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on 15 February 2010
W Brian Arthur's book on technology is a great companion to "the origins of wealth". It takes the broader exploration of complexity economics and focuses it down to a theory of technology evolution. The logic builds well, and I spent the first part of the book agreeing but being underwhelmed, it is when he draws the threads together that you see that what seems to be a very theoretical book has significant pragmatic implications. The writing is clear, the logic strong and the flow impecable
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on 7 December 2009
W. Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology is an important book for technologists, entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, in fact anyone in the business of creating, marketing or selling innovative technology.

This book is an ontology of the process of technological innovation and is a major contribution to the understanding of the evolution of technology and its influence on our economy and civilization. nature of technology

I write this review as a layman, from my perspective of the observer of technological change over 40 years in the computer industry, initially in engineering, then sales and marketing and for the past 5 years focused on solving sales and marketing performance problems in innovative technology companies.

There is a clue in the title as to the main arguments in the book and few others in the World have the background to conceive, advance and prove such a powerful argument in just 216 pages. Brian Arthur is an engineer, mathematician, system theorist, economist and more recently a diligent scholar of Darwinian evolution.

Arthur coins a new phrase to describe the advances in technology as "combinatorial evolution"; whereas in nature evolution is biological and subject to the Darwinian laws of natural selection, technology evolves as a result of combinations of existing technologies and methods to create new innovations, the critical ingredient in the process is human knowledge and ingenuity.

Once a technology is created, it is then subject to Darwinian evolution, whereby the innovation advances through refinement of its component systems and further innovation and addition, the weaker ideas discarded to become museum artifacts and the process continually advancing.

Arthur examines the development path that produced the steam engine, the jet engine, the laser printer, the development of radar, the cyclotron, DNA and many other innovations including the computer to create a logical and balanced argument that is self evident, yet until this book, was untold. He also cites the great thinkers on the subject of technology including Joseph Schumpeter, Martin Heidegger, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and Thomas Khun.

Written in a clear, logical and carefully constructed prose, Arthur reminds us that our economy is the sum and manifestation of our technology and that it is becoming generative with the accelerating rate of technological change. "It's focus is shifting from optimizing fixed operations into creating new combinations, new configurable offerings." For high-technology entrepreneurs in startups, he captures the problems of both the innovator and the investor;

* he doesn't know if the new technology will work
* nor how well it will be received,
* who the competitors will be
* what government regulations will apply

"The environment around the launching of a new combinatorial business is not merely uncertain: particular aspects are unknown"

Finally he suggests that "in the generative economy, management derives its competitive advantage not from its stock of resources and its ability to transform these into finished goods, but from its ability to translate its stock of deep expertise into ever new strategic combinations."

