Technology is magic


“The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth. However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation. On such a theme one can be brief only by omission and simplification. Omission and simplification help us to understand - but help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted” ― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

You’re home late after a grueling day at the office. The light of the sun has given way to the orange common of street light. No one wanders the streets except those few young souls for whom the night is when their soul comes alive. You envy them their energy, and would wish them a good time tonight were your mind not entirely enveloped by the hunger consuming your thoughts. You need to eat something, immediately. Your stomach commands you. You drop your backpack near the entrance and rush towards the kitchen. You’re too tired to make dinner, and too hungry to be choosy about what to eat. If there’s something, anything, that looks even remotely edible that’ll be the dinner for tonight. You open the refrigerator door, and praise the gods and all the luck they shower upon you, there’s some chilli con carne left over, your favorite. Saliva floods your mouth as you grab the container and pour the earthly brown sludge on a plate with some leftover rice. You splash both with copious amounts of hot sauce.

You’re about to dive in when a pang of guilt hits you. You have nothing against eating cold food, and you’re certainly hungry enough to send all decorum to hell, but the microwave is right there in front of you, staring at you, judging you for the slob you’re about to show you are if you do not heat your almost frozen food.

You pull the silver door of the microwave open in resignation, and put the plate inside. You close the door and push the button enough times for the microwave to make your food sizzle in its own heat. The light turns on; the plate begins to spin. With nothing to do now but wait, the heaviness of your eyelids starts making itself felt. It too wants its voice heard in the court of your mind. Images of your bed, with you in it, flash through your mind. To sleep and to eat, those are the two directives that now rule your actions, all the complexity of what it means to be a human being simplified into a binary choice.

You’re standing in front of the microwave with your forehead glued to the tempered glass of the microwave watching as little pockets of steam start bubbling towards the surface of the chilli’s sauce. You can almost feel the heat coming out of the food.

Beep… beep… beep…

The light turns off, and the microwave’s shrill announcement wakes you out from your sleepy stupor. That’s when it hits you:

You’ve just seen magic happen.

It is possible that sleepiness has begun taking its toll on your mental capacities, yet there’s this overwhelming feeling that indeed it was magic what you’ve just witnessed. What else would you call it? You open the door and pick the plate up. It is hot to the touch. You bring it over to the dinner table and gingerly guide a fork filled with food into your mouth. You have to be careful about it, blowing on it lest it scorch your tongue.

Not five minutes before it was almost solid from the cold.

You grabbed a plastic container out of the refrigerator, placed the food into a silver machine, and watched as with time it became hot without once you seeing anything happen to it. You were starting at it, it was right in front of you. Nothing touched it, it just sat there, slowly spinning first to one side and then the other, repeating that pattern until the beep beep sound announcing that the magician had just left the stage. What else could this be but a nifty magic trick, not unlike when a magician pulls a rabbit from the top hat without anyone noticing how it got it there?

Now, you’re a smart person. You know it’s not literally magic that’s heated your food. It was the waves, the electromagnetic waves that did the trick. But that’s hardly a better explanation for what happened. What are electromagnetic waves but another name for magic. Even so, notwithstanding the semantic trick of it, you know how it all is supposed to work. Your student days might be long behind you but you can still recall the basics of how a microwave works. You can almost see it in your mind’s eye, the way the electromagnetic field forces the polarized water molecules to align with it, just as a paper boat aligns with the river current driving it forward. When the field changes direction, so too do the water molecules, and in your mental world you watch as billions and billions of tiny molecules are forced out of their frozen slumber and begin moving furiously and bumping into each other in energetic collisions releasing heat. Thus is your food heated, in a fiery mosh pit of molecules.

This mental model pleases you. You revel in what it reveals about your mastery of the natural world, the adeptness with which you can grasp what to others might well have been actual magic. You are the illuminated being who sees behind the veil.

And yet this magnanimous feeling is quickly shattered into a million pieces.

How does the microwave generate these waves? You have no idea. What even is an electromagnetic wave in the first place? Mental white noise answers your question. What does it mean to say that the electromagnetic field changes direction? How does that happen? These, and many other questions, flood into your mind and leave you stumped. You could, with some effort, give some tentative answers to some of them, but they do not satisfy you. You know your answers to be wrong, that you’re grasping at straws.

