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The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  606 ratings  ·  69 reviews
Leading scientific theorist W. Brian Arthur puts forth the first complete theory of the origins and evolution of technology, in a major work that achieves for the invention of new technologies what Darwin’s theory achieved for the emergence of new species.

Brian Arthur is a pioneer of complexity theory and the discoverer of the highly influential "theory of increasing retu
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published August 11th 2009 by Free Press (first published August 6th 2009)
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Michael Quinn
Feb 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book is nothing short of a classic, even though most readers are going to find this a little too dense and dry. It lays out a comprehensive analysis of the structure, development and economic effects of technology, a field that is almost entirely overlooked. This makes its mandatory reading for scientists, engineers and economists who want a broader, systematic view of the field.

Highlights include an explanation of combinatorial evolution (instead of evolution by selection, which is what we
Dec 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Questions that this book addresses:
- Why technologies get complicated as it progresses?
- Will the development of technology slows down in the future?
- Why innovations of a field tends to be highly concentrated geographically?
- How do inventions come about?
- Why does technological developments explode in recent years?

How do I like it?
- Concisely written. Often times, general statements are made, forcing readers to think of an example to fit in. This could be fun, and occasionally confusing.
- Idea
Ken Liu
May 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A brilliant, brilliant book. Changed the way I think about technology.
Paul Hartzog
As a scholar of both technology and complex systems, I offer this in-depth review.

This book has some good points towards the end, but it took me a long time to finish it (weeks rather than days) because it just wasn't interesting going along. Brian Arthur's work is great, and you know that he really thought his topic through, but it just doesn't come through in the text.

A few things are illustrative here:

First, a key part of Arthur's conclusion is that simply recombining many small parts doesn't
May Ling
Oct 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Summary: The book can be great depending on your purpose in reading it. It actually addresses the nature and evolution of technology. It is not going to tell you how to do it, mostly b/c if you read how he's thinking about evolution, that's not how it gets done. I agree so rounded up from 4.5 to 5.

Those that wrote slightly more negative views wanted more meat and application. Beginning point of view is everything when people pick up a piece and have expectations.

I instead, read the title and und
Michael Burnam-Fink
Nov 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic, innovation, 2017
I first read this book in 2010, the summer before I started a PhD in science and technology studies. I remember picking it up at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, grabbing a beer at Afterwords, and then staying up all night reading it. Since then, I've read countless pages and megabytes of theory and history about technology, innovation, and the entanglements of politics and things. If anything, The Nature of Technology holds up even better than it did then.

Arthur offers a simple, yet powerful, mode
Sep 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I felt W. Brian Arthur's book highlighted an underlying axiom that I find true: great things, material or incorporeal, are built from smaller things and are not spontaneously synthesized from nothing, but are sub-creations formed from observations of our existing environment. That is a wordy way of saying I fell in love with this book because the ideas it presented rang true to me.

W. Brian Arthur presents his ideas intelligently and comprehensively. He used examples that clarified more complica
Rajesh Kandaswamy
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book that gives a framework on what technology is, what it consists of and how it evolves. Lucid writing.
Aug 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Brian Arthur is one of the most insightful thinkers about the nature of technology and business, and this book adds to his reputation. He made the conscious choice to aim it towards business readers rather than academics, but it combines the rigor of academic research with the accessibility of mainstream business books. Arthur provides a useful framework and vocabulary for describing aspects of technological change that may appear obvious but have tremendous subtlety and powerful implications.
Feb 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, economics
Surprisingly insightful and meaningful. Arthur frames and explores our current technology systems, which is really an exploration of human creativity and the systems, institutions, and environments that cultivate innovation.
Laurent Franckx
Dec 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
Brian W Arthur is rightly famous for his insight that network effects combined with increasing returns to scale can lead to monopolies where the winner is determined by accidents of history rather than by the superiority of his products (think of VHS versus Betamax) - an insight that explains pretty much all the antitrust issues that tech has confronted us with over the last decades.
In this book, he sets out to explain the fundamental nature of technology - and, this time, I am not convinced at
Alessandro Piovaccari
A great book with a slow start

