State of Innovation

Patents and Innovation Economics

Book Review: The Nature of Technology

The goal of this book is to define the process of how technology is created and evolves.  The author, Arthur W.. Brian, is an economist with an electrical engineering background.  The book tackles a very important subject that has barely been scratched.  Technology, as the author points out, defines are standard of living.  Increasing one’s level of technology is the only way to increase real per capita income.  Most books about technology and “innovation” are poorly written, poorly thought out, and meant to sell the author as a mystical guru of innovation.  George Gilder being one of the exceptions, but even his writing on the subject is meanders and tied to specific technology trends.

The book starts by defining a technology as a unique combination of elements and the author repeatedly points out that every technology is built on existing elements (technologies) and scientific phenomena.  If the author had just used this as his definition of an invention, he could have taught the Supreme Court a lot about patent law.  He also explains that a new system technology (jet engines instead of prop engines) require new component technologies.  He has a several interesting historical examples of this.  I have often used this knowledge to tell inventors/companies how to expand their patent portfolio.

The author could have saved himself a lot of trouble by talking to a competent patent attorney.  For instance, the author discovers that every technology can be described as a system or a method.  If he had just talked to a patent attorney they would have pointed him Landis on the Mechanics of Claim Drafting where this is explained.

The books explanation that both technology and biological entities are built hierarchically and higher levels of technology cannot be created until the building blocks are in place is very important.  His computer “experiment” about the development of logic circuits was very interesting.  The authors explanation that neither technology nor the economy is ever in equilibrium is a point that cannot made too often.  The idea of a static economy (biology) leads to all sorts of economic nonsense – see minimum wage and government mandates for alternative energy.

I think the author’s definition of economy is a step in the right direction.  He states economy is “the set of arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies it needs” and economics is the study of this.  This is such a good step in the right direction, but “society” should be changed to “human beings.”  This may sound like a small difference but it makes clear that economics applies even in small groups, even for an individual living on a deserted island.  This is important because it eliminates the nonsense that what makes no sense in isolation makes sense with a large group of people.  Also society does not have needs, people do.  This change avoids the Orwellian implications of defining economics in terms of society.

The author’s definition of invention and standard engineering needs to be rethought.  Standard engineering is the creation of a specific instance of an invention to fit a particular need.  For instance, standard engineering involves modifying a high pass operational amplifier to work for a specific frequency or modifying it to handle a higher power signal, or modifying a bike so it is designed for children.  The engineer is not creating a new class of objects he is modifying an existing technology (invention) to meet a particular need.

While the book is highly repetitive and ignores the store of knowledge from patent law it is well worth reading.



February 3, 2014 - Posted by | News | ,


  1. Dale,

    Thanks for the link.
    Sounds like an interesting book worth digging more into.

    The title is a bit troubling because it includes the word “nature”.
    Often, technology oriented people do not understand their place within “nature”.
    They believe they can conquer “nature”. A fatal mistake.
    Nature always bats last.

    That aside, keep up the good fight.

    Comment by step back | February 3, 2014 | Reply

  2. It is a bit repetitive. I think nature here is ‘the basic or inherent features of something’ not ‘the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations’

    Comment by dbhalling | February 3, 2014 | Reply

  3. That is well understood, but not my point.
    The author seems to easily divorce his analysis of “technology” from an understanding of Nature itself and Nature as a whole where every human-developed technology must be a consequential and not independent part of Nature as a whole. Thus for example, the human-developed technology of coal fired electricity generating power plants is inextricably tied to air pollution and climate change. By extension so too is the human-developed technology of electricity powered super computers. (And “evolution” BTW is not inherently an always forward progressing process.)

    Comment by step back | February 4, 2014 | Reply

  4. So what you want an environmentalist analysis of technology. First of all environmentalism is a religion, not a science. If you want to rationally discuss the trades, then power plants are huge net positives. The alternative is not only more air pollution from burning wood or even coal in stoves (including inside the house or office which resulted in premature deaths of millions and still does affect people) but also a higher probability that people will not have the power then need which results in deaths from overheating (summer), exposure (winter), lack of clean water, etc, etc. etc.

    Climate change – is not science. Science requires a fidelity to the facts. Global warming propagandists have lied about the data so many times they make con man look honest.

    Comment by dbhalling | February 4, 2014 | Reply

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