You have no idea what you’re talking about, and thus you’re left standing at the dinner table, looking at your cooling food in a state of transfixed stupor, the illusion of understanding having peeled away to reveal the extent of your ignorance. You look at the chairs around you and imagine them filled with your many friends. You imagine them asking you the questions you just asked yourself, and that mental picture of being at a loss for words returns. Were they to ask, you wouldn’t be able to explain to them what happens the moment you push the button until your food comes out the other side with curls of steam rising from within. I mean, not really. You could tell them the pretty story you’ve just told yourself, of waves and polar molecules, of furious clashes and hot food, but so too could a parrot. And at least the parrot would be far more entertaining to listen to.

The parrot would also not confuse his parroting with an actual understanding of the world. Whereas the parrot doesn’t imbue the words he mouths off with any sort relation with the world which they supposedly refer to, you mistake the real world for the words and concepts you use.

The parrot says the sky is blue, but he doesn’t mean it. It would just as happily say “the elephant is pink”. When you say “a microwave works using dielectric heating”, you think that says something that’s true about the world, that those words contain the world within them. Your explanation of waves, changes in direction, and heat are taken to be full explanations of reality, when in fact they have but tenuous connection with what actually happens when you turn the microwave on.

It is in these moments of wonder that the veil is lifted and you see through the other side, when you come to terms with the sparseness of your mental models, the heuristical nature of them which gives them their usefulness but which ultimately prevents them from being actually true.

The microwave is magic. You press the button, something happens, and the food comes out hot. What else can what happens between those two things be but magic?

You’re shocked at the realization and look around with this newfound insight. You spare a glance at your refrigerator, at the oven, which uses natural gas from the other side of the world, to your computer, that marvelously complex piece of technology. You have no idea of how any of it works. You press some buttons, do the motions you’ve always done, and things magically happen.

It’s all around us, magic. We’ve just taken to calling it by another name: Technology.

This age of science and technology we currently find ourselves living through shows that it is possible to conquer the natural world. It is impossible to deny that we are, if not masters at shaping the world, then something not that far from it. The eponymous example of this is the atomic bomb, and the breathtaking potential of destruction that was unleashed by its development. Anyone who wishes to deny the grasp we have on the world has to explain how it could be that we came up with a way to obliterate ourselves out of existence. This could be the very threshold above which you are able to tell an alien species has mastered reality, when it has created technology advanced enough to destroy the world .

Thousands of years ago, our club wielding ancestors mastered fire and used it to drive off the predators lurking in the shadows. Today, our houses are wired up with electricity, and we obliterate the night with a flick of the switch. Disease and pestilence swamped the land, so we invented medical research, trained doctors, built hospitals, and now the dice of Nature are ever so slightly loaded in our favor. We travel faster than sound, thousands of meters up in the air in a cylindrical sheet of metal, and that barely registers as the monumental achievement that it is. For many of us, it’s just another Tuesday!

What else can the laptop I am writing this piece with be but a manifestation of our mastery of the physical realm? Within it is housed a microprocessor made of billions of nanoscopic transistors directing electrons from one place to another. The not entirely metaphorical beating heart of the machine. I use it everyday. I use it so much that it is almost an extension of my own person, as important an organ as my arms and liver are. The laptop with which I write these words is as much a component of my cognition as my brain is, no matter how much I might intuitively feel that thinking happens solely in the brain.

It also happens to be the case that I have no clue how any of it works.

It’s not that, just as with the microwave, I can’t come up with a neat story about it. I could certainly spin quite a fireside tale about motherboards, graphics cards, chipsets, and random access memories. To scare the fascinated younglings who circle the bonfire, I might even sprinkle in some scary monsters. I could tell them of shaders, ALUs, and non-uniform memory access cores. Yet that tale would be a facade, a mask behind which I hide away from the knowledge that there’s but a flimsy thread connecting the words I utter with the world they purport to be about. Were one of the children around me to muster enough courage to ask me to explain what a ALU is, my story would crumble, and they would laugh me out as the snake charmer I am.

Even more egregious than with the microwave, the model my mind holds about how a computer works is barely concordant with what is actually happening. My understanding is a balloon, and the question is the stray branch that punctures it.

It’s worse than that. My mental model is not sparse because I haven’t applied myself to understanding the inner workings of my laptop. The sparseness is inherent in the nature of mental models. Were we to take into account the full set of possible models about the computer which our mind is capable of holding, even the best model, as measured with how concordant it is with the real world, would be terribly incomplete. It can’t but not be. There will always be a gap between what we’re able to grasp and how the world actually is. The world is too complex for that to not be the case.

A computer is a highly complex piece of technology. For any specific component I single out there are hundreds, even thousands, of highly intelligent people whose job it is to devote the bulk of their mental capacity to understanding how that single component works, and a computer is made out of thousands of such components. Even within the limited confines of a single component, say, a graphics card, not a single one of the hundreds of engineers whose sole focus is that component has a complete understanding of what makes it work. Even a graphics card is too complex to grasp.

