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How Technology Evolves

2011 March 20

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if technology is something to love or to fear. Are computers making us smarter or dumbing us down? Are genetically modified foods a miracle or a menace?

What’s really scary is how little control we have over it. It seems to have a life of it’s own. Much like with Shelley’s Frankenstein, we’re fearful of unleashing forces that are beyond our control. Will the future be a utopia or a nightmare?

Whatever we might think or feel, technology will progress and we need to decide for ourselves how we will interact with it. Yet before we can do that, we need to understand how it evolves into being.   Over the past half century, and especially recently, some very serious and useful ideas have been put forward that can help guide us.

Uncovering Paradigms

While today we live in a highly technological age, our experience is somewhat novel.  Until World War II, most people lived with comparatively little of it, even in “developed” countries.  So it’s not surprising that scholars gave it very little thought until fairly recently.

The first notable attempt was made in 1954, by the philosopher Martin Heidegger in his ground breaking essay, The Question Concerning Technology. In it, he describes technology not as something we build, but as something we uncover and enframe. In other words, we are not wholly responsible for man-made wonders, nor are we entirely in control.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, a physicist, published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions making a different, but not incompatible, claim that we advance through a series of paradigms.    In Heidegger’s parlance, we start by enframing one way and eventually realize that our view is incomplete.  We then move forward by enframing anew.

In Kuhn’s view, we seek to understand our world with a particular framework that seems to work for a while.  Eventually, facts build up that don’t fit the model and we need a new paradigm to account for it.  A paradigm shift occurs and science progresses. In effect, Kuhn added a dynamic to Heidegger’s somewhat static view.

The Geography of Tech

Another thing that has become clear is that technology advances in some places more than others.  Jared Diamond started thinking about this when a local in New Guinea asked him a very simple question:  Why is there so much more technology elsewhere and so little here?  Diamond formed the answer by way of his Pulitzer prizewinning book, Guns Germs and Steel.

He points out that some civilizations originated in places like the fertile crescent, with plants and animals that were easily domesticated and made agriculture possible.  Further, that the East-West orientation of the Eurasian landmass allowed for agricultural innovations to be spread across a wide area of similar climates.

Technology, therefore, is somewhat dependent on precursors. What you start out with will help to determine what you end up with.

Jane Jacobs gave a more modern perspective in her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argues that diversity within cities sets the stage for economic development.  Richard Florida built on her work in The Rise of the Creative Class, that documented that cultural life in a city is highly correlated with technological development.

What the work of Diamond, Jacobs and Florida all have in common is that they describe technology very much like Heidegger – as an uncovering.   However, they all argue, quite rightly, that the work of uncovering technological principles requires an environment conducive to creativity; including prosperity, leisure time and opportunities for a diversity of ideas to mix.

Evolutionary ideas

The very concept of technological evolution, of course, is highly intertwined with biological evolution.  So it’s not surprising that modern commentators on the subject borrow heavily from the work of Richard Dawkins; specifically, his concepts of the Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype and the Blind Watchmaker.

The Selfish Gene: Dawkins believes that to understand how entities evolve, it’s helpful to think of them as selfish, employing different strategies in order to replicate themselves.  He also argues that the same could be said of ideas and coined the term, meme, in order to describe concepts that propagate through culture.

The Extended Phenotype: Another one of Dawkins’ key concepts is that organisms’ DNA often extends far beyond the body in which it rests.  For instance, beaver dams can affect the ecosystem for several miles.  Technology, of course, also thrives in ecosystems.  Shopping malls prosper in suburbs, which need cars, which require gas stations and so on.

The Blind Watchmaker: Dawkins also used the analogy of the “blind watchmaker” to describe how relatively simple processes could lead to structures of enormous complexity.  His thought in this area is, of course, mirrored by the similar predictions of chaos theory, especially the work of Benoit Mandelbrot.

A Model for Technological Evolution

Probably the most complete vision of technological comes from W. Brian Arthur in his recent book, The Nature of Technology.  Arthur, an economist by profession, perhaps not surprisingly portrays technology evolving through the interaction of supply and demand.

