Technological Creativity

Technology, from a simple stick or flake of flint to a modern computer or a bio-engineered organism, is part of human culture. At first glance, it seems to be a very controlled part of our culture, but is it?

If it was possible to describe human culture completely in terms of a formal theory, the entirety of human technology would be completely covered by that formal theory. “Formal theory” is another term for an exact, complete description. But even if we restrict our attention to the limited area of culture called technology, a complete formal description is probably not possible.

The information content of a formal theory is finite. It can be described by a finite text with an exact meaning. If human culture was describable by a formal theory, the technology that humans can develop would therefore be limited by the content of that theory. Technological progress would not be possible beyond the content of that theory.

So the possibility of technical progress requires that a formal description of human culture (and of technology inventible by humans) is not possible. In other words: a technological civilization capable of developing arbitrary technologies that are possible as such has to be a creative system. A creative system is a system for which a complete exact description is not possible. It is a system that is capable of extending itself with new information. Technological innovation, therefore, is a creative activity.

In technological developments, we absorb new information from our environment, from the things we are interacting with. This information becomes part of the technology. No theory could have predicted that flakes of flint can be used to cut. This was knowledge that was acquired from the environment. The theory forms in hindsight. In today’s technology the part that is derived from theories might have become larger, but still the laboratory, the experiment, the tinkering, the field trial and the chance discovery are necessary. And they will remain so. There is always an aspect of technological development not covered by sophisticated theories.

If science describes the behavior of systems in terms of laws or rules acting inside the systems, then a science of technology is not possible, or only partially. Technology has a history and this history does not unfold according to some preexisting fixed laws. Instead, the “laws” of technological history, develop historically themselves.

A true science of technology, therefore, would have to be historical and would have to deal with a subject that is not describable completely, i.e. it is not understandable completely in terms of any single fixed theory. Any single process in the history of technology can be understood in hindsight and any theory about such processes can be extended to include that process but no single finite theory can capture all such processes. The innovator can always step outside of what is covered by existing theories. The future of technology remains unpredictable.

In technology, we are trying to gain control, but its development itself is uncontrollable. Where this is going to lead us remains to be seen.

(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silex_MHNT_PRE.2004.0.94_Fond.jpg)

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3 comments

  1. terrific entry

  2. People do not understand that once an idea gets out there, there is no controlling it anymore, and technology is the same thing. I find it interesting that people want to think they are always in control. I guess otherwise we would not be able to cope with life if we didn’t think this?

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