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The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, W.B. Arthur. Free Press, New York (2009), 246 pp.

Authors:
would encourage the editors or other readers to begin the process of assembling it. I suspect there is much more to come
from this innovative and challenging research programme.
Hatched. Read it. It is free. Put its knowledge and tools to use. I defy any reader not to learn something from this book.
Ian Thomson
Accounting and Finance, University of Strathclyde,
1001 Cathedral Street,
Glasgow G4 0LN, United Kingdom
E-mail address: i.h.thomson@strath.ac.uk
doi:10.1016/j.futures.2010.08.014
W.B. Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, Free Press, New York (2009)., 246 pp.
What is technology? How does it evolve? This fascinating book addresses these and other profound questions about
technology. The author, W. Brian Arthur, is an iconic figure in Silicon Valley who is currently affiliated with the Santa Fe
Institute and the Palo Alto Research Center. The author’s depth of experience with and understanding of technology is clearly
on display as the book meticulously builds a conceptual framework of technology and illustrates important concepts with
engaging and clearly described examples of past and current technologies.
This book is not about the future per se but is a must read for futurists. What is exciting from a futures perspective about
Arthur’s conceptual framework is that it can be applied to technological forecasting, which is a mainstay of future studies and
has been a frequent topic in Futures since the beginning (e.g., see [1–3]). In recent years, the number publications specifically
on technological forecasting in Futures has declined but interest in technology has remained strong. This is because
technology is now seen as a means for achieving various social goals such as national economic development (e.g., see [4])
and ecological sustainability (e.g., see [5]). Personally, I believe it is vitally important to understand the relationships of
current and future technologies, both positive and negative, to the vast array of global problems facing humanity, such as
climate change, Peak Oil, and human health [6]. Thus, for many reasons, Arthur’s contributions about technology can be
invaluable to helping futurists improve their understanding of technology writ large.
Arthur’s conceptual framework has three main components. One, new technologies typically if not almost always result
from the combination of other existing technologies. Two, existing technologies consist of ‘smaller’ technologies. Three, all
technologies make use of one or more natural phenomena or effects. Consider the modern automobile. It is constructed from
many technologies—engine, transmission, heating and cooling, electronics, etc. Each of these technologies is composed of
smaller technologies. The technologies make use of many natural phenomena, from the combustion properties of gasoline
and oxygen to the optical properties of glass to the effect of friction between the wheels and the road. While the book focuses
on ‘hard’ technologies, such as jet engines, cyclotrons, and radars, the author allows that social innovations such as
corporations can also be considered technologies.
Arthur emphasizes that technologies must satisfy socio-economic needs else they would not diffuse into the economy. As
it is, it often takes decades for domains of technologies, which are collections of technologies that make use of similar
phenomena or are functionally similar, to penetrate markets. This is because, in Arthur’s words, economies encounter new
technology domains. These encounters typically require substantial change within the economy, from changes in financing
for new technology domains to the creation of new jobs and associated training regimens to even the re-design of the
physical infrastructure. For example, one of the reasons that it took decades for electric motors to replace steam systems in
U.S. factories was because the factories themselves needed to be re-designed.
The myth that inventions appear whole-cloth is thoroughly debunked. Certainly, this must be the case if new
technologies are primarily considered to be combinations of existing technologies. However, Arthur’s conceptual
framework does include creativity, persistence, and moments of epiphany. The author also stresses that innovation and
engineering make use of deep craft, what some might understand as the ‘stuff’ embedded within disciplines or knowledge
communities. Imaginative sparks and deep craft are needed to realize how newly discovered (or long forgotten)
phenomena can be utilized through new technologies. Creative vision and persistence are needed to understand what
combinations of technologies (of which there are now literally trillions of potential combinations) make practical sense.
Arthur even argues that any well known problem that requires new engineering is the subjectof a creative exercise that can
actually result in the evolution of technology.
Often, such engineering exercises result in more complex technologies through a process that the author refers to as
structural deepening. Weaknesses in a technology can often be reduced or eliminated by replacing some parts with better
made parts built with more sophisticated materials often produced by other, more complex technologies (e.g., composed
of stronger, more heat resistance, or more reliable materials). At other times, technologies can only be improved through
the addition of new components. Numerous well known and widely used technologies, from jet planes to automobiles,
Book reviews / Futures 42 (2010) 1031–1033
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from computers to cell phones, demonstrate this point. For example, planes have been improved by replacing prop
engines with jet engines and by adding technologies to pressurize cabins, improve navigation, and increase passenger
comfort. Complexification continues until the technology becomes mature and then slows down considerably.
Meanwhile, depending on lock-in and how economies encounter new technologies, new technologies could replace
existing ones at any time.
For the most part, the author resisted the temptation to use his framework to forecast the emergence of new technologies.
However, technological forecasting was not ignored completely. Towards the end of the book, Arthur does observe that it is
curious that as we learn more about biology, more specifically about the mechanics of biological processes, our technologies
are becoming more biological. Indeed, one can make the case that new technologies are becoming more aware, intelligent,
mobile, and reproductive and even are increasingly encompassing real biological components. The good news is that the
author has left many opportunities for futurists to forecast technological advancements by (1) imagining new combinations
of existing and emerging technologies that can (2) make use of previously understood or newly identified natural
phenomena that can (3) satisfy existing or emerging social needs, as identified through other traditional futures studies
methods like trends assessment and scenario development.
References
[1] M. Cetron, E. Mahinske, Value of technological forecasting for research and development manager, Futures 1 (1) (1968) 21–33.
[2] Anon, Methodology of technological forecasting—New York, October 1968, Futures 1 (2) (1968) 175–176.
[3] Anon, Technological forecasting in corporate planning—London, November 1968, Futures 1 (3) (1969) 271–272.
[4] J. Wonglimpiyarat, National foresight in science and technology strategy development, Futures 39 (6) (2007) 718–728.
[5] J. Falk, C. Ryan, Inventing a sustainable future: Australia and the challenge of eco-innovation, Futures 39 (2–3) (2007) 215–229.
[6] B. Tonn, A methodology for organizing and quantifying the results of environmental scanning exercises, Technological Forecasting & Social Change 75 (2008)
595–609.
Bruce Tonn*
Department of Political Science, University of Tennessee,
Knoxville, McClung Tower, Room 1018,
Knoxville, TN 37996, USA
*Tel.: +1 865 974 7041
E-mail address: btonn@utk.edu
doi:10.1016/j.futures.2010.08.015
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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This paper presents a methodology for organizing and quantifying the results of environmental scanning exercises. The first step of the methodology is to develop a simple systems model whose components capture the essence of the problem context under study. Then, a scan identifies leads that affect one or more components. The impact a lead may have on a component is rated on a numerical scale for any number of time periods of interest. Lower and upper probabilities are estimated for each impact rating for each time period. Lower and upper expected impact scores are then calculated to provide a range of potential impacts over time. An exponential function is used to aggregate the lower and upper expected impact scores upon a component to produce lower and upper expected component changes. The methodology also allows changes in components to impact other components. The methodology was implemented to explore impacts of demographic and technological change upon the future of human and ecological health in the United States.
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Technological forecasting in corporate planning-London
  • Anon
Anon, Technological forecasting in corporate planning-London, November 1968, Futures 1 (3) (1969) 271-272.
  • Methodology Anon
  • York
Anon, Methodology of technological forecasting—New York, October 1968, Futures 1 (2) (1968) 175–176.
Methodology of technological forecasting
  • Anon
Anon, Methodology of technological forecasting-New York, October 1968, Futures 1 (2) (1968) 175-176.