He describes three core principles of technology:

All technologies harness and exploit some phenomenon: As Heidegger argued, our development of technology depends on uncovering an aspect of nature.  Phenomena would include things as varied as how atoms form molecules, how humans interact in a social network or how supply and demand determines price.

Technologies put ideas to work for some human purpose.

All technologies are combinations: Much like biological organisms are combinations of genes, technologies are combinations of elements and their evolution proceeds in ways that are very similar to the ones Dawkins described.

Some elements are exceedingly fecund and replicate widely throughout society (e.g. transistors).   Once an idea is adopted, it is then utilized in the development of new concepts.  As the number of basic technologies expands the number of permutations increases exponentially.  That’s why technological advancement is always accelerating.

Components of technologies are themselves technologies: Arthur describes technology as recursive, exhibiting similar attributes and processes at both the component and product level.

This last principle is deceptively important.  It explains why, as Clayton Christensen argues, that industries alternate between modular and integrated organization.  Recursiveness also accounts for why, as technology progresses, markets increasingly resemble biological ecosystems, with elements being mixed and matched across domains.

Those three principles account for the supply of technology.  As we uncover more phenomena, we build more technologies around them, these  combine at both the component and the product level to create still more products, processes and organizations.

What Does Technology Want?

So is technology more worthy of our admiration or our fear?  Kevin Kelly, in his book What Technology Wants, argues for both.  He describes a neverending chain of solutions to problems that create still newer problems.

Internal combustion engines cause pollution, which produces “green” technologies.  Those in turn will create their own problems that we will also have to solve.  Every advancement creates new challenges and nostalgia for a simpler time and innocence lost.

And that’s what drives demand for technology and why, on balance, it’s a good thing – it solves our problems.  As long as we have a needs unmet, progress will go on, warts and all.  Technologies wants are born out of our own desires.

Technological Evolution is Cultural Evolution

However, technology’s desires are not dictates.

We do get to choose our relationship with the things in our lives.  We can opt for convenience or immersive experience, a spartan existence or a luxurious lifestyle.  While uncovering will continue and paradigms will shift, our choices remain our own and, as technology marches forward, our power to choose does as well.

Perhaps what we fear most about technology is ourselves.  For better or worse, technology’s evolution and our own are inseparable.

– Greg

18 Responses leave one →
  1. March 20, 2011

    Nice job of integrating a fairly broad but interesting set of work Greg.

    That book by Brian Arthur is the best economics book that I’ve read in ages. Very clear thinking all the way through, and I think that his ideas are dead on.

  2. March 20, 2011

    Yeah, it was really good. All the best work these days seems to come out of the Santa Fe Institute.

    – Greg

  3. March 20, 2011

    Fearing ourselves is nothing new, but it is useless in our evolution, which you decree inseparable from technology’s. In this, I feel you have touched upon the means of our liberation. For, if it is ourselves, and what we are capable of creating, that we fear (for example, governments and economies), then is it not possible to betray those silly fear-provoking behaviors and treat ourselves to some decent technically-enabled abundance? What business does a man have in the sweat and toil of a field when a machine can do it for him? Yet, what business does a machine have in a field of a man that kisses the soil with thanks for his crop? The way man lives is simple, but convoluted by inefficient concepts such as fear and money. Love and freedom is our natural state, and anyone aware of the current trends will find that we will either return to that state or be lost for a very long time. I, personally, have not the patience to be lost – but I will be happy to help as many as I can before I go.

  4. March 20, 2011

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ryan.

    – Greg

  5. March 20, 2011

    Nice review Greg.

    My view:
    Humans have co-evolved with technology since the earliest times – it could almost define what it is to be human.

    Although animals use tools it is fruitful to look at the differences between tool and technology and what is different now.

    For me the key concept is degree of consciousness and self awareness

    1 – Technology is greater than the use of tools – I think technology requires a deeper degree of consciousness – application of “scientific” operation –

    2 – We once we just did technology we are now considering it existentially – we are becoming aware of our relationship with technology – an issue of our time

  6. March 20, 2011


    Great post, sir. Anyone that dips back into the well to pick up *both* Heidegger and Kuhn deserves kudos for that fact alone, let alone establishing relevancy. Both of these books are favorites of mine.

