Arthur hopes to do for technology what Thomas Kuhn famously did for science in his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which described how scientific breakthroughs come about and how they are adopted. A key part of Arthur’s argument is that technology has its own characteristics and “nature,” and that it has too long been treated as subservient to science or simply as “applied science.” Science and technology are “completely interwoven” but different, he says: “Science is about understanding phenomena, whereas technology is really about harnessing and using phenomena. They build out of each other.”
Arthur, a former professor of economics and population studies at Stanford who is now an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute and a visiting researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center, is perhaps best known for his work on complexity theory and for his analysis of increasing returns, which helped explain how one company comes to dominate the market for a new technology. Whether he fulfills his goal of formulating a rigorous theory of technology is debatable. The book does, however, offer a detailed description of the characteristics of technologies, peppered with interesting historical tidbits. And it provides a context in which to begin understanding the often laborious and lengthy processes by which technologies are commercially exploited.
Particularly valuable are Arthur’s insights into how different “domains” of technology evolve differently compared to individual technologies. Domains, as Arthur defines them, are groups of technologies that fit together because they harness a common phenomenon. Electronics is a domain; its devices–capacitors, inductors, transistors–all work with electrons and thus naturally fit together. Likewise, in photonics, lasers, fiber-optic cables, and optical switches all manipulate light. Whereas an individual technology–say, the jet engine–is designed for a particular purpose, a domain is “a toolbox of useful components”–“a constellation of technologies”–that can be applied across many industries. A technology is invented, Arthur writes. A domain “emerges piece by piece from its individual parts.”
The distinction is critical, he argues, because users may quickly adopt an individual technology to replace existing devices, whereas new domains are “encountered” by potential users who must try to understand them, figure out how to use them, determine whether they are worthwhile, and create applications for them. Meanwhile, those developing the new domains must improve the tools in the toolbox and invent the “missing pieces” necessary for new applications. All this “normally takes decades,” Arthur says. “It is a very, very slow process.”
What Arthur touches on just briefly is that this evolution of a new body of technology is often matched by an even more familiar progression: enthusiasm about a new technology, investor and user disillusionment as the technology fails to live up to the hyperbole, and a slow reëmergence as the technology matures and begins to meet the market’s needs.