09 September 2009

Keeping up with Moore's Law

It’s amazing how fast things have changed.
My wife and I are planning a garage sale for sometime soon, if we can get our acts together enough to pull it off. What is interesting to me about some of what we’re getting rid of in the process of preparing for this sale was highly desirable less than a decade ago. Things like the Brother fax machine in the back of my wife’s Jeep, which no doubt cost a pretty chunk of change and turned the business world on their ear when they were introduced in the early 1990s. Now, thanks to technological evolution, it’s about as quaint as a typewriter. When I think about it, this era has moved so quickly, in terms of what is defined as the “cutting edge,” that we all struggle to keep up with it.
I can imagine that this is a fairly recent phenomenon: I can’t imagine that cavemen found themselves upgrading rocks every five years to keep pace with technology. No, I imagine that many of humanity’s first inventions (primitive textiles, knives, etc.) had a pretty long shelf life. Even as recently as 150 years ago, I don’t think trappers and hunters were making a huge rush to get rid of the flintlock and percussion cap rifles that served them so well for so long. No, this is a more recent phenomenon, in my opinion.
Progress isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Progress and technological innovation is what allows me to bring this message to a potential worldwide audience with the push of a button, something unthinkable even 20 years ago. But with progress comes complication – complication like the $3,000 iMac that I probably couldn’t get more than $25 for now. Complications like the digital converter box in my basement that makes it even harder to get a decent television signal. Complications like the millions of tons of consumer waste generate each year in the pursuit of an upgrade.
Yesterday’s gold is today’s garbage. I don’t see this trend stopping anytime soon, but I think, given the economic slowdown, that it will falter in its pace. Have you ever heard of Moore’s Law? Described on a Wikipedia page, “Since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has increased exponentially, doubling approximately every two years … This has dramatically increased the usefulness of digital electronics in nearly every segment of the world economy. Moore's law describes this driving force of technological and social change in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”
In time, I can picture that history books will see this entire age as nothing less than a Second Industrial Revolution, when society and the traditional order of things was turned upside down due to new and rapid advances in technology. It may be comfortable to read about – but living through it is less than satisfactory. As I see it, when things settle again, we’re going to see more machines allowing more people to do more work that used to be done by more people, meaning potentially fewer jobs. After all, why pay for another person when you can enable one worker do the work of 10?
Unlike a computer, I can’t double. Not every two years, not every four years, not ever. What I am is likely, in terms of capacity, all I will ever be. I’ve become less than the sum of my parts, someone whose role in the “driving force of technological and social change” has been limited to sighing as he moves his outdated devices to the garage sale table to be cast on the winds of thrift-shopping fate.

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