Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The wheel and the microchip

The wheel and the microchip


Robert Leslie Fielding

Man's most important invention was the wheel, or so I was led to believe at school.  In the years since leaving school the wheel has played a significant part in my life, as it inevitably has done in the lives of everyone.

Since the first wheel appeared, in Mesopotamia, some 5,500 years ago, its impact upon the lives of those who used it has been dramatic.  Its first uses most probably would have been close to its primary uses today; aiding the movement of something or somebody over some distance, with other uses including the milling of wheat to make flour, for example.

Later, some 4,000 years ago, the henges (stone circles) of Britain were built and used to mark the days of the year, early calendars, and used to study astronomy generally with the portals marking the solstices and the stones arranged in a circle to mark important times in the year.  In what was then becoming an agricultural world, seeds could be sewn with some predictability, and crop harvests increased because of the optimum use of the growing season.

During most of the 20th Century, and more particularly in the latter half of it, the wheel figured prominently in the developments that changed the lives of everybody.  In the fields of science and technology, in mechanical engineering, the wheel was and still is instrumental in producing everything from the airplane to the knitting needle.  Even flat surfaces, toothed racks and the teeth of gearwheels are all generated using the wheel, revolving as a cutter, milling flats and shapes into metal, grinding precision components to dimensions accurate to tenths of thousandths of an inch.   The sleek profiled curves of automobiles and planes, and the round plastic surfaces of children's toys are all manufactured using the rotation of the wheel at some points in the manufacturing process.  Presses and drop forges make their mark on huge, red hot billets of steel, and gleaming sheets of aluminium and stainless steel, die-casting machinery moulds hot, malleable plastic or alloy into familiar household containers, tubes, bottles and packaging, all using the rule of Pi and its circular derivative creations to complete the  pressing into shape of the submissive and ubiquitous substances: iron, steel, plastic and glass.

In the shaping of our landscape, in the damming of rivers, culverting of streams and draining of swamps, and in the construction of bridges, motorway flyovers, canals and docks, the wheel has been and continues to be the prime mover.

Circularity is so pervasive today that is has become part of our thinking.  We talk of circular arguments, vicious circles and the like, probably without always consciously realizing the extent that the geometrical shape influences our lives, but a shape approximating to the circle would have only been evident prior to the invention of the wheel because of the natural world: through the sight of the moon and the sun in the Heavens above, and in the shapes of flowers and in cross sections of felled trees.

Similarly, in the related fields of history and culture, the wheel, the circular shape,  figures prominently.  The myths surrounding Camelot, and King Arthur and the Knights of the  Round Table have become metaphors for justice and right; forums and meetings are ideally held around round tables.  Theatres in the round dominate the cultural life of many British cities.  There is something democratic and empowering about the circle, and its utility in the form of the wheel is inestimable; the round table has no corners, and everyone sitting at it has no more advantage due to their position on its circumference than anyone else.

As a concept as well as a shape, the circle is related to revolution, the overthrowing, often violently, of the social order.  In Thomas Kuhn’s terms; “political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit.” (Kuhn 1962)  Essentially, in simpler terms, the coming to the top of those that were formerly underneath, the underlying principle of the circle and the wheel, and this suggests the principle of 'catastrophism' (Palmer 1999), which assumes that conditions on Earth during the past were so different from those existing at the present that no comparison is possible.

Similarly, in terms of scientific revolutions (Kuhn 1962),  the concept of ‘catastrophism’ also seems to apply more closely to developments in the advance of scientific progress.  In Kuhn’s own words, a scientific revolution occurs “when an existing paradigm ceases to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself previously led the way.” (Kuhn 1962)

Finally, in mathematical terms, the circle remains an unfathomable puzzle, with the ratio between circumference and diameter evading a truly definite, absolute value, pi.

Now, when half the world has moved away from primary industries such as mining, and even partly away from manufacturing, to tertiary, service industries, pride of place is given to the center of the technological revolution, the microchip.  The wheel is still as useful as it ever was, but in a world where the movement of information is dominant, it has virtually no place.  For in terms of anything substantial moving along the so called ‘information super-highway’ and telecommunications generally, little in the way of physical material actually moves.  The advent of the microchip clearly marked new ground in terms of what had gone before it.  

For Daniel Bell ('The Coming of Post-Industrial Society'), and other writers such as Alvin Toffler ('The Third Wave', 'Future Shock'), the tertiary/post-industrial phase is characterized, not by man overcoming nature (primary industry) or man overcoming the man-made world (secondary manufacturing industry), but by overcoming man himself, putting curbs and checks on ‘human nature’, and using it in fields such as marketing.  In this last ‘conflict’ the microchip is arguably as important as the wheel was to those who invented it and subsequently came to use it.  

There is something as mysterious in the microchip as there is in the circular form, particularly to the uninitiated.  The chip is a marvel of miniaturization, and the functions it can perform are staggering, but the dimension that is truly amazing is the time taken to perform an operation.  With miniaturization has come the furious pace of micro-processing.

