Sunday 14 July 2013

Slower Moore's law wouldn't be that bad.

Many aspects of the world of computing are dominated by Moore's law -- the phenomenon that the density of integrated circuits tends to double every two years. In mainstream thought, this is often equated with progress -- a deterministic forward-march towards the universal better along a metaphorical one-dimensional path. In this essay, I'm creating a fictional alternative timeline to bring up some more dimensions. A more moderate pace in Moore's law wouldn't necessarily be that bad after all.

Question: What if Moore's law had been progressing at a half speed since 1980?

I won't try to explain the point of divergence. I just accept that, since 1980, certain technological milestones would have been rarer and fewer. As a result, certain quantities would have doubled only once every four years instead of every two years. The RAM capacities, transistor counts, hard disk sizes and clock frequencies would have just reached the 1990s level in the year 2000, and in the year 2013, we would be on the 1996 level in regards to these variables.

I'm excluding some hardware-related variables from my speculation. Growth in telecommunications bandwidths, including the spread of broadband, are more related to infrastructural development than Moore's law. I also consider the technological development in things like batteries, radio tranceivers and LCD screens to be unrelated to Moore's law, so their progress would have been more or less unaffected apart from things like framebuffer and DSP logic.

1. Most milestones of computing culture would not have been postponed.

When I mentioned "the 1996 level", many readers probably envisioned a world where we would be "stuck in the year 1996" in all computing-related aspects. Noisy desktop Pentiums running Windows 95s and Netscape Navigators, with users staring in awe at rainbow-colored, static, GIF-animation-plagued websites over landline dialup connections. This tells about mainstream views about computer culture: everything is so one-dimensionally techno-determinist that even progress in purely software- and culture-related aspects is difficult to envision without their supposed hardware prequisities.

My view is that progress in computing and some other high technology has always been primarily cultural. Things don't become market hits straight after they're invented, and they don't get invented straight after they're technologically possible. For example, there were touchscreen-based mobile computers as early as 1993 (Apple Newton), but it took until 2010 before the cultural aspects were right for their widespread adoption (iPad). In the Slow-Moore world, therefore, a lot of people would have tablets just like in our world, despite the fact that they wouldn't probably have too many colors.

The mainstream adoption of the Internet would have taken place in the mid-1990s just like in the real world. 1987-equivalent hardware would have been completely sufficient for the boom to take place. Public online services such as Videotex and BBSes had been available since the late 1970s, and Minitel had already gathered millions of users in France in the 1980s, so even a dumb text terminal would have sufficed on the client side. The power of the Internet compared to its competitors was its global, free and decentralized nature, so it would have taken off among common people even without graphical web browsers.

Assuming that the Internet had become popular with character-based interfaces rather than multimedia-enhanced hypertext documents, its technical timeline would have become somewhat different. Terminal emulators would have eventually accumulated features in the same way as Netscape-like browsers did in the real world. RIPscrip is a real-world example of what could have become dominant: graphics images, GUI components and even sound and video on top of a dumb terminal connection. "Dynamic content" wouldn't require horrible kludges such as "AJAX" or "dynamic HTML", as the dumb terminal approach would have been interactive and dynamic enough to begin with. The gap between graphical and text-based applications would be narrower, as well as the gap between "pre-web" and "modern" online culture.

The development of social media was purely culture-driven: Facebook would have been technically possible already in the 1980s -- feeds based on friend lists don't require more per-user computation than, say, IRC channels. What was needed was cultural development: several "generations" of online services were required before all the relevant ideas came up. In general, most online services I can think of could have taken place in some form or another, about the same time as they appeared in the real world.

The obvious exceptions would be those services that require a prohibitive amount of server-side storage. An equivalent of Google Street View would perhaps just show rough shapes of the buildings instead of actual photographs. YouTube would focus on low-bitrate animations (something like Flash) rather than on full videos, as the default storage space available per user would be quite limited. Client-side video/audio playback wouldn't necessarily be an issue, since MPEG decompression hardware was already available in some consumer devices in the early 1990s (Amiga CD32) and would have therefore been feasible in the Slow-Moore year 2004. Users would just be more sensitive about disk space and would therefore avoid video formats for content that doesn't require actual video.

All the familiar video games would be there, as the resource-hogging aspects of games can generally be scaled down without losing the game itself. It could even be argued that there would be far more "AAA" titles available, assuming that the average budget per game would be lower due to lower fidelity requirements.

Domestic broadband connections would be there, but they would be more often implemented via per-apartment ethernet sockets than via per-apartment broadband modems. The amount of DSP logic required by some protocols (*DSL) would make per-apartment boxes rather expensive compared to the installation of some additional physical wires. In rural areas, traditional telephone modems would still be rather common.

