Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the early months of 2020, the phrase “supply chain” became a catalyst of terror for America’s consumers, often demonstrated by panicked shoppers coming to blows over the last bottle of bleach, can of soup, or—worst of the worst—roll of toilet paper.
Meanwhile, the increasing scarcity of another finite resource silently rivaled every other man-made product on the planet in the context of sparking potential doom: chips.
Not the potato, but rather the integrated circuit or “semiconductor” kind: tiny pieces of silicon with countless transistors carved into them.
“Last year, the chip industry produced more transistors than the combined quantity of all goods produced by all other companies, in all other industries, in all human history,” Chris Miller writes in Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. “Nothing else comes close.”
This unimaginable influence—and also, unimaginable risk—certainly puts a toilet paper shortage into perspective.
Miller, an associate professor of international history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, looks to examine the computer chip through a geopolitical lens, making the initial argument that “semiconductors have defined the world we live in, determining the shape of international politics, the structure of the world economy, and the balance of military power.”
Speaking of his work, Miller argues that “no item has had a more decisive role on international politics” than the transistor since its invention in 1947. Given his definition of a transistor as “a tiny electric ‘switch’ that turns on (creating a 1) or off (0), producing the 1s and 0s that undergird all digital computing,” it’s difficult to disagree with this hypothesis.
Chip War is a fascinatingly detailed breakdown of this very resource—a resource on which the world depends. On its surface, the book’s subject matter might seem somewhat intimidating for any non-expert in the world of computing. Armed with an initial glossary of 15 key terms, however, Miller’s work stands as a deeply educational overview of even the most complex elements of this ever-growing technology.
Throughout, Miller carefully connects multiple timelines across multiple areas of modern history as precisely as the construction of semiconductors themselves, leaving the reader with an expansive understanding of the battlefield of computer chip development, while simultaneously providing gripping insights into the nonfiction billion-dollar international dramas that surround the science of semiconductors.
Miller leads us through a beginner’s guide to the origins of Silicon Valley and the Soviet Union’s flawed attempts to compete by copying; Japan’s emergence from postwar defeat, first as a “transistor salesman” and then as an efficiency-obsessed technological superpower; and the continued rise and fall of allies and adversaries atop the global chip supply chain, all intricately tied together by economic and political forces, both intentional and unintentional.
The book is also filled with riveting nuggets of information—explaining the role of the U.S. federal government and military and the key decisions surrounding the technology of semiconductors that guaranteed physical American dominance in the aftermath of the Vietnam war; the sheer power wielded by corporations that grew across the world, some from mere ideas in a garage (AMD, Apple, Fairchild, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Nvidia, Samsung, and Sony are just a few examples); and finally the individuals responsible for the very technology we now take for granted (many of whom remain largely unknown)—with Miller’s narrative bringing life to industry titan after industry titan.
One particularly interesting element of the book that may go unnoticed relates to the ongoing battle for control of microchips, with the United States grappling with a vast array of potential (and actual) competitors and enemies for their continued dominance over the world’s “new oil.”
Not only does Miller expertly usher readers through the story of the microchip—a story which is often as complex as the chips themselves, and as drama-filled as any binge-worthy Netflix series—his account also stands as a warning.
Throughout modern history, the world has relied on American dominance of just the right resource or technology at just the right time. After all, how unrecognizable (or, indeed, nonexistent) would the world be in an alternative reality where communist regimes had been driven by the technology that cemented the United States’ position as the world leader in the second half of the 20th century?
And what was true then remains true now: The battle for dominance relies upon the next discovery, whether that be cutting-edge fuel sources (such as cold fusion) or computational supremacy (such as quantum computing).
Alternatively, it might be as simple as staying one step ahead of the competition.
Not only does the United States’ international standing rely upon winning the next battle, the next battle is immeasurably more difficult to win. While our opponents of the 20th century were decades behind, our opponents of the 21st century are at best breathing down our necks, and at worst leaving us to choke on their dust.
Chip War stands as a superb insight into the battle for technological supremacy on the back of microchips, from the inception of Silicon Valley to the explosive rise of modern China under the CCP.
One can only imagine chapters that may need to be added in the future, but we must hope that the story of technological dominance continues to be written by Western powers.
As Miller explains, “China is devoting its best minds and billions of dollars to developing its own semiconductor technology in a bid to free itself from America’s chip choke.”
“If Beijing succeeds, it will remake the global economy and reset the balance of military power,” Miller notes.
This alternative reality should terrify us all.
Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology
by Chris Miller
Scribner, 464 pp., $30
Ian Haworth is a writer, speaker, and former Big Tech insider. He also hosts a weekly late night show, Off Limits with Ian Haworth.