Moore's Law and Social Theory: Deconstructing and Redefining Technology Industry's Innovation Edict

Moore's Law and Social Theory: Deconstructing and Redefining Technology Industry's Innovation Edict

Angèle Beausoleil (Interdisciplinary Studies, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/ijantti.2014100101
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The importance of technological innovation in defining and shaping our global economy has made it a central research topic over the past decade. The rise of electronics manufacturing technology, specifically the silicon transistor technology, is considered a major factor influencing technological innovation and in turn, affecting the world's economic and social transformation. The process of technological innovation generally involves getting new ideas accepted and converted into new technologies that are adopted and used. Sociologically, the innovation process can be observed as sequence of interconnected activities and mediations between human subjects and non-humans objects that are socially distributed and technologically connected. This paper observes technology industry's most eminent innovation edict known as Moore's Law, through one of sociology's most controversial theories, the actor-network theory (ANT). Suggested as a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in a multibillion-dollar global technology industry and accredited to having put silicon in Silicon Valley, Moore's Law is often described as the driver for the information and communication technology revolution. Originally a prediction towards smaller, cheaper and more reliable computer processing power, this paper examines Moore's Law as a socio-technical innovation process. It proposes that Moore's Law is a complex assemblage comprised of interrelationships between ambitious scientists, chemicals, engineered technologies, culture and society. ANT is used as the theoretical framework to observe the progressive social relationships that constitute Moore's Law and introduce a translation. The objective of this experimental study is to examine the temporal socio-technical transformations and propose an alternative description for Moore's Law.
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1. Moore’S Law And Social Theory

Silicon Valley’s famous and fundamental underpinning, Moore's Law, has played such a significant role in determining the current place of technology in today’s society, that the term “technology” has become synonymous with “computers”. Moore’s Law was and remains today a prediction towards smaller, cheaper, more reliable and ubiquitous computing. Technically, It is often cited as “the number of transistors that can be fit onto a square inch of silicon doubles every 12 months” (Stokes, 2008), however how it is described as a socio-technical system, is the focus of this paper. Moore’s Law is described as a predictive guide, an industry expectation, the organizing goal of a multibillion-dollar global industrial segment, and a bellwether and emblem for the technology industry (CHF, 2006:4). Stokes (2008) suggests Moore’s Law is “a maxim that has taken on multiple forms over the years”, “a statement of performance” and “a social/psychological/industrial phenomenon”.

It all began in 1965 when Gordon Moore, a chemist and physicist, made an empirical observation that performance enhancements in electronic devices will keep getting smaller, while at the same time, become more powerful. Originally focused on the semiconductor industry that manufactured transistors, Moore’s Law, in 1975, was refined as a projection of exponential growth in transistor count per computer chip over a two-year period. This prediction positioned Moore’s Law as the innovation driver of silicon-based transistor design and performance. Simply put, a transistor is the electrical switch at the heart of a microprocessor, similar to a wall switch that governs whether electric current will flow to light a lamp. Millions of transistors connected together on a modern chip process information by influencing each other's electrical state. Today’s computer chips are comprised of silicon, which is a type of material known as a ‘semiconductor”, as it has conducts electrical currents or insulate them depending on conditions. Over the past 47 years, and to sustain Moore's Law, scientists and engineers have been driven to innovate in reducing the size of transistors and thus, computer chips. This ambitious behaviour is evident in Intel Corporation’s current manufacturing process of a silicon computer chip currently measuring 22-nanometer, which is roughly a 4,000th the width of a human hair and thousands of times more powerful than a mainframe of the 1970s (Shankland, 2012).

As one of the most discussed concepts in the computer technology industry, Moore’s Law continues to inspire innovation practices resulting in continued economic success in California’s Silicon Valley and across the globe. Considering the task of sociology is to characterize the ways in which materials interrelate and reproduce institutional and organizational patterns in the networks of modern society, Moore’s Law’s significance deserves an observation and interpretation from social theorists. Weber (2005:29) may suggest it is an example of a “formal value system” that exists through the “modern metropolis”, where society’s relationship with the impressions, aesthetics and rhythms of the metropolis affects its trajectory. Shapin (2010:380) may reflect on Moore’s Law as an example of “technocracy”, where a social system appears ruled by science and technology experts and thus sustains the rapid development of and growing dependence on technology. Smith (1999:79) could frame Moore’s Law as an example of “ruling relations” formed through its complexity of interconnected activities, technologies and technical labour. Latour (1999:185) might argue Moore’s Law is like opening a black box, that it is a system of fabricated truths and beliefs, comprised of human and non-human interconnections and mysteriously driving innovation for the technology industry. Callon (1981) may suggest Moore’s Law is a ‘translation’, a movement of technological development over time from where ideas are experimented with inside research labs and moved to people and institutions, who in turn transform the technology to better meet their goals. The explored social theories above simply serve to suggest that a sociological examination of Moore’s Law is warranted and is the objective of this paper.

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