Technology is not magic

The online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary tells me that magic is “the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.”

The dictionary also tells me that technology is “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area: engineering.”

To observe all those happy owners of iPhones, iPads, iPods, and various other toasters that “just work,” one has to wonder if we have finally elevated technology, and those who practice it, firmly into the realm of the magical. After all, given the fact that it is nearly impossible to open one of these devices up and peer at the internal workings, they could just as well be on the order of enchanted rocks and such. And, by inference, those who create the enchanted rocks and make them work must also be on the order of mages and others who deal with the mystical.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that when we elevate technology to the realm of the impossible, we not only begin to expect the impossible in return, but demand it. Yet, although technology may sometimes appear magical, it is not magic, nor are those who make it work in any way magical or practitioners of arcane wizardry or witchcraft. Although they may wear odd clothes or otherwise adorn their bodies as such, they are not alchemists; nor possessing of any special ability to make things appear out of thin air; nor are the results of their craftwork endowed with the ability to exist outside the laws of physics or “exert supernatural power over natural forces.” They are merely talented specialists who have an aptitude to use the “practical application of knowledge” to make things that do stuff, or fix the things that other specialists have made. They are no more possessing of fairy dust or fairy knowledge than any other highly trained gear head.

Especially insidious, though, is when we become lured to the idea that our technology magi can somehow transfer their aptitude for creating objects of wonder to the skills required for solving the rest of our problems. After all, we tend to give technology folks a lot of leeway because they inhabit a field that requires a fair amount of conceptual intelligence. But, at the end of the day, they are just people who, like the rest of us, happen to be endowed with an above-average amount of just one or more of the traits we identify as human: smarter than the average hairless monkey, perhaps, but not so smart that they can conceive of all things. Thus, the solutions they produce are just as likely to be as one sided, and in adherence to whatever special skill set they have, as anything we ourselves are likely to produce.

Which may explain the fundamental dichotomy between our obsession with technology to solve what ills us, and our disenchantment when it fails to live up to our expectations. Much like our ancestors became disappointed when their shiny gems, mysterious potions, and arcane incantations failed to ward off evil or otherwise work as advertised, so are we disappointed when our shiny, high tech “gems” fail to speak when they are supposed to, help us ward off some evil event, or otherwise work as advertised. But, ultimately, a pretty rock is just a pretty rock, arcane incantations are just another form of techno-speak, an iPhone is just a means to convey a message, and the solutions to most of our problems lie simply where they always have, inside of each and every one of us: waiting for us to discover them, without magic, but by plain old sweat and inspiration.

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