Joel Mokyr, “Evolution and Technological Change: a new Metaphor for Economic History?”

Joel Mokyr takes a bold historiographic step and proposes a comprehensive theory of technological change (innovation) based upon evolutionary theory. In his model, individual technologies are the players in a vast web of interactions that spawn new technologies according to standard and predictable rules.

His theory differentiates between technique, understood as a set of instructions for producing something, and technological artifacts themselves, or “technique in action.” The first is analogous to genotype, the second to phenotype. Innovation then becomes a question of emergence–bottom-up behavior within a chaotic system–rather than the result of top-down design by a few “inventors.” Mokyr calls this “open system behavior,” and we must note that along with being emergent, innovation is seen here as being undirected, inexorable, and dynamic. It never slows down, and never occurs in isolation, contrary to monolithic, top-down models.

According to Mokyr, there are three types of innovation (which he calls “invention”):

1. Mutations: These are radical alterations of a given technology that generate totally new knowledge.

2. Recombinations: These occur when knowledge is applied from one area (or technology) to another, to generate something new (either an artifact or a method), as when aerodynamics are applied to submarine propeller design.

3. Hybrids: This is a phenotypical combination of different technologies in a novel way. The motorcycle is an example of a hybrid: it combines elements of the bicycle with elements of the automobile.

What form innovation will take depends largely upon the overall system, which includes not only existing technologies but social contexts. For instance, innovation during wartime takes place differently from innovation in times of peace. Social competition and economics are all-important contextual determinants of technological change; both to selection of technologies (which are utilized and which “die out”) and to the sorts of combinations that occur in the process of innovation.

Nonetheless, there is sometimes resistance to the selection of new and potentially favorable techniques (i.e., technologies that would appear to be superior to other technologies). Mokyr calls these “Network Complementaries,” or technologies do not exist in isolation, but as components of larger systems. One component cannot change (evolve) without requiring the entire system to change. However, there are certain “gateway technologies” that convert certain components of a system so that they can be compatible with radically different components. Voltage converters are an example of a gateway technology.


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