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'Smart' Everything: How a Simple Resource Shortage Can Cripple Technology

Smart. Intelligent. Connected. These buzzwords are used to market products that are computer and software-controlled with the purpose of making our lives easier. Everything from our cars to medical devices to refrigerators has computers in them to make them more effective at the function they’re designed to do. Our cars are filled with computers that control everything from engine timing to the infotainment touchscreen, while modern fridges have touchscreens to access the same apps as our phones. At the core of all of these components, lies semiconductors, also known as integrated circuits, microchips, or most simply...chips.

Various Semiconductors
Various Semiconductors - Credit: Jonas Svidras


The Current Situation

In case you haven’t heard or read enough about it, there’s a massive chip shortage that is kneecapping many industries right now. Samsung recently announced that the shortage is affecting its television and appliance production and just about every automaker is struggling to reach its projected production numbers, with half-finished cars sitting idle until the semiconductor supply can catch up. Due to the lack of available chips, the prices of products that are available have skyrocketed. The PlayStation 5, as an example, was initially promoted to retail around $499, but due to the chip shortage, prices are reaching over $1,000 even at big-box retailers like Walmart and Target. The damage of the semiconductor shortage is estimated to be over $200 billion dollars and the shortage will likely last into 2023. President Biden is working on a recovery plan in hopes of restoring America’s competitiveness in producing its own semiconductors. Here is an interesting article about utilizing the Defense Production Act in an effort to produce semiconductors to combat the shortage:


The Cost of Being Tech-Driven

While the chip shortage will likely end in the next year or two, it has been very eye-opening as to how dependent we’ve become on technology. Imagine needing a simple repair on your car only to be told by the service manager that they're unsure of when the part will be available and that it’ll be 2-3x more expensive than you expected? You thought it was a simple headlight bulb that went out but the repair turns out to be a faulty headlight control module costing hundreds of dollars to replace. While many repairs can be as simple as replacing a bulb, the future will likely lead to computer-controlled everything, causing your heart to skip a beat anytime you need a repair.

Tesla Dashboard
The dash of a Tesla is packed with tech. Imagine having to replace the infotainment touchscreen.

We pack devices with technology to help make them more efficient, effective, and convenient while striving for the highest performance, but it is often at the cost of reliability and fix-ability for the everyday person. Sometimes, we just need something to perform its core function without bells and whistles.


Simplicity Trumps Convenience

Recently, I was watching a show of Jerry Seinfeld’s where he shows off unique, classic cars. In one of the episodes, he was driving an old Porsche 356 that he personally owned. As he toured the car for the viewers, he showed the engine compartment of the vehicle which housed an extremely simple engine consisting of only a handful of components. Jerry goes on to say, “With very little maintenance throughout the years, it just works. That’s how I like things”.

Porsche 356
A Porsche 356 similar to Jerry Seinfeld's

Porsche 356 Engine
The simplistic engine of the Porsche 356

There’s a certain beauty to the reliability and durability of these vehicles. While they may not text you when your washer fluid is low, there’s comfort knowing that something, likes Seinfeld says, ‘just works’. Technology is convenient, but it’s the utmost inconvenience when it doesn’t do the one thing you need it to. Instead of packing technology into everything, put it where it's truly needed, like a pacemaker instead of a refrigerator or toaster. A much deeper dive on ‘dumb tech’ by Stephen Moore can be read here:


Closing Remarks

Let the chip shortage be a harbinger of the future: Don’t put all your eggs in the technology basket. Although it makes small things more convenient, technology is a vulnerable crutch that can be taken out by resource shortages, internet failures, and malicious actors. Everything doesn't need a million lines of code and a handy app to go with it.

Simple, 'dumb' items don't need firmware updates and will be relevant for years to come, whereas the same tech-infused item will be deemed obsolete or become unsupported by its manufacturers in 5-10 years. Buy things because they're quality, reliable products that will last, not because it has the latest tech feature on it. By doing so, you can immunize yourself from the external forces (the manufacturers) who ultimately hold the power to update and repair your device.

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