From Talking Toys to Talking Tools


The Micro Millennium, by Christopher Evans, New York: Viking/Washington Square Press, 1980, 308 pp., $10.95/$3.50.

The Industrial Revolution burst forth because of the invention of a portable, economical, and mechanical power source—the steam engine—that emancipated and amplified muscle power. Likewise, writes Christopher Evans in The Micro Millennium, an analogous "Computer Revolution" is now accelerating at breakneck speed because of the invention of an extremely portable, dirt-cheap, electronic computing source—the microprocessor—which, he predicts, will emancipate and amplify our brain power and will change our society as radically as did the Industrial Revolution.

The microprocessor is a tiny piece of silicon etched with complex electronic logic; it functions on minute amounts of power and acts as the brains and central nervous system of every cruise missile, video game, digital watch, and calculator. Any task that can be exactly defined and requires no human judgment can be replaced by the microprocessor. The replacement of the mechanical calculator and watch markets with other markets in the last 10 years is but a hint of the industrial and commercial changes the microprocessor will catalyze in the closing years of this century.

It was the taxpayer-financed arms race that spawned the first electronic computers; the space race completed their miniaturization. When the space race ended, the engineers who were jettisoned from their subsidized jobs started their own high-technology companies, like those in the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco. Instead of competing directly with the big computer firms in established markets, the engineers created new markets—minicomputers, microcomputers, calculators, watches, and games—and reaped fantastic profits. The big companies sought to compete with the new firms, but the new markets changed so rapidly that the industry giants were unable to steer their awesome corporate inertia quickly enough to capture the new markets or create their own.

The coming Computer Revolution, Evans predicts, is unstoppable and will affect all human lives. Evans foresees a massive microprocessor-reindustrialization of the entire world as engineers etch their genius on silicon chips to make factories, cars, buildings, and systems run "smart," use less energy, increase productivity, and thereby increase the total standard of living. Like the shattered mechanical watch and calculator industries before them, every entrenched industry will feel the hot breath of the microprocessor entrepreneurs. Driven by the motor of profit, the microprocessor industries will replace or augment the conventional photographic, publishing, entertainment, and established computer companies as they exist today, resulting in a major redistribution of economic power.

It will be a world revolution. While some unions and capital-poor industries will squawk for government restrictions on the replacement, say, of assembly-line workers by microprocessor-smart robots, they will be fighting a battle that has already been decided. Around the world industries are opting for microprocessors. The future has been written: compete by using microprocessors, or fold.

There is also the strong possibility that the microprocessor will help roll back the State. As new "micro-smart" businesses bid away the State's captive customers, statist institutions like mail, security, and schools might be directly reduced.

The Micro Millennium provides a concise history of the computer and a preview of the surge of affluence and social transformation to come. Today, many dismiss the game and gimmick applications of microprocessors, but it is the creation of this enormous consumer market that is raising large amounts of capital that will make the future of the industry so formidable. The progeny of talking toys will be talking tools.

Jack Shafer is the managing editor of Inquiry magazine.