The End of Moore’s Law is the Beginning of New Strangeness, and Possibly Sustainable IT
There is an observation which was mis-named a law, which has been guiding the hand of the IT-powered economy since it came up in the 1960’s. Moore’s law (more accurately called Moore’s Observation) describes the seemingly-endless acceleration of computer technology since they first used the semiconductor silicon to replace vacuum tubes. Currently, this prediction is undergoing renovation.
Decades ago, a scientist at Intel observed that the complexity of silicon wafers, used to make computer chips, doubled about every 18 months. This has led the entire industry to rally behind a prediction that has become a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it. If you didn’t notice, computers and other information technology devices seem to have been getting faster and faster, the power they deliver and the number of features they possess as a result seem to increase as a function of time, relative to how much money it costs to buy them. The physics behind what made this acceleration possible escapes understanding for most, but it’s essential to understanding the next few years of global economic shifting as the silicon trend slows to a standstill, and IT manufacturers find new ways to advance.
The last few decades of push in the silicon semiconductor industry have led to a false economy, a gold rush of sorts, creating a new world where electronics are now the new status symbol of global society. Having the newest smartphone in class has become just as important, if not more-so, than having the nicest car on the block. Now being interested in sustainability, we don’t pay much attention to these social trends except where it comes to the consumption habits of the masses – which relates, in turn, to the health of our society and our planet.
This upward climb of bits has been reliable so far, but there is a limit, and it looks like we just hit it. Intel and other companies have had a hard time getting silicon to divide any more into more complex circuits, as we have made the switches so small they border the size of atoms themselves – now, the electrons won’t stay still where we want them, in the nice little channels we need them in. The investment capital and practical controls required to keep pushing this technology, and keep those little electrons in their places, is outpacing its cost-effectiveness. IN OTHER WORDS, the iPhone next year might not actually be any faster than the one last year, and the IT industry has to do some rapid creative thinking to re-align the economy and consumers who have gotten used to the acceleration. If we didn’t know any better, we could predict the global economy to go through some serious fits and starts when investors and consumers find out.
There are other things on the horizon to fill the gap left by silicon, but they are not mature enough yet to be found in consumer electronics – and may not be soon enough to make a difference. Graphene and quantum computers offer exciting new venues for computing, but in the current moment there is truck for stop-gap measures to keep your silicon beasts humming along, like hiring a computer tech.
What does this have to do with sustainability? Everything. This shift away from arguably the most important tech trend in history could leave the global economy in tatters – or it could finally change how people see material, as valuable and worth saving or fixing instead of throwing away. E-waste is one of the biggest growing ecological problems in the world, and finding out that the trend which had people discarding their old technology constantly is going away would be good news for those who want to see the piles stop growing. I say would be because we have to use this moment to fight for positive grassroots change. We have to work with the IT industry to stop, then, this trend of forced, planned, or perceived obsolescence. Now that we have a stable platform, we can finally get some solid ground under our feet. That is, if Big IT doesn’t cultivate and rely upon consumer ignorance to keep doing what it always was.
Aside from tweaks with the software and interface used by devices, companies will be hard pressed to get consumers to upgrade. Many will resort to tricky gimmicks like changing the plastic coating and flashy graphics to make you think there is change happening in the market when there’s not. Many companies are literally turning toward unreliability and made-to-fail policies in order to force consumers to replace devices. We could, however, take this opportunity to create a global manufacturing economy based on reliable quality of goods, and trustworthiness and responsibility of the corporations producing them. We must adopt better battery technology, make things take less energy – and also stop making them to break, given that replacing them due to just being over 18 months old isn’t going to be “a thing” anymore. The concept of phonebloks (easy, open modular computing) makes more sense than ever now. This also means that your average Jane or Joe can feel good about calling an experienced tech to help them fix their computers or devices, and not worry about getting left in the dust. Up until now, the mantra was something like “don’t fix it, another one is coming out in a couple months.” This old song will hopefully fall silent soon. Click here for more info on getting help with your existing computers – and hopefully, avoid upgrading for as long as possible, now that you know it’s not going to do any good!