Today, we'll be slightly more *intellectual* than usual. We'll take a look at why devices and tools can always be improved and why ideas can't.
Matthew Herber will be our guide.
What does it mean for a technology to become obsolete? Are there devices that cannot be improved upon? Maybe. But, increasingly, it seems that even the most mundane tools, such as hammers and table forks, have been as subject to the constant churn of innovation as bleeding-edge computer algorithms and genetic engineering.
While any gadget can always be improved, sometimes further innovations appear to be mere tweaks. An extreme example: Toilet paper hasn't changed much in a century, and shirt-buttons, whatever their color or material, are still shirt buttons. And no one is ever going to reinvent the wheel. But the wheels on a Ford automobile are still very different from those on a wheelbarrow.
So it seems that tools can always be improved. Now, what about ideas?
Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory who spends most of his time thinking about how and why the universe is expanding, points to standing in line. There is no better way of distributing a limited number of goods based on the order in which people show up. But this seems an exception that proves the rule -- the reason standing in line can't be improved upon is because it is all idea. There is literally no material to improve.
Even Intel agrees.
Some ideas simply represent fundamental solutions to problems. "Think about the basket," says Gerald Marcyk, director of the Components Research Group at Intel. "It allowed people to carry more than they had in their hand. It allowed you to conceal things. It allowed people then to use pack animals. This is one of these fundamental inventions."
Still, Marcyk says, the basket has gone through a technological evolution over centuries. Originally made from plant fibers, it's now as likely to be a cloth, paper or plastic bag. Or a toolbox. But the idea of a container is still a basic thing that is difficult to improve upon -- so much so that bags, baskets and boxes all basically resemble one another.
And now, are you ready for the punch line?
The transistor, the tiny electronic switch that serves as the basis for the computer, is a recent invention but a fundamental idea. Computer engineers are constantly working to make these tiny switches smaller and smaller, but they are not searching for an alternative to using tiny switches.
But even here, it is difficult to pinpoint where the fundamental shift occurred. "Transistors replaced the vacuum tubes," notes Marcyk. "You can make a computer out of vacuum tubes -- it's just that it would heat Alaska."
Source: Matthew Herber, Forbes.com, September 10, 2002
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