How much smaller can everything get?

Photo of Peter Hartmann
November 10, 2016
Reading time
3 minutes

The tools we use to manage our lives are getting smaller by the day. Is that good or bad? And where will it end?

Elite Sport_Miniturisation

Whoever said that bigger is better probably hasn’t owned an electronic device in a while.

Take a look. Virtually all the tools we use to manage our lives are getting smaller and more powerful, helping us strive for better, healthier and more productive lives.

This trend toward miniaturization was foreseen by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor. In 1965 he issued his now-famous Moore’s Law, which generally holds that overall computer processing power doubles about every two years.

And, for the most part, he was right. The evidence is everywhere.

We take for granted being able to whip out our smartphone and connect with anyone from anywhere. That wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, making a call from anyplace other than home or work meant spending time hunting down a payphone.

Unless of course, you were lucky enough to own a Motorola DynaTAC. Don’t remember it? Commonly referred to as a “brick phone,” it’s the butt of jokes today because “sleek” and “streamlined” it was not. But when introduced in the early 1980s it was considered a breakthrough because it was actually portable. Before it, the only mobile phones were housed in briefcases or installed in cars.

Today our phones are so small we can wear them on our wrists, which makes dialling a friend or joining a teleconference from the bus on the way to work a no-brainer.

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Room-sized mainframe computers gave way to desktop computers, morphed into laptops, notebooks and now ultrabooks. Our smartphones are packed with more computing power than the combined mainframes that put rockets into space not long ago.

Nowhere are the benefits of miniaturization more readily apparent than in the medical devices you’ll encounter if you’re unfortunate enough to need to visit a hospital.

Not long ago, repairing that knee ligament you tore while running involved a scalpel, a big incision and months of recovery time. And you forever had a big, ugly scar to show for it. Today, that repair involves a tiny device known as an arthroscope, a few small holes and a quick recovery. You’ll be back up and running, scar-free, in just a few short weeks.

Downsides to Downsizing?

Although it’s hard to argue with miniaturization, there are some downsides to our relentless drive to downsize.

We’ve so successfully shrunk most things that they’re verging on becoming impractical. Phones are forever getting lost. Say what you will about the DynaTAC, but it’s doubtful that anyone ever misplaced one. Now whenever I can’t locate my smartphone, I instinctively know to check the couch cushions before looking anywhere else.

While we’ve readily accepted miniaturization until now, red flags are starting to go up. Some devices, such as cameras, have become so small that they’re raising legitimate privacy concerns. Google’s foray into wearables, Google Glass, was probably doomed from the start when plenty of places, such as restaurants, banks, casinos, hospitals, movie theaters and others, banned the devices.

And who ever thought it would be possible to remotely pilot a tiny flying machine, let alone mount a camera to one? Few people are in favor of strangers peering into their windows by a remote controlled drone.

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On balance, though, miniaturization has helped make our lives plenty easier. Just ask anyone who ever owned a DynaTAC.

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