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Faith in technology

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" wrote Arthur C. Clarke. (Let's leave aside the fact that since "sufficiently" seems to mean "sufficient to make it indistinguishable from magic," the statement is tautologous and empty. Ah, it's nice to know that the years I spent in philosophy grad school have paid off in parenthetical, self-discarding asides such as this one.) Clarke was, presumably, trying to open our eyes to the wonders technology perform, something that we too often take for granted.

But there is another side to his comment. Why is advanced technology indistinguishable from magic? It's because only a relative handful of people can understand the advanced stuff; that's what makes it advanced. The rest of us are left to gaze it, awestruck and stupid. The question is whether allof our key technology is getting so advanced that we don't understand any of it. Are we giving up on understanding the technology we use everyday? And, if so, then are we living in an essentially magical world; one that is out of our control?

First, let's dispute part of what Clarke wrote. Technology occurs in a non-magical context. So, a five year old in this culture understands some of the basics about, say, television. She doesn't think there are little people in the box. She does know that "programs" come from some place, that the TV "receives" them, that everyone with a TV can watch the same programs at the same time (leaving aside special cable channels), that the TV is electrical (whatever that means), etc. Imagine bringing someone forward from the 15th century and showing them a TV; you'd get quite a different reaction, especially if you showed them anything starring Tony Danza.

Likewise, you may not know how a computer works, but you know it runs "programs," that it's doing what it's told, that it's not really thinking, that it stops if you turn it off. (Or does it? Bwahahaha!)

So, we don't confuse the technology we don't understand with magic. In fact, most of us don't confuse magic with magic; for example, we don't think David Copperfield really made the Statue of Liberty disappear (although his former relationship with Claudia Schiffer raises serious issues about his legal arrangement with Beezelbub.)

Nevertheless, as our technology gets more complex, we may not view it as magic, but we are left with a type of mythic understanding that doesn't enable us to fix what breaks or tweak what works. For example, we understand that audio CDs encode sounds and that CD players decode sounds. I'd venture that a very large percentage of people believe that CDs are like the old LPs, only made smaller and with the grooves encased in smooth plastic. So what? Well, because we don't understand the way in which the data is placed on CDs, we don't how to clean them. That is, we knew to clean LPs by moving a rag in the direction of the grooves, but we can't see the "grooves" in a CD. So, the instruction to clean a CD by starting at the center and moving outwards seems either counter-intuitive or random.

As technology advances, our relative understanding decreases, and our helplessness and confusion increases. This has always been true, leading to the rise of professions for "outsourcing" know-how (the farrier, the mason, etc.) and expertise (the VCR repair person, the veterinarian, etc.).

This will continue, of course. But the Web is changing one of the old assumptions. Expertise is not going to be concentrated solely in the hands of experts. As the simplest of devices become advanced beyond our ability to understand them, the Web itself will provide the expertise we need. The global community contains experts on every piece of technology invented. We can reach the experts and even the inventors through the open Web, we can get answers to our questions, we can learn to live with the technical spells that have us in their grip.

Advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, but the Web is providing an open source community of magicians. David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.

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