performativity in engineering: the case of moore’s law

Econtalk recently interviewed Richard Jones, a physicist who is a critic of transhumanism. In this interesting discussion, he makes the argument that Moore’s law was an example of performativity.

He uses the terminology of the self-fulfilling prophecy but his discussion is much closer to performativity. Basically, he, correctly, notes that Moore’s law is not a physical law. Microchips will not become faster by themselves. They only become faster because of the time and effort invested in them.

And why does this happen? The public discussion of Moore’s law, according to Jones. I am not knowledgeable in engineering to know if public discussion of Moore’s law did in fact drive chip development, but the point is well taken. At the very least, a belief in consistent improvement actually led to a real improvement by providing incentives.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 8, 2016 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. See similar arguments in Miller and O’Leary (2007) Mediating Instruments and Making Markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. AOS.


    Dane Pflueger

    April 8, 2016 at 7:17 am

  2. Sharing a comment from a non-academic with a long tech career:

    Moore’s law is at its heart a planning and budgeting assumption. Companies need to allocate their research and development resources based on a prediction of the future, including how much the company will have available, how much R&D will be needed to produce a marketable product, and how the competitive environment will evolve. A very common event in the technology industry is a Proof of Concept, in which a computer does some useful thing for the first time. It may take a huge and very expensive computer and perform the function agonizingly slowly, but the POC is still valuable because it’s only a matter of time before the computer will be smaller, faster and less expensive. Budget assumptions are often shared among companies whose products depend on each other. Customers will not buy a program if available computers are too slow, small and expensive. But people will not buy a better computer until there are programs that exploit the improvements. Ideally the hardware and the software reach the market at about the same time; shared planning assumptions help to bring this about. Moore’s Law started as a budget assumption that was widely shared across a fast-growing and very profitable industry, and that gave it the importance that it achieved. Of course it was performative: bring products to market before the time dictated by Moore’s Law and sales will suffer because the product is not well supported; come to market after Moore’s prediction and someone else will have the first mover advantage. None of this is surprising, it’s the nature of business planning. What is surprising is that it has persisted over such a long period of time, during which both technology and the global business environment have been radically reshaped. Typically, planning assumptions are subject to quarterly tweaks and seldom persist more than three or, at best, five years. Moore’s law persisted essentially unchanged for 37 years, from 1975 to 2012. The interesting question is how this one projection remained stable for such a long period in a volatile industry. There may be an opportunity for research into how much this was based on shared corporate culture across organizations in this industry.



    April 10, 2016 at 5:42 pm

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