I love this excerpt from Vaclav Smil’s fab book “How the World Really Works”, which is effectively reminding me to get back on my long desired and long abandoned project to learn more about the world of materials:
Food and energy supply, the two existential necessities covered in the preceding chapters, would be impossible without mass-scale mobilization of many man-made materials—metals, alloys, non-metallic and synthetic compounds—and the same is true about all our buildings and infrastructures and about all modes of transportation and communication. Of course, you would not know this if you were to judge the importance of these materials by the attention they get (or rather do not get), not only from mass media “news” but also from supposedly much more exalted economic analyses or forecasts of notable developments.
All of this coverage deals overwhelmingly with such immaterial, intangible phenomena as the annual percentage growth of GDP (how Western economists used to swoon over China’s double-digit rates!), rising national debt ratios (unimportant in the world of Modern Monetary Theory, with money supply seen as unlimited), record sums poured into new initial public offerings (for such existentially critical inventions as gaming apps), the benefits of unprecedented mobile connectivity (awaiting 5G networks as something close to the second coming), or promises of artificial intelligence imminently transforming our lives (the pandemic was an excellent demonstration of the complete emptiness of such claims).
First things first. We could have an accomplished and reasonably affluent civilization that provides plenty of food, material comforts, and access to education and health care, without any semiconductors, microchips, or personal computers: we had one until, respectively, the mid-1950s (first commercial applications of transistors), the early 1970s (Intel’s first microprocessors), and the early 1980s (first larger-scale ownership of PCs). And we managed, until the 1990s, to integrate economies, mobilize necessary investments, build requisite infrastructures, and connect the world by wide-body jetliners without any smartphones, social media, and puerile apps. But none of these advances in electronics and telecommunications could have taken place without the assured provision of energies and materials required to embody the inventions in myriads of electricity-consuming components, devices, assemblies, and systems ranging from tiny microprocessors to massive data centers.
Silicon (Si) made into thin wafers (the basic substrate of microchips) is the signature material of the electronic age, but billions of people could live prosperously without it; it is not an existential constraint on modern civilisation.