In a previous post, I made the case that we need a theory of technology to guide government policy and inform the economic debate. Brian Arthur's 2009 book "The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves" proposes such a theory. Arthur is an economist with a longstanding interest in technology. He draws from a broad reading of historical case studies to argue that the common view of technology is too monolithic, and misses its structure. The book lays out several terms and definitions to clarify the issue. The word technology is split into three terms: individual technologies, domains of technology, and the “Technium”, and Arthur describes the development processes for each category. Below, I lay out a heavily paraphrased and re-organized summary of the argument. Refer to the book for a wealth of concrete examples from history as well as an insightful analysis of the process of invention, that I do not cover in this post.
noted in a previous post that there's been a lof of recent interest in developing a theory of technological change. The science policy community is one of the groups leading the charge, with research falling under the moniker "The Science of Science Policy". John Marburger catalyzed this research effort in 2005, during his tenure as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, by calling for better methods to decide how to allocate federal R&D funding, and determine what impact it has on the economy and the development of new technology. This led to a 2008 research roadmap that encouraged research toward "models to understand the production of science, qualitative and quantitative methods to estimate the impact of science, and processes for choosing from alternative science [funding] portfolios".
There are two prevailing views regarding how technological change over the last 50 years contributed to our current economic problems. The first is that progress was too slow, leading to stagnation in the economy (1,2). The second is that technology advanced too quickly, making it difficult for the average worker to adapt (3).
Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. If he had never been born, Would we still have light bulbs? And would they still have been invented in 1879? It turns out that this is not just a philosophical question and the answer is yes, the light bulb would have been invented at roughly the same time. We know this because at least 23 other people built prototype light bulbs before Edison, including two groups who fought legal battles with him over the patent rights (Sawyer and Mann in the U.S. and Swan in England).