In 2002, researchers Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil asked a number of Yale graduate students whether they understood how a set of objects and phenomena worked. For example, shown a crossbow, they were asked to rate on a 7-point scale how well they understood what made it work.

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Having rated their understanding, they were required to write a detailed description of how the crossbow actually works.

Previously they only had to provide an off-the-cuff rating based on a feeling of how well they thought they knew how a crossbow works, but now they had to follow through on that feeling. And like many a student who, when faced with an exam, discovers he knows much less than he had led himself to believe, when push came to shove, the participants came to terms with the full extent of their ignorance. They picked up the pen, eager to write a detailed explanation, but when the pen hit the blank sheet of paper, the words failed to flow. It was then that it dawned on them: ‘Hey, wait a minute, just how exactly does a crossbow work?”

Rozenblit and Keil dubbed this finding the illusion of explanatory depth.

Not only did the participants lack a detailed understanding of how things actually worked, but they were also unaware of just how sparse that understanding was. They were metacognitively blind to the limits of their understanding, as unaware of their ignorance as you are of the edge of your eyesight. The confidence the participants exhibited in their ratings was buoyed by this blindness.

The illusion of explanatory depth is then the combination of two features of our cognition: a poor understanding of the physical processes that surrounds us - the microwave, for example, or the computer - and the inability to peek behind the veil of conscious experience to cognize about the properties of what’s going through our minds.

What comes out from this is that the shallow models of the world we come up with and use are confused for models with a depthness that rivals the depths of reality itself. If we don’t know our models can be wrong, that means they must be right. And if they’re right, then like a mosquito captured in amber, we hold a piece of the world in our mind.

The incompleteness of everyday theories, as Rozenblit and Keil put it, are taken to be complete theories, or at the very least more complete than they have any right to be given the size of the chasm between their shallowness and the depth of what they purport to represent.

The extent to which we are held hostages to the illusion of explanatory knowledge can be quite amusing.

I think I can be safe in assuming you don’t think you have a full understanding of how the world, a computer, and perhaps even a microwave works, but what if I told you don’t understand how a bicycle works. Would you think me wrong?

You don’t understand how a bicycle works.

I know you think you do, but you actually don’t.

Don’t believe me? Draw one, right now.

If your drawing skills stagnated at the level of a 3rd grader, write a detailed description of all of its components and how they come together to make a bicycle. No expenses spared, give it your best.

When psychologist Rebecca Lawson asked her participants to draw a bicycle, the results were depressingly hilarious:

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Just look at those drawings, they’re hilarious. Imagine telling someone, in the serious and somber tone of academic research, to draw a bicycle to the best of their abilities, no holds barred, and after half an hour of intense concentration putting pen to paper, people turn in these. You couldn’t help but giggle.

Yet notwithstanding the poor draftsmanship skills exhibited by the participants, their drawings reveal a severe deficit in their understanding of the mechanics of a bicycle. An alien engineer using these drawings as a blueprint would never be able to join the other kids at the park with the bicycle he built with his own four tentacles.

Though It is tempting for me to begin listing what exactly is wrong with these drawings and what they would have to be like to accurately represent a bicycle, there is a catch: I also don’t know how a bicycle works.

That’s the depressing aspect of Lawson’s study.

Even as ubiquitous a technology as a bicycle is complex enough for us to not have a fully accurate understanding of it. My drawing would frustrate the alien engineer just as much as the others did. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time around bicycles - in Lawson’s study experts made less errors in this study, though they weren’t perfect - then the model you hold about what makes a bicycle work is not detailed enough for it to accurately represent an actual bicycle. There is always a gap, and even in situations you’d think that gap to be small to non-existent, it can still be surprisingly large.

As Lawson notes, it “is striking … that so many people have virtually no knowledge of how bicycles function,” and because of the illusion of explanatory depth, these people don’t understand just how shallow their understanding is.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but for some reason I don’t think he meant a bicycle when he wrote that.

If the world is an ocean, then we’re swimming in ankle-deep water. There’s a depthness to reality that the shallowness of our mental models are unable to contain, let alone comprehend. We make due with sparse, heuristical, models, though it seems we’ve managed perfectly fine nonetheless. It’s not even clear that the alternative of being able to represent the world in its fullest extent would be that helpful.

