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The Scientific Estate: Bringing the Meltdown Back Home

(Or) Buddy, Can You Spare an iPad 2?

4 min read
The Scientific Estate: Bringing the Meltdown Back Home

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Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.This column expresses the opinion of the author and not the position of the IEEE.

I tried to buy an iPad 2 this chilly Bay Area morning, and I couldn't. I was standing in line outside of an Apple Store in Emeryville, desperately in need of coffee, when I got the news. The only people getting to buy iPads had arrived at the store before sunrise.

About 25 laggards, me included, arrived just after daybreak and now were being told, by a cheerful Apple employee, "Come back tomorrow. We might get a dozen or two more. But be here early."

The guy standing in front of me in line loudly declared that he planned to return the next day. I almost thought he was trying to scare some of us into not joining him when he won my sympathy by blaming the nuclear disaster in Japan for our fruitless pursuit of the hottest digital device on the planet.

"I hear there's a part in the iPad that comes from Japan," he said. "Now their factories aren't running because of the reactors melting down."

At the time, I didn't even know if the iPad 2 relies on parts made in Japan, but he wasn't the first guy to say it, and simply the fear that the worsening nuclear disaster in Japan might disrupt production of Apple's new tablet computer for weeks, or even months, has been enough to send throngs of people into the streets, searching for iPads.

Who knew the greatest consequence to Americans from the Japan emergency might not be radioactive fallout, but the inability to satisfy our collective desire for the iPad 2 – thinner, lighter, cooler than the original, and whose DRAMmemory and battery are made for Apple in Japan, according to IHS iSuppli, which tore down the iPad 2 and indentified "five parts sourced from Japanese suppliers: NAND flash from Toshiba Corp., dynamic random access memory (DRAM) made by Elpida Memory Inc., an electronic compass from AKM Semiconductor, the touch screen overlay glass likely from Asahi Glass Co. and the system battery from Apple Japan Inc."

To be sure, the American distance from Japanese nuclear nightmare is narrower than we suspect. Mass media has been revolutionized since the Chernobyl meltdown and Three-Mile Island mishap, both of which occurred relatively out of sight. The whole world is watching Fukushima -- in excruciating detail -- as Japan staggers towards what may turn out to be multiple meltdowns. Perhaps never in the history of human civilization have so many people, learned so much, so quickly, about nuclear power – and about technical complexity, and  the unintended consequences of earthquakes.

The effects of this daily lesson in nuclear peril will not be known for some time, and the crisis itself has weeks, if not months, to run. But no doubt we can already say with certainty that we never imagined a link between meltdowns and iPads.

When we think about technology and complexity, most of us imagine the intricacies of the Web, social media and our panopoly of personal digital devices. We've reached the point where simply communicating with ourselves is an impressive technological achievement. For instance, I already intensely interact with an iPhone, a Mac laptop and Mac desktop. They all interact with each other too. I also have Flip video cameras, Panasonic still cameras, untold thousands of music CDs and a much smaller library of digital books. I watch TV on my computer. I watch Netflix on my computer. And with the help of a Comcast HD converter, my TV screen becomes another computer. When I imagine a complex technical failure, no one dies, no one goes hungry, nothing breaks. When I imagine a complex technical failure, I think of how my Netflix movies don't play on my TV, or my Blue-ray discs won't play on my Macs. At times like this, I can always step back and take my dog for a walk (and send emails to myself as I do).

Immersed in my own private digital miasma, I marvel at what does work – and there is so much to marvel at. Indeed, our personal digital devices are now so wonderfully synchronized with our own mental and physical routines that we are shocked when complex systems do fail and rob people of their health, their possessions, their lives.

That's what makes the videos from Fukushima so riveting. The fires are burning. Meltdown isn't a metaphor. Crash isn't something that sends me scrounging about for memory sticks and backup drives. In Japan, as we watch as if watching a reality TV show, people are losing control of a very complex technical system that even in the best of times was barely under control. To see these four reactors – a quartet of industrialized doom – mocking human efforts to tame them, I am reminded of the long history of technological change and the persistent mistake people make in becoming over-awed by the latest, greatest stuff.

"The new new thing," as Michael Lewis once titled a book about Silicon Valley, always carries a certain kind of shock but increasingly old things, discarded by our imaginations but still percolating in our material lives, are coming back to bite us. In the words of David Edgerton, a great historian of technology, humans can experience "the shock of the old" with equal violence. The unfolding disaster in Japan, and its attenuated link to the our latest greatest digital device, the iPad 2, is a humbling reminder that the liberation promised by the "creative destruction" of technological advance can only ever be partial – because like some old Microsoft operating system, we are condemned to drag into our future technological systems from our analog past -- nuclear power is a prime instance – that are essential to our common well-being.

Now about that iPad 2. I'm not going back to the Apple Store tomorrow. I'll suffer without one, because I must.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (1997), which received IEEE's first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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