Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

A Tale of Two Laws


Last week’s post claimed computers are getting dumber. Few people subscribe to this point of view. Not surprisingly, many people believe computers are getting smarter. Actually, what they say is computers are getting more powerful.

They confuse increased power with increased intelligence. I agree hardware is getting more powerful, but software—and therefore the whole computer we deal with—is getting dumber. There are reasons, laws in fact, that explain both views.

The primary law concerning change on this planet is natural selection. However, there are two laws having nothing to do with evolution that explain computer change. One is a mere half-century old; the other dates back about two and a half millennia.

First, is Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a chip (integrated circuit) doubles every two years. Predicted by Gordon E. Moore in 1965, it refers to hardware. But hardware is not the whole computer. The other side of the computer coin is—all together, class—software.

The other law, Gresham’s Law, governs software changes. Simplified as “bad money drives out good,” it did not originate with Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579). It can be traced to The Frogs by Aristophanes. Originally about counterfeiting, it’s often stated as, other things being equal, bad drives out good.

Bad software drives out good not because they are equal but because they appear equal. Success has little to do with value in our world of uninformed consumers. Value is easily overwhelmed by price, advertising, and the illusion of “almost as good.”

These two laws affect hardware and software, respectively. Moore’s Law applies to chips such as CPUs. This is why people mistake improved power for improved smarts. They forget Moore’s Law has nothing to do with software. Gresham’s Law does.

What we users see, what we have to cope with, are computer interfaces—mostly software. Here, Gresham’s Law is King, and the interfaces are the incompetent Fools. The end result, from where we users sit, is dumber and dumber computers.

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