Stimulating, thought-provoking and highly recommended!
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on 8 July 2010
This books sets out to describe how technologies evolve. Arthur uses (existing) words to describe the process. It is a little like reading philosophy - he is defining these words to have these specific meanings. He claims that he is describing general principles but all he provides are (a limited range of) illustrations. The reader is left to assess the claim for yourself. I have a good knowledge of the history of the computer and the concepts he describes work for that example to my knowledge. Arthur agrees that it is hard to pin down a particular technology: they change a great deal over time and keep being developed. It is hard to be precise about a technology at one point in time - even harder over any prolonged period of time.
I was frustrated by the references to the (very variable) amount of time technologies take to develop and to be taken up by societies. To me this is a fascinating topic that deserves more space than Arthur gives it. The variables that influence how quickly a technology are taken up are barely touched upon by Arthur.
I found the last chapter the least satisfactory and I am still wondering what Arthur was trying to say with it.
I found "The Box" a more satisfying read. It does locate a technology in its broad social context and show how many (apparently unrelated) factors influenced the development of the technology and its take-up by shippers and ports.
I have been reflecting if I will remember and use Arthur's concepts when thinking about technologies in the future. On balance, I think not. The book is a brave attempt to bring a more systematic approach to thinking about technology - but I don't think it succeeds.
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on 30 July 2016
I was expecting a book by Brian Arthur to contain more imaginative insights than are contained here. Arthur has produced some excellent working papers and is an excellent scientist. But I found very few stimulating ideas in this book.
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on 24 April 2013
Arthur's argument, that technology begets further technology, and that we are living in a moment where such is the power and scope of technologies that we should be prepared for exponential development is a bit too rosy for my taste. Whilst not blind to the faults of technology, and often very perceptive about its limitations, he places too much faith in how the engineering process meets the science with the result of human happiness. Inadvertently, this throws up some of the problems of technology without intending to do so: arbitrary implementation of technology unsuited to the kind of problem solving he thinks engineers are so good at, the means by which bad technology distorts the direction of scientific effort to create worse technology, or the impact of unplanned technological solutions on the lives of humans. All this is framed in a definition of technology that seems unacceptably broad, and fails to distinguish between conceptual worlds and practical function. His three main principles of technological recursion, combination and exploitation foreshadow the closer relationship between business and technology than any kind of underlying science. This turns into an argument that implies some technological triumphalism: technology apparently makes us what we are (in the conceptual sense that, by Arthur's definition, every complex set of ideas is a technology), and yet we see technologies of the practical kind deployed in many ways that reflect a creativity not possessed by the engineers that generated them.

At his best, Arthur is well informed about engineering process, and one can only marvel at the breadth of his frame of reference. This is a serious book for anyone interested in technology and how it develops, even if I don't agree with its sanguine conclusions.
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on 7 July 2010
Brian Arthur's treatise is somewhat ponderous in its beginning (and in truth, throughout) but all the same is most encouraging in its epistemological disposition - assuming as it does the recursivity of society and technology, rather than toting the (conventional) view that one is strictly a product of the other. This points you towards a path-dependent model for not just technology, but society and indeed knowledge itself.

But for some, this is dangerous stuff. It leads in turn to uncomfortable conclusions (at least for the neo-enlightenment brigade) which open the door to all that crazy post-modern stuff.

Because he doesn't have to, Arthur doesn't go there, but he does cast a kindly glance at Thomas Kuhn. (I like people who cast kindly glances at Thomas Kuhn: these days they're few and far between).

Arthur doesn't have to go there (at first) because technology, as implemented, is almost by definition infra-paradigmatic: if "science" is its philosophical principle, technology is its practical implementation - very much the sort of thing Nancy Cartwright would call a "nomological machine": a construction designed to give a dependable result in a constrained set of circumstances, where the machine not only prescribes the parameters for a "successful" result, but constrains the environment and operating circumstances in which outcomes are generated to ensure the result is within those parameters, and then, reliably, forces that outcome. (A technology that is unable to force an outcome within its own parameters for a successful result is simply a machine that doesn't work).

But this leaves a gap. If technology is merely the practical implementation of "normal science", it has a hard time explaining innovation. As Arthur puts it:

"Combination [of existing technologies] cannot be the only mechanism behind technology's evolution. If it were, modern technologies such as radar or magnetic resource imaging ... would be created out of bow-drills and pottery firing techniques, or whatever else we deem to have existed at the start of technological time."

The problem, which Arthur specifically sets out to address, is how to account for the "onward" development of technology. Arthur is clear that it is path-dependent ("had we uncovered phenomena over historical times in a different sequence, we would have developed different technologies") but even this insight, I think, risks undercooking the importance of the narrative conversation: it is not just that combinations of technologies through time let us further uncover existing theories and give us better and more powerful and enabling answers to our original questions; they prompt completely new questions: they afford new ways of looking at the world. New ways of looking generate new opportunities, and new problems.

This is a significant point.

