Top critical review
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An interesting and frustrating book
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.