What is technology? The informational layer of everything

Here is a puzzle from economist Paul Romer for you to consider:

I’ll claim that there’s a recipe out there that you could use to just assemble carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms, and that if you just use the right recipe to put them together, it will make a factory that will be smaller than a car, that will be mobile, that will seek out some renewable input, that will convert [the input] into some chemicals that humans want, that will be self-healing whenever it gets injured, that will maintain sterile conditions, and that will even make a replica of itself when one generation breaks down. So the question is, could you really put something together out of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and atoms that would be that sophisticated?

So, is it possible? Romer:

If you describe that just in the abstract, many people will think it’s not possible. But then you point out to them that it already exists in the form of a dairy cow. And then get people to think well, what is the recipe or set of instructions for a dairy cow? Well, it’s really just a DNA sequence that has a list of instructions for how to assemble raw materials together.

That’s from From Poverty to Prosperity, a series of interviews on growth economics and innovation by Arnold Kling and Nick Shulz. I bring it up not just because it’s a neat example, but to make a related point. What is technology? Here’s Merriam Webster:

1 a : the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area : engineering 2 <medical technology> b : a capability given by the practical application of knowledge <a car’s fuel-saving technology>
2 : a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge <new technologies for information storage>
3 : the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor <educational technology>


Romer uses the metaphor of “recipes” to describe technological change. And the definitions above emphasize the role of knowledge. The point I’m making is that technology is in a sense just information. When we invent a new technology, we come up with a new recipe – a new set of instructions for combining things – that yields something useful. In this sense, information is at the center of technological change.

I bring this up first because I think it is clarifying. It helps us discard the notion of technology as being simply “high tech”, and leaves us with a broader, but to my mind much more useful and interesting definition. But there’s another reason I mention it. We’re seeing a fundamental restructuring of how we produce and distribute information. Yet too often we tend to think of “information” as this separate sphere of the economy. There are information goods, and there are regular goods. Software is in the former, cows are in the latter.

But the Romer example show that that is wrong. Once you start thinking of a cow as a technology, you realize that there is what we might call the informational layer of everything. And that means that the restructuring that we’re seeing that allows Wikipedia and Linux to be produced via non-market collaboration suddenly seems far less limited. It’s not just limited to a subset of goods that are “information goods” because everything is an information good.

Now, that’s not to say that we have the technology to make new cows (yet) or that if we could that it could be crowd-sourced. But I think it does give us a good way of looking both at technology and at the broader potential for new models of information production. There’s no such thing as an open source cow today, but that doesn’t mean there never will be.

Technology journalism and moral force

One of the things I love about ProPublica, the relatively young investigative journalism nonprofit, is that it states as its focus “stories with ‘moral force.'” But what kind of journalism fits this category? Upton Sinclair? Nick Kristof? My fear is that if we drafted a list of what and who comes to mind, it would contain far too little technology journalism.

I was in a meeting last week with a Massachusetts state senator who was explaining how a major portion of his constituents lack broadband access. They’re dealing with – not kidding – phone service failing when it rains. This is in Massachusetts. I think when most of us think about pockets of the country without broadband we think West Virginia, Mississippi, etc. But even here in Massachusetts the digital divide is all too real.

We have a great wealth of journalism on the consumer and business aspects of technology. If you want reviews of the latest gadget or the inside scoop on Facebook’s latest round there’s no shortage of information. But what about technology from a justice perspective? Certainly these topics get touched on (and there is lots of great academic work on the subject). But my sense is that they are under-served.

It is, of course, quite possible that far more writers and outlets on this subject are out there, and that I just haven’t found them. Is there someone out there today who can claim the mantle of Tech Upton Sinclair?

Yochai Benkler had a line at some point (failing to find the video at present) where, in speaking about his book’s thesis that commons-based peer production had positive moral implications, he said roughly The problem is it takes 500 pages to explain why. Tech journalists should take that as a direct challenge. Technology journalism with moral force is not only possible; it’s socially necessary.