Technology and magic (Part 2)

By | February 24, 2014

In the previous post on this topic, I observed that a large portion of our interactions with technology, particularly information technology, takes the form of magic. That is, we know how to perform certain actions on the machine that result in consequences we want, although we haven’t really much idea about how those consequences are achieved. Even the experienced IT professional may not really understand all that’s going on. Even the programmers who built a particular piece of software are unlikely to understand all its details.

This is more or less inevitable when the technologies we use are sufficiently complicated and interactive that they need to be assembled in strange places by strange people. We learn how to use these complex tools such as iPhones either by being taught by someone else what buttons to push or by a trial-and-error process of pushing various buttons and seeing what happens. Either way, we’re essentially learning spells that make the box work.

The technology in question doesn’t even have to be all that complex. A hammer and nail aren’t particularly complex technological objects (although some fairly complex technology may be involved in producing these items), but if you’ve never used a hammer to pound a nail, the speed with which a trained carpenter can put one away without bending it can seem pretty magical. It’s certainly a skill that can be learned, and learning it reduces the element of magic. You begin to understand how to hold the hammer and the nail, how to aim and swing the hammer, and the appropriate degree of force to apply. All the working parts of the technology are visible to you and can be understood both individually and in combination. Congratulations; you’ve just mastered the big new technology available in 50,000 BP.

Fast forward to today. Very few of the technologies that we use are either visible or understandable. So we’re all pretty much thrown back on magical interactions with our world. Things happen all around us that we don’t understand. If we’re lucky, our spells work most of the time; if not, then we look around for the nearest wizard to help us make our spells work. Almost always, the wizard doesn’t understand the whole lot more about the technology than you do, but s/he’s probably been casting spells longer than you have and knows a bunch of spells that you don’t.

Anyone can be a wizard. Back in the early 90s, some students and I carried out a survey about helping relationships related to office technology. Among other things, we found that most of the help that people sought and received came from other people in their own office or just down the hall, rather than from the formally designated help sources. It was the local wizards who tended to contact help when necessary, not the everyday naïve user. We also found that help tended to be reciprocal; people helped those who had helped them. Wizardry does tend to be relatively specific and focused; people tend to know a lot about a little. There are some general-purpose wizards, but not a lot.

So what’s the problem? As long as we keep performing working spells, does it really matter that we don’t understand the underlying technology? The answer is that at the level of the individual, it really doesn’t matter. It’s OK to perform magic that works for you, Just keep learning new spells, keep your wand handy, and try not to utter too many curses.

But it does matter at the level of the organization and the society. We have put together an enormously complex technological edifice. It has allowed us unprecedented advantages, resulting in human beings now being found in virtually every square kilometer of the planet. And we live generally pretty well, with the aid of our tools. But – and this is a great Big BUT – this edifice is fundamentally unstable and extremely fragile.

There are literally a thousand different ways in which our society could be brought to its knees – if you doubt it, you haven’t been watching the Discovery Channel nearly enough. Even leaving aside the asteroid strike and the Yellowstone supervolcano, breakdowns almost anywhere are likely to have widely distributed consequences, and in turn be passed on in a chain of other consequences. We are so interconnected that disaster anywhere can quickly become disaster everywhere. And once the whole thing goes down, it’s not coming back up quickly, if at all. There isn’t any master who understands it all and can pull the necessary strings to make things work again. Where are the Illuminati when we really need them?

So the bottom line is that we are living in a magical glass castle, where wand waving and spells work. But there are enough folks out there with pretty big rocks, and it’s by no means certain that the whole castle won’t shatter one day soon. Be sure that you understand how a hammer works on that day!


  • Jonathan Freeman

    Seems to me that what you’re discussing in Part 2 is the concept of
    resilience and claiming, without much analysis, that the technologies of
    modern societies have little. This is directly counter to what is
    being said by those involved in national security where for instance it
    is claimed that the US national security strategy is not to rely on the
    prevention of attacks, (cyber and otherwise), on the country but rather
    to accept that such are inevitable but to ensure therefore that the
    system has the resilience to be able to recover from such attacks
    relatively quickly.

    Given that your and their positions are diametrically opposed, and
    that this is a well-recognized issue in security circles I think there’s
    a fair bit more research you’d need to do both of theory and practice
    to support the position your positing.

    • JD Eveland

      “Resilience” is a complicated thing. The “national security experts”
      are concentrating their attention on core national security factors, and
      they may be right that the system can absorb significant body blows and
      arise again. But getting the Army up and running again is by no means
      equivalent to restoring society. All things considered, the 9/11 attack
      (whoever perpetrated it) directly affected only a small piece of a small
      part of the country, and a very small number of casualties relative to
      any other significant conflict. But it still cost trillions of dollars
      to put things back together, even if we discount the costs of the two
      useless and tragic wars that resulted, disrupted American society and
      behavior for a decade, threw the world into a prolonged recession, and
      arguably has led to the effective elimination of significant
      constitutional protections and laid the groundwork for an American
      police state. That may look like resilience to a national security
      expert, but to me it looks like the terrorists (whoever they are)
      achieved everything they could have wanted, and more, in terms of
      inflicting damage on American and global society. A little more
      “resilience” like that, and we might as well admit that the Zombie
      Apocalypse has come, and we lost it. If a thermonuclear device detonated
      high over Iowa takes out virtually every unshielded electronic device
      in the country, how much difference is it going to make that national
      security communications were shielded and remain intact? The economy
      will collapse, and the roughly 80% of Americans who live in cities will
      be without food within five days and water within ten days. What sort of
      a society will we pull out of that rubble?

      I stand by my predictions of fragility. It’s important to look at
      society as a whole, not just some systems within it. If I’m without food
      and water and electricity up here on my hillside, it’s not going to
      help much that the Army units down in the city can maintain secure