Magic for the Masses

“Yes, I love technology; but not as much as you, you see; but I still love technology, always and forever . . .” – Kip Dynamite

I am typing this post on a small plastic box with a shiny screen. I have no idea how the pressure of my fingers on the small squares in front of me ultimately sends my thoughts out to you, who are also looking at something plastic and shiny.

This stuff just works, and most of us use it every day with little to no knowledge of how it works. We leave it up to the wizards to design it, fix it, replace it.

Which has me wondering – how much of this is progress?

There was a time when our tools were understandable. Hand tools like chisels, hammers, and my favorite, the pen. Mechanization improved our tools, making them more powerful, but less easily understood by common users. Still, the moving parts were observable enough, and with a little demonstration and hands-on learning, a user could understand how something worked, and repair it if something went wrong.

Then came electronics, and ultimately, digital technology – which is almost completely beyond my level of understanding. Not because I lack a decent education, but because I don’t have a college degree in electrical engineering.

Now, when my smart phone or laptop has troubles, I might do a little research on repairing it myself, but if the fix involves physical work rather than changing something in the settings or some other point-and-click maneuver, I need a wizard. Slash brain surgeon.

I live and work in a world of magic. I accomplish many of my everyday tasks and a good part of my creative work using fantastically powerful and almost completely inscrutable talismanic machines.

Yet every magical device has a very physical story behind it, a story about all the hands that touched these parts before the sum of them arrived in my hands. Children’s hands in Congolese pit mines, suicidal teenagers’ hands in Chinese factories.

The Internet itself comes to us not only through the masterminding of engineers, but the hands-on labor of everyday people, as Andrew Blum reminds us here:

Most of the humans I know are born, live, and die in captivity. We don’t know how our technology works but we would not survive without it. Drop me in the wilderness alone and without a cell phone and my chances for survival are slim.

But add 50 people, still without cell phones, and my chances rise. We are smarter together (though we are also capable of doing terrible things to one another).

Extra credit reading: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7277

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for re-expanding my brain back toward the physical world, as it was before the vast internet compressed it to virtual-think! Thanks for re-sensitizing my socio-emotional senses back toward physical and (consequently) relational connections as they were before the flat-screen world shriveled them to a touch-less, digital experience.

  2. Just a couple days ago my 4 year old asked me how I can talk to my friend on the phone when there’s not a cord connecting them. I started explaining right away and then realized I had no idea how to finish my thought….no idea at all how my voice travels across space. It IS sad how much we just accept things without any thought…of little hands in pain for our convenience.
    I’m helpless. Or at least I think I am.

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