Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Still More on Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology

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

I am morphing Brian Arthur's model of technology as a growing and adapting structure of technological information. As Arthur points out, technologies are means of harnessing properties to achieve human purposes. They are interconnected, with technologies formed by collections of other technologies, and perceived as grouped by domains. There are portions of this structure, the relatively mature technologies, that are relatively static. Other portions, such as information technology and biotechnology today, that are growing quite rapidly. Still other portions of technology, such as those relating to traditional crop cultivars, are decaying and disappearing.

This technological information includes some that is disembodied, in the sense that it is published and available to all. Most however is embodied in devices, supplies, people (knowledge, understanding, skills, craft, etc.), and institutions. We find some regions are very rich in the embodiment of specific technologies; Silicon Valley is rich in the embodiment of information on information technology and biotechnology and Amsterdam is rich in information on the diamond jewelry industry.

The body of technological information in its various embodiments, is analogous to an ecosystem, the individual technologies to species, and the processes of change in that information analogous to species evolution and ecological evolution (or devolution).

The body of technological information is linked intimately to a body of complementary information about properties, resources, and problems. Much of this information is scientific, but much might also be considered ethno-science, coming out of cultural approaches to the understanding of the world that are not those of modern science. Some too are craft understanding, embodied in the information intrinsic to a craft or profession.

The body of technological information and its body of complementary information differs from region to region. That of the Central African Republic is different than that of Silicon Valley. It may be useful to consider the ratio of the quantity of information in a given geographic location to the number of people in that location. Clearly, the quantity of technological information in a region is a function of the investment that has been made in facilities and devices in that region, in the investment in education, and the investment in institutional development.

As an aside, one might differentiate the explicit from the implicit information embodied in an institution. A formal institution such as a formal business organization or a formally organized market may be easier to reconstitute if it fails or replicate because the information embodied by the formal institution may be more explicit as compared to an informal institution. Consider for example the traditional institutions which govern planting, pest control and water distribution in Bali. No one could describe the overall system nor how the subsystems interrelated. When that system was disrupted by the control of people from Java and the Indonesian Ministry of Irrigation, rice yields fell precipitously. Yet it was hard to see how to regain the yields, either by improving the “modern” management with traditional practice nor by restoring the key elements of the traditional practice.

The bodies of information and their embodiment are found within an environment of larger systems or networks. The economic system is one portion of this surrounding field. As Arthur points out, the economy and its technology co-evolve as technological change drives and enables changes in economic organization and as economic change drives and enables technological change. However, I would suggest that the relevant surround is not only economic, but also social, political, and cultural not to mention demographic. Thus, for example, economic growth and technological improvements drive increases in life expectancy, which drive other social, political and cultural changes, all of which drive further technological and economic changes.

The differences in these bodies of information explain significantly the differences in industrial cultures and in economic productivity among regions. A key question in international development is how to move poor regions and countries toward greater productivity. This model suggests that a major part of that effort should be to change the body of technological and complementary information in the region or country involved. The model also suggests how very difficult it may be to change the body of information in a poor nation in such a way as to increase economic productivity.

I would suggest that part of the problem is finding an appropriate balance of information embodied in people versus facilities and devices, versus institutions, and the related problem of how best to balance investments in improving the stock of information embodied in each of these areas. All too often development assistance has left a project with technology which people don't know how to use properly ot maintain. In developing nations all too often we find health service providers trying to function without the supplies embodying advanced technology -- vaccines and other pharmaceuticals -- that they need. We find people trained abroad who return to their home country and find themselves without the equipment that they were taught to use in their work.

Arthur argues persuasively that the technology chosen to achieve a particular purpose is seen as a combination of other technologies to achieve subordinate purposes, as those subordinate technologies are themselves combinations of still more subordinate technologies. Technology development in a specific region must necessarily be based on the technologies already there, or must include the transfer or development of all of the new technologies required for the success of the final technological product.
Moreover, the technological information required in people, facilities and devices, and institutions must all be available embodied in the right places, as well as the complementary information. Thus the coordination of technological development appears quite complex and difficult, as well as vital for the increase in productivity which underlies economic success and all the progress that economic success implies.

Arthur believes that the body of technology grows and will continue to grow without end. This seems to be clearly too optimistic. If one considers the technology developed by the Anasazi, for example, it seems clear that some of that disappeared in the collapse of their civilization caused by environmental changes. Today’s pueblo people, who are thought to be the descendents of the people of Chaco Canyon and other Anasazi towns, have had to recapture technology of or parallel to that of their ancestors. There are many other examples of civilizations that have crashed, and it seems clear that in the crash of a civilization part of the technology on which the civilization is built is lost.

There are less extreme examples of loss of technology. Think of the failed states, and the likelihood that much of whatever modern technology was held by Somalia or Zimbabwe has been lost. Many poor countries face serious problems of brain drain and deterioration of technological infrastructure. I recall that Uganda, for example, has lost the use of several of the railroads it once had, and many of its ports on Lake Victoria.

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

This is one of several postings on The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves:

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