Brian Arthur argues innovation in technology is not a matter of individual genius, but instead the product of a process akin to evolution

In this post, I will discuss a distinction between the individual and the wider context within which she or he operates.

I will also discuss differing views regarding the distinction between local history and world history.

I will begin with a reference to a Feb. 9, 2019 BBC article entitled: “Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us.”

I have not posted a link to the article, as it is at a Not Secure site.

An excerpt from the article reads:

The economist W Brian Arthur is one of the most significant thinkers to have advanced this combinatorial account of technology, especially in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology. Central to Arthur’s argument is the insight that it’s not only pointless but also actively misleading to do what most history books cannot resist, and treat the history of technology as a greatest-hits list of influential inventions: to tell stirring tales of the impact of the compass, the clock, the printing press, the lightbulb, the iPhone.


An underlying point, in the blurb, is that looking at the role of the individual is but one way to look at things.

We can, that is to say, look far beyond the individual and take a very close account of the wider context, within which a given individual – in the role of celebrated inventor, by way of example – is enmeshed.

The Nature of Technology (2009)

A blurb for The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (2009) reads:

Brian Arthur is a pioneer of complexity theory and the discoverer of the highly influential “theory of increasing returns,” which took Silicon Valley by storm, famously explaining why some high-tech companies achieve breakaway success. Now, in this long-awaited and ground-breaking book, he solves the great outstanding puzzle of technology – where do transformative new technologies come from? – putting forth the first full theory of how new technologies emerge and offering a definitive answer to the mystery of why some cultures – Silicon Valley, Cambridge, England in the 1920s – are so extraordinarily inventive. He has discovered that rather than springing from insight moments of individual genius, new technologies arise in a process akin to evolution. Technology evolves by creating itself out of itself, much as a coral reef builds itself from activities of small organisms.


Global digital realms are the product of individual coders

In his discussion of the history of technological innovation, Brian Arthur distinguishes between storytelling based on the role of individual genius, and storytelling based, in the words of the above-noted blurb, on a “process akin to evolution.”

The distinction is of interest.

With reference to technology, specifically as it relates to coding, my role as a blogger occasionally involves working in HTML, a language noteworthy for its precision and orderliness.

The connection of coding to the global history of the nineteenth century come to mind, when I think about how HTML works.

It also occurs to me, when I think about coding, that the wider society, within which coding is embedded, is less orderly – at least, with regard to evidence that is readily available to us – than is the world of coding.

Yet an underlying orderliness may in fact be there; conversely, the orderliness that is inherent within coding is not unlimited; some aspects of coding reflect features of the human mind, that readily promote a wide range of biases and distortions, related to our perceptions of reality.

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World (2019)

I am reminded in this context of an April 2, 2019 CBC The Current article entitled: “Digital technology is reshaping our world – and coders are deciding how, says author: ‘Code now architects the way that society changes,’ Clive Thompson says.”

An excerpt from the article, which include a transcript of the interview, reads:

The world around us is being “deeply influenced” by coding, often in very invisible ways, while those writing the computer code are paying little attention to the consequences, according to a technology journalist and author.

“Over and over again we see that activities that used to be analogue are now becoming digital, which means they’re now run by code,” said Clive Thompson.

“And so the design decisions – that are made by the coders, and the designers, and the UI [user interface] engineers – change the way we live,” he told The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti.

These changes are similar to how the building of subway systems in the late 19th and early 20th century had a strong influence on how a city was going to grow, he explained.

“Code now architects the way that society changes.”

Thompson is the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World [2019].


The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2014)

In the above-noted reference to the global history of the nineteenth century, I think in particular of a book I am currently reading, namely, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2014), by Jürgen Osterhammel.

When we look at the local from the perspective of the global, we encounter a broad screen. Through a study of the wider picture, we can bring a richer texture, to our analysis of the local, than would otherwise be the case.

With regard to the distinction between local and global points of view, I have an interest in Brian Arthur’s distinction between storytelling based on the role of individual genius, and storytelling based on a “process akin to evolution” (as noted in blurb, at beginning of the post).

Among other things, Coders (2019) also concerns itself with the distinction between the individual coder and the wider realms of global technology.

In the introduction to The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel refers, as well, to a distinction between local and world history.

A blurb for The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2014) reads:

Osterhammel describes a world increasingly networked by the telegraph, the steamship, and the railways. He explores the changing relationship between human beings and nature, looks at the importance of cities, explains the role slavery and its abolition played in the emergence of new nations, challenges the widely held belief that the nineteenth century witnessed the triumph of the nation-state, and much more.


The introduction to The Transformation of the World (2014) spells out, very clearly, how the book came to be written, and what the key topics are, from one part of the book to the next.

Not all studies of history are as well organized as this one. The book features great storytelling, and each chapter stands very well on its own (meaning, as the author notes, with good humour, that you have an exit ramp any time you want to leave).

In itself, the effectiveness of a writer’s storytelling does not determine the quality of the final product, given that some storytelling can be highly effective, albeit based in large part on data that can neither be verified nor corroborated.

In the case of The Transformation of the World (2014), however, we have both great storytelling and (with the exception, perhaps, of some remarks in the introduction) a close connection to empirical data.

Does all history incline toward world history?

In the introduction to the 2014 study, which is from the introduction to the first German edition, published in 2009, Osterhammel asserts (p. xv) that:

All history inclines toward being world history. Sociological theories tell us that the world is the “environment of all environments,” the ultimate possible context for what happens in history and the account we give of it. The tendency to tran­scend the local becomes stronger in the longue durée of historical development.


My own distinction, between local and global, does not quite coincide with that of Osterhammel. I do not view all history as inclining toward world history.

Instead, I see local history as embedded in world history. Without local history feeding into it, world history would not exist.

