Present Shock • 2 February 2008 • The SnowBlog

Present Shock

I'm just having one of those moments, sort of like the opposite of déjà vu (which I suppose may or may not be called jamais vu) when I look at the technology of 2008. Every now and again it dawns on me all over again how incredible it all is. I am remembering back to when I was sixteen and I wanted a computer. If some previously unknown but kindly aunt had decided to indulge me, and had bought me a top-of-the-line Cray 1-A supercomputer, I would have had the fastest production computer on the planet. This is a description of that machine: "The supercomputer weighed 5-1/2 tons, arrived in two refrigerated electronic vans, and needed more than 30 construction workers, engineers, and helpers to move it into the computer room. The CRAY-1A had a 12.5-nanosecond clock, 64 vector registers, and 1 million 64-bit words of high-speed memory." All very impressive I'm sure, but my current mobile phone could give it a very serious run for its money - and probably beat it for many types of calculation. Now I'll grant you that my phone doesn't have a groovy Seventies earth-tones colour scheme. And it doesn't have its power-supplies covered with leatherette cushions to make it into a piece of furniture - not to mention a conversation piece - but on the other hand you can just slip it into your pocket and carry it around with you all day. Back then, no amount of money would have allowed you to create a machine of that power which would sit in the palm of your hand. It's sort of weird to realise that half the gadgets in my house would have been worth billions in 1980. Building them was more difficult than putting a man on the moon, because while a lunar visit was within the reach of Seventies technology, a portable MP3 player wasn't. They would have loved to be able to create tiny, high-speed CPUs and memory chips of the required power, but in 1980, it couldn't be done.

1980 could make the lower device
but not the upper one

Just in case I stumble across a spacetime vortex that will take me back to 1980, I think I might make extra sure that I could swap my phone for, say, Manhattan Island by storing a zipped up copy of the human genome on its flash card. Hmm, or maybe they'd be more impressed by a copy of The Matrix. I might even tell people it's a documentary if I'm feeling mischievous.


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« A belated acknowledgement
Some answers and suggestions. »