Critical Mass

In a brilliant post this week, Charlie Stross asks what’s the minimum world population needed to maintain the current level of the technology available to us today. Not long ago I talked about how isolation from the mainland made Tasmanian technology go backwards for a significant period of time – this is exactly the issue that Stross is addressing as well.

Here are a couple of the points that he raises:

And as for your smartphone? The damned thing has a component count somewhere between ten major subsystems and frame components and a hundred billion (if you go down to the smallest scale and count the capacitors in its FLASH memory). The number of fab lines on the planet that can make memory chips of that density is limited, and they rely on rare elements mined only in exotic locations and in tiny abundance.

…seemingly similar artefacts (cars, phones, airliners) have invisibly accreted complexity. The complexity makes them better (safer, more economical, more luxurious) than their predecessors, but vastly more difficult to engineer; stuff that used to be fixable by shade-tree mechanics and jobbing electricians has receded over the horizon. Back in the early 19th century, the complement of a sailing ship could expect to maintain the ship in every significant way using tools and expertise that they could carry aboard the ship. Today in the early 21st century, that’s not an option with airliners or probably even automobiles.

Thirdly, the complexity embodies in these new products means that their production is dependent on a complex web of lower-level specialities.

Then I found this current example of how we lose technology via Ralph Poole – the US has forgotten how to make Trident missiles. Here’s the story:

Plans to refurbish Trident nuclear weapons had to be put on hold because US scientists forgot how to manufacture a component of the warhead, a US congressional investigation has revealed.

The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) “lost knowledge” of how to make a mysterious but very hazardous material codenamed Fogbank. As a result, the warhead refurbishment programme was put back by at least a year, and racked up an extra $69 million.

For the first time, the report described the difficulties faced by the NNSA in trying to make Fogbank. A new production facility was needed at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, because an old one had been demolished in the 1990s.

But vital information on how Fogbank was actually made had somehow been mislaid. “NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s, and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency,” the report said.

The moral of the story is simple. Connections drive innovation. We need input from people with a diversity of viewpoints to help generate innovative new ideas. If our circle of connections grow too small, or if everyone in it starts thinking the same way, we’ll stop generating new ideas. And then we’ll forget things like how to make a fishing hook. Or a trident missile.

We need a critical mass of intellectual viewpoints if we want to innovate.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.