Moore’s Law Never (Quite) Predicted This
When one looks upon the technology and culture of today, it is easy to classify our moment in history as remarkably advanced. We live in the post-smartphone era. Prior to the iPhone, we had Blackberry and flip-phones capable of taking pictures and sending and receiving emails. But chat rooms and online shopping, and substantive email sends, required an actual computer. Since 2007, with the introduction of the first iPhone, a sea change of our culture and politics and personal relations has happened.
These changes are not the result of just the iPhone. What the iPhone and its clones did was make a myriad of technology easy to handle, to carry on one’s person without looking ridiculous or nerdy or pretentious. It brought together a variety of existing devices and made them into an integrated unit. It was, and remains, a real revolution. It happened quickly, a virtual overnight change. It was also decades in the making. It seems unfathomable today we could revert our culture.
The technology we had prior to 2007 performed all the same functions we perform with smartphones today. The iPhone did not change those technologies. On a basic level, the core of the Internet remains the same, and the World Wide Web remains layered atop the Internet as the face of businesses, organizations, people, politicians, causes and the like. We had digital cameras and personal digital assistants, watches and text messaging. The essence of these remains intact.
That considered, it is unlikely we will look back and see our world today as anything more than one of dozens of little stepping stones of technology’s evolution.
Home Computers And The World Of Tomorrow
In 1977, my family patronized a little store on Tropicana Avenue in Las Vegas. My stepfather, then working as a subcontractor at Nellis Air Force Base and – I would learn this much later in life – secretly at Area 51, dropped nearly $4,000 on a home computer system. We had already owned a cheap home computer, an early model Radio Shack TRS80, affectionately known among the nerds as a “Trash 80”. A thunderstorm fried its circuits when a power surge hit. The replacement was a Commodore PET. It was the second-generation PET, and it was a beautiful thing.
My stepfather also purchased the external dual-floppy drive and an eight-pin dot matrix printer. Both peripherals were noisy, but it made for an impressive-looking work station in 1977. Most people still did not have a VCR at home, let alone a computer with an astonishing 32K of RAM, one that used the new 5¼-inch floppy disks and had a printer, to boot. The PET could be programmed in BASIC or machine code. Some pretty smart people wrote a really cool golf game for it. That game may yet live, but you will have to read further to know why.
30 years later, an iPhone with 16 GB of RAM was made available by a computer company that was only one year old in 1977: Apple. Seven years after the first iPhone, a 128 GB model went on sale, and I bought one. It cost about $900.
Let us do a little inflationary math. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $4,000 in 1977 has the equivalent buying power of nearly $16,000 today. Going in the other direction, today’s $900 is the equivalent of about $230 in 1977. The cost of technology has certainly come down considerably.
The Short History Of Modern Tech
Before you get too comfortable with those numbers, however, let me remind you that in 1977, the technology available then would have been very different. If you had a mobile phone, it was an FM car phone with a set of shared frequencies, sort of a roving party line. Hand-held cellular phones were still about 10 years out.
Then there is the email issue. Have you ever heard of teletype or telefax? That was very expensive, and it required a second telephone line and some heavy equipment. The facsimile machines we all came to know in the 1980’s and, especially, in the 1990’s, were just coming into play, but they were bulky. Xerox, which had pioneered telefax in the 1960’s, had large units that weighed more than a few pounds. These machines could send a letter across a telephone line in a few minutes, but email was certainly not a reality in 1977. Mimeograph machines were still widely used to make copies because of the expense of a xerographic machine.
Cameras used film. Integrated electronic flash was still new. The first home game consoles were just arriving on the scene, and if you wanted to send a text message to a friend, you had to find a pencil. Only doctors and lawyers had beepers, and these devices only beeped. Research was performed in a library using books. “Google” would have been considered a spelling error. It was properly printed, “googol” to represent the number 10100.
Very simply, if in 1977 you had purchased all of the devices that perform all the functions of today’s smartphone, you may have easily spent $20,000. In 2015 dollars, that is about $78,500, according to the BLS consumer price index calculator. Hardly anyone today would be able to afford such a device.
Let us go back in time even further.
