Review of The Evolution of Technology by

Book cover for The Evolution of Technology

History is more than just a series of events happening in sequence. So many history books focus on discussing their subject matter as a series of chronological events, however, so books that flout this convention always feel the need to warn us. This is what George Basalla does in The Evolution of Technology. At the same time as he reassures us that this is an historical account of how technology develops, he dispels any misapprehension that this will be a chronological look at technology from fire through Stone Age hammers all the way to the atomic bomb. Rather, this is a well-structured argument that includes historical examples as needed.

The Evolution of Technology works because Basalla articulates his thesis so clearly and precisely that his entire argument is, if not convincing, at least admirable. Although the title is a loaded one, Basalla is careful to always demarcate where the metaphor he consciously invokes breaks down, such as is the case when discussing natural selection in evolution versus artificial selection in technology. By treading so carefully, Basalla avoids overreaching and weakening his argument.

The first two chapters are introductory, establishing the topic and the terms in which Basalla will discuss the evolution of technology. Here we're given an idea of the historical and contemporary attitudes toward technological development, both with regards to what gets developed (Chapter I: "Diversity, Necessity, and Evolution") and how it gets developed ("Chapter II: Continuity and Discontinuity"). Basalla's most concerned with dispelling the—fallacious, in his view—idea that technological development occurs in a series of discontinuous revolutions initiated by individual "genius" inventors. While he doesn't dispute that individuals can make significant contributions to invention, he goes to great lengths to establish a sense of continuity when it comes to innovation.

This yields a perfect segue into the next two chapters, which are all about novelty. If it's the case that "revolutions" are more a product of historical analysis than actual fact, what criteria can we use for calling an artifact or invention "novel", and what factors in society determine these criteria? Basalla divides this analysis into four major types of factors that he splits across the two chapters: psychological and intellectual factors, and socioeconomic and cultural factors. Far from being abstract and abstruse, Basalla's arguments employ specific examples from a wide variety of technologies. He does tend to focus on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century innovations, including the steam engine and the automobile, probably because of the plethora of economic and historical data available for these inventions and the people involved in their production. This is a sound strategy, for it provides a common thread of investigation throughout the entire book (and he includes enough examples from other eras, like xylography in ancient China, to avoid charges of hasty generalization). Basalla makes a convincing case for why novelty emerged as a very individualist, Western concept while China and the Middle East did not embrace novelty as the mother of invention.

From novelty, Basalla moves on to selection. His factors are similar, although in this case he pays more attention to involvement of the economy and the military. Once again, the steam engine and the automobile feature heavily in the examples he invokes. However, he also discusses the ill-fated attempt to develop commercial supersonic transport and the propaganda-saturated era of nuclear power. Of particular interest is his counterfactual look at how there are potential alternative technologies for those adapted at various points in history: for instance, if railroads hadn't connected the United States in the nineteenth century, it's possible that canals and rivers could have picked up the slack. This isn't random science fiction speculation on his part—while any counterfactual history is ultimately speculative, Basalla draws on serious studies on the subject to marshal support for his anti-deterministic argument for the evolution of technology.

Basalla claims that The Evolution of Technology is an historical look at technology, and not a philosophy of science textbook. Well, I read this for a Philosophy of Science & Technology class. It's definitely an historical account, but I think there's more philosophy in here than Basalla admits. It's good philosophy though, interesting and well-argued. Of the two books I'm reading for this class (the other is Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, by Robert Klee), I liked this one better.

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