Picture this. One day, hundreds of thousands of years ago, an ancestor of ours was wandering the land. The sun was pinned high in the sky, but there were clouds hiding it from view, and a pleasant wind blew that made short work of what heat there was. This ancestor of ours always had an adventurous streak to him, so he decided to make use of this atypically cool weather to explore a set of ravines not far from where his tribe had recently settled in. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, or whether he was looking for something at all, but this unexpected break from the scorching heat made him want to embrace the world around him, to explore crevisses never before explored. Of course, the unknown can be dangerous, deadly even, and so to mitigate these dangers our ancestor held a spear in his right hand, a spear which he felt confident in his ability to use and actualize the violence for which it had been crafted.

He had just finished that thought when a twig snapped. He stopped and expanded his mind beyond the confines of his own head to envelop the totality of this ravine, a ravine that from one moment to the other had suddenly become claustrophobic. He was too exposed, an easy prey. How many were there? Were they to his left, or to his right? He heard the birds twittering their songs, the trees rustling with the wind. He heard the lion growl.

Slowly, he craned his head and looked up to his right. The sun was no longer hidden behind the clouds, as if it wanted to have a front row seat to what was about to occur. Our ancestor stared at the piercing eyes of the lion, hungry eyes they were, the eyes of a predator. The lion was standing on top of a rocky outcrop, a sliver of saliva hanging from the right side of its mouth. Our ancestor was shifting into position to face the lion when the lion jumped. With the spear in his hand, he…

… made a note of the lion’s initial position, decomposing the distance between them into both a horizontal and vertical component which he fed into a calculation of the parabolic trajectory the lion was about to follow, which given the average jumping distance of a typical adult lion, and the angle with which it had jumped, if we account for air drag - the wind was against the lion - means that If he is to skewer the lion he should place the spear right around …

He died.

Completely specified models of the world are not required to survive. Having come face to face with this lion, the only thing this unlucky ancestor of ours needed to do was to raise his spear and point the sharp end of the stick in the general direction of the lion, and do so fast. As long as he survives, whether he does so based on instinct or deep knowledge of the world is irrelevant. Results are what matter, not the method they are arrived upon. And if instinct is enough to get good results, why develop the ability to acquire and store deep knowledge of the world?

Look at the bicycle example. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on bicycles every day to go to and from work, to shop for groceries or enjoy the newly risen spring sun. Yet, as Lawson’s study showed, very few people have an accurate understanding of how a bicycle actually works - and they’re not the worst for it!

Standard accounts of the role of rationality and reason in the advent of our technological age make it seem as if the shallowness of our understanding, and the requisite illusion which makes us believe this shallowness to be deep, is a bug in our cognitive apparatus, something that needs fixing, a failure on our part.

Are we not the ones who are supposed to be rational?

Out of the hundreds of thousands of animal species that live and have lived on this Earth, we’re the ones who are able to split the atom. We’ve put people on the Moon! We can open the corpse of a recently deceased person and transplant this unemployed heart to another body to take over the job of a heart that is no longer able to get the job done. And now you’re telling me we can’t even understand how a bloody bicycle works? That a bicycle is so complex a piece of technology that both you and me haven’t been able to wrap our heads around it?

I don’t know whether to laugh at the absurdity of it, or be impressed - and terrified - at what our species has nonetheless managed to accomplish despite these limitations.

The incompleteness of our understanding evidenced by the illusion of explanatory depth and the bicycle example puts a dent on whatever sense of superiority we might have about the religious and supernatural basis through which people in the past made sense of the world around them. We might live in more technologically advanced times, what with all our hospitals, skyscrapers and supersonic airplanes, but grab a handful of people from every era in our history and you’d find that we all make extensive use of our ability to concoct stories to carve the world into pebbles small enough for our primitive minds to handle.

Magic may not, strictly speaking, exist, but we can’t help but think it, or something like it does. Indeed magic was all around us not too long ago.

Writing in Elizabethan England, Robert Burton noted in his Anatomy of Melancholy that “sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind”.

The year is 1612, and your daughter is bedridden, coughing uncontrollably, unable to fight the violent spasms which force nasty phlegm out of her lungs. Her forehead is hot to the touch, and nothing you do brings her temperature down. She is the jewel of your eyes, the one thing in your life you can point to and be proud of without reservations. After losing your beloved wife in childbirth, your daughter is the single tether that keeps you connected with this world. You do not want to lose her. You wouldn’t be able to bear the pain of losing someone you love so much once more. Thankfully, you know just who to call for help in these desperate moments.

Clevus was already the village wizard when you settled there with your beautiful wife, decades ago, and even though old age is starting to weigh on him, his sagacity shows no signs of having waned. You call for him, plead for his help. You promise him your meagre fortune, should he be able to purge your darling daughter from what afflicts her, but Clevus is happy to freely dispense with his experience battling the evils of this world to someone who has suffered so much in such short a time. You take him to your daughter, and he dutifully begins his examination. After what seems an eternity, he approaches you.

