SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – When in my prime I knew everything and now I know nothing. You may think I’m speaking philosophically about having acquired wisdom with age but that’s not what I’m talking about at all. While it’s true that at 17 I thought I was smarter than my parents and teachers with nothing left to learn about life, and as I matured gradually realized my error, what my initial statement means is that things used to be simple and easy to understand compared to the complexities of our 21st Century technologies. A toaster is a perfect example.
You may never have thought about it but anyone can easily figure out how toasters work by just looking at them. You push a lever down which not only inserts the bread but closes a contact allowing electricity to run through the heating element causing it to glow, which then singes the contents. Simple… there’s no magic or mystery involved. A clock or watch used to be the same. Each had a main spring that caused the mechanism to move gears that slowly rotated the hands. Merely by keeping the spring wound put pressure on the gears to keep them turning. Time pieces were finely engineered devices but by peering inside you could see what was happening. The entire world worked by mechanical means, things that pushed or pulled or rotated, and while it took engineers to create the designs, anyone could see how they operated.
As electronics came into use ushering in the radio and TV ages, things got a little more difficult but still you could see and touch each “discrete” component, things like resistors, capacitors, diodes, or vacuum tubes. Perhaps the average person didn’t understand what each item did but libraries were full of books that easily explained basic electricity and electronics, how a tube’s cathode emitted electrons across a vacuum to the anode which collected them and passed them on under control of a screen grid.
With the advent of transistors, things got much smaller since those raisin-sized entities replaced the pickle-sized vacuum tubes and didn’t require as much power, but the theory was still the same consisting of an emitter, collector, and base as the elements. Radios went from being large pieces of furniture that stood on the floor to table top units and then to hand held items as the components and circuit boards shrank, but you still could identify everything inside.
Having worked and been trained in the service end of the computer industry since its inception I understood all these things until the day that ICs (Integrated Circuits) were introduced. Imagine taking all the parts of a car; the engine, distributor, carburetor, spark plugs, alternator, transmission, radiator, etc., squashing them together and having them permanently sealed in a box the size of the toaster that we discussed earlier. That’s what ICs accomplished, eliminating all the individual pieces I knew so well along with my comprehension and ultimately my usefulness.
Look inside a clock nowadays, assuming it has hands, and all you see is a tiny box and battery. The face says it’s Quartz but what does that mean? How does it work since there’s no longer a main spring to wind? Look inside a pocket radio or cell phone and what do you see… nothing other than something that resembles a cockroach. Nobody knows or even cares how they work for when they die they get thrown away to be replaced by new ones that are even smaller and better.
And so you now understand why I used to know everything and now I know nothing. By the way, if you think my analogy of reducing an auto’s mechanics to fit into a shoe box is sci-fi fantasy, you know even less than me.