Friday, March 6, 2009

10: What shall we do with Pandora?

It is now more than 40 yrs since I left school to become an Electronic Engineer. The guy across the road enticed me into his house to see his kit ... he was a Radio Ham and the magic and mystery of radio was entrancing. How did you make and receive this invisible stuff, and how could you use it to convey messages to similar secretive people lurking in their darkened bedrooms around the world? So I took a Government Apprenticeship at a Weaponry Testing Establishment in Wales and was immediately immersed in the practical application of valves, transformers, photo-diodes, tag strips and E12 resistors. Soon the first transistors appeared, then the first integrated circuits. This was my electronics, and it was great ...

The rest is history ... Moore's Law has swept us all on an exciting journey to the 21 century. Electronics stepped tentatively out from the lab and into society, then resumed a headlong gallop to enable the gadgets, entertainment, services, transportation, communications and computation that pervade our lives today. If one technology can be credited with the last 50 or so years of human advancement, then surely Electronics must be it?

So why is it suffering an identity crisis? Why are our kids, parents, teachers and politicians so unenthusiastic about it that they barely recognise its existence; let alone accredit it with any value or have any aspirations towards it. Why are they so happy to see policy and regulation exacerbate its very being, and its practitioners de-valued and ridiculed. I'm not talking about the box, but what's inside. Functional objects; TVs, Cars, Planes, Computers, Vending Machines, iPods, Printers, Telephones, Calculators, Cameras, etc, etc, are all valued; but Electronics, the thing that transforms them from so-much inanimate junk, is not.

I have been working for some time to get UK Electronics recognised and valued for its contribution to the Economy, yet meet only moderate success against the glare of today's cure for all ills, IT Snake-Oil [1]. "IT is Technology, and my kids know (all) about IT; so obviously Technology is a done-deal!" This leads inexorably to the conclusion that as successful businesses use IT, the converse is also true ... So installing IT (and indeed, more and faster IT) will make bad business good, and good business better. It's a simple mantra that gives an immediate impression of constructive activity. Further it needs no understanding of the actual business role ... especially useful if it is difficult to understand. It also has the neat twist, of playing technologists off against ourselves, as IT, Software and Hardware engineers fight to maintain their (irrelevant) individuality ... It must look so funny from the outside; if it wasn't so serious of course.

So why is our society and its leaders are so easily mislead when it comes to (electronic) technology? It is quite simply the irrational fear and distrust of the unknown! Arthur C was right when he said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and we know from history how society handles witches (see: burning at the stake) and intellectuals (see: Russian revolution) ... If it's different cast it out, is a very basic instinct which transcends the human and animal world. Pandora is inside the box, keep it closed and we should be ok.

A recent UK poll found (yet again) that Brunel was the UK's most famous engineer, which drove me to wonder if they had run the same poll in 1900 would it have come to the same conclusion? I suspect not! Following my previous reasoning Society only recognises engineers and their technologies when its education rises to the point where the people understand them enough to see them for what they are ... purely the application of properties of matter. So that gives us an idea of the scale of the challenge; the scientific education of today's society has only reached the level of the mechanical systems of Brunel (~1850) and the steam engines of Watt (~1800)!

So the breakthroughs in Genetics, Aeronautics, Medicine, Electricity, Computation and Electronics will continue to be treated like magic, and its practitioners like witch-doctors ... Both despised and distrusted; but tolerated as long as they keep delivering.

On this basis it will be at least a hundred years before today’s scientific (electronic) heroes get the acclaim due ... If the Telephone Sanitizers haven't burned them all at the stake in the meantime.


1: Of course IT isn't really easy; but the easy bits are, and society cannot perceive the difference!