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Discussion - The Nature of Technology

In his book "The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves" (at Amazon; at Google), W. Brian Arthur provides a comprehensive theory of technology, its nature, its evolution, its relationship to the economy, and some of its social, philosophical and spiritual aspects. The theory he develops helps us better understand the profound impact of technology in our lives.

"More than anything else technology creates our world.  It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being."
--- W. Brian Arthur

In this discussion we will examine Arthur's book, his theory of technology, and its implications. We will compare and contrast Arthur's thesis with Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology and Buckminster Fuller's vision of technology.

You may want to look at related issues discussed in my essay Society and our Technology Built World which I wrote after last year's discussion on Engineering Failures & Society.

In addition to Arthur's book, there is a good interview with W. Brian Arthur on Groks Science Show that covers the main points of his theory of technology (32 minute podcast).

Topics to be discussed include:

  • Arthur's three definitions of Technology:  "technology is a means to fulfill a human purpose", "technology as an assemblage of practices and components", and "technology as the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture".
  • The three principles of technology: combination, modularity (recursion), and phenomena (or effects)
  • The principle or essence of a technology (the main idea about how it works and what it does):  how it harnesses phenomena and puts it to use to serve a human purpose
  • The relationship between science and technology
  • The three broad kinds of technology: device technologies, method technologies, and non-physical technology (which can be further subdivided into logical, mathematical, behavioral, and organizational technologies)
  • Purposed systems:  non-physical technology (e.g., logical or mathematical technology such as algorithms, technology built on the principles of human behavior such as nudges, organizational technology such as the metabolism of war machines, the legal system, or institutional technologies)
  • Arthur's metaphor of language/grammar and domains (or bodies) of technology
  • The relationships of Engineering and Design with technology
  • How is our cultural heritage and environment, what Arthur calls "the pyramid of causality", critical to the origination of technology?
  • The four mechanisms of innovation or technological development: standard engineering, invention, structural deepening, and redomaining.
  • Does this theory of invention suggest changes needed in patent law?
  • How does technology evolve?  Arthur proposes six mechanisms of technology evolution (which are sadly hard to summarize).  Is the list complete?  Are they all factors?  Do they add up to a theory of technology evolution?
  • Is Arthur's definition of economics as "the set of arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies its needs" adequate?  Does the economy encompass technology or does technology encompass the economy in Arthur's theory? What is the relationship between technology and the economy?
  • Arthur's Theory of Technology:  is it valid?  is it useful?  What are its strengths and weaknesses?  How does it compare with Darwin's theory of biological evolution?
  • What are the social implications of technology?  Why does technology make us uncomfortable?  Why do we feel that nature and technology are in tension if not opposition?  Why do we fear that technology is out of our control?  How do we control technology?  How can we distinguish between technology that nourishes and sustains us versus technology that enslaves us?
  • What are the philosophical and spiritual implications of technology?
  • If technology embraces device and method tools, science, purposed systems, economics, etc, is it then the most important element of our lives?  Is technology the essence of the human spirit?

We are seeking volunteers to lead future Ben Franklin Thinking Society meetups.  If you have a topic of interest, please send an e-mail to [masked] outlining your subject.

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  • CJ F.

    The discussion of W. Brian Arthur's "Theory of Technology" will continue on Sun 21 Dec: The Evolution of Technology: RSVP here:

    December 8, 2014

  • CJ F.

    Jean, sorry you couldn't make it. The book, in my opinion, is excellent and I highly recommend it. During the discussion people were critical of Arthur's broad scope for technology and the economy. But I really saw wisdom in Arthur's approach. When I have time, I plan to write a blog essay about the book. If I do, I will post a link in the comments here. If you read the book, feel free to leave your impressions here. I'd like to continue the conversation.

    July 13, 2012

  • Gerry E.

    CJ did a great job summarizing the ideas about the evolution of technology in Brian Arthur's book and of stimulating discussion among us.

    Yet if you weren't satiated with that at the Meetup, I see that the Chemical Heritage Foundation (2nd & Chestnut Sts) will host next Wednesday evening Jon Gertner, another author of a book about technology: "The Idea Factory" exploring the history of Bell Labs.

    July 11, 2012

  • Will B.

    CJ. presented the author's argument clearly and analytically. This enabled the group to discuss it and,for the most part, stay on point. I feel I learned about an alternative "umbrella theory" of human behavior. I can't agree with many of the author's conclusions but they certainly sparked additional questions on which I will follow up. The group process was friendly, respectful and fun.I hope to make more meetings.

    July 9, 2012

  • Martin C.

    Discussion leader was exceptionally well prepared. He showed great skill in knowing when to move the discussion forward beyond digressions. There were a lot of interesting points that brought up and everyone participated.

    July 9, 2012

  • CJ F.

    I was asked to post a link to the New York Public Library discussion between Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly. It is here:

    Steven Johnson's TED Talk on "Where Good Ideas Come From" is very good:

    July 8, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Again I picked a topic wherein I failed to boil it down to a small presentation and key discussion questions (that is always my goal!). I will do better for at least my next three topics which are less comprehensive in scope. But technology is a topic that, I think, is so important that it was worth going into it in depth. I really valued everyone's input. It is now clear to me that the breadth of Arthur's thesis is "open to question". That may be the most controversial part of his theory of technology. I hope I can find time to write a review of Arthur's book that invites people to consider his broader vision of technology.

    Thanks for coming and for sharing all your thoughts!

    July 8, 2012

  • CJ F.

    Gerry, I look forward to meeting you tomorrow. I plan to make time to discuss patents and invention in the context of Arthur's theory. It is an important subject.

    July 7, 2012

  • Gerry E.

    I am delighted that I made it thru the wait list and emerged into the inner sanctum. As a patent attorney, my profession has been to serve as a midwife to new technologies. And I am appalled by the Supreme Court's naive decision March 20 this year to misread a potentially valuable medical method as an illegal effort to extend a patent to cover a "law of nature" (Mayo Collab. Svcs. v Prometheus Labs).

    1 · July 7, 2012

  • CJ F.

    This nice conversation with W. Brian Arthur (plus a video clip) gives interesting insights into his work and forms a good summary of its main ideas:

    I recommend its short 16 minute video if you do not have time to read the book.

    July 2, 2012

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