We are ignoring the new machine age at our peril

John Naughton writes: As a species, we don’t seem to be very good at dealing with nonlinearity. We cope moderately well with situations and environments that are changing gradually. But sudden, major discontinuities – what some people call “tipping points” – leave us spooked. That’s why we are so perversely relaxed about climate change, for example: things are changing slowly, imperceptibly almost, but so far there hasn’t been the kind of sharp, catastrophic change that would lead us seriously to recalibrate our behaviour and attitudes.

So it is with information technology. We know – indeed, it has become a cliche – that computing power has been doubling at least every two years since records of these things began. We know that the amount of data now generated by our digital existence is expanding annually at an astonishing rate. We know that our capacity to store digital information has been increasing exponentially. And so on. What we apparently have not sussed, however, is that these various strands of technological progress are not unconnected. Quite the contrary, and therein lies our problem.

The thinker who has done most to explain the consequences of connectedness is a Belfast man named W Brian Arthur, an economist who was the youngest person ever to occupy an endowed chair at Stanford University and who in later years has been associated with the Santa Fe Institute, one of the world’s leading interdisciplinary research institutes. In 2009, he published a remarkable book, The Nature of Technology, in which he formulated a coherent theory of what technology is, how it evolves and how it spurs innovation and industry. Technology, he argued, “builds itself organically from itself” in ways that resemble chemistry or even organic life. And implicit in Arthur’s conception of technology is the idea that innovation is not linear, but what mathematicians call “combinatorial”, ie one driven by a whole bunch of things. And the significant point about combinatorial innovation is that it brings about radical discontinuities that nobody could have anticipated. [Continue reading…]

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