The writer Robert X. Cringely has succinctly expressed this idea in one of his “laws of computing”: “Old software never dies; it just gets upgraded.” In “Parallel Universe”, Cringely explains how multicore computing–the use of many microprocessors on a microchip–can multiply processing power without increasing the heat associated with ever-greater miniaturization. Cringely writes that in order to solve some of the problems of parallelism (or how software is torn apart so that a process can be run in parallel on hundreds of processors), Intel has recalled to service “some graybeards of 1980s supercomputing.” For these graybeards, parallelism never disappeared. Now, in order to preserve Moore’s Law, we will use technologies first developed to build nuclear bombs during the Cold War.
Or consider the U.S. electrical grid. In our cover story, “Lifeline for Renewable Power”, our chief correspondent, David Talbot, writes, “A patchwork system has developed. … But while its size and complexity have grown immensely, the grid’s basic structure has changed little since Thomas Edison switched on a distribution system serving 59 customers in lower Manhattan in 1882.” Talbot shows that the old grid, constructed to transmit the predictable flow of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels, must be upgraded if it is to accommodate more-variable, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
As much as they are a deepening coastal shelf beneath our technological civilization, old technologies also live in each of us. Biologically, we are their creatures. Exploring how archaeogenetics, the application of genetic analysis to the study of prehistory, might explain the puzzle of how we came to be highly civilized creatures (see “Our Past Within Us”), Mark Williams argues that we evolved through our technology. “Humankind invented agriculture, started eating different foods, and began dwelling in cities; populations expanded, allowing large numbers of mutations. Natural selection promoted the spread of beneficial variations.” Among those traits selected, Williams suggests, were those that allowed us, eventually, to build spacecraft and space stations. But write to me and tell me what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.