Sunday, August 8, 2010

More Interesting Than It Seems: Arthur C. Clarke

I want to try out a new idea for a shorter kind of post this afternoon (thanks to the somewhat alarming amount of work I need to do between now and August 15th, when I am unceremoniously booted out of my apartment).  The idea is to take a famous or semi-famous quotation - or, hey, maybe a really obscure one - and to talk about why it might be a little more interesting than it seems at first blush.  Of course, a great many famous quotations are actually quite a bit less interesting than they seem, but we'll try to dodge those for the most part.

What makes a quotation "more interesting" than it seems is largely subjective, but that's part of the point.  By the time a famous quotation becomes famous, it has undergone various permutations in context, intonation, and sometimes even diction and syntax to the point that it might not have anything in particular to do with the actual thoughts of the speaker of that quotation.  Add to that the sine qua non of famous quotations - that they almost uniformly come from famous people - and it's no wonder famous quotations are easily abused.

So let's begin our own abuse with one of my favorite quotations from Arthur C. Clarke:* "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

*That until just recently I mistakenly thought this quotation was Isaac Asimov's just goes to show how easily and often unwittingly manipulated these things are.

On the surface, this is a wonderful, if somewhat obvious, thing for a science fiction author to say.  There is certainly something fantastical about the way we interact with science fiction stories, and for the most part we're not apt to hold the author's feet to the fire when he or she describes the technologies that make the setting possible.  Star Trek fans would not get far if they needed a scientifically plausible explanation for the transporter, holodeck, or warp drive.  Fortunately for us, those technologies are sufficiently advanced that they are like magic, and understanding is not important.

What makes the quotation more interesting, however, upon closer inspection is that it contains within it a bit of a cautionary tone.* While Coram and I were working on our Master's Project, one of the students we talked to described his own laboratory experience as being "like magic," and this quotation jumped to my mind.  Magic may be fanciful and fun, but it can also be a dangerous stand-in for "lack of understanding."

*Or, at least, we can read a cautionary tone into it.
I think the word "magic" isn't the real locus of interest, though.  Rather, "sufficiently advanced" is what really counts.  What, exactly, qualifies as "sufficiently advanced."  What is advanced to me or you is obviously different than what would be advanced to our great grandparents, or to the ancient Greeks.  But I cannot help but feel that, even for us, there's a certain magic that goes into most of the technology we use on a day to day basis.  Sure, there are people who understand cars, people who understand computers, people who understand WiFi, people who understand cellphones, people who understand microwaves, and people who understand the electric watch, but there are very very few people indeed for whom at least one of those things is not, in a very real sense, magic.

It's easy to point to authority and say, "ah yes, well, I may not know how a toaster works, but the electrician next door does."  The problem is, that's very much what Clarke means by magic.  The toaster, even, is sufficiently advanced that we need to call in the local sorcerer to fix it when it goes wrong.  And, like magic, it has the power to make yummy food or to burn your house down.

I'm being somewhat facetious, but not entirely.  I think, especially from an educational perspective, Clarke's quotation serves to remind us that it's not necessarily a good idea to encourage students to be satisfied with merely calling the local witch-doctor to fix their plumbing.  That's not to say we shouldn't employ plumbers, but that we shouldn't simply take for granted that all of this technology we have around us all the time just is.  Ultimately, what I'm talking about is two different attitudes towards science (and, subsequently, technology): one is skeptical, empirical, and practical, and the other is dogmatic.

A healthy attitude towards science acknowledges that, hey, we can't all build microwaves, and therefore while it's hardly foolish to use one, it's probably worth spending a little time at least curious about how the darn thing functions.  An unhealthy one says, "I don't care, I just want my Instant Ramen."  Silly example, sure, but I'll bet you don't have to think that hard to come up with a much more dangerous one.  Dogmatic faith in science and the technology it produces is dangerous, after all, because technology is a powerful magic.

1 comment:

  1. Huh, I thought that was in the Foundation series too. There is one quote I remember that goes something like "the difference between religion and technology is that technology actually works" which I always liked.

    In related news, I've heard that Roland Emmerich director of Godzilla, Independence Day, Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and other worthless films is going to direct a Foundation movie. It's too bad because handled well they could be really good. Emmerich will turn then into action movies rather than the character vignettes they originally were.