(I scanned this article from

the Feb. 97 Scientific American.

It offers some profound insights

into the World Wide Web. )


By W. Brian Arthur,


How Fast is Technology



My grandfather, for some

reason, wore a hat to

meals. Some evenings--

also hatted--he would play the fiddle.

He was born in Ireland in 1874, and he

lived to see, in his long life, satellites,

computers, jet airplanes and the Apollo

space program. He went from a world

where illiterate people footed their way

on dirt roads, where one-room schools

had peat fires in the corner, where sto-

ries were told at night in shadows and

candlelight, to a world of motor cars

and electricity and telephones and radio

and x-ray machines and television. He

never left Ireland, although late in life he

wanted to go to England in an airplane

to experience flying. But in his lifetime -

one life time - he witnessed all these birth-

ings of technology.

It is young, this new technology. It is

recent. It has come fast. So fast, in fact,

that speed of evolution is regarded as a

signature of technology itself. But how

fast? How quickly does technology

evolve? It is hard to clock something as

ill defined as technology's speed of evo-

lution. But we can ask how fast we

would have to speed up the natural, bi-

ological evolution of life on our planet

to make it roughly match some particu-

lar technology's rate of change.

Let's imagine speeding up biological

evolution in history by a factor of 10

million. This would mean that instead of

life starting around 3,600 million years

ago, in our fast-forwarded world the

first, crude blue-green algae appear 360

years ago, about the year 1640. Multi-

cellular organisms arise in Jane Austen's

time, about 1810 or so, and the great

Cambrian explosion that produced the

ancestors of most of today's creatures

happens in the early 1930s, the Depres-

sion era. Dinosaurs show up in the late

1960s, then lumber through the 1970s

and into the 1980s. Birds and mammals

appear in the mid-1970s but do not

come fully into their own until the

1990s. Humankind emerges only in the

past year or two-and as Homo sapiens

only in the past month.

  Now let's lay this alongside a technol-

ogy whose speed we want to measure -

calculating machinery, say. We'll put it

on the same timeline, but evolving at its

actual rate. Early calculating machines -

abacuses - trail back, of course, into an-

tiquity. But the modern era of mechani-

cal devices starts in the years surround-

ing the 1640s, when the first addition,

subtraction and multiplication machines

of Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal and

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz begin to ap-

pear. These were rudimentary, perhaps,

but early computational life nonethe-

less. The first successful multicellular

devices (machines that use multiple in-

structions) are the Jacquard looms of

Jane Austen's time. Calculators and dif-

ference engines of varying ingenuity arise

and vanish throughout the 1800s. But

not until the 1930s - the Cambrian time

on our parallel scale - is there a true ex-

plosion. It's then that calculating ma-

chines become electrical, the government

goes statistical, and accounting becomes

mechanised. The 1960s see the arrival

of large mainframe computers, our par-

allel to the dinosaurs, and their domi-

nance lasts through the 1970s and

1980s. Personal computers show up,

like birds and mammals in the mid-

1970s, but do not take hold until the

late 1980s and early 1990s.

What then corresponds to human-

kind, evolution's most peculiar creation

to date? My answer is the Internet or,

more specifically, its offshoot, the World

Wide Web. The Web? Well, what counts

about the Web is not its technology.

That's still primitive. What counts is that

the Web provides access to the stored

memories, the stored experiences of oth-

ers. And that's what is also particular to

humans: our ability not just to think and

experience but to store our thoughts

and experiences and share them with

others as needed, in an interactive cul-

ture. What gives us power as humans is

not our minds but the ability to share

our minds, the ability to compute in

parallel. And it's this sharing - this par-

allelism - that gives the Web its power.

Like humans, the Web is new, although

its roots are not. And its impact is bare-

ly two years old.


This correspondence between biolo-

gy and technology is striking. And

naturally it's not perfect. Why should it

be? This is fun, after all - more whimsy

than science. But if we accept this corre-

spondence, crude as it is, it tells us that

technology is evolving at roughly 10

million times the speed of natural evo-

lution. Hurricane speed. Warp speed.

From what I've said, it would seem

that all the interesting things in technol-

ogy or biology have occurred recently.

But this is just appearance. In biological

evolution, it is not the species markers

that count but rather the new principles

that are "discovered" at rare intervals.

The miracles are not dinosaurs or mam-

mals or humans but are the "inventions"

of nucleotide-protein coding, cellular

compartmentation, multicelled organ-

isms with differentiated cells, networks

of on-off regulatory genes. So it is with

technology. The miracles are not com-

puters or the Net; they are the original

ideas that human reckoning can be ren-

dered into movements of cogs and

sprockets, that sequences of instructions

can be used to weave silk patterns, that

networks of electrical on-off switches

can be used to pinpoint the zeroes of the

Riemann zeta function. The miracles are

these new principles, and they arrive in-

frequently. Evolution merely kludges

them together to make new species or

new machines in continually novel ways.

If technology is indeed evolving at

something like 10 million times biolo-

gy's rate, perhaps this is too fast. Per-

haps we are careening into the future in

a bobsled with no controls. Or being

rocketed into orbit with no re-entry pos-

sible. This is frightening, maybe. Until

we realise that we use all the complicat-

ed, sleek, metallic, interwired, souped-up

gizmos at our disposal for simple, pri-

mate social purposes. We use jet planes

to come home to our loved ones at

Thanksgiving. We use the Net to hang

out with others in chat rooms and to ex-

change e-mail. We use quadraphonic-

sound movies to tell ourselves stories in

the dark about other people's lives. We

use high-tech sports cars to preen, and

attract mates. For all its glitz and swag-

ger, technology, and the whole interac-

tive revved-up economy that goes with

it, is merely an outer casing for our inner

selves. And these inner selves, these pri-

mate souls of ours with their ancient so-

cial ways, change slowly. Or not at all.

My grandfather died in 1968, the

year before human beings landed on

the moon. He never did realise his am-

bition to fly in an airplane. At 90, they

told him he was too old. The world of

his childhood no longer exists. It has all

changed. Our world is changing, too,

and rapidly. And yet nothing really is

changing. For some of us at least, even

lovers of technology like me, this is a



W. BRIAN ARTHUR is Citibank

Professor at the Santa Fe Institute in

New Mexico.