We live in the most interesting time in human history ever. And by ever I don’t mean in the past, I also mean in the future. The reason why is because we live in a world where knowledge and technology has moved forward at such a great rate that a very minute proportion of the population is responsible for technologies that we use on a daily basis. I am of course talking about computers, and I think that once my generation dies, there will be close to zero understanding of how computers work, whatever form they may take in the future.
Think about your use of computers. You use computers at home and at work, you use computers in the form of a smart phone and even when you drive, computers are managing systems that control your car. In so many ways this useful technology has had positive benefits to our lives to help us share information, make us safer, make our lives more interesting and make tasks easier. In the future we will use them even more.
But can you describe how they work? If I put you into the middle of the wild, could you build a computer? No you could not. 200 years ago, it would be conceivable for you to produce many of the things that you would use in your daily life. You want to build a house, so you knock down a few trees and bang them together to make one. You want to grow some food, knock down some more trees to clear land, plough it using your favourite oxen, then plant some seed. Even if you want to make something out of metal, find a deposit of red earth, fire up your kiln, chuck in some coking coal and away you go. Surely many of those things required specialized knowledge, but it would not be inconceivable for someone to become a carpenter, a farmer or a blacksmith and produce at least one working item made primarily from their own skill. All of these professions dealt with items that you could touch. They were all tangible.
Computers live in the world of the intangible. They live in the world of the microscopic, where to even inspect the smallest parts require electron microscopes only accessible to the lucky few. They live in the world of information, where the use of the devices requires very little understanding of the code and the protocols that occur in the background. Even if you do know some of the code that goes on in the background, you probably only know a very small part of it. And even for that small part of the code you do know, you have no understanding of what the machine code looks like, let alone what it means.
Now your average physics or electrical engineering graduate might be able to describe in general terms the workings of various types of transistors and methods to print integrated circuits. They might be able to tell you the necessary components that make a functioning computer, such as a central processing unit, a graphics processing unit, power supply, etc. But they would not be able to tell you how to create a whole computer. The reality is we rely on a very small number of companies to produce some of the most important parts of our computers. The field has cultivated extremely highly specialised individuals in very high specialized companies who are responsible for very small parts of the entire system.
Just think about what it took for you to read this blog. Someone had to design and make the CPU of your computer, and the CPUs of all the machines between you and the server. The hard drives, monitors, other peripherals. WiFi systems, optical fibre networks, network switches (not to mention material science that is needed to create the substances and structures that go into making these devices). Protocols for communication over these networks, as well as the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, the web browser and operating system you are using, as well as the people who put together the WordPress code which makes the backbone of the website you see right now. All these parts have scientists, software designers and engineers working on them which have little to do with each other.
What we do today requires several layers of highly developed technology. This layering of technology is not just layering across different fields such as CPU development and software design, but also across time. Modern computer chips aren’t human designed any more. They are designed by computers. Of course humans tell the computers what to put into the design. An old version of the Intel Core i7 chip contains 731 million transistors. That’s too many for humans to even consider. If you managed to draw 1 transistor on a circuit diagram every second, you would take about 556 years to draw all the transistors in the i7 chip. So much of the work is done by computer calculation, not human design.
Let’s say we were to lose the computerized copies of designs for most modern computer chips. Say some solar flare erupted comprised mainly of long wave magnetic field oscillations such that we didn’t get vaporized, but all of the world’s electronics are essentially rendered useless. It would take decades to return ourselves to a point where we could successfully create microchips of similar quality to the ones that we use today. But a world in which we lose the knowledge of the foundations of our computer systems is not as far-fetched as the loss of all computers everywhere due to the mother of all solar flares.
In the future it is quite possible that we will live in a digital dark age, or more correctly, that the past becomes a dark age because we haven’t kept proper records of what we have done or because formats of data are no longer supported. Although not as important as the foundations of modern computing, I currently have several 3.5 inch floppy disks with my school assignments on it that I will never be able to access, partly because I don’t have the correct 3.5 inch drive, but also because the software it was written in (ClarisWorks) is essentially incompatible with any modern machine. Imagine specifically that we lose or misplace the designs of earlier computers that were a precursor to current machines due to format depreciation.
Importantly, the layering of computer technology is also fundamental the culture and transmission of ideas that allow technological development to occur. The fact that computers are cheap and readily available means that we have plenty of experienced and eager young computer programmers and engineers who are capable of adding to the already amazing compilation of human knowledge in the computer field.
We live in a world where the early pioneers of computer technology are still alive and quite often still working in the field. Once they die, they will take with them the stories and knowledge of the past much like the last soldier dying from a long ago war takes with them the stories of the horrors and the triumphs. We are soon coming upon the age in which the founders of the modern computer society will pass away, taking with them a part of the knowledge of what it was like to create the first microchips and the early systems.
Humans have only been farming for the last 20 000 years or so. They have only had steel production for the last 4000 years or so. They have only had electricity for the last couple of hundred years. And they have only had computers readily available for the last 30 years or so, and yet so much has been achieved. The human species has been around for around 200 000 years, give or take depending on your definition of what counts as human. If humans development were to continue for the next 1000 in this manner, we probably would not even recognise the technology of 3011.
Much like we don’t know who exactly created the first quill to write with, the first molten iron or the first crop, one day humans might not know where the technology for the computerised machines that they will use came from. We live in a nexus in time where the basic objects we created in the past can be explained and the complicated machines of the future (or even today) cannot be explained. If we live in a time where objects we use daily are too difficult to explain, in the future this will become even more so.