On Technology

David Blaine’s Street Magic TV shows are truly entertaining to watch.  What’s most fun is watching the reactions of people he engages.  He brings them in close to watch.  They stare carefully, knowing he’s going to mess with them.  But he’s so adept at pulling off his illusions that they can’t distinguish between what they think they see and how he’s actually done it.  They go nuts, like he’s altered the laws of the universe.

If you search around, you’ll see dozens of videos exposing how he does his tricks.  It’s kind of funny really.  Seems like some people have an attitude about it, as if he actually claimed to be doing real magic.  Of course, that would be hogwash, and he makes no such claim.  Maybe some people have to prove it to themselves to make themselves feel smart.  Me… I couldn’t care less.  Of course it is a trick! If you figure it out, good for you.  I hope you have fun with that.  But what’s most fun to me is his inventiveness coming up with these awesome illusions and his skill at performing them so seamlessly.  He’s a true artist, not an also ran who can simply reproduce it.  I appreciate him for what we really aims to do: entertain.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)

Today’s tech often seems larger than life.  Like no age before us, our technology is advancing by huge leaps and bounds.  It’s all at once wonderful and disorienting.  This week, we even saw a computer play the game show Jeopardy and beat champion human opponents.  It brings to mind Sci-Fi legends.  How long before the machines start designing themselves?  How long after that before they advance beyond us? (Cue eerie music!)

We invent all kinds of ideas about where technology will lead us, impress human traits on it as if it were alive, and give absurd credit to what’s already been accomplished, speculating on what may come.  It’s good to make an effort to distinguish between what we imagine about it and reality.  No matter how far we advance, technology is not God.  Sometimes I think we are a little too impressed with where we are.

As the Beatles put it:

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It’s easy.

There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you
In time – It’s easy.”

from “All You Need Is Love”

Technology is not magic.  It’s just powerful, like the electricity that drives it.  And (whispering aside) I don’t think we are substantially more brilliant than our ancestors in recorded history either.  We’re still just people trying to deal with life.  Our advantage is having their history to build on and power tools.  And the product of that is access to information and an ability to work together towards common goals like never before. It extends our reach further than anyone could have fathomed in ages past.

Yet, someone did:

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:1-9

Whether or not you believe this event really happened, there’s no disputing that it was written thousands of years ago.  It’s one of the earliest writings known.  The account, written by Moses, says these events occurred near the beginning of human history.  The point of its telling is that God ordered mankind not to settle and form large cities, but to spread out across the earth.  Instead, they had a different plan in mind.  Seeing their disobedience and prophesying it’s outcome, God chose to slow mankind down a bit in its pursuit of self-glorification.

(Many believe the rapid expansion of technology in our time and the overcoming of these limitations is a sign that things are nearing the end.  Some point to Daniel 12:4 as a relevant prophesy.  Personally, I withhold judgment on whether or not that is a valid interpretation of what scripture says.)

The events recorded across millennia in scripture are quite revealing.  I am often blown away by how similar the feelings and struggles of ancient writers living in disparate times are to my own.  They seem pretty intelligent to me; and honest.  It’s humbling.  It’s a big part of why I believe scripture really is God’s word.

Scripture is also quite honest about the ignorance of ancient peoples, whom it continually calls out for worshiping carved idols and many other superstitious and foolish practices.  Frankly, I’d say even that is similar to our age.  Though modern acts of stupidity may be quite different, who could argue that they are less prolific?

So my thinking, as one heavily involved with developing technologies on a continuing basis, is that through it all we are the same human beings trying to make sense of what’s in front of us.  While the complexity of modern systems is gargantuan, in the end what enables us to distinguish between magic and reality is very much a process of simplification.

From the discovery of atoms, we’ve identified and named 115 elements that form all matter we know.  It gives us a whole new picture to work from.  We not only see the forest, we see the trees.  We see the leaves.  We see the cells of the leaves.  We just keep breaking down the problems that were once beyond our capacity to understand into consumable morsels.

“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth” – attributed to Archimedes, referring to the principle of the lever

With all our advancements, people are apparently too wise for God now.  In truth, that’s not new either.  People who are wise in their own eyes have always rejected submission to faith as a prerequisite for knowing God.  They want to build their own towers.  The spiritual world is indistinguishable to them from magic.  But perhaps even they can consider for a moment how technology advances and put some practical thought into their spiritual lives.  It would take just the slightest inkling of humility and patiently seeking, just like learning a new technology.  But who wants to do that?  …We’re all experts now.

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