Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: March 21, 2023, 7:52 a.m. Humanist 36.464 - chips

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 464.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2023-03-21 07:44:31+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: chips

In the latest London Review of Books (45.6, for 16 March), John
Lanchester writes wonderfully well about the microchip, in "Putting the
Silicon in Silicon Valley", a review of Chris Miller, Chip War (2022). I
recommend it, esp for those who are insufficiently familiar with
hardware. First he disabuses us of the notion that everything has
changed, then writes,

 > One big thing, however, is different. In 1983, that kitchen contained
 > just a handful of transistors, all of which lived in the – there’s a
 > clue in the name – transistor radio. In 2023, every item on that list
 > of domestic objects uses microchips which are each made up of
 > thousands, millions, billions of transistors. Ovens, fridges,
 > vacuums, car keys, radios, speakers: all of them now contain
 > microchips. An ordinary car contains dozens of them. A posh car
 > contains a thousand. And those are just the standard consumer items
 > of the mid-20th century. As for the things we think of as being this
 > century’s new technology, they are some of the most complicated and
 > beautiful artefacts humanity has ever made, mainly because of the
 > chips they contain. The writer’s phone is an iPhone 12, which uses a
 > chip for the modem, a chip to control Bluetooth, a chip to detect
 > motion and orientation, a chip for image sensing, chips for wireless
 > charging and battery management and audio, and a couple of memory
 > chips. All of these are bought by Apple from other companies, and all
 > are simple beasts compared to the principal logic chip in that phone,
 > Apple’s own-designed A14, which contains 11,800,000,000 transistors.
 > The writer’s laptop, a MacBook Air, uses another ‘system on a chip’,
 > Apple’s M2. That single chip contains 20,000,000,000 transistors. The
 > laptop contains so many transistors that if the writer travelled back
 > in time to 1983, he could give every single person on the planet a
 > transistor radio and still have a billion of them left over.

As for the devices he calls "the most complicated and beautiful
artefacts humanity has ever made, mainly because of the chips they
contain", I do have difficulty with advancing them as fully fit for
reading as one reads a codex. The soaring price of printed books is
forcing me to abandon the book opening (as far as I am concerned, the
unit of design for reading) for a screen. Is that a sign of age, or is
its opposite a sign of a poorer youth?


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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