The Nature of Technology



Brian Arthur, Santa Fe Institute
Lynn Eden, CISAC

Date and Time

April 12, 2010 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


Reuben W. Hills Conference Room

FSI Contact

Justin C. Liszanckie

This is part of the Stanford seminar series on Science, Technology, and Society.

How do transformative new technologies arise, and how does innovation really work? Conventional thinking ascribes the invention of technologies to “thinking outside the box,” or vaguely to genius or creativity, but Arthur shows that such explanations are inadequate. Rather, technologies are put together from pieces  themselves technologies  that already exist. Technologies therefore share common ancestries, and combine, morph, and combine again, to create further technologies. Technology evolves much as a coral reef builds itself from activities of small organisms  it creates itself from itself; and all technologies are descended from earlier technologies.

W. Brian Arthur is an External Faculty Member at the Santa Fe Institute, IBM Faculty Fellow, and Visiting Researcher in the Intelligent Systems Lab at PARC (formerly Xerox Parc). From 1983 to 1996 he was Morrison Professor of Economics and Population Studies at Stanford University. He holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley in Operations Research, and has other degrees in economics, engineering and mathematics.

Arthur pioneered the modern study of positive feedbacks or increasing returns in the economy--in particular their role in magnifying small, random events in the economy. This work has gone on to become the basis of our understanding of the high-tech economy. He has recently published a new book: The Nature of Technology: What it Is and How it Evolves, "an elegant and powerful theory of technology's origins and evolution."He is also one of the pioneers of the science of complexity.

Arthur was the first director of the Economics Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and has served on SFI's Science Board and Board of Trustees. He is the recipient of the Schumpeter Prize in economics, the Lagrange Prize in complexity science, and two honorary doctorates.

Arthur is a frequent keynote speaker on such topics as: How exactly does innovation work and how can it be fostered? What is happening in the economy, and how should we rethink economics? How is the digital revolution playing out in the economy? How will US and European national competitiveness fare, given the rise of China and India?

Lynn Eden is Associate Director for Research at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. Eden received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan, held several pre- and post-doctoral fellowships, and taught in the history department at Carnegie Mellon before coming to Stanford. In the area of international security, Eden has focused on U.S. foreign and military policy, arms control, the social construction of science and technology, and organizational issues regarding nuclear policy and homeland security. She co-edited, with Steven E. Miller, Nuclear Arguments: Understanding the Strategic Nuclear Arms and Arms Control Debates (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989). She was an editor of The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), which takes a social and cultural perspective on war and peace in U.S. history. That volume was chosen as a Main Selection of the History Book Club.

Eden's book Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004; New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2004) explores how and why the U.S. government--from World War II to the present--has greatly underestimated the damage caused by nuclear weapons by failing to predict damage from firestorms. It shows how well-funded and highly professional organizations, by focusing on what they do well and systematically excluding what they don't, may build a poor representation of the world--a self-reinforcing fallacy that can have serious consequences, from the sinking of the Titanic to not predicting the vulnerability of the World Trade Center to burning jet fuel. Whole World on Fire won the American Sociological Association's 2004 Robert K. Merton Award for best book in science, knowledge, and technology.

Co-sponsored by STS, CISAC, and WTO.

Arthur's new book, The Nature of Technology, will be available for purchase.

Please bring lunch; drinks and light refreshments will be provided.

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