Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Technology Equals Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
- Arthur C. Clarke
I was thinking about this quite recently, and I realized how true it is. What do we really know or understand about the technology that makes our very way of life possible?  

- Your cellphone signal goes out because you are too far away from a cell phone tower. Do you really understand what a cell phone tower does? Do you have any idea how close to a tower that you need to be to have it help you? Do you know which towers are used by your cell phone?  

- The power goes out at your home because the local substation has a problem. Do you know what a substation is and why it should be important to the power in your home? Do you even understand how AC current works and how it gets into your home (other than through wires)

 - Do you really understand anything about the technology involved with a radio, a television, a CD or DVD player, or the computer that you are reading this nonsense on? For myself, I have begun to realize how little I actually do know about most of the technology that makes my life convenient and and probably even possible and how dependent that I am on the people who are the masters of it. For all that I do know about them, these processes might as well be magic, and the people who operate and maintain it might as well be magicians. 

As with magic, most of us will never know the secrets behind how these tricks of technology are done, and will never be able to perform them for ourselves. This is a magic that we have become addicted to however. Society as we know it will not function without the use of the magic or our technology, as anyone frustrated by a "no signal" display on a cell phone or trapped at home during a power outage will attest to. There are no two sticks to rub together to produce a signal for your cable TV box. You can't stick you finger into the air to determine where the nearest cell phone tower is? There are no non-technical solutions for the potential problems of the magic of our all too technical world.  

Should we panic then over what might happen if all of the magicians went away? That's certainly one answer, but I suspect that any such likelihood is rather remote. Should we exalt the keepers of technology and raise them to high station in our society? Such things have been done in the past with the shaman and the priest, but I suspect that doing so today would be as fraught with danger as it has been in those earlier times. History seems to indicate that giving power and control to the few over the many has never seemed to work out all that well for the many. 

Should we abandon the technology that we have and go back to a "simpler time"? Again no, I don't know about you, but I will take every convenience in my life that technology is capable of providing me. I am fond of indoor plumbing, electricity, paved streets, and the Internet; and if it means that there are things that I will never understand as a consequence, I'm OK with that. (Hell, a lack of understanding has never prevented me from doing anything in the past, why should it do so now.)

No I suspect that this is simply a part of our increasingly complex society that we are simply going to have to live with. We don't even get to choose whether we like it or not, we only get to deal with it as part of the wild and wonderful world in which we live. I think that I like the idea that we at least recognize the direction in which the world is going is a good thing. Such conscious awareness of our surroundings keeps us on our toes and jars us out of the complacency which is far too easy to fall into in life. And as for the magic and magicians, I suspect that we should follow the advice of the seasoned citizen responding to the young man asking how the exotic dancer performed her act (stripper for those like me who are still politically incorrect). "Don't ask questions son," he said, "just enjoy the show."


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