Mobile phones would be very popular. Their computational specs would be rather low, but most of them would still be able to access Internet services and run downloadable third-party applications. Neither of these requires a lot of power -- in fact, every microprocessor is designed to run custom code to begin with. Very few phones would have built-in cameras, however -- the development of cheap and tiny digital camera cells has a lot to do with Moore's law. Also, global digital divide would be greater -- there wouldn't be extremely cheap handsets available in poor countries.

It must be emphasized here that even though IC feature sizes would be in the "1996 level", we wouldn't be building devices from the familiar 1996 components. The designs would be far more advanced and logic-efficient. Hardware milestones would have been more like "reinventing the wheel" than accumulating as much intellectual property as possible on a single chip. RISC and Transputer architectures would have displaced X86-like CISCs a long time ago and perhaps even given way to ingenious inventions we can't even imagine.

Affordable 3D printers would be just around the corner, just like in the real world. Their developmental bottlenecks have more to do with the material printing process itself than anything Moorean. Similarly, the setbacks in the progress of virtual reality helmets have more to do with optics and head-tracking sensors than semiconductors.

2. People would be more conscious about the use of computing resources.

As mentioned before, digital storage would be far less abundant than in the real world. Online services would still have tight per-user disk quotas and many users would be willing to actually pay for more space. Even laypeople would have a rather good grasp about kilobytes and megabytes and would often put effort in choosing efficient storage formats. All computer users would need to regularly choose what is worth keeping and what isn't. Online privacy would generally be better, as it would be prohibitively expensive for service providers to neurotically keep the complete track record of every user.

As global Internet backbones would have considerably slower capacities than local and mid-range networks, users would actually care about where each server is geographically located. Decentralized systems such as IRC and Usenet would therefore never have given way to centralized services. Search engines would be technically more similar to YacY than Google, social media more similar to Diaspora than Facebook. Even the equivalent of Wikipedia would be a network of thousands of servers -- a centralized site would have ended up being killed by deletionists. Big businesses would be embracing this "peer-to-peer" world instead of expanding their own server farms.

In general, Internet culture would be more decentralized, ephemeral and realtime than in the real world. Live broadcasts would be more common than vlogs or podcasts. Much less data would be permanently stored, so people would have relatively small digital footprints. Big companies would have far less power over users.

Attitudes towards software development would be quite different, especially in regards to efficiency and optimization. In the real world, wasteful use of computational resources is systematically overlooked because "no one will notice the problem in the future anyway". As a result, we have incredibly powerful computers whose software still suffers from mainframe-era problems such as ridiculously high UI latencies. In a Slow-Moore world, such problems would have been solved a long time ago: after all, all you need is a good user-level control to how the operating system priorizes different pieces of code and data, and some will to use it.

Another problem in real-world software development is the accumulation of abstraction layers. Abstraction is often useful during development, as it speeds up the process and simplifies maintenance, but most of the resulting dependencies are a completely waste of resources in the final product. A lot of this waste could be eliminated automatically by the use of advanced static analysis and other methods. From the vast contrast between carefully size-optimized hobbyist hacks and bloated mainstream software we might guess that some mind-boggling optimization ratios could be reached. However, the use and development of such tools has been seriously lagging behind because of the attitude problems caused by Moore's law.

In a Slow-Moore world, the use of computing resources would be extremely efficient compared to current standards. This wouldn't mean that hand-coded assembly would be particularly common, however. Instead, we would have something like "hack libraries": huge collections of efficient solutions for various problems, from low-level to high-level, from specific to generic. All tamed, tested and proven in their respective parameter ranges. Software development tools would have intelligent pattern-matchers that would find efficient hacks from these libraries, bolt them together in optimal arrangements and even optimize the bolts away. Hobbyists and professionals alike would be competing in finding ever smarter hacks and algorithms to include in the "wisdombase", thus making all software incrementally more resource-efficient.

3. There would still be a gap between digital and "real" content.

Regardless of how efficently hardware resources are used, unbreakable limits always exist. In a Slow-Moore world, for instance, film photography would still be superior in quality to digital photography. Also, since the digital culture would be far more resource-conscious, large resolutions wouldn't even be desirable in purely digital contexts.

Spreading "memes" as bitmap images is a central piece of today's Internet culture. Even snippets of on-line discussions get spread as bitmapped screenshots. Wasteful, yes, but compatible and therefore tolerable. The Slow-Moore Internet would probably be much more compatible with low-bit formats such as plaintext or vector and character graphics.

Since the beginning of digital culture, there has been a desire to import content from "meatspace" into the digital world. At first, people did it in laborous ways: books were typed into text files, paintings and photographs were repainted with graphics editors, songs were covered with tracker programs. Later, automatic methods appeared: pictures could be scanned, songs could be recorded and compressed into MP3-like formats. However, it took some time before straight automatic imports could compete against skillful manual effort. In low resolutions, skillful pixel-pushing still makes a difference. Synthesized songs take a fraction of the space of an equivalent MP3 recording. Eventually, the difference diminished, and no one longer cared about it.

