What about the general lack of specific knowledge about how our technology works?
This concerns me, in large part because I’ve witnessed a steady decline in my own knowledge of how the things I regularly use work, and because I now meet many people with the present-day equivalents of my social an education background who have never had such knowledge, and seem less concerned that they don’t than I do.
When I graduated college in the 1983, with a BS degree in Math, but most professional prospects in computer programming, I could, thanks to a class titled “electronic instrumentation” and hobby activity, build a simple digital computer from individual transistor and other simple electronic parts. I understood, at least in principle, how to build those individual parts, and even, thanks to a fine arts class in engraving, how to build integrated electronics using photolithography. The computer I could build was poor in comparison to those built from the commercial computer parts of that time, but it wasn’t hard for me to imagine that, given no more than sand, metal ore, wood and necessity, I could built a computer as good or better than the Apple, IBM, Tandy and other brand-named ones I was then using.
I don’t feel that way any more. The density and speed of transistors and more exotic electronics in the humblest of cellphones carried by most of the people I pass on the street rely on physic beyond my ken. I don’t think I could make something like them given the rest of my lifetime.
I don’t even feel a deep sense of understanding about computer software any more. In the early 1980s, Given the documentation of the instruction set of a CPU, I could make a computer with no software whatever – no operating system, no embedded system – do useful things. Such computers – for example, the 1960s-born DEC PDP-8
still existed – I’d had the experience of turning one on, transcribing a the minimal program needed to accept input via voltages at its physical connectors to load a longer program from a paper tape reader attached to a teletype terminal, then load a program that allowed it to support a room full of terminals, then use a terminal. Though I hadn’t personally written these bootstrap and runtime environment programs, I understood them in principle, and, having documentation fully describing the computer, could have written them.
Now, though I’ve written computer programs for the past 30 years, I don’t much understand the layers of software under which they run, and the software embedded in the many hardware components between me and memory and storage. I don’t even understand well the physics of this underlying memory and storage. Given time and an army of workers, and all the natural resources in the world, I couldn’t build the marvel at my fingertips, or the marvels with which it communicates.
Somewhere, though, some people do understand, and actually design this hardware, the program for its embedded systems, build it from raw materials, assemble it and ship it off to rest in the hands and data center racks where people like me program it, and everybody that uses a computer uses it. I’m just no longer not one of these people, but not able to seriously imagine being so.
I’m not entirely sure any single person is – that is can design and build the electronics we so take for granted.
It hasn’t always been the case that an individual could not create, from naught but natural materials, the highest technology of their civilization. As late as the 19th century, experienced mariners could harvest, mine, shape, smelt and build every part of a good boat from scratch, then use it to sail across an ocean. Even after the advent of steam and oil motors, a good craftsperson could reproduce something close to their civilization’s best technology.
I doubt anyone can now. Like the bootstrap procedure for the old PDP-8 of my youth, it seems to me that early technologists have metaphorically bootstapped our civilization into a complicated network of BIOSes, OSs, applications and the like. Unlike those old PDP-8s, nobody plans to power down and reboot our civilization, which unlike those old machines, is so big and redundant it doesn’t need to be.
I find this a bit spooky, and a lot humbling.