The idea of technological evolution

Photo from National Geographic

When we speak about technology, we often talk about it as separate from nature, as if we can distinguish between things that exist in some natural state as resources of the world and things that have been subject to the will of humanity, and perhaps even the will of non-human animals. After all, there are various animals which have been shown to take objects from the natural world and re-purpose them towards some other goal.

For instance the Egyption vulture will pick up a rock with its beak and throw it down on an Ostrich egg to break its shell. Alternatively, there are primates which will take a stick and shape its use for various purposes, or they might use a leaf as a sponge to gather water for drinking. In each of these cases, along with the more complex examples of humanities history, technological artefacts are those entities which have been reimagined and repurposed, as a result of manipulating or transforming the intended function of a natural resource within an ecosystem. But do such functions evolve?

One difficulty with answering this question is that the idea of technological evolution is not terribly well characterized, in part, because we think about evolution as being essentially a process applied to biological life forms. Yet, we may also consider examples of technology and describe aspects of their development in ways that are analogous to the process of evolution. Consider the development of the automobile, which has, over time, developed both in terms of performance but also aesthetics. One may argue that the automobile, as an object of humanity’s desire, has evolved to be more desirable. As well, its functional properties have also evolved in a way that is similar to natural selection. The most adaptive designs remain, whilst previous, inferior versions, cease to exist, except as objects of curiosity. Thus, the vintage car is analogous to a fossil, which we put on display in order to tell us something about our history.

Other technologies may be described similarly. For example, with each iteration of a computer’s operating system, it becomes more efficient and, while the user experience may not consistently reflect this efficiency, this is because we too must evolve with the technology and yet we often do not. Here, we find further evidence to justify the description of technology as an evolutionary process, as it operates within a wider ecosystem of change. Similarly, biology does not evolve independently, but evolves as a result of a range of environmental interactions, where certain characteristics flourish and others are removed from the gene pool. We see this with technology in many ways. For instance, I am writing this essay using voice typing, which may be described as an evolution of the technology of typing with one fingers on a keyboard. In this sense, we might claim that the keyboard, as a technology, is becoming extinct by a new, more efficient format.

The challenge with this analogy is that demarcating species characteristics around specific technological entities is much harder than biology. Consider, again the example of writing. Let us imagine that we describe the evolution of writing, as a distinct species category, what is it exactly that describes the species? After all, writing is a relatively abstract concept, which is realised in the context of specific modes of writing, from cave paintings and hieroglyphics to the printing press, quills, pens, touch pads, and keyboards.

Thus, what we lack in our definition of technological evolution is a way of demaracating specific species in a way that we do with biology. For instance, I were to say that the art of writing has evolved, then I would have to apply this to so many varied practices that it would be difficult to identify which are its essential properties, in a way that makes sense technologically. In one respect, writing is the art of moving ideas from one’s brain to a recorded format, but this definition hardly seems like technology at all.

Consequently, the concept of technological evolution becomes a matter of conceptual assertions about change or, rather, at the heart of technology is not technology at all, but something far more interesting and abstract. If we seek to characterize technology as capable of evolution, then we must describe technologies not in terms of their materials or their functions, but in terms of what kinds of capacities they allow us to enjoy and how those may have been advanced by each iteration of their development. For example, we might consider the technology of shoes as having evolved from sandals to complex trainers which provide cushioning and support, but the crucial subject of the evolution is to our capacity to move more freely, safely, comfortably, and effectively. Yet, I know many people who would say that sandals remain the most evolved show — and I even know scientists who would say that foot health is optimised without any shoes at all.

Alternatively, we might say that the mobile phone has evolved making the process of communication more efficient, or richer. Notably, these will also be contested claims and some people may feel that mobile phones have become a hindrance to social relationships. However, this is not terribly detrimental to our claim that technology has evolved. After all, the survival of some species characteristics over others means also that some species flourish while others do not.

In this respect, it is consistent with evolution that not everything is improved for every species, as a result of the change, but there remains some crucial criterion of value which explains why one version has been selected, while others have not. For instance, 4G phone networks surpass 2G because they allow more data to pass through phones. This may mean we spend too much time on our phones, but that is not really the point. From the perpsective of the artefact, it has become more capable at performing its core tasks.

In sum, the idea of technological evolution requires some work to identify the specifics of our analogy to nature. However, we might make inroads towards demarcating something similar to species forms in a way that is similar to biological change.

With this approach to understanding technology in such terms, we may more effectively understand the importance of technological conservation, the need for technological principles to be protected in law, and we may also ensure we have a definition of technology which also pushes back against its historically proprietary infrastructure.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman