G.Basalla: The Evolution of Technology

George Basalla's book called "The Evolution of Technology" (Cambridge University Press, 1988) is another important resource for the game controller project. In this volume, the authors describes his theory of technological change based on the history of technology, economic history and anthropology. The whole book is driven by a strong theoretical perspective: the analogy between the evolution of technical objects and the evolutionary metaphor in order to show to that this metaphor can give insights otherwise unavailable to the history of technology Basalla uses the term "evolution" as a metaphor "at the heart of all extended analytical and critical thought" and highlight it as useful to apply this concept from biological evolution to evolution in technology. Initially this analogy was used from technology to biology (to describe living organisms in mechanical terms) and then the other way around, as a way to arrange technical objects into "genera, species and varieties and proceed from this classificatory exercise to the construction of an evolutionary tree illustrating the connections between the various forms of mechanical life". To him the difference is the following:

"the evolutionary metaphor must be approached with caution because there are vast differences between the world of the made and the world of the born. One is the result of purposeful human activity, the other the outcome of a random natural process. One produces a sterile physical object, the other a living being capable of reproducing itself. (...) Technological evolution has nothing comparable to the mass extinctions that are of interest to evolutionary biologists. History does not record any widespread, cataclysmic extinctions of entire classes of artifacts, although something similar might occur on a local level in remote communities or on isolated islands"

(The evolution of aboriginal weapons by Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers)

His theory of technological evolution is rooted in four broad concepts: diversity, continuity, novelty and selection.

Continuity Based on a fair amount of examples, Basalla debunks the notion of "technological revolutions" and the mere existence of "heroic inventors". To him, both are wrong and "key artifacts such as the steam engine, the cotton gin, or the transistor, emerged in an evolutionary fashion from their antecedents". Of course some changes are more important than others but: (1) There's always a continuity between techniques, (2) sometimes artifacts iteration is not based on other artifact but what Basalla calls "naturfacts": artifacts created after the analogy with natural elements (see the example of Barbed Wire based on thorny fence made of short trees).

He explains the origins of the discontinuous argument with the following notions:

  1. The loss or concealment of crucial antecedents: "the first automobiles were little more than 4-wheeled bicycles. Henry Ford called his car a "quadracycle",
  2. The emergence of the inventor as a hero: "Because heroic deeds are most often linked with revolutions, evolutionary explanations of technological change did not have a broad appeal. Nationalism also played a part in the 19th Century (...) The same exhibitions that glorified industrial progress, and the men who made it possible (...) A bizarre situation thus developed in which the heroic inventors of one country were scarcely acknowledged in another land"
  3. The patent system: "All of patent law is based on the assumption that an invention is a discrete, novel entity that can be assigned to the individual who is determined by the courts to be its legitimate creator. (...) Such dissimulations are the result of a system that attempts to impose discontinuity on what is essentially a continuous phenomenon"
  4. The confusion of technological and socio-economical change: the term "Industrial "Revolution" seems to imply the technological artifacts that made it up was revolutionary. Instead, it was evolutionary!

(Evolution of spark catchers for train locomotive smokestacks)

Novelty This chapter aimed at understanding how to account for differences and diversity in technological artifacts. In this part, the author substitutes the notion of "Homo Faber " ("Man the maker") to "Homo Ludens" ("Man the Player") to show the role of play in innovation. He then describes various sources:

  • Fantasy and Play: technological dreams: "the machines, proposals and visions generated by the technological community (...) epitomizes the technologists' propensity to go beyond what is technically feasible", technological extrapolations: "conservative ventures well within the bounds of possibility, perhaps a step or two beyond current practice", patents, bold and fantastic technological visions or popular fantasies: sci-fi, cartoons, fantastic machines...
  • Knowledge transfer by borrowing some aspects of a technology outside: cultural contacts because of imperialism, migration, trade, technology missions, industrial espionage, war.

In another chapter, he highlights how "human intervention can guide the variations toward a new artifact" and described the notion of skeuomorphs: "An element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material".

Selection As defined by Basalla:

"Because there is an excess of technological novelty and consequently not a close lit between invention and wants or needs, a process of selection must take place in which some innovations are developed and incorporated into a culture while others are rejected (...) evolution by natural selection has no preordained goal, purpose or direction. This is not true for artificial selection as practiced by animal and plant breeders. Here criteria are established by the humans who select characteristics they consider worthy of preservation. (...) Variant artifacts do not arise from the chance recombination of certain crucial constituent parts but are the result of a conscious process in which human taste and judgment are exercised in the pursuit of some biological, technological, psychological, social, economical, or cultural goal."

Some additional quotes about the notion of "needs":

"According to functionalist anthropologists and sociobiologists, every aspects of culture, material and nonmaterial, can be traced directly to the satisfaction of a basic need. (...) Critics of the biological theory, however proposed a number of strong counterarguments. (...) We cultivate technology to meet our perceived needs, not a set of universal ones legislated by nature (...) the artifactual world would exhibit far less diversity if it operated primarily under the constraints imposed by fundamental needs. (...) a skyscraper is not simply a structure to protect people from the vagaries of the weather"

Why do I blog this? I was drawn to this book thanks to several discussion threads. Mostly the recurring chat about circulation of design choices with my neighbor Basile, as well as an exchange of tweets with Antonio Casilli who recommended the book. The material in there was highly useful in general and relevant to our project that aims at mapping the evolution of joypads. Given our interest in studying a "lineage" of technical artifacts, I was wary of using the "evolution" metaphor because of the underlying idea of progress that I did not want to imply.

Overall, three quotes about the use of the evolutionary metaphor are important for our investigation of artifacts evolution:

"I use the evolutionary analogy because of its metaphorical and heuristic power and caution against any literal applications, not the least, the process of speciation (...) On the most general level the evolutionary analogy serves as a useful organizing principle for studying technological change (...) A workable theory of technological evolution requires there be no technological progress in the traditional sense of the term but accepts the possibility of limited progress toward a carefully selected goal within a restricted framework"