The essence of technology

If you ask people’s ideas about technology, you’ll get a mixed bag of answers. Ranging from outright fascination, through perfect indifference, to utter scepticism. Technology is understood to be somewhat related to progress, it seems to evolve over time, and it is tied to change in society as well. What you won’t get, though, is a clear expression of what technology is at its core.

What then is the definition of technology? The most complete and most convincing definition I came across so far is offered by W. Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. With a solid background in macro economics as well as engineering, Arthur extensively published in both fields. Affiliated with Santa Fe Institute and with Palo Alto Research Center, Arthur is one of the leading thinkers on complexity. He is thus well positioned to lay down one of the corner stones for understanding innovation. So what’s Arthur’s view of technology? He frames it elegantly:

A technology is a programming of phenomena to our purposes.

Underlying this crisp definition, Arthur identifies three fundamental principles. First, every technology is a combination of components. Second, each component of a technology is itself a technology. Third, a technology exploits some effect or natural phenomenon, usually several of them, to deliver a functionality, i.e. to fulfil a purpose. These three principles describe the nature of technology: it is the orchestration of subcomponents (i.e. other technologies) to collectively exploit a number of phenomena in a way that a defined purpose is fulfilled. Furthermore, the three principles indicate the way in which technology evolves: through new combinations of existing technologies and through harnessing of newly discovered phenomena.

Based on these considerations, Arthur offers no less than three meanings of the term “technology”. First is most basic meaning: a single technology as a tool to fulfil a purpose (say, the steam engine). Second is a plural meaning: technology as a collection of practices and components (say, biotechnology or information technology). Third is a general meaning: technology as the entirety of devices and engineering practices available to a society. These layered descriptions might seem complex, but they are necessary to cover the full spectrum of what technologies do for us.

Too abstract? Then let’s take the Great Pyramid of Giza as a concrete example, an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of limestone and granite. At first glance, this is just the work of stone masons. Just hammer and chisel. The underlying phenomenon is the transfer of momentum from the moving tool (the hammer) to the chisel in order to direct the momentum to the piece of rock that should be chipped away. Simple approach. Simple technology.

Well, not so fast. You have two essential elements: first there are the visible components of the technology, hammer and chisel. But then there is the invisible component, the knowledge how to put the tools to use. Try to use the chisel as the moving tool and your piece of rock will remain entirely unimpressed. Tools without knowledge of their use are useless. Tools by themselves are not technologies.

Take a second look. Tools wear out and need to be replaced. So you need blacksmiths as well. The smith’s hearth as a tool together with the knowledge how to exploit the effect of heat on the properties of metal.

Next: once you can shape a piece of rock, you want to move and position it. So you need rollers, ropes, pulleys, inclined planes. More tools, more phenomena, more technologies.

Keep going: once you master shaping, moving and positioning, you have everything to put one piece of limestone or granite into the shape and position you want. But how about 5.5 million tonnes? Scholars still debate the duration of the construction of this Wonder of the World, but most likely it took between 15 and 23 years(!), and tens of thousands of hands throughout that period. Think about housing, food, clothing for the workers; today we’d call that a major logistics challenge.

And there’s still more, because the entire economy of Egypt at that time needed to support the endeavour. The management and organisation of this build, embracing the entire society, presents an additional set of technologies, no less impressive the actual work in the quarries. Stone masonry, yes. But in a long-term, macro-economic context that requires the full spectrum of technologies to achieve its purpose: to create the tallest building of its time. And leave a lasting impression on the generations to follow.

So where does this get us?

Arthur’s definition of technology puts purpose in the centre. Technology provides a functionality to fulfil a purpose. This aligns well with the working definition of innovation, which is focused on implementing an unprecedented problem solution. So we could say that technology is actually the means to implement a novel problem solution. Good. But where does the novelty come from? This might just be a new combination of existing technologies. Or it could be the exploitation of a newly discovered phenomenon. And where does that then come from?

Obviously, here’s a gateway to a number of questions. How do we discover new phenomena? How do we generate solid knowledge about phenomena so that we can actually harness and exploit them? This sounds like a role for science. Secondly, we need to look deeper into the interrelation between science and technology. Or rather, technology and science? And of course, ultimately we need to look at innovation, technology, science, and knowledge as a complex puzzle. Food for further posts.

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