We usually think of technology at the level of the “device”: the car, the smartphone, the airplane. It’s useful to look deeper at some common structure that all technologies share: technologies are built up out of other technologies, in a recursive way. Recognizing this structure helps to understand how technology changes over time.
First, I want to define the word technology. I use the word in a broad sense, to mean more than just computers and gadgets. It includes old things like the steam engine and the automobile as well as simple things like nuts and bolts or an ironing board. It also includes processes such as oil refining and sprawling systems like the electrical grid. This expansive definition is common among people who study the subject. In this post I am paraphrasing from the work of Brian Arthur. You can find elaboration on these ideas and a wealth of examples in this paper or in the book “The Nature of Technology”.
Getting back to the structure of technology, let's take the car as an example. It is in fact built out of other technologies: the internal combustion engine to supply power, the wheel to transform the power into linear motion, a chassis to hold it all together. Zoom in again and the constituent technologies are themselves composed of yet more technologies. The engine has a spark plug to ignite the fuel, some belts and gears to transmit mechanical energy, and a fan for cooling. The chassis is made from nuts and bolts as well as metal beams.
To be clear, I’m not just arbitrarily designating every component of a car to be a technology. These sub-technologies have lives of their own outside of automobiles. Internal combustion engines are used in some airplanes and electric generators, fans are used for cooling other things besides engines, and nuts and washers have innumerable uses. What’s more, these sub-technologies existed before the car was invented. The car is a collection of these technologies that is put together in just the right way. This is true in general – think of the smartphone (touchscreen, camera, processor) or the electric grid (power plants, transmission wires, transformers).
Zoom in far enough on any technology and you will get down to components that cannot be further dissected. These basic technologies harness some phenomena directly. Phenomena are reliable characteristic of the world we live in. They can be formal and scientific such as Newton’s Third Law (the basis for rocket propulsion), but often they are more colloquial, based on experience, and not necessarily understood at a fundamental level. “Spear tips made of a certain material can penetrate enemy armor” is sufficient, as well as “burning wood produces heat and light”. One of the phenomena that a car engine is based on is that hot gas will expand and drive a piston. A car chassis harnesses the phenomena that steel is strong and rigid.
Putting this all together, technology is modular and recursive. Technologies are built out of other technologies. These technologies can themselves be composed of yet more technologies, and so on. At the bottom of any of these branches is a basic technology that directly harnesses phenomena.
This structure is abstract, but it’s profoundly useful in understanding what technology is and how it changes over time. For example, one reason that technology grows so much over time is that today’s inventions provide the raw material for new combinations in the future. It also sheds light on the process of invention. I will write more about this later, but the main idea is that invention is a process of creatively combining existing technologies, rather than producing something whole cloth.