It's nearly sixty years since the founding of Shockley Semiconductor in 1956; almost fifty years since Dr. Moore pronounced his law in 1965; and just past forty years since Intel introduced the microprocessor in 1972. So, along with looking back on all that has been accomplished so far, maybe it's also time to stop and reflect where the digital revolution is taking us.
From the beginning, the goal of the electronics industry has been progress. But did we ever discuss or agree on what we want to progress towards?
Faster, cooler, cheaper, smaller? Okay, but there's a limit to how fast our brains can function every day in an environment where machines operate at gigahertz speed.
Moore's Law of accelerating capability doesn't take Murphy's Law into account. The May 2010 "flash crash," and the many, less publicized ones that followed, reveal that as systems complexify beyond our management, they require even more sophisticated systems to manage them. And each new layer of complexity brings a new level of fragility.
There is much talk now how innovation will stimulate job growth, but in fact, the most valued innovation is that which enables automation: replacing human inputs with machine inputs.
And so well-paying, domestic manufacturing jobs get off-shored, or automated, and we confront the dark underside of "creative destruction" -- enormous wealth created for investors, while jobs of wage earners are displaced or destroyed.
Yet even as middle-income jobs vanish, mobile devices (often made in conditions approaching slave labor) bombard us 24/7 with ads to buy increasingly trivial "cool" stuff.
And when we're not being sold such products, we are the products being sold to advertisers, and state surveillance agencies.
Is the tension between diminished opportunity to produce, and relentless pressure to consumer, responsible for some of the stress -- and bad manners -- so evident in society now?
How is it that with all this information washing around us, ignorance, superstition, and incivility are becoming the new norm?
In short, have we reached the point in the digital revolution where our tools no longer serve us, but we are increasingly required to adapt ourselves to serve them? Must we accept the doubling of the pace of life every 12-18 months in the name of progress, without discussing what we're progressing towards?
Certainly factors besides the electronics revolution -- economic, political, cultural -- have contributed to the distress many feel today. But how do we get beyond this, as painlessly as possible?
Go off-grid, off-cellular, off-cloud? That may work for a few, but only a few of us.
Hack our way to some anarchic utopia? Again, the history of utopian movements is not encouraging.
Gravitate to the extreme left or right? By definition, the extreme is not where most people are comfortable.
Whatever remediation or transformation will come, it must come from the grassroots. Few institutions have the moral authority any more to mandate solutions.
And that's what this comes down to -- a moral problem. Without overlooking the many, many benefits of the technology revolution, we have to acknowledge that much of that ingenuity has been frittered away on the trivial and the deadly -- cool stuff and smart weapons -- or on delivery mechanisms that bombard us 24/7 with violent and salacious entertainment to hold our attention until ads appear to incite our greed and envy.
The current focus of the engineering enterprise notwithstanding, the greatest challenge facing society today is not an entertainment deficiency.
There is no way to legislate or mandate our way out of a soulless silicon civilization. Any change has to start at the individual level. To that end, the first place to start is with a rediscovery of two golden nuggets from antiquity. The golden mean -- living a life of mindful moderation between too much and too little. And the golden rule -- treating all others, including the land, air, and water, as we wish to be treated.
Maybe if we stop trying to reshape ourselves in the image and likeness of our technology, and instead redirect the rich portfolio of tools now available to us to more human and humane ends, we'll find ourselves doing real and necessary innovation. Like finding a way for Congress to actually legislate; facilitating more available and affordable healthcare and education; and re-introducing justice and civility back into the public sphere. That's what I'd call real progress.