Author: David Bryant, Creative Strategist, Google
‘The future… doesn’t arrive all at once.’
—Sid Mead, futurist, visionary, creator of Bladerunner
Booting up a PC
When we first boot up a PC, we take a step back in time.
The very first instructions that a PC executes when powered up are, in computing terms, ancient history. Called the Instruction Set, they were etched into the modern PC’s chip by its distant ancestor decades ago, like hieroglyphics on a pyramid chamber wall. And like hieroglyphics, they are understood by the very few.
The next step a PC takes is to invoke its Microcode. Microcode is fascinating. When a PC first flips on, it is phenomenally stupid. It has no memory, no instructions to execute and isn’t even aware of what devices it is connected to.
It’s a little like the film Memento. The computer wakes with no memory and a few arcane instructions written onto its hand. These very few instructions tell it how to follow more instructions, and so on until the computer gradually becomes less stupid. It all starts with these microscopically small lines of code invoking the 1978 Instruction Set.
The majority of the Microcode is written by the designers and engineers of the chip. So the PC starts to run code from a chip designed a few years ago, but running an instruction set from a time where Jimmy Carter is one year in, the Berlin wall is yet to come down, no-one has heard of the internet, and MC Hammer is 10 years away from being famous.
Forward to the BIOS
So the modern Microcode tells the PC to load the BIOS. Suddenly we leap forward in time to 2005, in the case of my home PC, to when the BIOS was written.
Invoking the BIOS is a little like putting the PC into a coma state.
The basic things like breathing and heart rate get started but that is all. In other words, there’s power on in the basement but nothing on in the control room. The BIOS also tells the PC where its arms and legs are (or where its keyboard and screen are), and how much memory it has and so on.
Back to DOS
Then the BIOS tells the PC to load DOS. Now we really jump back. Suddenly it’s 1982, I am 12 and Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ is top of the charts.
Actually DOS was written way back in the seventies and changed very little after about 1995. It’s a quick simple language that allows the PC to load a modern operating system like Windows 7. Hence its original name ‘QDOS’ which stood for ‘Quick and Dirty Operating System.’ That lasted until Bill Gates acquired it for Microsoft, and changed the letter ‘D’ to mean ‘Disk,’ presumably for commercial reasons.
So DOS loads, sets a few environment variables, loads whatever version of Windows, and we’re transported to somewhere in the aughties. It’s taken us 45 seconds to come 30 years. But it’s not over yet.
Forward to Windows
Windows 7 is itself a mishmash of inherited components, device drivers and other stuff. Some parts of it are very modern. Other parts are years old.
For example, if you’re unlucky enough to use Explorer 6 as your browser, you’re basically using a badly restored antique which has been nailed to another badly restored antique. Explorer 6 is a kludge of old browser code, tacked-on components and obsolete modules. Firefox, Chrome and the new Explorers were all rewritten from the ground up, but still have to navigate an internet that was designed decades ago.
Back to the internet
It’s a veritable UN-building’s-worth of mismatching languages, out of date protocols, and well-meaning inefficiency.
So it begs the question, how on earth could our most advanced technology actually be such a shockingly complex, inefficient system?
The answer lies in how new technology arrives.
People often think new technology replaces the old. In reality it rarely does. To Sid Mead’s point, the problem is that it arrives, but not all at once.
New technology has– to some extent– to be compatible with the past. So rather than replace it, it often lays over the old system and encapsulates it. In doing this, it has a firm foundation but it also means it inherits some of the characteristics of the old technology.
It’s exactly the same process with trees. Every year a ‘new’ tree encapsulates the old tree like an overcoat, yet it relies on the old tree to support this new layer. Every knot, branch and imperfection is reproduced by each successive layer.
This process of encapsulation is prevalent everywhere in technology. The question of what encapsulates what is absolutely essential to the growth and/or failure of a technology. When a technology is encapsulated by another, it stops or slows in development. The technology dies or becomes fossilized. We move on. This is because the ‘new technology’ layer requires that nothing changes in the old layer, in case it stops functioning.
When Windows 3.0 arrived it wasn’t really a new operating system. It was basically still using DOS commands, but had a cosmetic layer of graphics over the top. Windows was pulling the levers, but the work was still being done by DOS behind the curtain.
But the moment this happened, DOS became fossilized. DOS couldn’t change significantly because it had become encapsulated in Windows. Windows developed, DOS remained still. We moved on.
Nowadays the players have changed but the game is the same. There is a belief that the browser and cloud will encapsulate desktop software as in Chromebooks. There is also a belief that social media will be encapsulated into search, as +1 recently showed. Perhaps paid media will be encapsulated by social media. I don’t have the answers. But the overall dynamics of the marketplace are clear.
Life is a layer
This process of reiterative encapsulation is so pervading, it can even describe our life and place in the universe. The fact that 98% of our DNA seems to have no function, seems to point to a similar process going on in human development.
Just like the inner older rings in a tree, we are the product of our latest layer of DNA technology, but the old stuff still remains. The term ‘Junk DNA’ is a little misleading because in the same way the old layers of tree are vitally important to the current tree, this ‘Junk’ has made us what we are. It’s not Junk. Perhaps they are just old layers of code.
So, here’s the point: life is a layer. All life on earth can be seen as a string of encapsulations. Elements were encapsulated into compounds, and those compounds became encapsulated into more complex compounds, then proteins became encapsulated into DNA, DNA into cells, cells became encapsulated into multicellular life and these life forms began a highly accelerated form of adaptive encapsulation called evolution.
Given the scale of all these events, it’s difficult to state conclusively that humans are the last stage of this.
It is clear that something is going on here. It’s tempting to think we are slowly arranging ourselves into something more complex, wonderful and greater than our sum. But it is equally difficult to imagine that we would be able to see it, in the same way that an individual cell cannot comprehend it is part of a Jellyfish.
But, if one could view the world with different eyes, say eyes that respond to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. You would see biological life in all its exotic complexity – but you would also see a huge, highly complex global brain of electrical connections spanning the earth like silk filaments, encapsulating the thoughts and activities of the creatures that live in it.
The observer might well conclude that this Being, and not the Human Being, is the real life on Earth.