lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Technology and magic

Arthur C Clarke postulated three laws:

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he almost certainly is right. 2) When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I agree with the first two, but I have issues with the famous third.

It can be argued then that any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. But any technology, however insufficiently advanced, is magic to a person who doesn't understand it. I feel technology has advanced sufficiently enough to be magic to most of us.

(Ponder Stibbons, the only sensible wizard on the Discworld where magic not only works but is in the very fabric of the universe, muses that any magic sufficiently advanced is technology.)

Consider our lives. When we flip a switch and turn lights on do we really know what happens? We know that the lights come on, certainly. But do we know how that miracle occurs? Do we understand what goes into making that daily miracle happen?

How many of us know how electricity is harnessed and stored and traded as a commodity and gets delivered to us at a price? We know enough to realise a bulb must have blown when the lights don't come on. Some of us know enough magic to change the bulb and make light again. But who knows the complete process from manufacture, storage, delivery and consumption?

Basically we are incanting a spell when we flip that switch: let there be light. Or breeze, or a magic lantern show via the miracle of television. Do any of us even think about how these magical things are achieved?

What do you do when your bed-side clock dies on you? You change the battery and if still acts up, you give up and take it to the shop you bought it from if it is still under warranty, or to your friendly neighbourhood watch-repair man.

Other than changing batteries, what do we know about how things work? Turning the idiot-box on with the remote, filling a washing machine and pressing controls, loading a microwave oven with stuff to re-heat... Isn't it all a bit like saying abracadabra? We don't really comprehend how these gadgets work but we are so dependent on them, all the same.

Do you wonder what makes an elevator work when you are riding one? Doesn't that make you nervous?

If I were planning a terrorist move, me, I'd kidnap all technicians and engineers rather than blow up places of worship. But hey that is my take, not a recipe for successful terrorism.

In their excellent novels about alien invasions and natural disasters, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle explore the consequences of our dependence on electricity and our methods of procuring it; they explore how a world that suddenly lost all its industrial capabilities will cope. Footfall deals with the aliens geo-engineering our climate to suit their needs before we can fight back. Lucifer's Hammer deals with the all too possible scenario of a comet strike and what the aftermath would be if power plants die, weather patterns change, governments collapse, if experts and technicians become extinct and nobody knows how anything works. Stephen King too, explored the issue in his mega novel The Stand.

If we lost our industrial capabilities in one go, our society would be just a couple of days away from becoming a mob and reverting to isolated groups suspicious of outsiders.

Just think a bit about this.

We are so dependent on things we don't even bother to understand. Refrigerators, television sets, microwave ovens, computers, cell-phones... Like the stickers on some gadgets used to say, none of these have any user serviceable parts. Good grief, we wouldn't even know how to get to the innards of these things, let alone fix them. We live in tall apartment towers that would be death traps if there was a disaster. Which among us can imagine functioning without a phone, a computer and an internet connection? How would we communicate, or amuse ourselves?

Technology has made our instant gratification lifestyle possible. But as it keeps evolving and forging ahead, technology has already become magic to most of us, making the only people who understand and can manipulate it the shamans and wizards, the new elite of this century.

Do you know how to make fire? Can you survive without mass-produced things? Will you be able to live off the land and take care of yourself if the world reverted to, say, the civilisation levels of a couple of centuries ago? Technology has become magic already, Sir Arthur.



Blogger Rohan said...

Yeah. There are quite a few stuff, which we see/use and go? "Wow! That works like magic". But thats also because, thats the way ITS SUPPOSED TO BE. Otherwise only someone with a degree in Automobile engineering would be granted a license to drive a car.

We interact with technology, and technolgy with itself...via well defined interfaces. Thats how you create abstraction. Or else everybody would have to know everything!

You interact only with the control panel of your microwave oven. The buttons you press interact with transducers.

The transducers convert mechanical energy (press of a button) to electric current. The small electric current is then multiplied.

The multiplied electric current, triggers a megatron. Which in turn produces microwaves, which in the end is responsible for heating the food.

