Ray Kurzweil has this nifty little chart that shows the cost of computing per bit, dropping precipitously – exponentially – as time goes by. Like so much of his work, he manages to miss the big point by focusing on a particularly meaningless one. If I were to draw a chart, I’d map out the minimum number of atoms a human being can manipulate at one time through time. We’d start out with stone and flint and obsidian tools – that’s maybe a billion billion billion atoms at a pop. And we’d move through metallurgy, and chemistry, and come down to the manipulation of billions to millions of atoms. Then we could get down to current state-of-the-art microprocessors, where the surface features are about a thousand atoms thick. And we can see how the subsequent generations of chips will have features that are a hundred atoms across, then ten atoms, and then – perhaps around 2012 or so [jeromeyers, talk about accuracy, in August: Researchers open door to electronics made from single layers of atoms]– a single atom across. That’ll end the chart.
What this chart actually shows is the relationship between human activity and human artifact. Artifacts have consistently moved away from the crude – in terms of the raw number of atoms being manipulated – to the refined. Fewer and fewer atoms are employed in each manipulation. The end state of this process is nanotechnology, which, for those of your readers who don’t believe atomic scale assembly will ever be possible, I insist is the natural and inexorable vector of human activity, as demonstrated by the chart I have just described.
Why is this process taking place? It is my belief – and I think anthropology can back me up here – that language isn’t just an internal process. Rather, linguistic components overflow their boundaries in the mind and become concretized as artifacts. Writing is the most obvious of these boundary overflows, but every technology represents some sort of material fixation of a linguistic concept. In that sense, the materiality of human history is a story of how homo sapiens learned to speak with their hands, translate their language into artifact, and then engage in a conversation with these artifacts. This sets up a very interesting feedback loop, because the exteriorized linguistic object – the technology – produces ramifications of language, which in turn produce new technologies, etc., until the whole thing spirals completely out of control. And we’re already well past that point.
A succinct way of phrasing this process, using two-dollar words, is the “progressive ingression of intelligence into matter.”