I found the first few chapters of this book very basic and quite repetitive, maybe because of my solid experience in systems design. But the rest of the book is quite impressively deep and insightful. I am glad a stick to it! Also, the conclusion is still very fresh and actual, letting me wondering why hist vision is not more widely adopted.
Roberto Rigolin F Lopes
We are in 2009, Arthur is discussing the isomorphisms between the evolution of technologies and the evolution of living things like yourself. He starts with the provocative hypothesis that, in essence, technologies are alive and getting closer and closer to biological systems. If that is the case, kudos for Dawkins who said that evolution is the greatest show on earth, the only game in town. Thrilling. We are alive and evolving. Evolving using technology. By consequence, technology is speeding u ...more
Apr 16, 2010 rated it did not like it
this should have been a great book. The chance to give a taxonomy of technology is something that the world really needs. I quit on this book at about the page 27 mark. Maybe I will pick it up again sometime...
Jimmy Ele
May 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Clear, logical, succinct, and well organized, "The Nature of Technology" was an intellectual treat to read. I loved it for it's deep insight into Technology.

The blueprint for the book is summed up perfectly with the following quote:

"My plan is to start from a completely blank state, taking nothing about technology for granted. I will build the argument piece by piece from three fundamental principles. The first will be the one I have been talking about: that technologies, all technologies, are
Stuart Macalpine
Apr 14, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Defining tech is notoriously difficult. I have watched in our recent initiative discussions many of the best brains on the planet try and fail to say what it is. I stumbled on this book, and discovered with joy that Brian Arthur had managed it. It is simply a brilliant book - stunning, clear and insightful. I was blown away reading it.

His basic idea is that technology is as much a process or evolution, as it is a 'thing'. He clarifies three attributes of technology: it is recursive, and each bit
Feb 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
This was strongly recommended to me by a friend who said it fundamentally shaped how he saw the world, and believes it to be an incredibly important foundational book. I didn't quite see it this way for me, but I did think it worth reading.

This was a relatively dry read, but at least short, and had some really interesting ideas starting around ~Chapter 9 or 10, where it started to get pretty juicy around ideas of long-term evolution of technology and its interactions with (really, how it shapes
May 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
I managed to get through about 2/3s before throwing in the towel. Here's a basic summary, so you don't have to drag yourself through this horribly dry book:
-Technology can be enormous amalgamations of several small technologies (such as a bridge) or the smallest possible pieces of such amalgamations
-Ideas and processes can be technologies
-Sudden inventions of entirely new technologies rarely happen, and arguably never

So yeah, I wouldn't say that The Nature of Technology is an enjoyable read. The
One of my favorite books. It carefully defines complex concepts such as technology, science, engineering, and innovation, and continues to explain how these concepts are related. I found many insightful perspectives on these concepts. But by far my favorite is the perspective on how technology relates to nature. Instead of a dichotomy between the natural and the artificial, technology can be seen as a systematic, and increasingly complex orchestration of natural phenomena to fulfill human needs. ...more
Gary Cohen
Dec 30, 2020 rated it it was ok
This is a very academic book. The premise is very interesting and I did hear the author speak back in 2012. However, the narrative is much longer and deeper than it needs to be from my lay perspective.

I thought the two best things I got from the book were:

1. Technology builds on top of each other (which I guess is intuitive, but still an important concept)
2. The author's chapter on Structural Deepening explains the lifecycle of certain technologies, from initial appearance to internal replacemen
Nico Janow
Aug 28, 2019 rated it did not like it
I found it too dry to be enjoyable. Maybe it contains insights of value to scholars who sit around discussing these issues in detail, but I'm not of that level, so I don't know. I did finish it, but I can't remember any of the details, so it's a failure in that respect.

I was surprised that he didn't mention one particular aspect of the evolution of technology: that the human mind creates many ideas (mutations or cross-breeding of existing ideas), and most of them don't survive for further consid
Feb 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing

There are some books that give you a fresh perspective. Then there are some books that change the way you think about the world at a fundamental level. This is one of them.

This book provides a general theory of technology. This changes the way you think about our world at a fundamental level because we are surrounded by technology everywhere. You will come out reading this book with a deep clarity about what technology is and how it evolves.

Highly recommended for everyone.
Jul 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ciencias, tecnología
W. Brian Arthur Ingeniero, Economista y uno de los tecnologos más importantes del mundo ofrece una interpretación brillante del rol de la tecnología, la ciencia, la innovación y su juego dentro de la economía.

La mejor reseña de su libro la ofrece él mismo en el capitulo 11 del mismo:

"Theories start with general propositions or principles, and we started with three: that all technologies are combinations of elements; that these elements themselves are technologies; and that all technologies use
Sep 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
I finally stopped at about 32% out of 68% (at 68% kindle length the Notes start and the book is over).