The Longer Tech History, Starting At Huffman Prairie
My recent and third tour of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force really put my neurons to work. As I roamed the gargantuan hangars and reflected upon the rapid development of air transportation capabilities in the early 20th Century, it started looking like a different version of our contemporary technological revolution.
In 1908, heavier-than-air craft had existed for only five years. Following their famous 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright had to figure out how to steer their new invention. You read that correctly. They only built the first flyer to get off the ground and fly in a straight line.
Their work continued following the Kitty Hawk flight, much of it at Huffman Prairie, what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Of course, they succeeded in making the appropriate refinements that enabled directional control, and by 1908, they contracted with the U.S. Army to deliver a single aircraft and train the first military pilots.
These vessels were quite crude by today’s standards, but even in 1908, decades of work had already been performed to learn how to properly shape an airfoil, how to construct a stabilizer, determine how much power was needed to push a heavier-than-air craft, and even to build the right kind of engine.
So much else had to be invented just to invent the airplane. So it is with most technologies.
A Technological Comparison: 1977 To 2015 And 1908 To 1946
Since I have already referenced 1977, we will use a 38-year time span as our observational interval.
If you follow the evolution of the airplane from 1908 to 1946, it is rather stunning. The aircraft quickly evolved from biplanes and triplanes, seen in World War I, to the first jets and rockets, developed by the Germans during before and during World War II. Fortunately for all of us, the Allies buffeted the Nazis to the point their industrial infrastructure was useless. They could not build what they had developed.
Also consider that in 1908, most people still did not have a car or a telephone or electricity, and the whirlwind of industrial advances of the early 20th Century easily rivals or exceeds the extraordinary technological transitions we have seen in the past 38 years. These advances were not confined to aircraft, either.
Consider cars, which were still fairly crude. Literally, they were carriages with engines. You had to crank them to start the motor, steering was performed with a stick, braking used the same mechanism as the old carriages, and there was no such thing as an automatic transmission. None of them had heat or air conditioning or radio. The very first electric headlights were introduced in 1908, according to the Wikipedia article on headlamps.
Nobody even had a radio at home, unless they were named Marconi, let alone a wireless in the car. Such things were machinations of science fiction, which was, itself, a fairly-new literary genre. Remember, too, that indoor plumbing was still new. Still, for those living in 1908, the world of tomorrow much have seemed a very exciting place, indeed. The pace of invention was frenetic! We may not think so, by today’s standards, but this benchmark is based upon where we are, not where we have been.
For instance, in 1977, most people did not have a home computer or a fax machine or a beeper. Video cameras were based on film, and most people did not have one of those, either. Absolutely nobody, save for the most upper-level government officials, had anything like video conferencing. If you own a smartphone, you have all of these things in your pocket.
38 Years From Now, The World Will Be Different
How It Will Change Is Anyone’s Guess
One day after I was born, some men jumped onto the end of an Atlas rocket and took off for the moon. I was born just as a new era of human existence began. Today, my youngest nephew – he will be only three in January, 2016 – will never know a world without lunar landings or smartphones or streaming video. For him, all of what we know today will seem like very old news when he is 41 years old, 38 years from now.
In 1995, the motion picture, Johnny Mnemonic, predicted that by 2021, we would be living in a dystopian society and using implants to carry secret data. Keanu Reeves played the central protagonist, wired to carry 360 gigabytes of data in his skull. That amount of data seemed ridiculously huge only 20 years ago. Today, a laptop fresh from the shelf typically comes equipped with 640 gigabytes to 1 terabyte of hard drive space.
Trying to forecast the states of technology and the world in late 2053 to early 2054 seems a fruitless endeavor, given that in 1977, nobody I know could have predicted we would carry mainframe computers in our pockets. We foolishly predicted the use of flying cars, but we are only now making viable ground transportation powered by electricity and not dirty, carbon-based fuels.
Of course, Moore’s law, which estimates CPU transistor capacity doubles every 18 months, is finally said to be reaching saturation, with smaller increases in capacity going forward. However, quantum computing is beginning to show extraordinary promise, and the physical limitations of silicone transistor wafers may become a moot point as we move further into the 21st Century.
