The Digital Magic That Transformed Journalism

From a column, “How Steam and Chips Remade the World,” by John Steele Gordon in the Wall Street Journal:

Had every computer on earth suddenly stopped working in 1969, the average man would not have noticed anything amiss. Today civilization would collapse in seconds. Nothing more complex than a pencil would work, perhaps not even your toothbrush.

What happened? In 1969 the microprocessor—a computer on a silicon chip—was developed. . . .The first commercial microprocessor—the Intel 4004, introduced in 1971—had 2,250 transistors. Today some microprocessors have a million times as many, making them a million times as powerful but only marginally more expensive.

Microprocessors began to appear everywhere. Today’s cars have dozens of them, controlling everything from timing fuel injection to warning when you stray out of your lane. Even money is now mostly a plastic card with an embedded microprocessor. . . .

It revolutionized retailing, news distribution, entertainment, communication and much more.

Like cheap energy, cheap information has created enormous new fortunes, ineluctably increasing wealth inequality. But also like cheap energy, the source of those fortunes has given nearly everybody a far higher standard of living.

To understand how profound the microprocessor revolution has been, consider this. The great science writer Arthur Clarke once noted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A man from half a century ago would surely regard the now-ubiquitous smartphone as magic.

Gordon is author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power.”


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