I had my first experience with the internet in the early 1990s. I activated our 300-baud modem, allowed it to begin its R2-D2-like hissing and whistling, and began to telnet. A window on our Macintosh’s screen began filling with text and announced our connection to the computers at the local university. After exploring a series of text menus, I began my first download: a text document containing Plato’s The Republic, via Project Gutenberg. After what felt like a significant fraction of an hour, I was ecstatic. I can distinctly remember jumping up and down, celebrating that I had this entire book on our computer using nothing but phone lines and a lot of atonal beeping.
It took me almost a decade to actually get around to reading The Republic. By the time I did, the notion that I expressed wonder at such a mundane activity as downloading a text document seemed quaint. In 2012, people stream movies onto their computers nightly without praising the modem gods. We have gone from the days of early web pages, with their garish backgrounds and blinking text, to slick interactive sites with enough bells and whistles to make the entire experience smooth and multimedia based. No one thinks any longer about modems or the details of bandwidth speeds. And certainly no one uses the word baud anymore.
The changes haven’t ended there. To store data, I have used floppy disks, diskettes, zip discs, rewritable CDs, flash drives, burnable DVDs, even the Commodore Datasette. Now, I save many of my documents to storage that’s available anytime I have access to the internet: the cloud.
The technological revolution we’re currently experiencing is not a one-off, technology has been changing over the centuries. But what’s surprising is that if you look below the surface you discover that this progress is not random or erratic, it almost always follows a pattern. And understanding this pattern helps us to appreciate far more than faster download speeds or improved data storage. It helps us to understand something fundamental to our success as a species. It helps us to understand how our knowledge changes and evolves.
In technology, the best-known example of this pattern is Moore’s Law, which states that the processing power of a single chip or circuit will double every year. Gordon Moore, a retired chemist and physicist as well as the co-creator of the Intel Corporation, wasn’t famous or fabulously wealthy when he developed his law. In fact, he hadn’t even founded Intel yet.
In 1965, Moore wrote a short paper, entitled Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits, where he predicted the number of possible components placed on a single circuit for a fixed cost would double every year. He didn’t arrive at this conclusion through exhaustive amounts of data gathering and analysis; in fact, he based his law on only four data points.
The incredible thing is that he was right. This law has held roughly true since 1965; it has weathered the personal computer revolution, the march of processors from 286 to 486 to Pentium, and the many advances since then. While further data has shown that the period for doubling is closer to eighteen months than a year, the principle stands. Processing power grows every year at a constant rate rather than by a constant amount. And according to the original formulation, the annual rate of growth is about 200%.
But when processing power doubles rapidly it allows much more to be possible, and therefore many other developments occur as a result. For example, the number of pixels that digital cameras can process has increased directly due to the regularity of Moore’s Law. This ongoing doubling of technological capabilities has even reached the world of robots. Rodney Brooks, a professor at MIT and a pioneer in the field, found that how far and how fast a robot can move goes through a doubling about every two years: right on schedule and similar to Moore’s Law.