Friday, January 4, 2013

Technology and Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"

- Arthur C. Clarke    

My three-year-old examined a greeting card that had a song recorded in a tiny device that it played through a tiny speaker.  She opened and closed the card repeatedly, and the song played over and over again.  "Where is the man singing?" she asked.  It was difficult to explain to her that the man was not actually inside the card.  I first had to explain that Grandma is not actually inside the telephone when you talk with her, but that proved to be difficult as well.  

I would never fault a child for not knowing such things.  I encourage her inquisitiveness, and hope that it never leaves her as it does so many adults.  These days, an adult who is ignorant of technological progress and the science behind it will find oneself out of touch with the times in a hurry.

The rapid progression of technology may be the defining characteristic of modern times.  Man's capacity to keep pace with this progression in a socio-political sense continues to be overwhelmed.  What lags as far or even further behind is the general public's understanding of its own technological tools.

My feeling for a long time has been that while we cannot be experts at everything, we ought to have a basic understanding of most things.  If 90% of the passengers on an airplane have no clue as to what keeps it and them in the air, should they be permitted to fly on it?  Yes.  But though they do not suffer much individually on account of their passive ignorance, there is a collective ill that takes hold when the gap between society and its tools grows as large as it has.

Why collective?  Because in democratic societies, people choose their representatives collectively.  How can one make an informed decision about major voting issues like climate change and energy production when one has no knowledge of the science behind them?  Scientific illiteracy is a weight on our society that grows heavier with the passage of time.

Does my iPhone become less cool if I know what transistors are?  No - if anything, such knowledge enriches the experience of using it.  Why attribute our innovations to magic when we may attribute them to our species' mastery of certain science phenomena?

When we know what is under the hood of our tools, though they cease to be magic, they remain magical.  Specific rules govern the universe.  It is a testament to man's intellect and curiosity that we have uncovered the workings of many of these rules.  That we can use these laws and work within their boundaries to innovate new tools is extraordinary, and, yes, magical.  (Let us ignore for the moment that modern technology progresses through the lens of capitalism... That sort of eats into the fun)

I love a good magic trick, but the fun is in trying to determine how it was done.  We devalue good engineering when we completely ignore how it works.  We can still look at a GPS satellite system with wonder when we understand the basic processes behind its functionality.

In movies about time travel, when high-tech equipment is brought back to the past, the people in the earlier time frame regard it as magic or witchcraft or something extra-terrestrial.  As the rate of technological progress increases, a similar thing occurs in reality, but without the time travel.  Our busy lives take precedence, and we stop asking how our tools work - we just accept them.  It is in our best interest as individuals and members of society to keep learning about our tools and to encourage our children to do the same.


Mitch said...

Years ago (1980's?) I read a "My Turn" piece in Newsweek, penned by an executive at Morton-Thiokol, maker of the space shuttle's SRB motors. He was urging scientists and engineers to become more involved in public policy decisions, particularly in matters of technology. Without informed opinions to guide the policymakers, decisions get made on the basis of the loudest voices, which aren't necessarily the best informed.

You've taken a slightly different tack, by suggesting that we might benefit from efforts to inform the populace-at-large on matters of technology. I would argue we've already gone as far as we really can in that direction. There are virtually infinite resources available at the click of a mouse for anyone who wants to learn about these things; the only reasons for a person to remain uninformed on the important issues of the day are inertia and anti-intellectualism, and the only way around those things would be mandatory post-secondary education, which isn't likely to happen any time soon.

It's probably easier (if only slightly so) to encourage engineers and scientists - people who have dedicated years of their lives to acquiring and honing the analytical skills necessary to understand complicated technical issues - to speak intelligently on these matters, to try to provide policymakers with solid info on which policies will best serve the interests of the nation and the world going forward.

The Engineer said...

Mitch, thanks for the comment. I agree that fewer lawyers and more scientists/engineers as policymakers would result in a more balanced and thoughtful decision-making team.

I would hate, however, to think that we have reached the pinnacle of science literacy.

True, there are countless resources available, but the internet is not a very interactive place. This battle to promote interest in science must take place with the under 20 crowd. I agree that adults have made up their minds one way or the other about science. I want to devote my efforts towards this younger demographic.

Policymakers ought to be well informed, but we must not underestimate the value of public opinion.