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The Nature of Technology - Admarco Book Review

By Mark Gibson on Sun, Dec 06, 2009

Topics: book review

W. Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology is an important book for technologists, entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, in fact anyone in the business of creating, marketing or selling innovative technology.

This book is an ontology of the process of technological innovation and is a major contribution to the understanding of the evolution of technology and its influence on our economy and civilization. nature of technology

I write this review as a layman, from my perspective of the observer of technological change over 40 years in the computer industry, initially in engineering, then sales and marketing and for the past 5 years focused on solving sales and marketing performance problems in innovative technology companies.

There is a clue in the title as to the main arguments in the book and few others in the World have the background to conceive, advance and prove such a powerful argument in just 216 pages. Brian Arthur is an engineer, mathematician, system theorist, economist and more recently a diligent scholar of Darwinian evolution.

Arthur coins a new phrase to describe the advances in technology as "combinatorial evolution"; whereas in nature evolution is biological and subject to the Darwinian laws of natural selection, technology evolves as a result of combinations of existing technologies and methods to create new innovations, the critical ingredient in the process is human knowledge and ingenuity.

Once a technology is created, it is then subject to Darwinian evolution, whereby the innovation advances through refinement of its component systems and further innovation and addition, the weaker ideas discarded to become museum artifacts and the process continually advancing.

Arthur examines the development path that produced the steam engine, the jet engine, the laser printer, the development of radar, the cyclotron, DNA and many other innovations including the computer to create a logical and balanced argument that is self evident, yet until this book, was untold. He also cites the great thinkers on the subject of technology including Joseph Schumpeter, Martin Heidegger, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and Thomas Khun.

Written in a clear, logical and carefully constructed prose, Arthur reminds us that our economy is the sum and manifestation of our technology and that it is becoming generative with the accelerating rate of technological change. "It's focus is shifting from optimizing fixed operations into creating new combinations, new configurable offerings." For high-technology entrepreneurs in startups, he captures the problems of both the innovator and the investor; 

  • he doesn't know if the new technology will work
  • nor how well it will be received,
  • who the competitors will be
  • what government regulations will apply
"The environment around the launching of a new combinatorial business is not merely uncertain: particular aspects are unknown"

Finally he suggests that "in the generative economy, management derives its competitive advantage not from its stock of resources and its ability to transform these into finished goods, but from its ability to translate its stock of deep expertise into ever new strategic combinations."

Stimulating, thought-provoking and highly recommended!