How Technology Evolves
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if technology is something to love or to fear. Are computers making us smarter or dumbing us down? Are genetically modified foods a miracle or a menace?
What’s really scary is how little control we have over it. It seems to have a life of it’s own. Much like with Shelley’s Frankenstein, we’re fearful of unleashing forces that are beyond our control. Will the future be a utopia or a nightmare?
Whatever we might think or feel, technology will progress and we need to decide for ourselves how we will interact with it. Yet before we can do that, we need to understand how it evolves into being. Over the past half century, and especially recently, some very serious and useful ideas have been put forward that can help guide us.
While today we live in a highly technological age, our experience is somewhat novel. Until World War II, most people lived with comparatively little of it, even in “developed” countries. So it’s not surprising that scholars gave it very little thought until fairly recently.
The first notable attempt was made in 1954, by the philosopher Martin Heidegger in his ground breaking essay, The Question Concerning Technology. In it, he describes technology not as something we build, but as something we uncover and enframe. In other words, we are not wholly responsible for man-made wonders, nor are we entirely in control.
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, a physicist, published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions making a different, but not incompatible, claim that we advance through a series of paradigms. In Heidegger’s parlance, we start by enframing one way and eventually realize that our view is incomplete. We then move forward by enframing anew.
In Kuhn’s view, we seek to understand our world with a particular framework that seems to work for a while. Eventually, facts build up that don’t fit the model and we need a new paradigm to account for it. A paradigm shift occurs and science progresses. In effect, Kuhn added a dynamic to Heidegger’s somewhat static view.
The Geography of Tech
Another thing that has become clear is that technology advances in some places more than others. Jared Diamond started thinking about this when a local in New Guinea asked him a very simple question: Why is there so much more technology elsewhere and so little here? Diamond formed the answer by way of his Pulitzer prizewinning book, Guns Germs and Steel.
He points out that some civilizations originated in places like the fertile crescent, with plants and animals that were easily domesticated and made agriculture possible. Further, that the East-West orientation of the Eurasian landmass allowed for agricultural innovations to be spread across a wide area of similar climates.
Technology, therefore, is somewhat dependent on precursors. What you start out with will help to determine what you end up with.
Jane Jacobs gave a more modern perspective in her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argues that diversity within cities sets the stage for economic development. Richard Florida built on her work in The Rise of the Creative Class, that documented that cultural life in a city is highly correlated with technological development.
What the work of Diamond, Jacobs and Florida all have in common is that they describe technology very much like Heidegger – as an uncovering. However, they all argue, quite rightly, that the work of uncovering technological principles requires an environment conducive to creativity; including prosperity, leisure time and opportunities for a diversity of ideas to mix.
The very concept of technological evolution, of course, is highly intertwined with biological evolution. So it’s not surprising that modern commentators on the subject borrow heavily from the work of Richard Dawkins; specifically, his concepts of the Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype and the Blind Watchmaker.
The Selfish Gene: Dawkins believes that to understand how entities evolve, it’s helpful to think of them as selfish, employing different strategies in order to replicate themselves. He also argues that the same could be said of ideas and coined the term, meme, in order to describe concepts that propagate through culture.
The Extended Phenotype: Another one of Dawkins’ key concepts is that organisms’ DNA often extends far beyond the body in which it rests. For instance, beaver dams can affect the ecosystem for several miles. Technology, of course, also thrives in ecosystems. Shopping malls prosper in suburbs, which need cars, which require gas stations and so on.
The Blind Watchmaker: Dawkins also used the analogy of the “blind watchmaker” to describe how relatively simple processes could lead to structures of enormous complexity. His thought in this area is, of course, mirrored by the similar predictions of chaos theory, especially the work of Benoit Mandelbrot.
A Model for Technological Evolution
Probably the most complete vision of technological comes from W. Brian Arthur in his recent book, The Nature of Technology. Arthur, an economist by profession, perhaps not surprisingly portrays technology evolving through the interaction of supply and demand.
He describes three core principles of technology:
All technologies harness and exploit some phenomenon: As Heidegger argued, our development of technology depends on uncovering an aspect of nature. Phenomena would include things as varied as how atoms form molecules, how humans interact in a social network or how supply and demand determines price.
Technologies put ideas to work for some human purpose.
All technologies are combinations: Much like biological organisms are combinations of genes, technologies are combinations of elements and their evolution proceeds in ways that are very similar to the ones Dawkins described.
Some elements are exceedingly fecund and replicate widely throughout society (e.g. transistors). Once an idea is adopted, it is then utilized in the development of new concepts. As the number of basic technologies expands the number of permutations increases exponentially. That’s why technological advancement is always accelerating.
Components of technologies are themselves technologies: Arthur describes technology as recursive, exhibiting similar attributes and processes at both the component and product level.
This last principle is deceptively important. It explains why, as Clayton Christensen argues, that industries alternate between modular and integrated organization. Recursiveness also accounts for why, as technology progresses, markets increasingly resemble biological ecosystems, with elements being mixed and matched across domains.
Those three principles account for the supply of technology. As we uncover more phenomena, we build more technologies around them, these combine at both the component and the product level to create still more products, processes and organizations.
What Does Technology Want?
So is technology more worthy of our admiration or our fear? Kevin Kelly, in his book What Technology Wants, argues for both. He describes a neverending chain of solutions to problems that create still newer problems.
Internal combustion engines cause pollution, which produces “green” technologies. Those in turn will create their own problems that we will also have to solve. Every advancement creates new challenges and nostalgia for a simpler time and innocence lost.
And that’s what drives demand for technology and why, on balance, it’s a good thing – it solves our problems. As long as we have a needs unmet, progress will go on, warts and all. Technologies wants are born out of our own desires.
Technological Evolution is Cultural Evolution
However, technology’s desires are not dictates.
We do get to choose our relationship with the things in our lives. We can opt for convenience or immersive experience, a spartan existence or a luxurious lifestyle. While uncovering will continue and paradigms will shift, our choices remain our own and, as technology marches forward, our power to choose does as well.
Perhaps what we fear most about technology is ourselves. For better or worse, technology’s evolution and our own are inseparable.