What is known is the uncertainty principle shall prevail. We may not survive to 2053, not if we keep playing games with the environment. However, curing some of the ills we have brought upon ourselves may breed technologies we can not conceive today. I certainly hope so.
Returning To The World Of Tomorrow
It is imperative we examine how we have used technology and abused others of our species in order to power our industrial revolutions. The consequences come in more forms than the social and political, to be sure. Anyone who denies we have caused global climate change is, in my opinion, a damned fool or lying to further their own agenda. We made enemies to get cheap oil, then we burned that cheap oil and made an enemy of ourselves. If we can not accept our responsibility for the damage we have done, we may not survive.
In our finer moments, however, we have put our knowledge to work improving life on Earth while simultaneously searching for it beyond our planet. For instance, on Wednesday, October 28, the Cassini spacecraft took another dive through the geysers of Enceladus to read the chemical composition of the waters ejected from the Saturnian moon.
The technology used on that probe was developed in small packets – pardon the pun – over the course of several decades, from propulsion to the packet-switching that permits the data to be sent to Earth over such vast distances. The very next day, October 29, that very packet-switching system, the foundation of the modern Internet, celebrated its 46th birthday as a viable data transfer method.
To think, the airplane, itself, is only 112 years old.
The Wright Kind Of Progress
In just over a century, we have learned our sun is among 200-billion other stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. We are in a single galactic spiral that is among hundreds of billions of galaxies of all shapes and sizes and ages. Edwin Hubble showed that in 1927, when he realized the Andromeda Nebula was actually a galaxy.
Using the space-based telescope that is his namesake, we have discovered our universe is, using our best estimates of this date, 13.8-billion years old. We have other orbiting telescopes that have discovered thousands of exoplanets. Until the 1990’s, we did not have actual proof. We have sent probes to other planets within our solar system, other probes are patrolling the edge of our solar system.
In its article about the Cassini Mission, the writer for New York Times interjected some extraordinary, good news about how diverting our resources to exploration and learning could, potentially, resolve so many economic issues that bedevil us. It is no secret that building new technology means putting people to work in support industries.
When people are working, not worrying about their future, they are free to discover themselves and their motivations, what matters to them. Maslow demonstrated this. How many social problems resolve themselves when we make this kind of beginning?
I am not naive; we have millennia of superstition to overcome, along with centuries of embedded and, in my opinion, misguided economic rationale. We came close to running the ideal social, political and economic engine during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Then we let the oligarchs come out to play, against the warnings from presidents.
Moreover, our early explanations of how the Earth came to exist still dominate many cultures and subcultures, impelling decisions based, not on science, but upon fear. These outmoded notions predominate the cognitive faculties of many among our species.
Science and reason is dominating the long game, I believe. We need only use science the proper way, and there is every reason to believe we will survive this “adolescence” of our species, as Carl Sagan might have called it. Keeping fear, ignorance and greed in check, we can do amazing things. I know this to be true because we have done this previously, when we have had the will. We only have to imagine, and we will thrive!
I hope Gordon Moore predicted that.
Sidebar: The Android Named Commodore, And A New PET
Life in 2015 is very good, indeed, at least from a tech point of view. I can hold a video chat with family while eating breakfast and checking email, all on the same device that fits in my back pocket. I can even do it on a Commodore PET. Yes, you read that correctly.
Wired Magazine put together a rather astonishing article – it was particularly astonishing to me – in July detailing the new Commodore PET. Anyone who followed Commodore into the 1990’s knows that in 1994 the company was liquidated.
This new PET is an Android device, a smartphone with the classic Commodore logo and emulators that will run older Commodore games from the Amiga and C64 line. This is not the old Commodore, of course. The trademarks were sold to various companies and, apparently, have been acquired by an Italian company that has decided to revive the name and some old Commodore games.
The device debuted across Europe in late July, and the unit is available in two colors for a fraction of a fraction of the cost of the 1977 unit. This device may be more than your BASIC 1970’s computer, but as Engadget published in July, the PET is actually an enhanced version of a preexisting Chinese smartphone, proof it is neither mine nor my stepfather’s PET.