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Tag Archives: The Martian

Tech Voodoo Redux

 

I’m struck lately by the contradiction between the technological profusion of our society and our preoccupation with magic, paranormal, fantasy and the occult. As we rely on fruits of the scientific method such as self-driving cars and genetic engineering to solve our problems (of not knowing how to drive and not knowing how to stay healthy), we seem equally obsessed with an opposite mode of thinking and behaving.

The disconnect is especially evident in television, movies and the web. For every example like Apollo 13 and The Martian that celebrates the virtues of empirical thinking and technological ingenuity, five or six seem to promote a view of the world decidedly inconsistent with the scientific method and standard (that is, arguably Western) logic. A partial list includes:

Books:

  • The Da Vinci Code
  • Harry Potter
  • The Secret

Films and Television:

See above, and –

  • Lucifer
  • The Magicians
  • Underworld
  • The Vampire Diaries
  • The Walking Dead

Gaming

  • Dungeons & Dragons (which originated as a board game in the 1970s and has since gone online)
  • Final Fantasy
  • Magic, the Gathering
  • Myst

Examples like The Secret and (to some extent The Da Vinci Code ) cross the line into magical thinking ‘belief systems’ which I have touched on  here and here.

There’s more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat:  A linear, empirical mode of thinking and understanding of the world does not necessarily give us a monopoly on reality.1  And books inspired by the occult (see H.P. Lovecraft) and shows such as theTwilight Zone have been around for a long time. But the more mainstream ambivalence about technology and the scientific method may be due to our disappointment and frustration with the world these have given us (or more accurately that we have created with them). It seems suspiciously coincidental that all the commercial hype over vampires and zombies seems to date from the information technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s and the growth of the Internet hydra.2

The line between the scientific method and magic in this world has not always been so clear. Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy in between creating calculus and classic physics. Joseph Priestly, clergyman and discoverer of oxygen, pursued his Millennialist religious studies after absconding to Northumberland Pennsylvania3 at the forks of the Susquehanna, near where I grew up.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings exhibit a consistent internal logic and and science (or techne4 ) all their own — sort of literary alternate universes. Tolkien wrote of creating secondary worlds that adhere to their own laws.5

I just recently uncovered the following essay I published in 1985 titled The New Magic.

At the time I wrote it the IBM PC had debuted (followed by Apple’s IIc and Macintosh computers). Cell phones did not exist. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a toddler. Online services that preceded the World Wide Web were dominated by Compuserve, followed by Prodigy and something called the Well.6

There’s a lot we didn’t know then (including, in my case judging from the photo, how to grow a proper beard). But it goes to show that the conflation of technology and magic have a long history, something useful to keep in mind. — CDL

1 Associated with literacy and a text-based culture.

2Popularized in books like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends.

3Where he was encouraged to flee from England in 1794 due to his religious dissent and support for the French Revolution

4Related to craft or art.

5See On Fairy Stories

6Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which still exists, bless its anachronistic heart

Cost-Benefit

I have mentioned David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology1 previously. Recent films like The Martian celebrate human ingenuity and our ability to prevail as individuals and as a species.

On the other hand, if we need any more ways to put our brains on hold and excuse ourselves from the burden of thinking and interacting with others, Google, Facebook and other companies are pouring enormous amounts of money and talent into helping us do just that. IBM is working to debut Sherlock (modeled after a fictitious high-functioning sociopath2 and cocaine addict). Google will try to anticipate your destination, even if you have no clue. Mark Zuckerberg announced that he charged his minions in 2016 with developing an AI-based personal digital assistant to help him navigate the complex rules of human interaction. As the December 31 NYT article about a wearable device called MyMe put it —

‘One of the most interesting potential applications will be MyMe’s ability to generate a “word cloud” from a conversation without actually recording the conversation itself. The idea is that you would be able to later gather insights to your interactions with people in a less invasive and more useful manner.’3

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, India is struggling to distribute functional toilets to its population, and in Equador, Fundacion in Terris has developed dry composting toilets. To give them credit, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the latter. Engineers without Borders (EWB), which I have just recently been introduced to in Pittsburgh, is building water systems in Ecuador.

EWB Pittsburgh Curingue Water Treatment

EWB Pittsburgh Members Discuss Water Supply Project with Residents in Curingue, Ecuador

 

Which of these are more important? We are all confronted in our lives and work with opportunities and constraints on our time, money, and attention. Every one of us has talent and ability to contribute.”4 Where do you want to put yours? Or, to paraphrase Bill, where do we want to go today? — CDL

1David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology, the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.

2Though this label has been convincingly disputed.

3An example of emotional deskilling, not to mention the notion that our uniquely human selves are commodities that can simply be reduced to an algorithm.

4Which unfortunately can be wasted in vain pursuits or taken for granted by individuals and institutions who don’t value them.

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