..What is getting too cheap to meter is processing power, storage, bandwidth and all the other enabling technologies of the digital revolution. Thanks to the exponential doublings of Moore’s Law and its equivalents for hard drives and communications, the cost of a given unit of computation, storage or transmission is inexorably dropping towards zero.
One of the first to notice this and consider its implications was a Caltech professor named Carver Mead. In the late 1970s he was reflecting on the amazing learning curve that the combination of quantum mechanics and information science had started on the surface of silicon wafers. Like Moore before him, he could see that the 18-month doublings in performance would continue to stretch out as far as anyone could see. But he went one step further to consider what that implied about computers. He realised that we should start “wasting” them.
Waste is a dirty word, and no more so than in the 1970s and 1980s. An entire generation of computer professionals had come to power doing just the opposite. In the glass-walled computer facilities of the mainframe era, they exercised their power in deciding whose programs should be allowed to run on the expensive computing machines.
Among Mead’s disciples was Alan Kay, working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre. Rather than conserve transistors for core processing functions, he developed a computer that would frivolously throw them at such silly things as drawing icons, windows, pointers and even animations on the screen. The point of this profligate eye candy? It was ease of use for regular folks, a previously neglected market. Kay’s work became the inspiration for the Apple Macintosh, which changed the world by opening computing to the rest of us.
Today the same is happening in everything from bandwidth to storage. The learning curves of technology cut prices at a rate never before seen. The cost of storing or transmitting a kilobyte of data really is now too cheap to meter. Soon the same will be true for a megabyte, and then soon after that a terabyte. And the internet touches nearly as much of our economy as electricity did when Lewis Strauss issued his prediction.