Perhaps a particular product representing manifestations of one or more technologies could be regarded as an individual in a model that explores how heterochronic theory may apply to technological evolution.  There are far more ideas than there are actual products that are conceived when their design process begins in earnest.  An idea would be the equivalent of an egg or sperm.  As the idea becomes refined enough to begin the step-by-step procedures that involve development, we might say the idea has been conceived and is growing embryonically.  Upon production, and the introduction of the new technology or technological variation, the idea is born.

No matter how many of the products are manufactured and distributed, reproduction would not be said to occur until one of the many ideas suggested by the product begins the process of new product development.

That would be the life of an individual.  The death of a product, according to Kevin Kelly, is often greatly exaggerated.  Once produced, a product tends to linger though its production may fall off dramatically.

A technological species might be equivalent to an automobile.  A related species might be motorcycles.  Propeller airplanes more distant yet.  Propeller-driven wind turbines start to cross over into a different genus.

Whereas Darwin’s theory of natural selection is usually used to explain not only biological evolution but the evolution of technology, with the devices with the most useful features surviving, consider applying evolution’s heterochronic theory to these transformations.  Noting the ontogeny of technological devices, let’s apply the science of tracing the effects of the changing rate and timing of maturation to technology.  I would expect there to be patterns, patterns that might offer a structure to technological evolution, a structure that underlies the proliferation of new features.

In other words, in evolutionary developmental biology and the many discussions over the last 150 years around how random is random variation, there is an awareness that the features assigned to new individuals in a species congregate around those specific features that are useful in a changing environment.  Emerging features often are not random.  The environment cues epigenetic embryonic processes to encourage changes in the rate and timing of maturation.  A modified or adjusted individual can emerge when environmental information is provided that prepares that individual for what that individual will discover.

For example, let’s say a mother in a third world homeland on a low-fat diet has a child that matures relatively slowly, reaching puberty at age 17.  There are fewer resources, so species proliferation is kept relatively slow.  Upon moving to a big, industrial city, the mother transitions to a high-fat diet.  Her second embryo receives the information that resources are escalating, modifies maturation rates and emerges to reach puberty at 15, making possible, over generations, a dramatic increase in the number of individuals with her mother’s genes.

This is a modification in the timing of maturation rates, with puberty coming sooner.  It might also be a change in the rate of maturation, with maturation accelerated so that pubertal onset is accordioned to arrive at an earlier time.

Stephen J. Gould goes into detail regarding the six derivations of changes in maturation rates and timing.  For our purposes, regarding the application of these principles to technological development, we might watch for some of the following patterns…

Ongoing application of product development techniques to actual products so that the product’s creative process becomes more and more characteristic of how products are actually used.  This would be technological neoteny or paedomorphosis.  For example, computer-aided design (CAD) software used to design houses becomes over time itself used by adults as a recreational, creative experience.

Another, less abstract aspect of this would be if products used by adults today look not unlike the toys of children in the past (for example, my Mac dock looks somewhat like a 1950s toddler’s toy shelf).  I notice that the all-plastic interiors of many automobiles have the sculpted, hard plastic look of the toddler push vehicles of 40 years ago.

Consider an invention like the light bulb utilized to light cities and integrated into product and development laboratories to make it possible to work on inventions deep into the night, with the light bulb itself becoming part of new devices being invented.  This would be an example of acceleration or the withdrawal of a new feature backward into earlier stages of ontogeny, over generations.

Or, consider that the CAD software used to design houses becomes over time used by adults as a recreational creative experience and then withdraws to an earlier human ontogenetic stage to end up as a child’s toy.  This would suggest technological neoteny followed by the human use of that technology in the opposite heterochronic direction.

The trick here is discerning if these two opposite trending evolutionary forces manifest similar repercussions in technology as occurs in biology and society.  Does technological neoteny tend to encourage egalitarian, horizontal, transparent solutions contrasted with technological acceleration that might segregate information, encourage secrecy and hierarchy and congregate assets in fewer hands?  Things, of course, do not have hormones that compel drifts in particular social structure directions.  But the people that use those things are moved by their hormones and might be attracted to particular looks or functions in their technologies.

Might those processes characteristic of basic design or of design in its earliest phases of production, when carried forward over the course of product generations to appear eventually in products themselves, be a process featured by societies that are becoming more horizontal, more egalitarian, more transparent and diverse?  If the foundation of a design ontogeny is manifesting in products providing aspects of creativity and product creation to those that want it, then it seems that people are being empowered in the process.

Edison and Tesla famously fought over how electricity should be generated and distributed.  Edison sought central generation with utility control.  Tesla strived toward a form of distribution that would allow for decentralized production with inexpensive distribution.  Edison won.  How would the evolution of technology have been affected if each person had been part of his or her own local electricity collective, with the collective deciding how electricity would be generated and used?

In other words, if the electrical source was so flexible as to be influenced by consumers, design control having traveled forward down a technology ontological lineage of electrical production products, perhaps the products using electricity would have been uniquely enhanced.  We might have already been living in a world of self-powered electric cars.


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