Artifacts and Organization: A Complexity Perspective on Innovation and Social Change
published: Oct. 17, 2008, recorded: September 2008, views: 890
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Human sociocultural life is impossible to conceive without two fundamental ingredients: artifacts and organizations. Just about everything we do involves interactions with artifacts, from the clothes we wear and the buildings we inhabit, to the devices through which we communicate with one another and the tools and technologies we use to make ever more artifacts. And almost all of our interactions depend for their setting, purpose and rules on organizations, whether they be churches, businesses, government agencies, political parties, law courts, police forces, armies, social clubs – or even friendship networks on internet. We human beings didn’t invent either artifacts or organizations: biological evolution did. Both fashioning artifacts and deploying collective action are evolutionary strategies that have been around a long time. But even if we didn’t invent them, nothing in biology remotely compares with the use that we human beings have made of these two strategies. The number and complexity of the artifacts we have developed over the millennia, and in particular over the past few centuries, and the variety of activities we have organized around these artifacts, has no counterpart in the pre-human world. If three million years ago, our ancestors had essentially one kind of artifact, and fifty thousand years ago, maybe several hundred, today’s inhabitant of New York City can choose among 1010 different bar-coded items, not to mention a host of other material, informational or performative artifacts currently produced by human beings for the use of human beings! Even more unprecedented are the diversity of forms and the scale of the organizations we have created, through which we collectively carry out political, economic, social and cultural functions that seem far removed from the overriding biological functional imperatives of survival and reproduction. Over the past several years, my colleagues and I have been working out a complexity-based theory of innovation that is intended to explain how human beings have managed to generate the explosion of artifacts and the new functionalities they make possible. The theory starts from the premise that all artifacts have a history, as do the modes of interaction among people in which artifacts figure. The aim of the theory is to describe and analyze the processes through which artifact histories are realized: • How do new artifact types come into being? • How do their tokens proliferate and become incorporated into patterns of human interaction? • And how are new patterns of interaction among human beings and artifacts generated? As I will argue in the talk, we cannot begin to answer these questions without developing simultaneously a theory of sociocultural organizations: what they are, how they come into being, how they transform themselves. The main conclusion of the talk is that our species has developed a new modality of innovation, in which artifacts and organization are inextricably linked: human beings generate new artifacts that they embed in new collective activities, which are in turn supported by new organizations and sustained by new values. Over time, this new innovation modality gave rise to a positive feedback dynamic, which we call exaptive bootstrapping. Exaptive bootstrapping explains how we have generated so many transformations in our selves, our societies, our culture and our environment.
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