This is just not worth the amount of sentences written to convey so little 'new' information.
There is page after page of verbage where the author defines how 'he' defines techonolgy and technologies and single instances of technology.

Summary: Technology is combination of other technologies and design/engineering is problem solving and combining.

Time is valuable, folks.
Denis Romanovsky
This book is not perfect, but the approach, the look at the topic, the depth of the concepts are really fascinating.

The author studies technology as a phenomenon from its basic characteristics to the entire global economy. He looks at it from dynamics and combinations standpoints, compares it with the concepts of living organisms, ecology and uses a lot from the complexity science.

Highly recommended for those who want to understand technology complexly and on a high-level.
Nov 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economics, society
A very interesting exploration of what technology is and how it evolves (OK, the title pretty much describes the book). But it is an interesting attempt to think about something which often seems to be treated as the slightly embarrassing offspring of science and economics; "merely" a trade rather than the pure thought of more abstract (and therefore more worthy) pursuits. ...more
Melanie Windridge
Dec 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Interesting thoughts on what technology is and how it evolves. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive but this is just the author developing and explaining his argument. Good book to read if you are interested in technology and the economy.
Kevin Rhodes
Apr 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I’ve been on a campaign for the past year and a half to try to understand what’s going on in our world in terms of the collision of technology, the economic, jobs and the workplace. In that context, I recently discovered W. Brian Arthur and his work in complex systems theory. He is my latest hero in terms of making sense of the world. Complexity theory just work for me -- it’s probably as close to a theory of everything as anything I’ve come across. It’s how the economy works, how the brain, the ...more
Igor Pejic
Mar 23, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Finally got to read in full this classic on how tech grows and changes a society. The parallel to biological evolution is forced, but otherwise an outstanding title from an economist/historian perspective.
Florin Pitea
May 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Dense, over-arching, informative and educative. Recommended.
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William Brian Arthur is an economist credited with developing the modern approach to increasing returns. He has lived and worked in Northern California for many years. He is an authority on economics in relation to complexity theory, technology and financial markets.

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“In its collective sense, technology is not merely a catalog of individual parts. It is a metabolic chemistry, an almost limitless collective of entities that interact to produce new entities-and further needs. And we should not forget that needs drive the evolution of technology every bit as much as the possibilities for fresh combination and the unearthing of phenomena. Without the presence of unmet needs, nothing novel would appear in technology.” 1 likes
“I will give technology three definitions that we will use throughout the book.

The first and most basic one is that a technology is a means to fulfill a human purpose. For some technologies-oil refining-the purpose is explicit. For others- the computer-the purpose may be hazy, multiple, and changing. As a means, a technology may be a method or process or device: a particular speech recognition algorithm, or a filtration process in chemical engineering, or a diesel engine. it may be simple: a roller bearing. Or it may be complicated: a wavelength division multiplexer. It may be material: an electrical generator. Or it may be nonmaterial: a digital compression algorithm. Whichever it is, it is always a means to carry out a human purpose.

The second definition I will allow is a plural one: technology as an assemblage of practices and components. This covers technologies such as electronics or biotechnology that are collections or toolboxes of individual technologies and practices. Strictly speaking, we should call these bodies of technology. But this plural usage is widespread, so I will allow it here.

I will also allow a third meaning. This is technology as the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture. Here we are back to the Oxford's collection of mechanical arts, or as Webster's puts it, "The totality of the means employed by a people to provide itself with the objects of material culture." We use this collective meaning when we blame "technology" for speeding up our lives, or talk of "technology" as a hope for mankind. Sometimes this meaning shades off into technology as a collective activity, as in "technology is what Silicon Valley is all about." I will allow this too as a variant of technology's collective meaning. The technology thinker Kevin Kelly calls this totality the "technium," and I like this word. But in this book I prefer to simply use "technology" for this because that reflects common use.

The reason we need three meanings is that each points to technology in a different sense, a different category, from the others. Each category comes into being differently and evolves differently. A technology-singular-the steam engine-originates as a new concept and develops by modifying its internal parts. A technology-plural-electronics-comes into being by building around certain phenomena and components and develops by changing its parts and practices. And technology-general, the whole collection of all technologies that have ever existed past and present, originates from the use of natural phenomena and builds up organically with new elements forming by combination from old ones.”
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