Technological Complexity


As a child I used to be able to assemble and disassemble my bike; the most sophisticated artefact I owned. I could understand the working of its (simple) gear system, the functioning of the brakes, the assembly of its ball-bearings.

As a teen I had a reasonably complete understanding of the IBM-PC I used. I knew the 8088 processor's complete instruction set, the instruction encoding details, the pinout and operation of the ISA bus and the Centronics and RS-232 interfaces, the operation of the 6845 video controller and the 4164 memory chips, all the BIOS calls, all the MS-DOS commands and system calls, and the complete details Basic and C programming languages I programmed in. I also knew the principles of operation behing the processes used to build the computer's chips, the MFM recording format used by the hard disk, and the operation of the CRT monitor.

Today, I only have a limited understanding of my bike's (indexed) gear system. I have never had time to study, let alone understand many Pentium commands, the PCI and USB bus specifications, the Pentium chipset, the video subsystem architecture, many Windows and Unix system calls and commands, the full C++ and Java language details and library facilites. My knowledge of the new processes behind the construction and operation of the processor, the memory chips, the LCD monitor, and the hard disk is vague, at best. Worse, I look at my baby's stroller, a contraption a lot simpler than my childhood bike, and I realize I struggle to use it as a black box, never mind understanding how it manages to fold into a quarter of its expanded volume.

In 1999 in a conference article I documented how the evolution of computer technology created new challenges and different failure modes for safety critical systems. Bruce Schneier kindly reproduced one of the tables in his excellent book Secrets & Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World (Wiley Computer Publishing, 2000). I now wonder how others fare at personal level in their relationship with modern technology, and how our (possibly) limited global understanding of the technology we use affects the new things we build and the way we communicate about them.

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Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2004 8:53 pm

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