My whole point being, any average to complex device needs components from various streams of technology - A microwave oven for example requires the coming together of mechanics, electrics, electronics, electromagnetism. And for most parts the diverse technolgies interact with each other over well defined interfaces, so - the guy who built the megatron need not even know whats inside the control panel and vice versa.

So if you sum, all of these technologies - the people who manufacture them, the people who design them, the people who test them, the people who integrate them, the people who maintan them - that would constitute half the world!!!

Its the seamless coming together of these abstract, self contained worlds of technolgy, which gives us that sense of MAGIC!!

5:08 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

That's what I was trying to say: that technologies require such rarified and almost esoteric knowledge that only a very few of us can understand what happens when as I used in my example, we flip a switch; that technology is already indistinguishable from magic.

Of course, we have a rough idea of how things work. The technologically inclined among us. Not everybody thinks about the nitty gritty of it. Or worries about the collapse of civilisation and what would happen then. :D

Good to see you here again, Rohan.

5:54 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

I was hoping for the next instalment of the Lali meets K saga. But this is interesting.

Rohan's point is well made, but the specializations are creating a new elite. Those who know how things work, and can fix them. That is what you are trying to say.

6:05 pm  
Anonymous swati-the-muggle said...

er, we are better than mere magicians.

remember how hard hermione had to search in the library to unearth nichoas flammel.

hah! we have google.

(it does not matter, really does not matter that its users are abso clueless about its workings)

no wonder arthur weasley was forever trying to understand electricity and how planes stay up.
to him, we muggles were way-ahead-of-MAGIC.

1:08 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh. Um. I suppose that' what I was trying to say.

Swati. You are right. We use Google but not many of us could even begin to articulate how it produces those search results. Nice example.

8:07 am  
Blogger Speech is Golden said...

Interesting viewpoint. Quite frankly I never bothered to think of it that way, taking for granted all our technological advances. I can't imagine a life without computers and e-mails yet i happily survived without them (not ten years ago) as did my dad and his dad and his dad. Evolution. I am not so sure. Maybe we should all be pushing carts with square wheels.


P.S. With your permission I am blogrolling you

1:42 pm  
Anonymous Badari Narayanan said...

May 25, 2006
The magic of technology seems ok as long as it is with inanimate things. Playing around with genetics, atleast as of now seems a dangerous game. We now have much improved varieties of tomatoes, snake gourd, yam etc. At the same time, there are complaints that lots of indegenous varieties of bananas are being lost because of growing hybrid varieties. Recently a news report claimed that some sheep died after eating genetically modified (GM) cotton. We should not end up creating monsters. In this regard, it is certainly necessary for everyone of us to atleast partially understand technology. Ignorance is not bliss.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Thank you, Ram.

Square wheels might well qualify for indistinguishable from magic category.:D

Badari, you are right. Genetics is where we ought to tread very very cautiously, but we are rushing headlong. Somehow the new improved varieties don't measure up to the made by natural selection over millennia varieties, either.

4:54 pm  
Blogger Speech is Golden said...

Just the other day I was in my French class and my teacher asked me wat I did (and I don't know French that well). Anywayz she wrote it for me Genie Aeronatique (with some accents here and there). Engineering = Genie = from Aladdin's lamp = Magic. Are you making the connection???

11:06 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Really? You are pulling my leg, right?

11:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something like this has been going through my mind for a while but you being you, Matilda, has put the thoughts down so lucidly!!!

I was just thinking, sitting on my favourite chair, I could just pick up my phone and have all my work done. Right from ordering a can of Pepsi from the corner grocery to having my credit crad payment done, or ordewr food from my favourite restaurant. Thats one part of the technological magic. There are others and the mind boggles.

Wish things were more simpler. At least you could have had an outing while doing your shopping for the week!!!

7:54 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anon- yes, cobber. There is that. Interaction goes out of the window when things get so impersonal and remote. The human touch is lost.

8:33 pm  
Blogger Alien said...

ho ho...

A months absence and people have all this reading stuff stacked up ... I think it will take time to cover up with all that you wrote since then...

Nice post.. and this comment also finds its way on ur page through magic!!

6:17 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Alien- ET, exactly! Like magic. I was wondering why you had gone away. Welcome back.

8:16 pm  

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