What is technology and how does it develop? Remarkably for something so dominant in our lives, until recently no one had much systematic idea. With a few exceptions economists treat it as a black box. There’s masses of work on technicalities, but technology’s nature, its relationship with innovation and economics and how it evolves, have largely gone by default.
Enter in 2009 W. Brian Arthur and a remarkable book called The Nature of Technology. Arthur is well known for his groundbreaking work on economics and complexity at the multidisciplinary Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and he draws on both for his project, the formulation of an overarching theory of technology and technological development.
In (very) short, Arthur concludes that technology – roughly defined as natural phenomena repurposed for human ends – is not a collection of arbitrary standalone techniques and inventions, as previously viewed. Instead, it is something much more like chemistry or biology than Newtonian physics, sharing with life its ‘connectedness, its adaptiveness, its tendency to evolve, its organic quality. Its messy vitality.’
Technology, says Arthur, ‘builds itself organically from itself’ as individual developments feed on each other and cumulate. In a process of ‘combinatorial evolution’, proliferating possible technology combinations become almost infinite. Advance is non-linear, so that abrupt discontinuities can occur as tipping points arrive in record time.
Although as qualified as anyone, Arthur doesn’t do technology prediction – he doesn’t even mention Moore’s Law, perhaps today’s most powerful innovation and technology amplifier. But it’s easy to see the process he describes in today’s digital transformation, the startling speed and unpredictability of technological evolution strikingly borne out by events.
For example, when he was writing just six years ago the idea of drones on sale on the High Street would have been strictly science fiction. Even three years ago a self-driving car was assumed to be decades away. In robotics, too, new devices suddenly sit ‘at the nexus of visual perception, spatial computation, and dexterity [reaching] the final frontier of machine automation’, as Martin Ford puts it in his (also impressive) The Rise of the Robots. Ford notes that a San Francisco startup has devised a robot that that aims to automate the production of custom-made gourmet hamburgers – not, that is, as in ‘make burger flippers more efficient’, but as in ‘obviate the need for them altogether’.
As Arthur sees it, as technologies, collections of technologies and sub-technologies interact with each other in ‘messy vitality’, they generate a teeming ‘supply’ of possible new technology combinations, all available to be used and built on by innovators. But although they emerge from their own history, the form technologies actually take is by no means inevitable, being inflected by human agency and historical small events.
One such human agency is management, as a 'purposeful system' itself also a technology in the broadest sense. Although it is rarely considered by commentators, and Arthur doesn’t go into it in depth, management is obviously a crucial influence on demand for technologies and how they are used. When writers such as Ford (himself incidentally a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur) raise worries about ‘technology and the threat of a jobless future’, to borrow the subtitle of his book, the response of techno-optimists is invariably something like – ‘Trust us. The great technological leaps of the past have always created more jobs than they have destroyed. Invest in the supply side (education, infrastructure, easing the transitions), have faith, and all will be well’.
In the light of Arthur’s theory and Ford’s practice, the rejoinder has to be, ‘What about the demand side? Look at the context: the technological combinations managers and businesses have used, and more particularly what they have chosen to use them for.’
As Ford points out, while production technologies helped raise productivity by 107 per cent between 1973 and 2013, in the letter year a typical US production worker took home 13 per cent less in real terms than 40 years before. In the decade to 2010, the US economy created no net new jobs. Inequality soared as productivity gains were monopolised by shareholders (including and especially top managers). In 2010, the US computer industry employed 166,000 fewer people than in 1975. Meanwhile the ‘sharing economy’ shreds jobs and spits them out as micro-employment, and more generally the internet economy is based on a business model of surveillance which turns consumers into products and only incidentally (and then mostly unpaid) producers.
To emphasize, none of these developments was inevitable. The same digital technology crossed with a different management technology would have produced different outcomes: it’s not hard to imagine peer-to-peer platforms devoted to medical or social ends, for example, or an internet which put individuals in charge of their own data and reversed the current relationship between consumers and companies.
All this suggests that it would be unwise to bank on historical precedent providing a reliable guide to our economic evolution from here on in (that's what discontinuity means). Arthur ends his book by noting the increasing ambivalence with which humanity views its miraculous technological creation. On one hand it is undeniably a blessing serving our lives; yet on the other there is growing unease at the way it has estranged us from nature, now endangering the future of the planet, and a dawning fear that the apprentice’s magic is outstripping that of the erstwhile sorcerer.
Seeing the manifestations of Arthur’s 'combinatorial innovation’– the internet of things, learning machines, automation, rapidly progressing Artificial Intelligence – emerging around us, all turbocharged by Moore’s Law, it seems probable that in terms of sheer processing power the race against the machine is already in course of being lost. In which case we’d better sort ourselves out as humans and decide what and for whom this awesome thing is to be used for – before it does it for itself.