Nature of Technology

I was really surprised to find I never posted a review of this book. I finished it a while ago, and it really is quite fascinating. I keep thinking of it, especially whenever the question comes up of how technology evolves and changes over time. I wanted to look up my thoughts on it but alas, no posts.

I really recommend this book to any technologists out there. The subtitle of this book is “What it is and how it evolves” and W. Brian Arthur really tries to answer that question. But for me the word Nature in the title is the key, in this book. W. Brian Arthur applies somewhat of a biologists view to all of the technology around us and puts forth a thesis for how the evolution of technology works.

There are some stumbles a long the way, a lot of the book is very repetitive, and because he has a very specific thesis of how it all works he does a lot finagling of facts and ideas and examples to fit into a nice tidy package. For example the distinction between science and technology, and how scientific explanations/theories are cousins to technology but not actually technology. On the other hand, his explanation of how sometimes new technology can arise without scientists first deeply thinking about it, just by combining existing solutions is an exciting and novel idea.

His basic thesis is that technology evolves when a new novel combination becomes commonplace and stable enough to become a component in a new higher up more complex and abstracted solution. And on and on it goes. Makes sense. Once in a while an entirely new component becomes available, that is based on a new understanding of the universe and on harnessing and or exploiting new previously undiscovered phenomena. In time, as they become miniaturized and super stable, these too just become cogs in the progression.

I often think about this in terms of the web, of how each layer of abstraction still exposes all the layers underneath. jQuery is a nice framework, a great abstraction that lets you get things done quickly, but there is nothing stopping you from tweaking the underlying javascript. You can always tweak the php, or your data calls, circumvent any framework you use. The whole web is still the basic elements, css, html js. This is great for ad hoc solutions and infinite customization but in terms of super fast paced evolution, it hinders us, because we never get to the level of interchangeable components that can evolve in the way that W. Brian Arthur proposes.


“Anyone who says you can’t see a thought simply doesn’t know art.”

— W. Ann Reynolds