Wednesday, March 8, 2017

So complex that I treat it as magic

I have been doing a lot of research lately on complexity in modern life, the nature of complexity and its impact on how people function and live their lives.

This article, The Return of Magic by Richard Fernandez, introduces an interesting perspective.
Any sufficiently advanced technology, as Arthur C. Clarke once observed, is indistinguishable from magic.

Too many everyday things are already indistinguishable from magic to the average man. Four centuries ago everyone knew how everything in their village worked. Even a hundred years ago an intelligent person could figure out anything he would likely encounter, even the steam locomotive. But today people are surrounded by things about whose workings they haven't a clue. Medical devices, synthetic pharmaceuticals, designer pathogens. The proportion of those who can explain the world is gradually shrinking.

Cell phones, robots, mesh nets, remote imaging, data mining, stealth, invisible lethal chemicals, and contagious diseases exist cheek by jowl with ox-drawn carts, subsistence agriculture, illiteracy, and fanaticism around Mosul and in other global cities. You hear the chants in the video. "Let the missile hit the tank. Let the missile hit the tank." Epistemologically they are found objects like the Palantir or mithril coat described in The Lord of the Rings, things made in the deeps of time by wizards still rumored to exist, some say in America, Europe, or Asia for the wizards are so few in proportion to the planetary billions that most people will never meet one personally.
Reminds me of an old British TV series from 1970, Catweazle.
The series featured Geoffrey Bayldon as the title character, an eccentric 11th century wizard who accidentally (by total immersion in water) travels through time to the year 1969 and befriends a young red-headed boy, Edward Bennett, nicknamed 'Carrot' (Robin Davies), who spends most of the rest of the series attempting to hide Catweazle from his father (played by Charles 'Bud' Tingwell) and farmhand Sam (played by Neil McCarthy). Meanwhile, Catweazle searches for a way to return to his own time whilst hiding out in 'Castle Saburac', a disused water tower, with his familiar, a toad called Touchwood.


Catweazle mistakes all modern technology for powerful magic, (an example of Clarke's third law), particularly 'elec-trickery' (electricity) and the 'telling bone' (telephone).
Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can see Catweazle's exposure to the sun in a bottle (light bulb) in this scene from the first episode: just after the one minute mark.

I have been looking at complex systems that are acknowledged to be complex: the economy, education, crime, careers, climate, etc. We know these are complex systems and know to be skeptical of our incomplete knowledge.

Fernandez introduces a different idea: what happens when we class a complex system into the heuristic of "magic." And more critically, what happens when that becomes a habit. Yes, a smartphone is complex. It probably makes sense to not try and do intricate mechanical repair on a smartphone. But what about your car? What about the plumbing in your home? What about electrical wiring? Yes, all are complex to different degrees but some are more accessible than others. What happens if we become complacent about simply lumping too many systems into the "too complex/magic" box?

Is the complexity of modern systems/processes so daunting that we are at risk of a regression into the magical thinking of the past? Listening to campus protesters and, indeed, to "'ists" in general (alarmists, warmists, feminists, socialists, etc.), there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that there is a common regression away from critical thinking and into magical thinking.

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