The Power of Stupidity

The Moore legend

Giancarlo Livraghi – May 2009

This was originally written in Italian in 2001 as an “addendum” to chapter 26
of L’umanità dell’internet, a book about how people can best use the net

It’s worth placing here as a comment to two chapters of The Power of Stupidity
16 Stupidity and Haste and 19 The Stupidity of Technologies

It would be only a silly technical detail on how to mess around with statistics if it didn’t have some extended, and unfortunately dangerous, effects – both on the development of information technology and on the general disease of hasty decisions, assumptions and developments leading to all sorts of stupid mistakes.

The so-called “Moore’s Law” isn’t a law. It isn’t a scientific principle ever established as such – or in any way confirmed by the observation of events. It’s one of many unverified statements about information technologies (and a variety of other subjects) broadly treated at “true” without ever checking their reliability.

And it’s also quite unreasonably applied to all sorts of unrelated matters. Like the ridiculous habit of claiming exponential growth for a number of things that are not developing at anyhwere near such a fantastic speed.

When Gordon Moore (in 1964) said «the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every year» perhaps it made some sense – in a short-term perspective. But what (maybe) happened in two years (1964 compared to 1962) didn’t continue. Over time, some people tried to adjust the statement by changing from 12 to 18 months – and later from one to two years – but the fact it that it never meant anything of any practical value. In technical developments or in any other matter.

We could just get rid of the issue by understanding that it’s a legend, not a law. But the problem is that is has been used, and sometimes it still is, as assumed “supporting evidence” for all sorts of dangerous nonsense.

Computer processing units and other devices are, indeed, getting “faster” (or “more powerful” – whatever that may mean). And science is constantly exploring new possibilities. That’s fine – as long as it’s applied where it’s needed.

But if it leads to a lot of quite adequate hardware and software being unreasonably discarded or “updated” with unnecessary complications, the result isn’t only a great deal of waste, but also a grotesque clutter of unnecessary complications that make the equipment more fragile, less reliable and (in the user’s experience) actually slower.

Let me stop here on the technology side of the issue, which is already covered in The stupidity of technologies and several other articles. Let’s look at another (and wider) side of the haste disease.

Things simply don’t change at any constant or predictable rate – especially in the case of culture an human behavior, that sometimes are faster, sometimes slower, than anyone could expect. They also go in all sorts of directions – including backwards.

That resources are available doesn’t mean that they are used (or that they fit needs). That they aren’t doesn’t mean that they can’t be found – or developed.

Rushing ahead with no clear direction, or chasing trends and fashions that can die out before they become meaningful, or counting on “spectacular growth” that is only a vague miscalculation, is very likely to be the route to disappointment – or much worse.

Messy statistics and clumsy forecasting are often the tool of treacherous tricksters. They can be quite dangerous also when they are not deliberately mischievous, but just carlesss mistakes or far-fetched assumptions.

Legends, myths, tales and dreams can be interesting, intriguing and stimulating. But confusing them with facts (or real opportunities) can lead us into uncomfortable and hazardous wonderland.

A more detailed analysis of this problem is online in Italian


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