Christopher Dewdney, "The Incredible Shrinking Universe"

In conjunction with this year's Massey Lectures, Canada Writes is proud to bring you "Close Encounters with Science": a series of personal stories about science or technology by winners of (and finalists for) the Governor General's Award for Nonfiction. This series is a collaboration between CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts.

In his Close Encounter with Science, Christopher Dewdney reflects on our shrinking technological world—and the tangible proof of life that's documented on it.

The Incredible Shrinking Universe 
by Christopher Dewdeny 

Over the last few years I've started replacing my bulky VHS movie collection with sleeker DVDs. Then, about a year ago I went to my local Blockbuster store to look for discounted classics only to discover that it had gone out of business. One more tangible part of the material world had gone poof!

I should have seen it coming. After all, I'm beginning to stream movies myself. Newer, faster, smaller is replacing older, bulkier, slower. But when exactly did the digital ball get rolling, or should I say shrinking?

My guess is the early sixties. That's when our passion for miniaturization was fired-up by 007 movies—James Bond's tiny spy cameras and matchbox-sized magnetic transmitters made micro tech cool. And department store windows displayed rows of small, transistor radios gleaming like jewellery under the lights.

In 1963, the year that From Russia With Love was released, I became the proud new owner of a transistor radio. It replaced my old desktop radio, which was the size of a toaster, with something that fit sleekly in my palm. It was portable and it was powerful. I could listen to the Rolling Stones on a station more than a hundred miles away. But it was the transistors themselves that enflamed my proprietary passion. I used to take the back off my radio and stare fondly at them perched like pills on their tiny gleaming tripods. 

I thought they were absolutely the latest word in electronics, but I was wrong. Transistors had actually been around since 1947, and behind the scenes they'd already been miniaturized far beyond the ones in my radio. In fact, they had been reduced to mere blips of germanium and copper on integrated circuit boards. 

In 1965, the same year that the 007 film Thunderball was released, Gordon E. Moore, an electrical engineer working for Intel, noticed that the number of transistors in integrated circuits had been doubling every year. It still is. Today this trend in computational power is called Moore's Law. But the exponential doubling of power has a corollary—radical shrinkage.  Power increases as size decreases. Now my cellphone has more processing power than my ten-year-old laptop.

And I've noticed that everything is shrinking. Two decades ago my cassette collection lost half its volume when it was outmoded by CDs, which, in turn, were disappeared by MP3 play-lists. Now I've downloaded most of my favourite music into iTunes. Out of nostalgia I leave my cassettes and compact discs sitting on their shelves like items in a museum display-case where they glow with a sort of abandoned, grey patina, the anti-glow of obsolescence. That same grey patina seems to have formed on the hundreds of books that line my walls. 

Of course this shrinking also engulfed my VHS tapes, which shrank to DVD size. Now the DVDs are shrinking to nothing. In fact, many videos today exist only as binary pulses on the Internet. They are immaterial, nowhere to be found, in the "clouds." Everything is shrivelling up and vanishing like the Wicked Witch of the West. Moore's law is there, steadily, digitally eating it all away.

Now I cannot pull the back off my screen and look at anything material like transistors. The threads of our media fabric are binary codes, they are mathematical descriptions of our apps and the worlds they contain. It's the triumph of mathematics, everything is being reduced to a mathematical description of itself, an algorithm. Bookshelves, libraries, record stores and video stores are shrinking to zero. Everything is de-materializing and becoming migratory. A great loss of mass is taking place, and that mass is not just the material forms of media it’s also the guy at Blockbuster who knew my taste in movies, hell, it's the Blockbuster store itself, the real-estate and the factories that once produced the DVDs. It's magazines and newspapers. In fact everywhere it's the same thing — think of travel agents, bank clerks, stenographers and telephone receptionists.

And when something has become nothing it is also nowhere. Because a digital description doesn't have to be anywhere specific. Less and less can we say that a particular book or film or piece of music is in one place or on one particular hard drive. The description codes are emigrating into an ubiquitous cloud of no fixed address. Information has become nomadic, a restless, immaterial digital stream circling the planet. The world is slipping into the Internet's black hole.


Christopher Dewdney is the author of four books of non-fiction as well as eleven books of poetry. He is a four-time nominee for the Governor General's Award and his 2005 non-fiction book, Acquainted With The Night; Excursions into the World After Dark, was nominated for both a Governor General's Award and The Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction.

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