An Interview with W. Brian Arthur
Technology so pervades our culture that it's sobering to consider how poorly we understand it. How do new tools and techniques arise? What principles guide their evolution? And how does their existence inform the larger economy?
In The Nature of Technology (Free Press, $27), economist W. Brian Arthur sets out to establish a coherent theory describing fundamentally what technology is, how it evolves, and how it spurs innovation and industry. Technology, he finds, "builds itself organically from itself" in a process that resembles chemistry and in some ways even recalls life itself.
Currently a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, Arthur taught economics at Stanford for 13 years. His work has won the Schumpeter Prize in economics and the Lagrange Prize in complexity science. American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross spoke with him in August 2009.
What inspired you to explore this subject?
I'm known mainly as an economist, but my first degree was in engineering, and my interest has always been in high tech. I was well aware that the economy really grows out of its technologies, and that if we want to understand where the economy comes from, we'd better understand where technology comes from. So I was curious: Where does technology come from? Where does invention come from? What really is innovation? And when I started to dig deeper, I discovered there weren't really good answers to these questions.
There are plenty of studies on the adoption and diffusion of technology, and on how individual technologies got started, like the Internet or the jet engine. But I couldn’t find anything you could describe as a coherent framework for thinking about technology, any theory of technology. Also I couldn’t find any plausible theory of evolution for technology, though I suspected one was possible.
Why should we be interested in technology as a subject to explore?
Well, if you think about it, our lives—our sense of well-being, our health and longevity, our jobs—arise from how we solve our human problems. They arise from technology. So I wanted to draw attention to this thing that forms our lives, and to ask some hard questions about it. We've looked a lot at science; but we haven't looked much at technology, and it deserves a really good, hard look.
It's hard even to define what technology is. How do you conceive it?
I discovered there was a great confusion about what "technology" meant. I wound up realizing that three different definitions were simultaneously needed. One is that individual technologies are just means to purposes, things like MRI machines or oil refining. Then there are bodies of technology, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and electronics. And then there's technology as a whole, where we say a culture possesses a certain collective we can call its technology. I began to realize that each one of those moves forward in time in a different way. The means to purposes are like individual species, the bodies of technology are like local ecosystems, and the whole collective is like the biosphere.
I think a lot of other researchers have gotten into trouble because they didn't stop to make those distinctions. There's a big difference between radio engineering and a radio receiver. Both are "technologies," but they are not the same types of thing at all.
Technologies evolve, but how far does the analogy go with Darwin's ideas? Does it hold up pretty well, or have you had to adapt it?
Attempts to create a theory of evolution for technology have failed because they have tried to import Darwin's mechanism of the gradual accumulation of changes through variation and selection. That works pretty well once a technology exists—the helicopter, say, or the steam engine. It exists in many variants, the better ones are selected, and progress happens. That’s what Darwin would have called descent with modification, and that does apply in technology.
But the difficult part comes in the question that Darwin himself asked for biology: How do new species originate? The counterpart question is "How do radically new technologies originate, such as jet engines or laser printers?" It's pretty clear that a different mechanism is at work, and I came upon the idea—it's by no means totally new—that these radically new technologies are created by putting together combinations of what already exists. That doesn't mean you throw technologies up into the air and randomly watch what combines. The human mind is extraordinarily important, and human beings are essential to how new technologies originate. Still, when someone comes up with an invention, it turns out to have been put together from existing components.
A GPS system is a combination of computer processors, satellites, atomic clocks, radio transmitters and receivers. Whoever invented that did not say, "I am going to combine existing technologies"; they're basically saying, "What is it going to take to solve a problem here—the one of finding a point's location on the earth?" And that combination resulted. So technology evolves by combination, and once the technology's in place, then the Darwinian mechanisms of variation and selection set in.
We tend to think of inventors as inspired geniuses who work largely alone and then bring forth their creations fully formed. How accurate is that conception?
