Tacit knowledge, chips and geopolitics

Today’s Observer column:

When the history of our time comes to be written, one thing that will amaze historians is how an entire civilisation managed to impale itself on its worship of optimisation and efficiency. This obsession is what underpinned the hubris of globalisation. Apple’s famous slogan “Designed by Apple in California, manufactured in China” became its guiding light. So long as products could be made available to consumers everywhere, it no longer mattered where they were made. Until it did.

We first twigged this when the pandemic struck, and we became suddenly aware of how fragile supply chains built to maximise efficiency could be. Shouldn’t we be optimising for resilience rather than efficiency, people wondered. And maybe our obsession with “offshoring” production to low-wage countries might not be such a good idea after all.

The rise of China and the resulting tensions between it and the United States brought this offshoring question into very sharp focus. For our civilisation (if that’s what it is) now runs on silicon as well as oil, and the really advanced silicon chips on which the future seems to depend are all made in one location – Taiwan – and by one company based there, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)…

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