machines in factories, phonographs, radios, refrigerators, electric stoves, etc. The term "killer app" itself comes from the personal computer sub-domain of the computer domain, and refers to the sequence of killer apps -- word processing, spread sheets, data base software, email, and the Internet and World Wide Web -- that have led to the commodification of the personal computer and the sale of billions of the devices.

Arthur addresses the important feature that there is a history of geographical clustering in the development of technological domains -- cotton cloth in England in the Industrial Revolution, chemical manufacturing in Germany in the 19th and early 20th century, computers in Silicon Valley in the last half century. He uses different terms, but refers to the knowledge spill overs that occur among enterprises, schools and scientific centers in such a cluster. He might have focused more on the knowledge that has to be embodied in supporting institutions for such a center of innovation, such as knowledge of how to finance technological firms in the financial institutions serving the area, knowledge of how to foster development in the governance institutions, and knowledge of how to deal with intellectual property, norms and standards in there relevant institutions.

Arthur talks about "deep craft", the body of understanding held by people in a technology cluster which is used to make innovation and quality production possible and even easy. I suspect that in part we fail often to recognize the importance of craft knowledge due to social stratification. I recall as a young engineer how much I didn't know and how much I depended on good technicians who worked with me and provided some of that craft knowledge and understanding. The certainly contributed greatly to any success we had together. Yet much of the credit seemed to go to the engineering and scientific staff.

I might have suggested that Arthur focus more on the distinction between explicit and tacit information. To some degree the difficulty in replicating a center of innovation in a domain is the difficulty in duplicating the implicit information. This is perhaps especially true in replicating in another geographical location the tacit information that is embodied in facilities and institutions, and in the linkages among institutions. Explicit information is easier to spread, although industrial clusters often protect explicit information as trade secrets (or in the past as secrets of a trade guild).

I liked Arthur's insight that domains have a lifetime. Some, such as the horse drawn buggy disappear replaced by a newer domain (the automobile), while others recede into an unremarked staple of our society, as has happened with potable water systems introduced in the 19th century or central air conditioning and heating.


One of the most important contributions that Arthur makes in this book is the discussion of technological revolutions. The technological revolution occurs as the technology domain and industry interact and co-evolve. Railroads evolved as people moved to locations newly served by the railroads, as markets grew geographically as railroads opened transportation options and reduced transportation costs, manufacturing enterprises grew adopting new technologies to realize economies of scale possible due to increased market size, etc. Computer networking has not only made it possible to re-engineer organizations to accomplish information processing tasks more efficiently using the information technology, but has allowed firms to outsource functions and concentrate on core functions due to the improved markets utilizing the evolving information infrastructure, and comparably to modify their relations with customers. I recall some 45 years ago helping a firm in Chile to improve its relationship with the banks financing its line of credit by introducing computer processing to improve the projection of financial needs over the course of the year.

Incidentally, I would recommend Alfred Chandler's book, The Visible Hand, for those interested in the way a technological revolution influences business organizations.

Arthur describes the decades long process of the technological revolution and explains why the institutional changes and co-evolution of the technology domain and its users takes so long. Indeed, he points out that it is this change that defines "time" in an industrial revolution. I wonder what factors influence the time frame for different technological revolutions. It seems to me that the revolution of communications introduced by the telegraph was much quicker than that of the revolution of transportation introduced by the railroad, but why? There seems to be a perception that technology is disseminating more rapidly in the modern world than in the past; is that a factor? I would guess that the more extensive the revolution, the longer it will take.

This is another in a sequence of postings occasioned by Arthur's book:

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