    One of the key points in Kuhn’s view that shouldn’t be overlooked, given the focus of your post, is the generational effect of world view. Only as the influence of the elder generations diminishes does the new world view have a real chance to come into prominence. Given the pace of change today, we cannot afford to wait for the previous generation to “die off”.

    Indeed, I think that we still see some of that in play today, but I think it’s much less. I see this playing out in smaller time chunks, because of the rapid advancement of technology/knowledge, as well as the effect of specialization. I expect this trend to accelerate over time. In addition, I think it will have a re-integrating (resolving issues with cross-specialty views due to specialization) effect, as we develop better techniques for managing/transforming content and engaging with others (both online, offline and mixed modes).


  7. March 20, 2011


    Good point. Another thing I think is too often overlooked is that Kuhn was fairly explicit that new paradigms don’t abolish old ones as much as they build on them. As we build new solutions to new problems, we still have to solve the old ones.

    I think that all too often people who seek to innovate undermine themselves by failing to learn old lessons.

    – Greg

  8. March 20, 2011

    Agreed on both counts!


  9. March 21, 2011


  10. March 21, 2011


    Good points. Thanks for this (and sorry about the late reply. For some reason you got stuck in spam.

    A few points:

    1. Both Brian Arthur and Kevin Kelly are explicit about the fact that technology includes ideas and processes (and I agree). So I think that extends your argument.

    2. I’m currently reading a book about the origin of communication and it seems that a key way that humans differ from primates is our ability to form shared intent. So again, I think you’re right. Our ability to add to each other’s achievements is vital to how we advance. Like I said, cultural evolution and technology are intertwined.

    Thanks again!

    – Greg

  11. March 27, 2011


    I think that we can look at innovation in two ways. One is innovating inside a thought castle/paradigm/culture. This pattern mainly innovates inside social-cultural ways. The other is innovating with ‘go look and see’. Toyota lean, Boyd, quantum mech, and tao use observation of natural patterns. The two interplay.

    U.S. medicine is tech based and its innovation is tech based, but U.S. health is life style based. Over reliance on tech-food leads to an instant-life style that often degrades into tech medical fixes instead of ‘inspecting and adapting’ to a better life style.

    Some such tech innovation might then be seen as dumbing people down to an instant-fix while such people are living in thought-castles that separate them from their own bodies. That might be “Technological Evolution is Cultural Evolution” by discarding part of the population. It might also be a sign that following tech through lagging social constructs discards people.

    There’s a yin yang in the patterning that means a tech good innovation may well have an implicit/ignored/unknown tech bad innovation that hits us socially/culturally/physically.

  12. March 27, 2011

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Vic. Much appreciated.

    – Greg

  13. March 28, 2011

    I am somewhat surprised that no mention has been made of the most comprehensive account of technological evolution yet, the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. TRIZ. Having found out about it and introduced it into the UK in 1996/7 it has taken off substantially in South East Asia where people seem to be more open minded, but it is being used by many maybe most of the big corporates around the world. TRIZ came about from hard research by thousands of people, it is not just one man’s good assimilation of reading lots of stuff. So TRIZ is the science of evolution of technological design.

  14. March 28, 2011

    Thanks for the tip Graham. Top be honest, I’ve never heard of TRIZ. Do you have a link?

    – Greg

  15. March 28, 2011 is not a bad start

    Or try



    Or just Google TRIZ, and try TRIZ search and big company names and see what links you find, a good way to research reality.

    E.g. TRIZ and Samsung produces

    Hope this helps


  16. March 28, 2011

    Thanks, I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  17. April 3, 2011

    Thanks Greg and Graham–Greg, great review, and it covers a lot of territory that TRIZ deals with. Graham–thanks for alerting Greg to TRIZ. I’ll tweet the review to the TRIZ camp, and maybe we’ll get some new folks into the discussion. –Ellen Domb

  18. April 3, 2011

    Thank you and good luck with the group!

    – Greg

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