Saturday, March 19, 2011

How does that work, Daddy?

When I was a little kid (before about three quarters of people now living were born, in other words), technology was macroscopic. I could ask my father how something worked, and most of the time he could answer with what, in retrospect, was reasonable accuracy. (I could ask my mother, but her answer was consistently “Ask your father.”)

The reason he was able to do this is that an observant person could see how something worked. If you stood and watched a machine for a while, you could figure out its theory of operation. You could, if you pondered a bit, see why a particular piece was shaped the way it was. A tour guide in a factory could point to some part of the operation and explain, so a six-year-old could understand, what was happening.

This is no longer the case.
Yesterday, UPS delivered a new camera my wife had ordered. Because she plans to use it to take short movies for her next DVD, she also ordered a spare memory card. Now the camera—a high-definition model—is about the size of a pack of playing cards. The spare memory card is small enough that a spy might swallow it to avoid its discovery. And while this particular card holds 8 gigabytes of data, for a little more money the same size card could hold 32 gigabytes (256 gigabits).

There is nothing in either of these devices that the average dad can explain to the average six-year-old. Yes, I’m sure Wikipedia has articles that explain the technologies and even provide schematic diagrams. But I defy you to visualize—in a way that reflects the reality of how it’s done—how 256 billion bits of information are stored on that memory card or how a factory can produce such a device as reliably and cheaply as it does.

The same can be said for much modern technology. I know how a rotary telephone dial works. I’m okay with a Touch-Tone keypad. But my Droid does things I would not want to have to explain. (Do you really know how GPS navigation works or do you just sort of wave your hands and say plausible-sounding things about satellites whizzing around and the general theory of relativity?)

Now I say this as someone who started programming in numeric machine language in 1962 and who minored in physics and who is familiar with modern programming languages as well. It’s not that I don’t know how to make a computer do what I want it to. But that’s different from satisfying the need to see parts moving in visible space, making things.

In the natural world, we’ve gone from distinguishing organisms by their appearance and criminals by their fingerprints to distinguishing both groups by their DNA—a molecule whose structure was unknown when I was born.

Every generation faces the struggle to keep up with a changing world.
And every generation looks back at the changes it has seen. My grandparents were born before automobiles or electric lights were invented and they lived to see men walk on the moon.

I’ve heard pundits pontificate about the changes my Boomer generation has witnessed. We grew up with television and were shaped by it. Computers have moved from the periphery to the center of our lives. The Internet has truly changed the way society functions. Social media are enabling whole populations to liberate themselves. Yada yada. All of that may be true. But I think the biggest change in the way we human organisms interact with the world—what has perhaps pushed us further from our cousins in the animal kingdom rather than closer to them—is this shift from seeing the world as filled with things we can see and touch to seeing the world as filled with technology so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C. Clarke put it.

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