For example: prior to the digital age, categorisation of information was a difficult and inherently limited (and, actually, biased) thing: the physical nature of information storage (books) dictated a single taxonomy and a single hierarchy, and required commitment to a single filing taxonomy (without owning more than one copy of a book, you can't file it in two places). Digitisation changed that forever: the Dewey Decimal system - brilliant in its design though it undoubtedly was - solves a problem we no longer have, but at the cost of forcing our hand in a way we no longer need. Digital technology has enabled us to entirely re-evaluate what information really is.

As he goes on, Arthur explicitly keeps in mind two "side issues" that constantly recur in writings about technology: the analogy to Darwin's program of evolution, on one hand, and the analogy to Kuhn's theories of scientific revolution on the other. But these are, to my mind, different articulations of the same idea: that "questions" and "answers" (whether you characterise these as "environmental features" and "biological adaptations which evolve to deal with them", or "observational conundrums" and "scientific theories which purport to explain them") are, to a large extent, interdependent: something is only a conundrum if it appears to contradict the prevailing group of theories. What both Darwin and Kuhn suggest is that "linear progress" - insofar as it implies a predetermined goal to which an evolutionary algorithm is progressing - is a misconceived idea. Evolutionary development is better characterised as a move *away* from the status quo, rather than a move *toward* anything (in hindsight, both will seem the same; to confuse them is a fundamental error).

Yet, and while Arthur clearly recognises this, he does continue to frame his explanatory theory in terms of "forward progress", as if that is the "conundrum" to be solved. The thing is, even our traditional conception of it has this the wrong way round: "the invention of the jet engine" wasn't what was going on; it was "the invention of a way to fly in thinner air". The jet engine was the first solution arrived at that met that purpose (as, in a totally different context, Richard Susskind elegantly points out, when you shop for a Black & Decker, it isn't a drill you want; it's a hole). Technology (and science, and biology) isn't an end, it's a means. The more means you have, the more ends are available to you.

I had therefore wondered whether Arthur had missed a trick in his account of technology - the fact that any novel solution to an old problem creates *new questions* that we did not think - or need - to ask previously. But as his book closes and he views technology through the prism of the economy (on his theory the two are independent; the former is not merely the handmaiden of the latter), he nails this, too:

"The coming of novel technologies does not just disrupt the status quo by finding new combinations that are better versions of the goods and methods we use. It sets up a train of technological accommodations and of new problems, and in doing so it creates new opportunity niches that call forth fresh combinations which in turn introduce further technologies - and further problems."

The implications of this are striking. They completely undermine the idea of technology as a "forwardly moving" phenomenon. It recalibrates to our changing needs and perceptions, just as we recalibrate to the changing perspectives and vistas it affords us. That is a million miles away from Ray Kurzweil's carefully plotted (and in this reviewer's opinion, absurd) logarithmic charts of technological progress that will see machines - and, on Kurzweil's account, eventually the cosmos itself - "wake up".

Even if there were no other reasons (and there are many), one reason for favouring Arthur's less ambitious (but actually more radical) view is its humanity. Arthur closes the book with a neat bit of lit crit: the forces of good and evil in Star Wars, he observes, can be differentiated by their relationship with technology: the Empire's clinical, cold, efficient, androidal heartlessness - against the temperamental, jury rigged, cantankerous and fallible technology of the rebels: in one case technology is our weapon: it relies on us, on our skill, on our judgment and our humanity: we are the necessary homunculus; in the other the humans are, more or less, the "necessary evil" - the impediment to the technology achieving its ends.

Recognising that the special sauce in technology is, for the time being at least, the bit supplied by the meatware, is a comforting thought.

Olly Buxton
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on 22 July 2015
This is an interesting topic, but I found the book to be rather thin and repetitive. The basic points were covered in a few pages, and the remainder of the book was dull.
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on 9 August 2015
I'm still part way through. Which tells its own story. I am intending to return to it when I need a break from Henry VIII and the Tudor Court.
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on 15 November 2014
a present
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