The Way Things Work

Magic, they call it.

And indeed we may add an appendix to that old saw: any sufficiently advanced, or sufficiently obscure, technology is indistinguishable from magic.

You must know the story of the Mechanical Turk. How princes and tradesmen were amazed by this ingenious device’s ability to play chess intelligently. In an age of steam and brass hinges! Yet at the time thousands were fooled. Had they known a bit more about machines, they might have realized it was not just improbable, but impossible.

The Mechanical Turks of our day aren’t designed for entertainment, but to be bought and used, yet a similar contrivance goes into preventing the secrets of their operation from being questioned. In fact, we are already at a time where it is more or less impossible for one person to understand or question them. Apple may be ahead of the curve on this trend, but while it appears they’ve been leading the industry by the nose, they in turn are being led by the inexorable forward motion of technology. Open hardware advocates fight the good fight, and they fight it valiantly, but defeat is inevitable.

And what would victory be, exactly? A laptop you can repair in the comfort of your home? Sounds good, to be sure — but how deep does that capability really go? If your hard drive breaks or your RAM is corrupted, will you pull out a magnifying glass and correct the faulty sectors with your electron drill? Adjust the drive head in your billion-dollar repair toolshop out back? No, you’ll order a new drive, new RAM, a new screen.

RAM used to be pieces too, you know. In an excellent (so far) book about the origins of the computer, Turing’s Cathedral, the mechanical nature of early computing machines is presented for your humble contemplation. ENIAC, for instance, had 17,468 vacuum tubes, 1500 relays, and 500,000 hand-soldered joints. Operation was complicated, but mechanical: if you weren’t careful, you might get your finger caught in the RAM. If something broke, you needed a wrench. Now a stored bit takes up so little space that if it gets much smaller it will cease to be governed by Newtonian physics.

This is the real problem. Technology actually is approaching the magic point. You want to know how your laptop works. You can’t know. Even the people who made it don’t know. Apple has to call up LG or Sharp when it wants a high-density display. LG has to call Samsung when they want MLC flash storage. Samsung has to call NVIDIA when they want graphics cores. NVIDIA has to call ARM to make SoC architecture. Vertical integration is a thing of the past because no company can do it all. It took Intel five years and billions of dollars to develop just the processor your laptop runs today. The whole system is the culmination of a century of work by geniuses and specialists. Control over your hardware is the flimsiest of illusions. You only understand the snow frosting the top of the iceberg, and even then all you can do to fix it is pay for more.

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via TechCrunch

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