I don't believe that creating novel technologies is an act of genius. There's nothing special about invention—it's really problem solving, and we do that routinely in standard life. If I work in San Francisco and live in Palo Alto and my car's in the shop, I've a problem. How do I get to work? I could take the train, but then I'd have to solve the sub-problem of getting to the railroad station and getting a taxi at the other end. Or perhaps a friend could pick me up, but I'd have to get up earlier. What I'm doing is working from a toolkit of actions I could take.
Engineers do exactly the same thing. They face a difficult problem and run through possible ways they can solve it. They may ultimately say, "If I put this together with that and that with this, I think I could achieve that purpose." What counts in innovation and invention is having a huge quiver of technologies or methods at your disposal and being able to use them. The reason invention looks like genius is that most technical areas are unfamiliar to laypeople, so the solution looks arcane—a work of genius.
It sounds as though, on a large scale, technological progress resembles geological layers being put down—each one builds on what's come before.
That's right. What happens is that big bodies of technology build around discoveries of phenomena: Electronics builds around phenomena to do with electron movement. What happens is that when a new body of technology comes along, parts of the economy start to use it, and old tasks in the economy start to pick up this new body of technology and use it for their own purposes. So a new layer of technology lays itself down on what went before, as the old purposes start to be carried out by the new body of technology.
How deterministic is this? If we rewound history and started over again, would we get a similar outcome?
No! I would hate to think the world was deterministic. I've been saying that novel technologies are built out of existing technologies, and they're also built out of natural phenomena that are understood and uncovered by existing technologies. If the timing in either of those lines of descent were slightly different, then everything would be different. If different phenomena had been discovered in a different sequence, or if technologies had been developed in a different sequence, our world would have been different, and we would have come up with different ways of doing things.
You can see this if you look at Japan in 1650, where there hadn't been much Western influence yet, and Prussia in the same year. They had to solve many of the same problems, but their methods were somewhat different. It's this way in history. If small events had been different, we would have wound up with different technologies.
In our own time, technological change is exploding and seems to be continually accelerating. Where do you think that's headed? It would seem it can't accelerate forever.
I don't know if it can accelerate forever, but I don't see an end to this explosion. A sociologist named William Fielding Ogburn in 1922 pointed out that the more technologies we have to invent with, the more inventions there will be. That's exactly what I'm saying—we have more pieces and parts, more Lego blocks, to make things out of, far, far more than we had a century ago. And the more elements you have to combine, the more combinations you can make. And I don't see any halt to human desires.
I'm also not sure we have discovered all the possible phenomena that we can. In 1860 you could have said, "Well, we know about all these chemical phenomena, we know quite a bit about electricity," and then in 1886 Hertz shows the existence of radio waves. So I'm not sure we're going to exhaust physical phenomena anytime soon, and that gives us new fields of phenomena to harness and potentially to use.
I was interested in your idea that technology itself qualifies as a living thing in many ways.
Well, I wanted to put an argument out there that technology is alive and let people debate that. Technology passes all the tests for being a living organism—it reproduces itself, it takes in energy and so on. But so far it requires the agency of human beings. One could say, "How could something be living if it requires other organisms for its life?" But human beings are living entities, and we require other organisms ourselves to maintain life.
Has writing the book changed your perspective on your own daily life? Do you view technology differently now?
Yes, I do, because it became clear to me that every technology is based upon what I call the orchestration of phenomena, natural effects working together. If you look at any new technology as a whole symphony orchestra of working phenomena, it becomes a huge wonder. I have a sense of wonder far, far greater than I had before. As human beings, we're using these things unthinkingly every day—it's like having magic carpets at our disposal, and we have no idea how they fly.
Let me add one last thing. I'm an enthusiast about technology, but I am also suspicious of it and what it's doing to us. It intrudes in our lives, it causes us problems such as climate change, and it's taken away a lot of our deep connection with nature. But at the same time it's an incredible wonder.