AutoMagically

How do things that we think of as magic become technology? When does the mysticism of the old become the reliability of the new. And if I don’t know how a mobile telephone actually works… don’t I believe in magic too? Arthur C. Clarke once said: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

I really like technology, gadgets and the like. I don’t always have the newest and latest thing, but I do like to get the word out when I find something that is actually really good. And as part of my fascination in this area I tend to know quite a lot about how the thing actually works. Not necessarily the nuts and bolts, but at a conceptual level I have an idea of how a thing works.

But like most people I don’t say things like “well I can’t have this in my house unless I know how it works”. I don’t have to have a working knowledge of something before I will be willing to let it in the house. Some things I know a lot about, some not much.

For example I could explain to you at length how a Microwave oven works, but I don’t really know much about how a mobile phone works other than it uses microwaves to send a signal somewhere. Realisation about things like this come to you from time to time. The other month I was a passenger in a car in England talking to a person on a mobile phone who was in America and who was able to tell better than I was what the traffic situation was a mile up the road because they were looking on the internet for that information and relaying it to me over the phone. The oddness of this situation occurred to me instantly. And I realised that I didn’t really understand how all of the things connecting me to this information actually work. I had a bout of what I refer to as “Automagic Shock”. A moment of realisation that what I’m doing could just as well be magic, and yet every single bit of it is explainable, somebody does know how all of the separate bits of this thing work, I just have faith that they do.

I wonder if the situation is exacerbated by me knowing some of how it works? In that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I wonder if people that I know who claim to hate technology ever get such a feeling?

The other day I got a call from a friend who said, “I’m really sorry but I just had to ask for your help with my computer – I just really hate technology”. Obviously it didn’t occur to them that they were using technology to make the telephone call. That they used sophisticated technology in their car, mobile phone, washing machine and so on every day without any problems at all. Because these technologies have achieved that great feat of stopping from being a nebulous bit of technology and have succeeded in becoming a thing in their own right. Computers are slowly but surely trying to move that way, but the problem for a computer is that it is specifically designed to not be proscriptive. The proscriptive “word processors” and “adding machines” were not versatile enough, but while computers have taken the trade-off to become more versatile what they are effectively doing is allowing the computer to surprise us. But the fact that the computer can surprise is both good and bad, it means that somebody can show us a new program like “Google Earth” which makes you really go “Wow” my old computer can do that! But it also means that your computer can surprise you by saying to you “Stack Error Memory Dump”.

I think that’s the difference between technology and devices. Even though my new phone doesn’t just make telephone calls it cannot surprise me because on the very first day I got it I knew all of the things it could do: take calls, photos, send e-mail, browse the internet. I might not have used all of those features on day one, but I’m not going to suddenly get a surprise in a while by discovering that the thing can make toast.

And I think that’s the difference, we’re more likely to get automagic shock from a device then a bit of technology because it slips in under the radar without us asking how it actually works.

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