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atest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
When did you last read an account of how microchips actually
work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and
holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium
arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read
about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today
nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they
My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to
understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in
such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the
technology becomes a black box.
It is the same with any technology. A few years ago people
modified their computers in all sorts of clever ways, adding on
hard drives or patching in programs. Now they tend to take them as
they are: a sign of a maturing technology.
Once upon a time people built toy steam engines, or assembled
home-made radios with crystals and cat's whiskers (whatever those
were), or tinkered with their own cars and talked about fuel
injection and conical piston heads, or tried to teach children
computer programming languages; or drew diagrams of different types
of jet engines. Now you treat a radio or a car as a fully
functioning off-the-shelf device with internal workings that you
dare not touch; and nobody is terribly interested in the precise
processes of internal combustion or amplitude modulation.
I am especially conscious of this, because when I first became a
science reporter, part of my job was to write breathless dispatches
on semiconductor breakthroughs, with carefully nuanced explanations
of mechanisms. But as the semiconductor became ubiquitous, the
details dropped out of sight. Take gallium arsenide. There was a
lively debate about whether this semiconducting compound was going
to replace silicon, because of its superior features. There
probably still is, but it's no longer considered newsworthy.
Likewise, there was once a good living to be made by people like
me explaining genetics at the molecular level: all about hydrogen
bonds, four-letter alphabets, three-letter code-words and A's, C's,
G's and T's. Now you mostly take that for granted and cut straight
to the medical chase.
So the question is, what discussions are we having today that
will soon seem rather unnecessarily mechanistic and detailed? Where
in technology are we delving into what will soon be superfluous
details? I suspect all our talk of competing search engines (of
Google and its rivals) or competing operating systems (of Android
and its rivals) falls in this category. The virtues of different
versions of such things will one day sound as arcane as the virtues
of two-stroke versus four-stroke engines.
The very notion that we once discussed the relative merits of
text, email, social-network messaging and tweeting will seem
quaint. In the future, my part of the cloud will get a message to a
friend's part of the cloud by whichever method works best, and I
will not even know which way it went. The distinction between a
newspaper column and a blog will dissolve, as will the difference
between a book and an e-book.
It would be wrong to bemoan this trend. Just as we long ago grew
out of needing to discuss the minutiae of quarto, octavo, italic
and gothic in printing, so we need not fret that most of us will
use machines and procedures that we do not understand. It is in the
nature of the human animal to be more interested in novel
Besides, 10,000 years of history have shown us that it is quite
unnecessary to understand how something works to make excellent use
of it. In 1958, the economist Leonard Read published an essay
ostensibly written by a pencil, which discovers that: "Not a single
person on the face of this earth knows how to make me."