To speak of a “tendency to transcend the local” strikes me as vague. How would “to transcend” be defined, in such a statement, with any degree of precision?

Osterhammel asserts, as well (p. xv), that:

Even today, in the age of the Internet and boundless telecommunications, billions of people live in narrowly local conditions from which they can escape neither in reality nor in their imag­ination.


This strikes me as a sweeping generalization, which lacks a strong grounding in evidence. What does the author know, on the basis of evidence, about what billions imagine, with regard to what lies beyond their local conditions? Maybe such evidence exists, but I have not seen it cited.

I can think, as well, of storytelling in the realm of fiction. A good number of excellent writers – Alice Munro, a lifelong resident of small-town Southwestern Ontario – comes to mind at once – who have written about local conditions.

Given their understanding of the inextricable connection, between the local and the global, such writers have created narratives that consistently resonate with a global readership – such locally-focused narratives are read with interest, and with deep understanding, by people everywhere.

Canal construction

On the other hand, The Transformation of the World (2014) includes an apt and specific reference (I am certain this is one of many, throughout the book), with regard to the influence of restricted geographical circumstances, in particular, in this case, in relation to lives of nineteenth-century workers in canal construction:

An army of mainly unskilled workers, drawn from the most diverse sources, came together for the construction of the American canals: job seekers from rural areas, new immigrants, slaves, free blacks, women, and children. They all lacked power and status, and control over their work conditions. The chances for solidarity were small, and organized workers’ movements did not arise out of such kinds of work. Besides, canal workers were geographically marginal; their lifeworld was the construction site and the barracks camp.


The point, in this passage, is a point well taken. It’s a point that Alice Munro has made, in interviews, to describe the limited horizons of small-town life, a setting in which she has lived the large majority of her life.

Jürgen Osterhammel excels at nonfiction storytelling

The author’s own research has focused on the final phase of British informal imperialism in China, and the role of Asia in the thinking of the European Enlightenment. He also has an interest in historical sociology, and in the history and theory of world history writing.

I will conclude with an overview of the construction of Osterhammel’s study of nineteenth-century world history. A plan of the book, as outlined in the introduction, goes as follows:

Part One outlines, in three chapters, the general parameters (that is, approaches) for what follows. The focus, in this regard, is on self-reflection; time; and space.

He makes the point, in the introduction, that he will treat time and space equally, rather than giving priority to a “spatial turn.”

Part Two consists of eight chapters, offering a “panorama” of eight spheres of reality. In such a presentation, the author does not claim to represent all parts of the world equally, but is trying to avoid major gaps.

Part Three consists of seven chapters; here, a transition is made from a “panoramic” perspective, to a perspective built around “themes.” This part features a more narrowly focused, essay-type discussion. Not everything, that can be included, is included; and examples are used mainly to illustrate general arguments. This part includes a transition from synthesis to analysis, which in the author’s view are modes of representation that do not stand in strong contrast to each other.

It is truly a pleasure to read such a well-planned, carefully constructed, beautifully written work of history.

Some other works by Osterhammel (as author or co-author) include:

Decolonization: A Short History (2017)

Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (1997)

Unfabling the East: the Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia (2018)

An Emerging Modern World, 1750-1870 (2018)

Globalization: A Short History (2005)

Max Weber and His Contemporaries (1987)

The individual can demonstrate a huge level of human agency

In this post, I have highlighted the view that context matters as much as the individual. It also warrants underlining, in my view, that the individual, embedded in whatever context, can demonstrate a huge level of human agency.

I can speak of instances that I’m aware of, through participation, anecdotal observation, and reading of history, where particular individuals, acting in this case on behalf of their local communities, have played a huge role, in moving a wide range of projects forward, to the benefit of their fellow residents.

Some people truly stand out, that is to say, as visionaries and leaders, given their capacity to draw forth great results, from within the context – situated in space and time – within which they are embedded.

Thomas Edison relied on creative teamwork

A November 2019 Atlantic article is entitled: “The Many Contradictions of Thomas Edison: His greatest invention wasn’t the light bulb or the phonograph or the moving picture—or anything tangible. It was a way of thinking about technology.”

An excerpt reads:

This can be read in several ways—as provocative overstatement, as an honest description of creativity’s mechanics, or as a paean to the inventor’s workaholism. To me, its ambiguity highlights Edison’s greatest contradiction. The man who created the team-based R&D lab had a habit of talking about his work in the first-person singular, referring to “my so-called inventions” and anointing himself “the industrious one.” Edison’s life should be a durable lesson in the power of creative teamwork. Instead his surname has become an eponym for individual genius, whether heroic or hyped. Edison reveres its subject, but Morris’s portrait also shows that while “the industrious one” can be a remarkable catalyst, inventiveness truly thrives thanks to the industrious many.

‘The real driver of innovation isn’t lone geniuses but state investment’

An Oct. 8, 2019 Wired UK article is entitled: “This economist has a plan to fix capitalism. It’s time we all listened; Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated that the real driver of innovation isn’t lone geniuses but state investment. Now she’s working with the UK government, EU and UN to apply her moonshot approach to the world’s biggest challenges.”

An excerpt reads:

That posed an urgent, more fundamental problem. If it was the state, not the private sector, which had traditionally assumed the risks of uncertain technological enterprises that led to the development of aviation, nuclear energy, computers, nanotechnology, biotechnology and the internet, how were we going to find the next wave of technologies to tackle urgent challenges such as catastrophic climate change, the epidemic of antibiotic resistance, the rise of dementia? “History tells us that innovation is an outcome of a massive collective effort – not just from a narrow group of young white men in California,” Mazzucato says. “And if we want to solve the world’s biggest problems, we better understand that.”

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