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.