Friday, April 1, 2011


This article appears in slightly different form in the March/April 2011 issue of IEEE Micro © 2011 IEEE.

This time I look at two books that delve deeply into technology and our relationship to it. One, by Brian Arthur, is concerned with how technology works and how it interacts with economics. The other, by Kevin Kelly, tells a poetic, almost mythic story of where technology came from and where it's headed. Their stories overlap and reinforce one another. I highly recommend both of them.
The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves by W. Brian Arthur (Free Press, New York, 2009, 256pp, ISBN 978-1-4165-4405-0, $27.00)

Brian Arthur is an influential theorist of economics and complexity theory. His work has influenced many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He is a member of the research faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and a visiting researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). This book grew out of lecture series Arthur gave in 1998 and 2000.

Arthur sets out to investigate, from an economist's point of view, what technology is and how it evolves. He observes that we use the word "technology" with three distinct meanings:
  • A means to fulfill a human purpose (for example, an iPhone or a legal system).
  • An assemblage of practices and components (for example, the semiconductor industry).
  • The entire body of devices and practices (what Kevin Kelly calls the technium).
For the first of these, Arthur uses the term purposed systems, reserving the term technology for systems (for example, the iPhone) that capture and exploit physical phenomena. A legal system shares many of the characteristics of a technology, but the phenomena it exploits are social and behavioral.

Arthur uses the term domain for an assemblage of practices and components. Domains are toolboxes. They form a language of rules and practices that define the possible technologies that can develop within that domain. Domain change is a major force in technological advance. For example, in the 1970s, aircraft designers moved from the mechanical and hydraulic domains to the electronics domain for controlling wing and stabilizer surfaces. Domains can have vast supporting structures, so a complete domain change can take decades and cause economic dislocation.

Arthur calls on the principles of combination, recursion, and phenomena to find a common structure for all technologies. A technology exploits one or more natural phenomena. The technology's internal structure is a main assembly that carries out its base function and a set of subassemblies that support the function. Each subassembly is a technology with the same overall structure. It isn't turtles all the way down -- the recursion is finite -- but most technologies have many levels.

This modularity makes it easy to see one of the main ways technologies advance and develop. Substituting a new subassembly for an old one can solve a problem or bring an improvement: lower cost, better performance, more functionality, suitability for more environments, and so on. For example, in the 1920s, aircraft designers wanted to achieve greater speed by flying higher, but they needed to invent the turbojet engine to make that possible. They were able to replace the engine subassembly while leaving many other subassemblies intact, at least at first.

This is a high level view, but Arthur gives a detailed picture of how standard engineering works to exploit and reinforce this model. In so doing he shows that the evolution of technologies does not follow a Darwinian model. Swapping one subassembly for another rarely happens in the biological domain. Darwin relies on long sequences of small steps and survival of the fittest.

In engineering, many factors besides fitness determine choices. For example, early nuclear reactors used light water for both the coolant and the moderator. This was not necessarily the best approach. The US Atomic Energy Commission made the decision for reasons largely irrelevant to fitness, but once it had a foothold, this design became the standard.

Arthur examines the mechanisms of technological revolutions. A new domain arises from an existing one. Perhaps an investment mania and a crash follow, but the new domain grows well beyond pre-crash levels. The economy follows as existing structures adapt and re-architect themselves over the course of decades. Change is expensive, and often the necessary changes are not obvious. The switch from steam-powered factories to electric ones required a total redesign, but factory designers did not grasp the needs and possibilities of the new technology.

The leading edge tends to be concentrated in one region. Silicon Valley is a prime example, but there are many others. A virtuous cycle emphasizes the region's initial advantage. Practitioners are drawn there. Informal networking spreads undocumented knowledge and provides unofficial channels for solving problems. This mechanism explains why Akron, Ohio, was able to turn itself into Polymer Valley when the tire industry moved away.

Arthur has advice for politicians and entrepreneurs who are concerned about competitiveness: build basic science without a stated purpose of commercial use. Encourage and remove obstacles from the small startups that naturally develop. Creating a leading edge region requires gardening, not central planning. Water it, weed it, and let it grow.

Arthur's model of the ongoing evolution of technology is as follows. A long history of technology has left us with an active set of technological components. A new technology enters the active set and becomes available to replace subassemblies of existing technologies and may enable additional technologies. The economy adjusts. The new technology creates new problems and opportunities. A domain may grow up around it. The process repeats many times, often in parallel. Like a coral reef, technology is a living thing. It has needs and a kind of autonomy, but so far it still requires human intermediaries.

Like many other writers, Arthur sees our relationship with technology as ambivalent. Our deepest hope lies in technology, but our deepest trust is in nature. We need challenge, meaning, purpose, and alignment with nature. Technology can help us meet those needs or thwart us by subjugating us to its purposes. Like good and evil, these aspects of technology are part of our world, and we must constantly engage them. We should not accept technology that deadens us, and we should not confuse what's possible with what's desirable.

