We are all concerned about technology and innovation. We want to get a sense of how things will develop and to hope that we can anticipate the developments to come. The offerings by Kevin Kelly and W. Brian Arthur aim to help people get a sense of how technology develops. Kelly would know – he is the founding editor for Wired magazine. From him, the sense is that technology is fast becoming a branch of life by itself. There is first the observation that technology is developing in the trajectory of life; that as it is possible to think about the speciation of life into many diverse niches, so technology continues to specialise into smaller and smaller niches, becoming more ubiquitous. W. Brian Arthur describes the process of technological development – how new technology has to come from old technology; solutions to existing problems become the bases for new solutions. There isn’t a straightforward process as to how innovation comes about – old parts can become re-adapted for entirely new purposes unforeseen. The interesting details are in the individual processes where this has happened.
The two titles are related in how they talk about ideas. Gleick writes about the history of information and how information came to be understood. Gleick goes through the usual pantheon of heroes in information science – Shannon, Watson and Crick (the discovery of DNA and how it compresses the information needed for life), Vannevar Bush, von Neumann, up to the study of networks and the typology of information. Johnson writes about the history of innovation. Johnson notes how innovation comes from networked environments without any clear market incentive. There are numerous case studies of the discovery of the serendipitous discovery of the microwave background radiation and the conceptualisation of GPS.
Taking all 4 together, what do we get? There is unlikely to be a straightforward way to predict or foretell the future of technology/innovation. There is only the possibility of creating the conditions for innovation. Technological development is non-linear, and here the hope is that non-linear trajectories are precisely what one would hope for for the unexpected technological solutions to present issues.