My short answer is that we can: (1) look for common patterns of change and variability among these historically-documented technologies; (2) attempt to understand the mechanisms underlying those patterns; and (3) try to develop expectations that will help us identify the mechanisms underlying technological change in prehistoric cases where we do not have documentary evidence. The idea that the details of a particular system (e.g., a technological system) are often not as important to understanding the behavior of the system as one might guess is central to complex systems theory, and it is an idea that I subscribe to. I think it’s a mistake to assume that technologies that we can observe in archaeological cases follow fundamentally different rules of change than those we can observe in the present or document historically (more on all that later when I finally get around to working on the Technological Change part of this website).
I’m currently reading George Basalla’s (1988) book entitled The Evolution of Technology. One of the basic premises of this book is that “Any new thing that appears in the made world is based on some object already in existence” (Basalla 1988:45). He is making an argument that technological change is fundamentally a continuous phenomenon and also asking the age-old question “where does innovation come from?” I’m not deep into the book yet, but I’m finding it very satisfying so far.
Some of my favorite examples of technological change are related to aviation. Since 1903 (the advent of powered flight) there has been an incredible amount of change in the design and performance of both aircraft and aircraft powerplants. This change has been entangled with political, economic, and social change, global conflicts, and change in numerous “other” technologies. As I’ve had time over the last few years, I’ve been collecting a large, dense dataset on aircraft and aircraft engines that I will be able to use as empirical example of technological change. Up to now I’ve gathered data on over 1600 military aircraft (mostly fighters and bombers) and over 7000 engines. I’ve still got a ways to go before I’m going to do any real analysis. Eventually (as I publish) I’ll make those datasets freely available.
What does all this have to do with reverse-engineering of alien technology? As anyone who is paying attention to what passes for “history” on television these days will tell you, suggestions abound about extraterrestrial intervention in numerous aspects of human culture, history, technology, and biology. In many cases these claims point to the “sudden appearance” of something as evidence of an extraterrestrial origin. Contrary to Basalla’s (1988) continuity argument, the alien crowd asserts that (1) discontinuities in technology (i.e., the sudden appearance, without antecedent, of “advanced” technologies) can be identified and that (2) the most plausible explanation for those discontinuities is an extraterrestrial origin. As an anthropologist and archaeologist, I get peeved by the ease with which people seem to swallow this nonsense. The volume of “aliens” programming these days suggests that many people are watching, and, presumably, believing the garbage. That’s a shame. It is often fairly simple to debunk the “alien” claims using basic, easily available information. This is especially true when the claim for extraterrestrial origin involves technology. These are testable claims: showing continuity of technological development/change destroys the claim for discontinuity, and, consequently, the basis for asserting an alien origin. And it's also fun. And educational.
The proliferation of a technology or a technological system has practical, social, economic, cultural, and political dimensions, all of which may affect how it is perceived, used, developed, or perpetuated. If “flying wing” designs are practical and have been studied and understood, why have "flying wing" aircraft never become commonplace? Good question: from what I can tell, the answer involves a mixture of the factors listed above. Understanding the interplay of those factors is an interesting problem. We know for certain, however, that the B-2 does not represent a technological discontinuity. It is one chapter in a history of human experimentation with “flying wing” aircraft that predates the advent of powered flight. If we want to attribute the shape of the B-2 to a non-human origin, we have to go at least all the way back to Dunne to do it (maybe the aliens came down and told him to create a tail-less, swept-wing biplane). Or (see this source) to the gliding properties of the seed pod of the Zanonia macrocarpa (a kind of gourd). Aliens or gourd seeds . . . Aliens or gourd seeds . . . hmmm, that really makes you think.