“Little Annie’s body has been taken over by a fairy, one of them evil spirits.”

You hold your breath.

“Thankfully, I know how to expunge this fairy out of her and bring her back to good health.”

Elation. Hope. Salvation. You will not lose your daughter.

The details of how Clevus ended up curing Annie are not terribly relevant. Any description, no matter how detailed and systematic, would be rightfully seen as nonsense. Not a single person living in 17th century England had any understanding of what a pneumonia is, and so their folk medicinal toolbox was nothing but a hodgepodge of prejudices which would have a marginal effect on whether Annie survives or dies - unless Clevus chooses to bleed her dry to get rid of her bad humours, in which case the treatment will certainly have been worse than the disease.

It is easy for us to look at what people did in the past and chuckle at their ignorance. We have advanced far beyond their rudimentary superstitions, after all, we don’t believe you can cure a toothache by writing three times

Jesus Christ for mercy sake

Take away this toothache

And then repeat it out loud whilst burning the paper on which it was written.

Today, anyone who believed this had any effect on what happened to their rotten tooth would verily be laughed at for not choosing to instead go to their local dentist Clevus - who by eerily coincidence looks similar to a 17th century English portrayal of the great wizard Clevus the Wise.

We’d laugh, but do we, who do not think that writing a few lines on a piece of paper can cure a toothache, have a better idea of what is actually causing the pain, and what we’d have to do to cure it? Going to the dentist is surely more effective than calling the local village wizard, but that just means we’re outsourcing the task of figuring out this piece of reality. The underlying lack of accurate knowledge of the world has not been solved. While we may not hold an incorrect model of what can help cure toothache, we have not substituted it by a more correct one. We’ve just become more adept letting other people do the dirty work of figuring things out for us. By which measure can we then compare ourselves to the wailing father who believes he is about to lose his daughter and think we are superior?

Our cognitive apparatuses - and their requisite limitations and potential - are not so different that we can think of ourselves as having attained a higher rung in the ladder of rationality. Just as the fictional father wholeheartedly believed Clevus when the wizard diagnosed his daughter’s ailment as caused by evil fairies, so too do we believe we understand how a bicycle works. Were we to trade places with the fictional father we’d believe in fairies just as much, as would he be dumbfounded by a bicycle were he to have to write down a detailed description of what makes it work.

Perhaps the reason we dread when children ask why things are the way they are is because it forces us to come to terms how little we know. It brings us to their level, both ourselves and the child overwhelmed with how little sense we can make of the world that surrounds us.

How can you laugh at Clevus for believing that fairies are real and make you ill when you believe in similar fairy tales about bicycles and microwaves?

The only difference between ourselves and Clevus is that we can believe in our make-belief stories with impunity. It doesn’t affect our ability to ride a bike to not know how it functions. So long as there are hundreds of smart engineers somewhere else in the world making sure the microwave which we use so nonchalantly does what we expect it to do, our ignorance of its inner workings is irrelevant. So long as the economical and cultural underpinnings of our current society continue to allocate a large enough quantity of brainpower to come up with solutions to the many problems left standing, solutions which are then packaged in such a way that we can use them to solve our own problems, the ignorance of how they were found and why they work is beside the point. I do not need to understand the physical and logistical details that are entailed by the development of each new generation of computer chips to make use of them. That’s not the black box I’ve decided to invest my efforts in understanding, and my effectiveness in the world is not dependent on that knowledge.

We have mastered the natural world to the extent that we have not because we have evolved and become superior to our magic-believing ancestors, but because we have stumbled upon a superior cultural arrangement that enables us to do so, despite all our limitations and make-belief stories. We can build atomic bombs, travel on supersonic airplanes, type on mindboggingly complex computers, because thousands of people got together to work on producing their infinitesimal contributions, to come up with their own piece of the puzzle. The genius of our species isn’t that we can each solve the puzzle, it’s that we can come together to add up the pieces.

Where does that leave you and me?

It leaves us with the magical microwave, with a world whose folds and shapes are beyond our grasp, with the insurmountable chasm between the shallowness of our cognition and the depth of reality. And It is in that chasm where magic happens, because no matter how wide the chasm, we continue to make sense of it, we continue to want to wrap it in such a way that we can feel that we have a handle on the world that surrounds us. It’s not that the world itself is magical, it is not, but that we cannot but think of it in magical terms.

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Technology is magic - July 3, 2020 - João Eira