I consider Definite Optimism as Human Capital to be my most creative piece. Unfortunately, it’s oblique and meandering. So I thought to write a followup to lay out its premises more directly and to offer a restatement of its ideas.
The goal of both pieces is to broaden the terms in which we discuss “technology.” Technology should be understood in three distinct forms: as processes embedded into tools (like pots, pans, and stoves); explicit instructions (like recipes); and as process knowledge, or what we can also refer to as tacit knowledge, know-how, and technical experience. Process knowledge is the kind of knowledge that’s hard to write down as an instruction. You can give someone a well-equipped kitchen and an extraordinarily detailed recipe, but unless he already has some cooking experience, we shouldn’t expect him to prepare a great dish.
I submit that we have two big biases when we talk about technology. First, we think about it too much in terms of tools and recipes, when really we should think about it more in terms of process knowledge and technical experience. Second, most of us focus too much on the digital world and not enough on the industrial world. Our obsession with the digital world has pushed our expectation of the technological future in the direction of cyberpunk dystopia; I hope instead that we can look forward to a joyful vision of the technological future, driven by advances in industry.
This is one of my longer essays; the final section summarizes the main points.
Process knowledge is represented by an experienced workforce. I’ve been studying the semiconductor industry, and that has helped to clarify my thoughts on technological innovation more broadly. It’s easy to identify all three forms of technology in the production of semiconductors: tools, instructions, and process knowledge. The three firms most responsible for executing Moore’s Law—TSMC, Intel, and Samsung—make full use of each of these tools. Each of them invest north of $10 billion a year to push forward that technological frontier.