Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil
New York: 1995
Pages 74, 75
Past generations of millwrights, blacksmiths, and machinists are almost gone. Theirs was a real workplace, of forges, lathes, and anvils. Nothing virtual about a diesel engine or hydraulic press. They built iron horses with muscles of steam, skyscrapers with brick and rivet and lime. We’re fast replacing their hard mechanical world with a gossamer network of fibers. Our is one of artificial reality, software tools, and expert systems. There’s nothing to touch; no inner workings to admire. The pendulum clock from sixty years ago attracts more attention than today’s more accurate quartz watch. Makes me wonder what history we’re leaving behind. Footprints across an artificial reality are as evanescent as data on the Ethernet.
Today, gone is craft, replaced by career. Instead of workers on our feet, we’ve become sedentary professionals, entering data into computers. As the analog world of our parents gives way to the digital universe of our children, I compare the tools of these two environments. Handwriting is replaced by word processing, mail by e-mail, accounting books by spreadsheets, rotary dials by Touch-Tones, drafting by CAD. Efficient improvements, yes, but one thing saddens me. I sense little love for this technology, and even less appreciation for the wonders of this digital age. Once, kids read of Tom Swift’s adventures in electric cars and high-speed aeroplanes. Today, there’s a blase acceptance of instant global communications and microelectronic wizardry. These are impressive accomplishments, deserving of curiosity, awe, and praise. For all my ambivalence about the barrenness of technoculture, I’m blown away by the devices themselves. Once, you brought a six-transistor radio to the beach. Now, there’s a half million transistors in every cellular phone.
Johann Kepler needed six years to analyze the motion of Mars; my pocket calculator can do this in a minute.
Yet despite the footsore cliche of an information revolution, I rarely hear genuine esteem for the internal workings of today’s technologies. Hardly anyone takes apart a computer just to admire the designers’ work. Kids don’t disassemble VCRs to figure out how they work—I wish they would! There are no Heathkits to let you solder your own modem. Indeed, it’s a rare hobbyist that wires his PC into an experiment. I guess today’s experimenters build things in software, without ever touching a soldering iron. The hocus-pocus is inside the program. It’s cleaner this way—nothing to burn or zap, and you don’t need a voltmeter.
What happened to home-brewed and breadboarded circuitry? Where’s the joy of mechanics and electricity, the creation of real things? Who are the tinkerers with a lust for electronics? We’ve become a nation of appliance operators, who take pride in what we own, rather than what we build. Remind me, in an odd way of my fortune cookie from The Great Wall Chinese Restaurant: “Work to become, not to acquire.”