It Might as Well Be Magic
The other week I was at the Apple store with my brother, so that he could get his cracked phone screen remedied. There is a joke in the tech world about how the Apple Store, its employees, and its most loyal customers are all part of a massive cult. I always assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek pro-PC joke, but it wasn’t until I actually went to one that I began to really “get it.” It is a joke, because I’m confident that they’re not a cult, but I would say that it is definitely its own culture. Crazy. It’s like a boutique-style electronics store coupled with an Internet forum, but without the forbidding sales associates implied by the first and the lack of hygiene implied by the second. We walked in, spoke to an employee whose role most closely resembles restaurant host or concierge, and were encouraged to have a seat at the “Genius Bar” to wait for our Genius. The Genius arrived promptly and started asking questions, punching information into his iPad, presumably entering an order ticket. Not thirty seconds went by before another Genius came over and handed the first Genius a box containing a shiny, new iPhone.
No hand signals; no shouted requests or orders; no paper tickets run by lesser-Geniuses.
Ok, now, I’m not an idiot. I know how this works. I know that their iDevices are all networked and that order ticket populated in real time to their central iBrain or whatever. I know that it’s not magic. And I said that much to Jake. He looked at me, shrugged, and said, “It might as well be magic.”
I know that I go on and on in this blog about technology and how amazing it is, but the world we live in is insane. And it’s not just the new, Star Trek-y stuff that’s come about in the past couple of decades either. I recently flew out to New Jersey to spend a few days with the Scatterbrained Seminarian. I used to work at the Cleveland Airport, but I had not flown for almost a decade. Having made the (relatively simple and straightforward) puddle jump from Cleveland to Trenton and back, I have decided that human flight is basically a miracle.
Think about it: it’s a big, metal tube. It has wings, sure, and they’re big, but it never seems like they’re quite big enough to actually do anything useful. It weighs (literally) tons. Thousands of pounds of metal. And it flies.
And again, I know it’s not magic. Physics and engineering and people much smarter than I am and blah blah blah. But at the end of the day it’s a giant hunk of metal that flies. That’s to say nothing of something larger like a 747, which if you’ve never seen one up close, all the physics in the world can’t help you make sense of that thing leaving the ground at all, let alone spending hours and hours traversing the globe through the sky.
I was listening to an episode of Radiolab (my very favorite podcast — there was going to be photographic evidence below, but the photo outside of the WNYC studio was lost with my old phone — an irony, given the subject matter of this entry) called “Black Box”, in which they talk about the things about the world that we have not yet come to understand. Anesthesia, for example — it’s a thing that a human invented, but we don’t know how it works. Another example is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly — science hasn’t quite nailed that one down yet.
And yet amidst all these mysteries, some of which it seems incomprehensible that we haven’t figured out by now, we perform what, by any account, are miracles. Every day. So often that it’s just an overlooked part of the landscape by now. Oh, you’re going to Sydney? Sure, we can have you there in thirty six hours. And you want a gin and tonic and a sandwich while you’re hurtling through the sky over that giant ocean? Sure, we’ve got that, too. What would you like to watch on television?
The title of this entry was inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That idea has been the subject of more than one science fiction story (in fact it’s the subject of one that I’ve been trying to write for years…) The basic premise is that somehow, a less-advanced group of people has gotten ahold of some super-advanced piece of technology, or has come into contact with people who possess super-advanced technology. Chaos ensues, with the yokels revering the advanced race as gods, blah blah blah.
All that has more to do with point of view than anything else. When Europeans showed up in the new world with ships and guns, they probably looked magical to the natives, and when the aliens showed up to help the Egyptians build the pyramids, I’m sure they were revered as gods. But we’ve reached a breaking point where I find it difficult not to look around every now and then and notice the disparity between the world in which we evolved and the one in which we live. And that’s us. We did that. Humans are the ones who made it so that many of us are worrying more about the price of green beans at Whole Foods than whether or not we’re going to get eaten by a predatory cat while we’re out gathering berries for the village. There is, of course, good and bad to all that, but regardless of whether you think we’d be better off in small hunter-gatherer societies (I do sometimes), it’s pretty damn amazing.
My roommate was leaving our apartment the other day, and on the way out, she asked if it was supposed to rain. It just so happened that I had recently looked at the Yahoo Weather app on my phone, and so I said “Not until Tuesday.” So there you go: that’s something that actual people, in our planet’s actual history, have sacrificed livestock and prayed and cast chicken bones on the ground in order to try to find out, and I was able to get a reliable answer with a flick of my thumb and a glance at my phone. And that miracle (because it is a miracle), is one of the most commonplace acts in our society. I do it nearly every day.
One of my favorite websites, iflscience.com (only the name of the site is NSFW), publishes a post on Facebook called “This Week in Science,” which summarizes several of the major scientific breakthroughs and discoveries of the past week. I’m always fascinated to see what incomprehensible thing someone has figured out or that we’re able to do now. They’re 3D printing synthetic blood vessels. There are nanomotors that have been used to steer around inside a human cell. Scientists invented a new kind of DNA.
I know that this kind of scientific and technological advancement has many, many implications, and that not all of them are good. Caution and maturity are, of course, hugely important as we probe deeper and go farther. But still, it’s hard not to look around at the world we live in and think Wow. Just Wow.
Thank you for reading. More to follow.