Digging into the Roots of Technology’s Evolution

Google ‘technology’ and you will be treated to nearly 2.5 billion hits -- more than 13 times the number of results notched by ‘Taylor Swift.’

Technology’s omnipresence causes many to take it for granted. But deeply questioning technology is essential for understanding what it is, the risks and benefits, and how it can improve the lives of the greatest number of people.

Ever since the Greeks applied the word techne (translated as ‘craft’ or ‘art’), philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger mulled over the essence of technology and what it means for the human condition. But as techne has grown in complexity it has become increasingly difficult to get at its roots – particularly in the digital era.

W. Brian Arthur's “Nature of Technology” does a great job defining what he refers to as “the collective of technology” and offers an analysis for how it evolves. As an influential economist and technologist who spent years in Silicon Valley, he leans on Darwin’s evolutionary thinking to assemble his scaffolding:

The collective is nothing less than “all the processes, devices, components, modules, organizational forms, methods, and algorithms in use and ever used.”

Technology is similar to organisms in that it evolves Darwinian-like through “a process of self-creation: new elements (technologies) are constructed from ones that already exist, and these offer themselves as possible building-block elements for the construction of still further elements.”

"…technology creates itself out of itself. It builds itself piece by piece from the collective of existing technologies.”

Since radical innovation cannot be explained by this model of variation and selection, Arthur argues that novel technologies arise by combination of existing technologies.

Arthur elaborates on this in an interview:

“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.”

Arthur in his book describes the human dilemma of being caught between two huge and unconscious forces: “Our deepest hopes as humans lies in technology but our deepest trust lies in nature.” And as we move from using nature to intervening directly with nature (i.e. genetic engineering, AI, biomedical implants) the two forces will exert further strains on us.

While we may never resolve questions about what technology is or fully understand or relationship to it, technologies will keep advancing. From Nicola Tesla’s electrical inventions to today’s vast data networks, humans achieve amazing things that continuously drive change for the better, more often than not.

In thinking about technology in relationship to markets, possibly the best thought comes from the physicist Richard Feynman, who served on the NASA commission investigating the Challenger disaster of 1986. Feynman wrote an account at the time of the cultural situation as he saw it, with the fatal division of the NASA administration into two non-communicating cultures – engineers and managers.

Feynman ends the account as follows: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Always a good rule for investors to keep in mind.

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