Afterthoughts on technology futures

Technology looms large on most futures discussions, and when I put together the Rough Guide I tried hard not to constantly have tech in the foreground – I hoped that this would give a clearer view of social, political, or economic questions.

But reading around since then I’ve got the feeling there is some unfinished business with technology. The tensions between various strands of futures talk often seem to come from views of technology (and/or nature). The recent essays in revisionist environmentalism by Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas put a lot of emphasis on technological development, engineering know-how, and pragmatic approaches to problem solving as our best hope for tackling current and near future crises, and Mark Stephenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future still more so.

Others, Ray Kurzweil being the most prominent, continue to forecast a technological singularity, in our lifetime – a forecast based on the inexorable working out of a law of accelerating returns.

Kurzweil’s vision is easy to doubt, in spite of all the exponential performance curves he compiles. Paul Allen, who knows a thing or two about technology, offers one recent, convincing critique here. But there are of course also plenty of critics of the pragmatic optimism of Brand or Lynas. Their distaste for what is usually seen as an unwarranted faith in technical fixes is one legacy of our long experience with technology now, and of its sometimes undesirable second and third order effects.

I lean toward the Brand/Lynas view, but mainly from a vague feeling that there is an astonishing range of technological possibilities in prospect, and a lot of R&D folk ready to work on them, given the incentive. It would be nice to have a better reason.

I flipped through Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What it is, how it evolves when it came out on 2009, but didn’t take much in. Having just read it properly, it seems his theory of how technology evolves, or develops by descent – which is brilliantly and clearly argued – might offer some support for a middle of the road optimism. He ends by stressing reasons to be ambivalent about tech, and certainly does not see it is a panacea. But his account of its development through human history does give reasons to expect a lot more technology, with a lot more uses.

His view is that all technologies develop from existing technologies, put together in new combinations. No need to summarise it again – he does it very well at the end of the book: “all technologies are combinations of elements; these elements are themselves technologies; all technologies use phenomena to some purpose…  technology is a programming of nature.”

He shows how those principles work themselves out through human history to allow a wider and wider range of principles – disclosed by science which is is both enabled by and enables technology – to be exploited for human purposes. There is human agency involved,  along with an element of bootstrapping. Indeed, if you bracket out the agency, technology appears to be self-evolving or creating – autopoietic in what was originally the biological sense.

The details are beautifully laid out in the book. Some implications. As there is more tech, the number of combinations increases, so the whole ensemble gathers more possibilities for extension into new areas of capability, and need. This is, in some degree, exponential, though not in the way Kurzeil charts. It is a simple combinatorial effect.

The order in which new combinations are tried is contingent, and that is one way the history of technology is path dependent. In fact, “indeterminacy increases as the collective develops”. Put those things together and you may conclude that technology will continue to develop faster and faster in future – as there are more technologists, too, then presumably more combinations are tried. They will not necessarily be a larger proportion of the possible combinations, though, as their number will increase a lot faster. That means, I think, that technological futures become harder to chart, even approximately.

But it also supports the general prediction that there will be many more, and perhaps more surprising technologies, in future. In one of his (carefully rationed) flights of language, Arthur says: “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.”

He is careful not to equate this with progress, in any simple sense. But it does carry strong implication of a one-way path, I think. No back to nature or return to a simple life in this reading of history (which is fine by me). As he says, his theory gives “a sense of technology expanding into the future”. That is one of the reasons it’s going to be interesting.



Afterthought to the afterthought. I guess the next thing to read in this area is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. My other key authors on technology are David Nye and Thomas Hughes. Who am I missing?

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8 Comments on “Afterthoughts on technology futures”

  1. I think you need a third afterthought which speaks to the discontinuity of diminished resources. In particular, the depletion of irreplaceable energy resources will render many technological possibilities moot.

    • jonturney Says:

      yes, but the converse could also apply – that is, some technological possibilities would circumvent the need for non-renewable energy resources. Here’s hoping…

  2. Andrew Curry Says:

    I like David Egerton’s ‘The Shock of The Old’. And you can’t look at technology and innovation without reading Carlota Perez’ work, which Brian Arthur mentions but in my view misrepresents.


    • jonturney Says:

      Yes, I enjoyed David’s book, though the thesis is more familiar than he likes to make out – and I’ll have to check Perez now to see if/how Arthur gets the work wrong!

  3. I guess you are missing people like Richard Nelson and Nathan Rosenberg, but Arthur will have drawn heavily on all that stuff in his own book!

    • jonturney Says:

      Ah, I remember Rosenberg a little from a reader on Technology and Economics from Manchester days – so long ago I am genuinely unsure if I still have it somewhere in a basement corner…

  4. Scott Says:


    I’m currently reading Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future, wherein he states that working scientists have a better grasp on what the future holds because they know the tech better. I think he’s ignoring a lot of social and political trends that will affect things.

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