In Praise of Taking Things Apart

The Economic Value of Taking Things Apart

In the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Paul Romer writes:

“Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.”

Patak’s Madras Curry To take the analogy a little further, if I have a jar of Patak’s Madras curry paste there are a fairly limited number of tasty recipes that I can come up with. However, if I were able to disassemble or reverse-engineer that jar of pre-made curry, I would have a range of ingredients turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, etc from which I could create an almost unlimited number of recipe variations. This is obviously pretty unlikely with something like curry paste. However, not so with technology.

In The Origin of Wealth (to date the only book on Economics I have ever felt gripped by), Eric Beinhocker also explores what I am tempted to call the fractal nature of technology:

“each invention creates both the possibility of, and the need for, more inventions”… Why does technology have this exponential, bootstrapping quality? How does technology feed its own growth? Physical technologies have a modular building block quality to them. Any physical technology can be thought of as coding for both components and an architecture. A house has components (e.g. rooms, plumbing systems, windows) as well as an overall design (e.g. Mock Tudor)”

It seems fairly self-evident that understanding and being able to dissassemble technology into its constituent parts exponentially increases the opportunity for innovation, for hybridising, improving, cross-pollinating technologies into new forms of value.

The Trend Towards Un-takeapartable Technologies

In the context of the above, it is curious that technology has steadily become more and more difficult to disassemble. We have gained in push-button convenience but lost the learning and innovation opportunities that come with taking things apart and tinkering with them.

John Seely-Brown is particularly passionate on the topic of “tinkering” and argues that it is a critical strategy for learning. He argues that Open Source software has become an important place where technology (in this case software) can be taken apart and tinkered with. In the same Steve Hargadon interview with him that I mentioned in a previous post, John Seely-Brown says:

“A huge amount of the learning that a lot of us do, that formed the foundations of all the formal education that we got afterwards, could be called “tinkering.” Because of changes in electronics and cars, a whole generation couldn’t tinker. In the last ten years, these participatory architectures have introduced tinkering again. It is virtual and social tinkering, not necessarily mechanical, tinkering. And what is interesting is that it is relatively non-gender-specific. You are going to find women tinkering as much as guys do.”

This recognition of the importance of taking things apart and its role in learning has grown to the point where now in California, you can send your kids to a Tinkering School which builds the confidence of children to take technology apart and to be creative with technology. I can recommend a short, entertaining TED talk by the school’s founder Gever Tulley.

In industry, the notion of opening up technology to customers in order to facilitate innovation, Open Innovation, has been gaining traction for a number of years. The Economist has a good summary of this trend.

Taking Things Apart Not Things Falling Apart

From my perspective, this is a particularly important issue in places like Africa where history of technology transfer has often been a particularly disempowering one. The two-fold potential of empowering learners and fostering innovation make a compelling argument to encourage a culture of taking technology apart in Africa.

It is why I am so inspired by the innovation that is happening with wireless routers and the exploration of their potential as an alternative communication infrastructure for parts of Africa not well-served by existing telecommunications carriers.

Make Magazine - TshirtMake Magazine, a publication for people who like to take technology apart, have a great motto on one of their promotional T-shirts: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. It strikes me that that is a pretty good motto for African technologists. Opening technology opens innovation and teaches skills that are difficult to learn any other way.

  • Ian Howard


    This is an interesting contribution, thanks! Though I understand the origins for patents and proprietary solutions, there is also this need for reformulation as you highlight. The ability for re-purposing so that one invention can be employed in ways that are unimaginable by the originator. This is particularly important for the development of new markets where this is the first step for the development of local industry, where tinkering leads to bigger tinkering and the development of skills and greater specialization. And when this is done in new contexts what comes out of the petri dish is quite different from elsewhere.

    It is interesting that in your article that you note a trend toward both more open and more closed models, i.e. both models are developing in tandem. Is it possible that it might be healthy to have both competing? And also interesting is the emergence of more and more hybrid models like Zimbra.

  • Steve Song

    Hi Ian, In general, I agree with you. Any social or business ecology will always have a mix of open and closed models. A theme that comes out in the Origin of Wealth and in W. Chan Kim’s “Blue Ocean Strategy” is that no one strategy is consistently successful over time. Kim points out that many of the companies mentioned in “In Search of Excellence” and “Built to Last” turned out to be not-so-excellent and not-so-built-to-last over time. Their successful strategies did not survive a rapidly evolving marketplace.

    In The Origin of Wealth, Beinhocker explores computer simulations of the prisoner’s dilemma in a market ecology which demonstrated that even the best-of-breed “tit-for-tat” solution to the dilemma is not consistently successful in the context of an ecology versus a one-on-one relationship. Excessively open environments are vulnerable to hard-nosed closed ones and the reverse is also true.

    I think we are seeing some of this kind of open versus closed strategy competition playing out in the social-networking platform arena. Walled gardens are always vulnerable to open strategies however once the field is open then a new ecosystem emerges to support a variety of smaller closed strategies. And so it goes.

    The key is to have a healthy ecosystem with sufficient openness to support innovation and growth. Certainly, no all open strategies are good. Look at OpenOffice. Without a simple, transparent API (like Firefox for example) there is little scope for innovation when it take 8 hours to compile a single change in OpenOffice code. They are technically open but closed in practice. Contrast with Skype which is technically closed but simple, ubiquitous, useful, and sufficiently integrable into any system.

    Having said all that, I think that is the story of how things are but perhaps not how they have to be in the future. No doubt I am just having a utopian moment but just perhaps as we begin to examine our collective responsibility for each other and for the planet, we might move in general to less zero-sum oriented approaches.

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  • Robert

    Research: What I’m doing, when I don’t know what I’m doing.