In a Slow-Moore world, the timeline of digital media would have been vastly different. A-priori-digital content would still have vast advantages over imported media. Artists looking for worldwide appreciation via the Internet would often choose to take the effort to learn born-digital methods instead of just digitizing their analog works. As a result, many traditional disciplines of computer art would have grown enormous. Demoscene and low-bit techniques such as procedural content generation and tracker-like synthesized music would be the mainstream norm in the Internet culture instead of anything "underground".

Small steps towards photorealism and higher fidelity would still be able to impress large audiences, as they would still notice the difference. However, in a resource-conscious online culture, there would also probably be a strong countercultural movement against "high-bit" -- a movement seeking to embrace the established "Internet esthetics" instead of letting it be taken over and marginalized by imports.

Record and film companies would definitely be suing people for importing, covering and spreading their copyrighted material. However, they would still be able to sell it in physical formats because of their superior quality. There would also be a class of snobs who hate all "computer art" and all the related esthetic while preferring "real, physical formats".

4. Conclusion

A Slow-Moore world would be somewhat "backwards" in some respects but far more sensible or even more advanced in others. As a demoscener with an ever-growing conflict against today's industry-standard attitudes, I would probably prefer to live with a more moderate level of Moorean inflation. However, a Netflix fan who likes high-quality digital photography and doesn't mind being in surveillance would probably choose otherwise.

The point in my thought experiment was to justify my view that the idea of a linear tech tree strongly tied to Moore's law is a banal oversimplification. There are many other dimensions that need to be noticed as well.

The alternative timeline may also be used as inspiration for real-world projects. I would definitely like to see whether an aggressively optimizing code generation tool based on "hack libraries" could be feasible. I would also like to see the advent of a mainstream operating system that doesn't suck.

Nevertheless: Down with Moore's law fetishism! It's time for a more mature technological vision!

Saturday 5 January 2013

I founded a new "oldschool" computer magazine.

Maybe it's a sensible time to tell a bit what I've been up to for the past few months.

In September 2012, I founded Skrolli, a new Finnish computer magazine. This turn in my life surprised even myself.

It started from an image that went viral. Produced by my friend CCR with a lot of ideas from me, it was a faux magazine cover speculating what the longest-living Finnish home computing magazine, MikroBitti, would be like today if it had never renewed itself after the eighties. The magazine happens to be somewhat iconic to those Finns who got immersed to computing before the turn of the millennium, so it reached some relevant audience quite efficiently.

The faux cover was meant to be a joke, but the abundance of comments like "I would definitely subscribe to this kind of magazine" made me seriously consider the possibility of actually creating something like it. I put up a simple web page stating the idea of a new "countercultural" computer magazine that is somewhat similar to what MikroBitti used to be like. In just a few days, over a hundred people showed up on the dedicated IRC channel, and here we are.

Bringing the concept of an oldschool microcomputer magazine to the present era needs some thoughtful reflection. The world has changed a lot; computer hobbyists no longer exist as a unified group, for example. Everyone uses a computer for leisure, and it is sometimes difficult to draw line between those who are interested in the applications and those who are genuinely interested in the technology. Different activities also have their own subcultures with their own communication channels, and it is often hard to relate to someone whose subculture has a very different basis.

Skrolli defines computer culture as something where the computational aspects are irreducible. It is possible to create visual art or music completely without digital technology, for example, but once the computer becomes the very material (like in case of pixel art or chip music), the creative activity becomes relevant to our magazine. Everything where programming or other direct access to the computational mechanisms is involved is also relevant, of course.

I also chose to target the magazine to my own language group. In a nation of six million, the various subcultures are closer to one another, so it is easier to build a common project that spans the whole scale. The continuing existence of large computer hobbyist events in this country might also simplify the task. If the magazine had been started in English or even German, there would have been a much greater risk of appealing only to a few specialized niches.

In order to keep myself motivated, I have been considering the possibility that Skrolli will actually start a new movement. Something that brings the computational aspects of computer entuhsiasm back to daylight and helps the younger generation to find a true, non-compromising relationship with digital technology. Once the movement starts growing on its own, without being tied to a single project, language barriers will no longer exist for it.

I will be busy with this stuff for at least a couple of months until we get the first few issues printed (yes, it will be primarily a paper magazine as a statement against short-living journalism). After that, it is somewhat likely that I will finish the projects I temporarily abandoned: there will probably be a JIT-enabled version IBNIZ, and the IBNIZ democoding contest I promised will be arranged. Stay tuned!