Brian Arthur has produced a thoughtful and coherent account of how technology evolves. He has deliberately done so using plain language to make it available to a large audience. If technology plays a significant role in your livelihood, you should read this book.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (Viking, New York, 2010, 416pp, ISBN 978-0-670-02215-1, $27.95)

Kevin Kelly was editor-in-chief and publisher of Whole Earth Review. He had roles in launching The WELL and the Hacker's Conference. He later became Wired 's first executive editor. He is on the board of the Long Now Foundation. He co-hosts a monthly seminar series with Stewart Brand.

Kelly spent his early years as a freelance photographer, wandering around Asia with very little technology: clothing, a sleeping bag, a pen knife, and his cameras. After a religious experience in 1979 (which he described on NPR's This American Life in 1997), he resolved to act as if he had only six months to live. He gave away his money anonymously and bicycled 5000 miles around the USA to visit his relatives. Along the way he encountered the Amish, and admired their contentment.

When the six months passed and he found himself still alive, he began his new life with a unique perspective. He discovered online communities and came to see a benefit of technology that strongly influences a thesis he presents in this book, namely, that technology increases opportunities for people to realize their potential. What would Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock have been if they had lived before the piano, cheap oil paints, or film?

Kelly admires the Amish relationship to technology. An Amish community is selective about what it embraces. They try new technologies, then use known criteria to arrive at a communal evaluation and decision. Kelly embraces a similar approach in his own life. He strives to increase his personal contentment by minimizing the technology in his life. At the same time he wishes to maximize the contentment of others. This requires embracing and helping technology's growth.

To understand how he should relate to technology, Kelly looked at it from many angles, finally arriving at a grand view of an epic battle between entropy and exotropy (anti-entropy). From the undifferentiated starting point of the big bang, exotropy rapidly outpaced entropy in a continuing act of self-creation and self-organization that led to galaxies, planets, life, minds, language, and beyond. Exotropy pushes toward ever more abstract and immaterial expressions. Brains and language are important steps along the path.

At our current stage, billions of years into the process, humans have significant influence on the direction of technology's evolution, but Kelly does not see that as as an eternal truth. He sees the body of technology, which he calls the technium, as exhibiting many characteristics of an autonomous living thing. The book's title reflects this point of view. But Kelly chooses a surprising spokesman to articulate it.

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, sees technology as increasingly restricting freedom because it strengthens society and imposes its own needs as well. Kaczynski supports an ideal of nearly complete freedom, only admitting a few rules necessary to make basic human interactions possible. Unfortunately, these rules allow mailing bombs to people you disapprove of.

Kelly cites the Unabomber Manifesto because it is an extreme representative of the opposite of what Kelly believes. When it comes to the same conclusions Kelly does about aspects of the technium, it strengthens Kelly's confidence in those conclusions. Kelly and Kaczynski both believe that the technium pursues its own needs with a kind of autonomy. Both also believe that the technium creates serious problems.

Kaczynski believes that the technium does more harm than good, and that compounding that differential over time will lead to its destruction. Because humans are increasingly dependent on complex technologies that they no longer understand, they will perish too.

Kelly believes that the technium does more good than harm. Compounding that differential over time leads to greater happiness and opportunity for humanity and to ever better ways for things to improve. Each of these men is expressing a judgment about the balance between the good and the harm that the technium does. Kelly adduces many examples to support his conclusion. For example, the long term trends toward greater longevity, health, and wealth suggest that the compounding factors are positive.

If you accept that the technium has a sort of autonomy, then it makes sense to ask what it wants. Kelly believes that technology wants what life wants. The summary, which Kelly develops with many examples and much discussion, is that technology wants increasing efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. These terms define the trajectory and mechanisms that the technium has followed from the big bang to today and seems likely to follow into the future. Kelly says, "a single thread of self-generation ties the cosmos, the bios, and the technos into one creation."

At this point you might feel that Kelly has devised a creation story for an age that feels uncomfortable with the traditional ones. Kelly is quick to say that the technium is too small to be God. But he speculates that we may see a new Axial Age spurred by technology. He says,
I find it hard to believe that we could manufacture robots that actually worked and not have them disturb our ideas of religion and God. Someday we will make other minds, and they will surprise us. They will think of things we never could have imagined, and if we give these minds their full embodiment, they will call themselves children of God, and what will we say? When we alter the genetics in our veins, will this not reroute our sense of a soul? Can we cross over into the quantum realm, where one bit of matter can be in two places at once, and not believe in angels?
In this new Axial Age, Kelly believes, we may seek spiritual refuge not just in ancient redwood groves, but also in ancient networks.

This review might not convey the excitement I felt while reading Kelly's book. The book is too dense to summarize easily here. The language is poetic, but hard to paraphrase, and many of the most interesting points are hard to lift from their complex contexts. I spent months digesting this book, and I enjoyed doing so. I hope you'll do the same.