Book Review : When the Going Gets Rough and the Microchips Are Down

The Chip War: The Battle for the World of Tomorrow by Fred Warshofsky (Scribners: $22.50; 434 pages)

Early in this decade, Theodore White wrote a seminal article in the New York Times magazine in which he declared flatly that Japan, which had lost World War II on the battlefield, was now beating us in the war of the world economy.

He argued that the Japanese were simply clobbering us at our own game. Americans, grown soft from wealth and comfort, were no match for the superior educational system, manufacturing skill and single-mindedness of purpose that marks the Japanese.

This is an old story by now, but it is profitably retold by Fred Warshofsky in "The Chip War," a detailed and convincing--if somewhat breathless--account of the battle of the microchip, which America is on the verge of losing to Japan.

'Cheaper, Faster, Better'

Microchips are the ubiquitous hearts and brains of computers. "The ability to make these chips cheaper, faster, and better than anyone else will determine the winner of the Chip War and the ultimate controller of the world's economy," Warshofsky writes. "With so much at stake, the United States has suddenly awakened to the fact that it is in an economic and technological war. The prize is control of an industry and technology so central to modern civilization that the winner will unquestionably be the strongest economic power in the world."

Warshofsky, a science writer and television producer, then traces the history of computer technology and the shift of its center of gravity from the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco to Japan. Not surprisingly, the great success that the Japanese have enjoyed in the electronics industry in general has been and is being repeated in the specialized world of microchips.

In particular, the Japanese have been able to identify and exploit the weaknesses in American products and the gaps in the American market to gain a foothold on which to build their own industry.

The conventional wisdom about the Japanese is that they are very good at manufacturing but not very good at innovation. Think again of those Hondas and VCRs. Japan didn't invent either technology. But it figured out a way to make consumer products better and cheaper and more reliably than this country has done.

But Warshofsky says that in the area of microchips, at least, that view of Japan's shortcoming may be inaccurate. Creativity may not reside solely in Western genes.

Battle Isn't Over

Warshofsky does not concede that the battle of the microchips is over. The United States has responded to the challenge from Japan--and, more recently, from South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore as well--by forming SEMATECH, the Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology Institute, an industry-government consortium to develop new chips and new manufacturing technologies.

But there is a even broader question that lurks in this discussion, a question that has been explicitly raised now for several years: Is the decline of all civilizations inevitable, and has the American moment in history passed? Does success carry with it the seeds of failure? Are we destined, like the Roman Empire and the British Empire and all other empires, political and otherwise, to relinquish our hegemony over the world?

We cannot know the answer to this question, but history will surely know the answer. In the meantime, as Warshofsky notes, we have recognized the challenge, and we are trying to meet it. Whether we are successful remains to be seen.

Much more than technological prowess is involved. All of the myriad problems of our society--from education to drugs to complacency--are implicated in the outcome.

A Comprehensive Account

Warshofsky uses the battle of the chips as a microcosm for the global problem. He is hardly the first to identify what is going on, but he does provide a comprehensive account of one part of it.

No technology in history has advanced as much in 40 years as computer technology has. Warshofsky shows that the social, political and economic changes during that time have been almost as dramatic.

But ultimate questions still evade computers, just as they still evade human minds. And that is not likely to change. No person and no machine can predict the future or, truth to tell, have much of an effect over it.

We do our best and plod through.

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