Technological Evolution

Some have developed evolutionary concepts to study innovation in organisations. For example Basalla (1989) gives an account of technological evolution focuses on the changing nature of technological artefacts (e.g. tools). Drawing from wider literature on the diffusion of innovation, others have focused more on the evolution of the knowledge behind the production of these artefacts (Murmann, 2003; see Ziman, 2000). Jablonka (2000) argues that whilst it might be easier to analyze the evolution of the phenotypic expression of technologies through artefacts, a true understanding of the detailed mechanisms of selection can only be gained through an analysis of the psychological and social context of the diffusion of innovations themselves (Fleck, 2000; Jablonka, 2000). In this way Murmann (2003) distinguishes between the notion of the replicator as represented by ideas and knowledge, and the manifestation of that knowledge in physical artefacts, whilst Mokyr (2000) proposes that the technique behind the technology be the interactor as opposed to the artefact. Recently Arthur (2009) presents a detailed account of the evolution of technologies through a process he terms combinatorial evolution. In this account technologies inherit parts of technologies that preceded them in a complex, multi-level and interactive processes, starting with the phenomena, or basic building blocks, from which humans ultimately develop working technologies. Drawing on biological analogies, Arthur views evolving technologies as metabolisms, in which phenomena are ‘programmed’ for a purpose. He posits that phenomena are analogous to genes in the biological world. The technological elements are by extension viewed as the phenotypic expression of those underlying genes. The process through which new combinations of technologies arise is mediated by engineers and designers, and is defined by the mechanisms of variation (through combination), selection and retention, as combinations gain favour and spread through communities in a meme-like (Dawkins, 1976) fashion (Dobson and Breslin, 2013).

Recommended Reading

Murmann, J.P. (2003). Knowledge and Competitive Advantage: The Co-Evolution of Firms, Technology and National Institutions. New York: Cambridge University Press

A rich multi-level account of the co-evolution of the synthetic dye industry in Germany. Murmann builds this account using the building blocks of Generalized Darwinism, drawing on archival data of the industry in question.
Arthur, B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves. London: Penguin Books

This text presents a comprehensive conceptualization of the process of technological development. Arthur puts forward the notion of combinatorial evolution, and using this to build a complex, co-evolutionary account.
Ziman, J. (2000). Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

A interesting collection of contributions which largely share the view that technological evolution can be described in Generalized Darwinist terms. Different views regarding the unit of selection, and candidates for the replicator-interactor are put forward.
Basalla, G. (1989) The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

While this text does not draw on micro-level evolutionary concepts, it nonetheless presents a rich picture of the evolutionary processes in the development of a number of everyday objects and technologies.

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