(image: Maria Teneva/Unsplash)

In the last decade, SFI External Professor Ricardo Hausmann has reflected on the ways that economists conceive of technology. So far, he thinks that they don’t have a clear picture. “Technology is, in economics,” he says, “what dark matter is, in physics: we don’t see it, but we infer its effects.” 

Hausmann, an economist at Harvard University and co-chair of the SFI Science Board, hopes a June 14-16 SFI workshop, “The Structure of Technology,” will help researchers develop better frameworks to capture how technology emerges, takes shape, and shapes the world in turn. The workshop is the first of a series of meetings that are taking place through SFI’s Emergent Political Economies grant and research theme

SFI External Professor Hyejin Youn (Northwestern University), who is co-organizing the workshop with Hausmann, anticipates that the group will look for common patterns in how technological objects — from cell phones to bombs — are formed, as well as for organizational structures that operate on different scales. Technological processes happen simultaneously in different spaces, she says, “in production space, in trade space, in idea space.” They are also deeply intertwined with social structures, she emphasizes.

Like Youn, Hausmann is interested in exploring technology in relation to the social world. Humans store technology in three different forms, he explains:  in things (like tools), in code, and in brains. Because technology takes different forms in brains, “it forms networks of knowledge,” and these networks are themselves complex systems.

A central part of the workshop will involve developing language and mathematics that illuminate the dynamics of technology. For former SFI graduate fellow James McNerney, a Harvard research scientist and the third co-organizer of the workshop, this may involve the creation of a lingua franca. “There is a Rosetta Stone that connects machine learning and statistics,” he explains. “Similar bridges are possible here, too.”

Ultimately, the organizers anticipate that developing new conceptual frames for researchers who study technology in different fields will allow them to build deeper theories.