The microprocessor is at its heart.
Its motor is a crystal made of stone.
Turn on the mystic power and watch it start.
You don’t know how it works? You’re not alone.
A blue ray player or a mobile phone,
Or any number of these weird gadgets;
The electronics in a deadly drone;
The microchips beneath the skin of pets
Injected by computer-challenged vets;
Sure they are useful, but how do they work?
Online you buy your stocks and place your bets
With no idea of what components lurk
Beneath the covers, integrated there –
Transistors and resistors or – thin air?
A Return to the Age of Magic
Primitive man thought fire was magic, and he could make magic; he was the magician who by rubbing two sticks together or by using a flint and some dry tinder could perform the trick. Sure, he didn’t know what fire really was, scientifically that is; he didn’t know that it was the rapid oxidisation of fuel, but he knew its properties – it was hot, it burnt, it cooked meat, and he knew how to make it, and he taught his children how to make it. The whole tribe was right up with technology; if a fire-maker died, another one could take his place. So much for fire. Technology advanced and along came the wheel. Everyone could understand the wheel; why hadn’t someone thought of it before? Well, as one primitive card joked: “Who wants to carry a wheel around?” It was so simple. You could see it working. It wasn’t that hard to make. So the wheel led to the cart and that was pretty straightforward as well. Things were progressing at speed now and before long all sorts of new technology emerged: the horse collar, metals, weaving, new building techniques, and then, steam – well steam engines; they were a great leap forward, but still, like all the new inventions or discoveries before them, you could see them, you could touch them, you could hear them. You could make out what was going on if you really took a good look – it wasn’t really magic, it was the product of man’s inventive genius, and most men with just a bit of effort could, to a reasonable extent, understand it. All of this mechanical technology was open to the curious eye and the curious brain. People on the whole were pretty technology savvy. You may see a fine bridge being built and know that you could build something similar, perhaps not as well made, perhaps just a log across a creek, but a bridge of sorts. You may not be able to make a steam engine or be able to separate iron from its ore and beat it into a sword, (or if you were a pacifist, a plough share) but if you used your eyes and ears and your brain you could pretty much figure out how these things were done. Along came the internal combustion engine – it wasn’t so hard to understand: instead of externally created steam, the internal explosions of sucked in (or injected) fuel plus air drove the pistons up and down, and the connecting rods and crankshaft converted that to a rotary motion – just like the steam engine – this was pretty common knowledge, at least among men. The internal combustion engine would spawn the motor car – perhaps one of the most widely understood technological developments of all. The motor car and its constituent parts were visible and touchable (and modifiable) and therefore understandable to the layman. You didn’t have to be a motor mechanic to at least have a reasonable idea of how a car worked. So far so good; men could still identify with technology; they could still to a fair extent understand it, and as yet they weren’t afraid of it, but things were starting to change. Technology was starting to get more complicated and more sophisticated, and thus more difficult for many to understand, more of it was becoming hidden from direct view you might say, and soon the specialists would be coming into their own. Along comes electricity. Now electricity is relatively simple; we see it in lightning and we experience it when we get a static electricity shock, but this new electricity was different. It was generated by man, and it ran in wires, but you couldn’t see it or hear it (and you certainly couldn’t touch it), but still it wasn’t too hard to understand – basically an electromotive force that propelled electrons through a circuit, and you could see the generator whirling away; at least you could see and hear that; that was comforting. Sure, you had to be an Electrical Engineer to really understand it and only electricians could work on the stuff but those with a reasonable store of grey cells could come to a reasonably satisfactory understanding of it. Those who weren’t so blessed, or just couldn’t give a damn, just gave up. That perhaps, was the start of the common man distancing himself from how technology works.(but not from technology) Along came electronics. When you mess with electricity and fundamentally change it it’s called electronics. Just putting a diode in the way of the alternating current to rectify it is electronics. Creating direct current and then using that to power electronic equipment is more advanced electronics. Along came what the British call “the valve” and Americans “the vacuum tube.” (Australians, being difficult, used both terms) and along came radios etc.. Well radio wasn’t that complicated (Oh yes it bloody well is!) – The basic technique for communication by radio: Electromagnetic waves modulated by a signal and then radiated from a radio transmitter’s aerial and then picked up at a distance by a radio receiver which demodulated the signal and thus made sense of it. (modulator / demodulator = modem – heard of that?) Like I said – simple, but only trained radio people understood it. You couldn’t see or hear or touch the radio waves – more people gave up trying to keep up with the galloping technology – what’s a radio? – answer: that box the music comes out of. Along came the transistor. It’s just a lump of doped silicon with three leads attached (ok technofreaks, there are different types of transistors but I’m trying to keep this simple – ok?) but it replaced the valve (tube) and made miniaturization possible. (I knew one aging technician who used to call transistors “whiskers” – the poor sod had cut his teeth on tubes) So ok, by now only the specialists who designed or worked on this gear (or fixed it) knew how it worked, but at least they could still see what was going on. They could see (and replace if necessary) the transistors, diodes, resistors, capacitors and coils, but then came – integrated circuits. Suddenly nearly all the transistors were squeezed onto tiny silicon chips – some of the older specialists retired – burnt out you might say; they just couldn’t take it anymore. Then along came microprocessors and the Personal Computer. Now this was where the hardware guy had to become the hardware and software guy. He still understood what was inside the box and how it worked, but nobody else apart from the designer nerds in dust coats in the chip and computer factories did, and they were pretty much divided into hardware and software tribes. As far as the average punter was concerned it was way past the point of being understandable in any shape or form – it was just useful. Along came even larger scale integration, surface-mount, extreme miniaturization, and multilayer circuit boards. Now only the designers in some far off (probably Asian) country really understood how it worked, and it was virtually unfixable when it didn’t. (At least at the component level) The technicians were now just circuit board swappers or more often entire box swappers. Faulty boards and boxes were thrown in the trash – not fixed. The real electronics technician had long ago died of old age, was in his dotage, or was doing something completely different while having fond dreams of the Golden Age of Electronics. The public, particularly the young, could expertly operate the latest technology, but with very few exceptions, had not the faintest idea of how any of it worked.
To the primitive man fire was magic and he didn’t understand it (he didn’t really need to) but he knew how to make it and how to use it, and this knowledge was widespread. Now only a relative few even know how to interconnect and program the ever shrinking boxes; a tiny number know how to make them, and virtually no one really understands them. So how do they work? Isn’t it obvious? It’s magic!