no progress since 1970, except in minor fields such as cost, safety, reliability, capacity, efficiency…

Other things I disagree quite strongly with Charlie Stross about. James Nicoll asks what happens if/when Moore’s Law is exhausted. Charlie has a well-known theory about this, based on the aerospace industry’s recession in the early 70s.

The CE industry is inherently deflationary — Moore’s law conceals this because we double the number of transistors on a die each generation, but under the hood the prices are falling by c. 20% per annum. Once we stop being able to have more transistors, existing fab lines will be amortized and the products will be commoditized. I speculate that we’ll then enter a period where the computer industry splits between (a) high-end well-designed premium kit (cf. Apple) and (b) cheapCheapCHEAP!!! (cf. the netbook sector). And then there’ll be a huge recession and layoffs, just as there was in aerospace around 1970 when the industry hit a performance wall (note that airliners today fly no faster than they did in 1970 — Concorde’s champagne quaffing elite aside, travel at over Mach 0.9 is not commercially sustainable).

Ultimately the field will be commoditized and after a period of consolidation and mergers it will become as thoroughly boring to outsiders as locomotive or airliner manufacturing.

The interesting developments will then take place in the areas of networking and software…

I disagree, at least in terms of economic, social, and literary possibility. Airliners may not go any faster than they did in 1970, but what Charlie thinks of as a “performance wall” could also be described as “the threshold of significance” or the “economic door”. Concorde is the wrong example to look at; the real achievements of the time were the development of the 747 and 737 families, the arrival of autoland and modern avionics through Smiths and Hawker Siddeley, and the creation of Airbus.

Sure, they may not be going faster than Concorde, but there are a lot more of them, their marginal operating cost is a fraction of what it was, they crash a lot less, and they are on time more often. And they are chucking a lot of filth out the back, of course.

Forget Princess Margaret. Civil aviation only became interesting economically or sociologically after Charlie’s performance wall – we’ve had David Frost commuting for the BBC from London to New York, we’ve had Easyjet ravers/poverty jetset types bouncing from sofa to sofa around Europe, Viktor Bout’s inverted triangle trade shipping diamonds out of Africa and guns in, enabled by cheap Antonov-12s and international free trade zones, Kenyan farmers discovering they could get backload freight to Europe for pence. Before the “performance wall”, people watched movies about air hostesses; after, they actually flew.

If the analogy holds true, the real change is still to come. It just feels like it’s already happened…because science fiction covered it so well in advance, something it notably didn’t do with the “aero” bit of aerospace. (O’Neill colonies! Flying cars! No Airbus 320s or Michael O’Learys.)

Also, what’s not interesting about locomotive manufacturing?


  1. Tom

    If what you’re saying is right, the problem is overfocusing on the geeky performance element (airspeed! MFLOPS!) and missing the usability side (also see Linux, he says controversially). Ryanair/Easyjet aren’t successful because of the service, but because of the website, of course, which neatly links back to what will happen after Moore’s Law is exhausted. The real innovators are those who look at what’s currently on the market and identify what’s annoying about it, not what’s awe-inspiringly cool to the geeks.

    “Also, what’s not interesting about locomotive manufacturing?”

    Seen the new Class 70 yet?

    http://www.railjournal.com/newsflash/ge-powerhaul-locomotive-ready-for-testing.html

    Note that it’s now a selling point of modern locomotives that they can accommodate various railway cab signalling systems easily, which is more or less what happened in aerospace when the electronics became as important as the metal wiggly bits. Usability again.

  2. Neil

    Bloody hell – are GE Keeping Locomotives Interesting by making the damn things as ugly as humanly possible?

  3. Tom

    “making the damn things as ugly as humanly possible?”

    I must say, if my offspring came out looking like that, I’d ask the midwife if it was round the right way.

  4. Chris Williams

    You see? The actually interesting stuff is in the signalling and control systems.

    Hope y’all had a good night out. I was on my hols mucking about with beaches, spades, boats, etc.




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