Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column, “If I Had a Hammer,” typifies the stubborn persistence of deterministic thinking about the implications of new technologies. The column is an uncritical gloss on a recent popular book by two MIT business economists, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who herald the coming transformation of the “second machine age,” the rise of smart machines, supposedly as a result of something called Moore’s law.
As explained by Friedman, Moore’s law establishes “the relentless doubling of digital computing power every two years.” However, this is not what Moore’s law states. Moore’s law is actually a rather narrow prediction about the exponential growth in density of components (specifically, “gates”) on an integrated circuit. Gordon E. Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with this prediction in 1964. In its current form, Moore’s law predicts that chip density will double roughly every two years.
This exponential rate of growth has held steady since the 1970s, making it seem like a law of nature, a relentless force driving technology and society forward. But, as STS scholars Harro van Lente and Arie Rip have noted, Moore’s law functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, establishing expectations for the rate of improvement in computer chips. Major chip producers use the expectations created by Moore’s law to decide how much they need to invest in better technologies to stay abreast of their competitors. The cost of these investments are staggering. A single cutting-edge chip plant requires billions of dollars. Put simply, Moore’s law remains valid largely because people believe it to be valid, at least the people who plan R&D investments in the semiconductor industry.
Techno-utopians like Friedman place great stress Moore’s law, using it to portray technology as an autonomous, deterministic force creating radical social change. But Moore’s law hardly represents technology in general. No other major technologies experience comparable high rates of exponential growth. New pharmaceuticals and patents don’t grow exponentially. There is no exponential growth in the efficiency and cost of engines, or in communication speeds, as these technologies are limited by laws of nature. Even Internet traffic cannot grow exponentially, as it is constrained by the physical capacity of fiber-optic cables.
Moore’s law really only applies to digital technologies, but even in here it doesn’t imply exponential growth in effectiveness. Doubling your computer’s RAM does not double its power, nor does doubling the number of gates on a microprocessor automatically double its performance. And even if the power of hardware did increase exponentially, hardware is useless without effective software. But software emphatically does not obey Moore’s law. In fact, the greater the size of software, the less efficient it becomes to create, because problems of coordination increase exponentially with size, especially for large projects that require hundreds of programmers. Complex software is very difficult to produce, as the recent problems with the health.gov website show.
Ultimately, Moore’s law is a law of man, not a law of nature. It is the result of human choices, and it will cease to be a law if humans choose differently. But Friedman refuses to acknowledge that human choices drive technological change. Instead, he insists that we need to “rethink deeply our social contracts” to cope with this “technological hurricane reshaping the workplace,” a hurricane that, due to Moore’s law, “just keeps doubling.” Does Friedman ever imagine that we might choose different technologies if we were to subordinate the supposed imperatives of technology to human values? Ultimately, Friedman practices idolatry of technology, making it into a false god whose demands trump everything else.