Consequently, in terms of what has gone before, the spectacular changes in velocity and range, made possible by the advent of the micro-processor, amount to or will amount to, in retrospect, something more closely related to the principle of 'catastrophism' (Palmer ibid.), and while that notion is generally applied to the geological formation of the planet, it is a useful concept in any explanations relating to the history of the wheel and the micro-processor.   Social and historical commentators looking back on the events that surround these two technological developments, viz the wheel and the microchip, may well come to view the history of them in precisely that way.

The other major differences between the two inventions are the visibility or otherwise of each event, and the dissemination of each.  With the wheel, the concept of rotation would have been well known, visible and logical, and thereafter the wheel would have become freely available to those needing it, in the area in which it came into being. The introduction of the microchip, on the other hand, involved relatively small numbers of specialists with technological expertise and access to certain resources not freely available, and the invention would not have been 'visible' to those not involved, and nor was it freely available initially, being protected by patents and by secrecy.

The massive, almost cataclysmic change in the temporal velocity of the processing of data made possible by micro-processors is most easily demonstrated by the following comparison.  At a time when England was most productive, the Victorian era, when manufacturing industry was in its heyday, and virtually everything produced had the words ‘Made in England’ stamped on it, the cutting of material into the shape of a gentleman’s jacket was dramatically speeded up by the introduction of powerful and accurate presses that had been modified to cut shapes in cloth rather than metal.  Thousands of suits could be cut daily, removing the onerous task of cutting each one by hand.

By the time the micro processor had made its mark on the same process, different sized jackets could be cut just as accurately and far quicker one by one than the multiple cuttings of the heaving presses of Victoria’s age.   Furthermore, the machine could be programmed to cut each length to different dimensions, a feat that would need a major re-tooling operation in former days.  Many different sized jackets can now be cut individually much quicker than could a single stamping of say twenty uniform sized pieces of cloth.

This comparison of modus operandi may be a simple one, but it is one that can be readily comprehended by those only used to thinking in terms of mechanical movement and limited speed.

In the waging of modern warfare, from the horrors of the Great War in Europe, and more recently, to the ultra high-tech deluge of weapons raining down on those below, the wheel is still a force to be reckoned with.  Tanks and guns, tank transporters, personnel carriers, helicopters and planes all rely on the predictability and certainty of the wheel.  Shells and bullets fly more accurately and deadlier to their targets because of rifling in circular barrels.  However, now, instead of a speeding bullet or shell going in a straight line, we have the so called ‘smart bomb’, which is directed to its target by computer, turning right and left as the need arises.  The rifling in the circular barrel suddenly has much less importance.

For this is the nature of the world we inhabit, and in which the microchip holds sway; one in which a once productive sector of the economy has become virtually extinct, and with it, a significant proportion of the working population has found itself in a world it doesn’t understand, nor feels it will ever be able to.

The transition from a world where the wheel was the dominant form/icon to one in which a motionless piece of silica is dominant, has been a swift and unnerving one for many, and a welcome and empowering one for those who can adapt.

Wheels run on tracks, roads and lines, and have probably contributed to perceptions tending to be linear. The directions around which the micro-processor operates, on the other hand, are numerous and have causes us to challenge our ways of thinking, so that now, a more lateral rather than linear approach to the solving of problems is more usual and indeed vital.  The old remedies and ways are giving way to a new, sometimes confusing plethora of answers and possible solutions.

Guns still fire bullets out of circular barrels, and four-wheeled tractors still plough land, but in the management and governance of people and how they spend their time, both in and out of the work place, more traditional modes of thinking have given way to what I will call a ‘multi-path approach’ to management.

Now, many more dimensions can be called up and utilized because of the speed and power of the micro-processor, and consequently, people have to attempt to ‘keep up’ or perish as others progress and succeed.

The development in information technology that has changed all our lives, of course, is the Internet.  The World is a ‘global village’ and everyone is linked to everyone else.  This is not quite true though; perhaps a majority of the people inhabiting the planet Earth still do not have access to clean, running water, proper sanitation or electricity, let alone a telephone connection to the Internet, or a pc to communicate with the rest of the world online.

For many of those unfortunate people crowding round the peripheries of our biggest cities, living in sprawling slums and ghettos, there is little use for the microchip or even the wheel.  Manpower, or more usually womanpower, is still the dominant force; without roads or any sort of infrastructure, these poorest areas have little provision for the wheel, none at all for the micro-processor.

The Earth is round, but some of those living on its surface are differently positioned with regard to its wealth and opportunity.  The true benefits of the wheel and the microchip have still not reached all four corners of the Earth.

Kuhn, Thomas (1962)   The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  University of Chicago Press
Palmer T. (1999) Controversy: Catastrophism and Evolution  Plenum

Robert L Fielding


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