W. Brian Arthur‘s “The Nature of Technology” is not the typical book on innovation. It doesn’t tell the story of how groundbreaking innovations have come about nor the life and work of great innovators. It doesn’t analyse the decisions and factors at play in their genesis nor the best practices leading to repeated successful innovations. Serving people unmet needs, differentiating from competitors, increasing efficiency, failing fast, inventors and innovators, all remain in the background as unknowing forces participating into the unstoppable evolution of technology. It is technology that takes the foreground.
Technology, the argument goes, lives a life of its own as new technologies are built from combinations of pre-existing ones to solve problems, many of which they themselves create, like global warming from carbon-based fuel engines, rapid spread of infections globally from air transport. As Arthur writes:
Existing technologies used in combination provide the possibilities of novel technologies: the potential supply of them. And human and technical needs create opportunity niches: the demand for them (p. 176).
The autonomy of technology evolution is a powerful, albeit distressful, notion, deeply rooted in phenomenological thought. What is then people and societies’ role in technology evolution? Arthur introduces a powerful metaphor to explain this. Like coral reefs built by colonies of polyps, technologies rely on people to be developed and evolved. Like coral reefs, technologies provide underlying structure to the living habitat and the conditions for their reproduction. As stated earlier, some of these new technologies will satisfy human needs, but most of them will address technology needs. Technology is self-producing and takes human activity as a given.
Arthur’s argument is extremely compelling, but the realization that we are instrumental to the development of something we do not control extremely hard to accept.