I wear many hats. Not necessarily well, but I wear them. One of the hats I wear is that of “technical writer.” Recently, I got a gig writing for the company Intel, which as everyone knows makes those smallish, sort of alien-looking things that are inside your computer making it run–microprocessors. That’s really all the Average Joe knows about Intel–it’s a company full of smart people that helps make their computers run–and that’s about all he cares to know.

One of the topics that Intel wanted me to write about is something called Moore’s Law. Simply defined, Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years. At first glance, this sounds like something that gave you a headache in high school physics, sort of like the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics, but Moore’s Law isn’t like that at all. It’s actually a mandate to Intel’s employees, but more on that in a minute.

Companies all have their idiosyncrasies, but Intel’s are particularly difficult to navigate for a writer new to them. For one, the company has a tendency to overuse copyright and trademark symbols. One glance at the Intel® Web Portal(TM) and you’re blinded by text© that you’d be a fool to plagiarize.(TM) There’s a giant handbook containing each of Intel’s® products, explaining exactly where and in what circumstances a trademark symbol should be used. (Titles, yes, the first time it’s used in a paragraph as well, not in the body unless in bold, only when the entire product is spelled out but not when using its acronym, etc.)

This handbook would come in handy, except that it takes about three usernames and passwords to access, and finally you just end up doing it wrong, and waiting for the edits.

The second idiosyncracy you notice about Intel is that everyone speaks in acronyms. People at Intel don’t say they’re going to be out of the office—they say they’re “oh,oh,oh.” (Unfortunately, without irony.) Their latest marketing campaign is SoTs. There are product development teams for IPT, ITP, AT, SATA, and PATA technologies. During our first conference call with them, we were so lost amongst the acronyms that we had an administrative assistant Googling terms as they spoke to us, just so we’d have some idea what they were talking about.

The third idiosyncracy, though, is perhaps it’s most noticeable: Intel employees work like dogs. As a freelancer, I’m used to odd hours. I’m just as likely to be working at 10 P.M. or on weekends as I am in the middle of the day. But Intel employees sent me emails at 2 A.M. And not just one, but five of them. After they’d worked all day. I’d get email threads starting during the day and continuing on and on, with replies and forwards at ungodly hours: 11:30 P.M., 12:12 A.M., 1:13 A.M., 1:45 A.M., 2:26 A.M., and 4:35 A.M.

Intel was a new client, and paying me well, and honestly, the pace of the work was sort of exhilarating, so I wasn’t entirely bothered by it, but these people who were emailing me at all hours of the morning, how did they do it? Year upon year upon year.

And why?

All of this might sound like criticism. And if I hadn’t been assigned to write about Moore’s Law, it would have been. But there’s more to Intel’s employee madness than the usual sad corporate wheedling for new titles and slightly higher salaries.

You see, in stating his law forty years ago, Gordon Moore had given his company, now 80,000 employees strong, an unusually precise mission. Intel’s mission isn’t to create “high quality”, or “efficient”, or “inexpensive”, or any other vague and completely unquantifiable, type of computer processor. Gordon Moore stated, instead, that his company’s singular mission was to shrink the size of its computer chips by half every two years.

Think about this for a minute. What if other institutions set quantities like this as their goals? What if, for example, General Motors’ singular goal became to double its vehicles fuel efficiency every two years, or UNICEF’s mission became to reduce starvation in Africa by half every two years, or really anything, take any good thing that a company or non-profit could do and give it a factoral mission? Success once or twice would be near miraculous. Success over the course of forty years would be impossible.

In order to meet the dictates of Moore’s Law over the last forty-five years, Intel has had to shrink the size of its processors by over FOUR MILLION TIMES. Intel’s 45 nanometer transistors, which are in pretty much every computer produced in 2010, are no longer visible by the human eye. If you place 100 Intel transistors side by side, the width would be less than the width of a strand of spider web silk.

What Intel has done is insane. And all because of a laser-focused corporate goal.

It’s funny, but with all the hype Google, or Microsoft, or Ebay gets, no one really thinks much about Intel, and yet without Moore’s Law, none of the technologies we have today would even exist–personal computers, laptops, email, the Internet, cell phones, GPS units–none of it. Electronics, in many ways, is the only industry that’s seen major advances in the last forty years, and it’s all been done because of shrinking transistor sizes. Imagine what vehicles would look like today if car companies had this kind of focus. We’d, literally, be flying.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the hurry at Intel is atypical because it’s for a greater cause. Every year, in its drive to shrink transistor sizes, Intel must come up with a new product, and every year, its 80,000 employees must manufacture, market, sell, and distribute globally a brand new product that replaces the model from the year before. Intel has set a clock for itself, which doesn’t allow for delays in product development. The copy needs to be written now, at 2 A.M., because tomorrow there’s something new to write about it.

What Gordon Moore did for Intel was pure genius. It’s the kind of crystal-clear mission statement that every company, non-profit, and ahem, government, should emulate and learn from.

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JAMES BERNARD FROST is the author of the novel A Very Minor Prophet, published by indie wonder-press Hawthorne Books, reviewed here by The Oregonian, recently optioned by Rocking Stone Media, and available wherever books are sold. He is also the award-winning author of the novel World Leader Pretend, published by St. Martin's Press, and the travel guide, The Artichoke Trail. His fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in venues as diverse as Wired, SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, The Official Magazine of World of Warcraft, Trachodon Magazine, and the Farallon Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his two children, the rain, and the trees.

15 responses to “On Moore’s Law”

  1. dwoz says:

    As a writer of software, I see your Moore’s law and raise you Wirth’s law.

  2. Richard Cox says:

    What’s so fascinating about Moore’s Law is it has been adopted and expanded by information technologies far beyond the number of transistors on a chip. Some criticisms of his law include the idea that the exponential advancement of technology made the law a sort of foregone conclusion, that he was simply putting a name to an idea that was already in place, that technology advancement has long been measured logarithmically.

    The exponential rate of technology is fascinating and is evident everywhere. Humans tend to think and see these increases as linear because in a short time frame, a logarithmic curve can appear linear. Like, oh yeah, of course the iPhone 4 screen is better than the 3. But it wasn’t that long ago that Captain Kirk was communicating with the Enterprise on a device that had no video display at all. Really? That’s the best we could imagine in the 60s?

    I mean in another fifteen years we’ll probably have laptops that use chips that have as many connections as the human brain. And not long after that we’ll be trying in vain to shut down Skynet.

  3. Paula Austin says:

    Very informative, well written article. I’m impressed..I have a question….is it not impossible to decrease the size of the transistors much more at this time due a smaller reduction in the size would possibly lead to a connection or link into quantum physics with unknown variables..Do you think technology has led us to the apocalypse?

    • dwoz says:

      The link into quantum physic thing is a very real boundary.

      They’ve already hit it, and it’s a problem called “quantum tunneling.” The transistors get small enough that they encounter the probabilistic threshold.

      At that point, the transistors develop the properties of sarcasm, and remorse.

      After that, it’s just “work, work work.”

  4. Matt says:

    …so how much longer before Intel just has a bunch of nanites assembling chips so small you could inhale them and never notice?

  5. Art Edwards says:

    This is a great piece, James Bernard. I felt my brain explode anew with every paragraph.

    What is your sense for which and how much drugs these employees are doing?


  6. Brad Listi says:

    jesus. now i’m trying to think of a proper mission statement for TNB.

    Listi’s Law.

    i like the sound of that. 🙂

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      Ha! I like Listi’s Law too.

      We will double the amount of contributors every year, with content that’s twice as good. I think you’ve done it!

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