Monday, March 10, 2008

Technology as Modularity

Via Arnold Kling, I found this interview with Drew Endy, a professor of biological engineering at MIT. It’s long, meandering, and sometimes repetitive, but still fascinating reading. The main lesson I extracted from it (and it would be hard to explain how, much less find specific quotations for support) is that technology is useful to the extent that it promotes modularity. Technology makes scientific discoveries portable, thereby allowing them to be used in a countless ways unforeseen by the original discoverer.

The creators of standardized nuts and bolts (to pick one simple example from the interview) couldn’t possibly have predicted all the ways those nuts and bolts would be used, but that’s okay. That’s even the point. Now the inventor of a new furniture design or engine block or medical device doesn’t have to make all the component parts, or even understand exactly how they work. Nuts and bolts harness a few basic physical principles in useful form.

What biological engineering aims to do is to create biological building blocks, or better yet devices for churning out such building blocks, so that subsequent designers don’t have start from scratch. Much as computer programming language works invisibly beneath the surface of a word-processing program, allowing people to use the programming language for innumerable purposes of their own without even understanding it, biological engineering could eventually give people the means of synthesizing useful proteins – or whole organisms – without fully understanding the underlying mechanics of DNA, base pairs, and so on.

In a sense, then, technological modularity is much like the price system – another social device that, as Friedrich Hayek famously observed, allows people to use information without possessing or understanding it, thereby making decentralized economic decision-making possible.

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