Technology is a means to a better life. Few would dispute the case today. Whether you think of food production or air conditioning or medical services or smartphones and computers and software, our living and working conditions are better as a result of technology. We would not want to back to pre-technology days, and most of us would not want to go back to the earlier technology days of, say, the 1700’s. There was technology back then, but it couldn’t be as useful to us as it is today.
W. Brian Arthur has written a useful book called The Nature Of Technology: What It Is And How It Evolves. At the outset, he asks the question: what is technology? How do we define it? He proposes three separate but related definitions:
- Technology is a means to fulfill a human purpose, a means to an end as economists phrase it. The means might be a diesel engine to power your car to get to work, or a roller bearing to reduce friction in the work of a machine. Technology is always a means to carry out a human purpose.
- Technology is an assembly of parts and practices. Bio-technology, for example, combines many toolboxes of individual technologies and practices such as laboratory research and injections into the human body.
- And technology can mean an entire collection of devices and practices available to us as a culture or a society.
Arthur illustrates the three meanings with reference to a F-35 carrier-based fighter aircraft. It’s a means to the end of displaying power and making war. The aircraft itself is an assembly of parts and practices: a jet engine, wings, avionics. Each of these is an assembly of sub-assemblies: the jet engine has an air inlet system, a compressor system, a combustion system, a turbine system, and so on. Each of these sub-assemblies has components. And they all use the practice of engineering.
And the F-35 is part of a larger collection of devices that constitute the carrier battle group, the Navy, the armed services, and the military-industrial complex.
Then Arthur adds another element to his definition of technology. In all its forms, technology harnesses phenomena. Oil refining harnesses the phenomenon that components of vaporized crude oil condense at different temperatures. A hammer harnesses the phenomenon of transmission of momentum from a moving object to a stationary one. A humble radio receiver harnesses phenomena including induction, electron attraction and repulsion, voltage drop across resistance, frequency resonance and more. Arthur’s point is that phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise.
What this excellent author and his penetrating analytical description of technology in society misses, it seems to me, is the most productive and beneficial technology of all: entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is technology in every one of Arthur’s definitions. It is, first, a means to fulfill a human purpose. That purpose is a better life – to bring into being a better set of circumstances, a preferable set of conditions, than exist today. Entrepreneurs pursue this end for others now, in order to achieve it (later) for themselves.
Entrepreneurship is also assembly. In fact, economists use that very word to portray the act of entrepreneurship: assembling resources, capital, processes and people, and organizing them in teams and firms and corporations in order to achieve their human purpose. Entrepreneurship brings about lasting institutions to transmit the achievements of assembly across generations and across geographies.
And entrepreneurship is a collection of actions and practices for the benefit of society and the strengthening of culture. We study entrepreneurial history to understand how the actions of individual entrepreneurs, embracing risk and defying uncertainty, have led to civilizational advance, scientific understanding and commercial discovery. Entrepreneurship drives social evolution and technological evolution. Entrepreneurs experiment and try new approaches and build new devices so that we can all benefit from the learning that comes from both success and failure. The entrepreneurs bear the brunt of the failures and the rest of society benefits from the successes.
And what are the phenomena harnessed by entrepreneurship? The first is the most fundamental of all: the phenomenon of human action: that humans act, take decisions and make choices in order to improve their subjectively-perceived conditions of life, to make things better. And there is a special second phenomenon that is particularly harnessed by entrepreneurs, that of anticipative understanding (as Ludwig von Mises termed it): the reasoned, sensible, intuitive anticipation of that future better life, based on their tacit knowledge, their subjective understanding, their empathy and their experience. Successful entrepreneurs harness this phenomenon better than other people, though it may be available to all.
It is not the technology of the F-35 or the computer or the smartphone or of biotech that makes life better, or that advances civilization. Those are secondary outcomes of the complex human system powered by entrepreneurship. The conditions of life can be continuously improved and our human state can be continuously elevated because we have entrepreneurs who can harness the phenomenon of human action aimed at betterment. Entrepreneurship is the meta-technology, making all sub-assemblies and components possible, continually driving advances in other technologies, society, the economy and civilization.