I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m writing this post on a computer. No, that’s not the secret. The secret is, I really have no idea how it does what it does. I know that when I press a key on my keyboard, a letter appears on the screen. And it’s always the right letter, unless I pressed the wrong key.
I roll the trackball around with my thumb and the pointer zips across the screen. I know there are sensors that detect the reflections of the laser lights shining on the trackball to reveal its movement, and somehow, what they detect gets translated into commands to move the pointer. But how?
My smartphone takes still and video pictures, helps me keep track of my expenses, tells me the time and the outside temperature wherever I happen to be, sends and receives e-mail, plays music and video. It even makes phone calls! OK, I know the phone is actually a two-way radio that (sometimes ) exchanges signals with antennas on a tower a few miles away, and those signals get turned into a phone call, or internet messages, or e-mails, or whatever. But how?
I know that the klystron tube in my microwave oven sends radio waves with micron (millionths of a meter) wavelengths into my food, where the water molecules absorb them, get all excited, and heat up the food. But how does it do that?
My car has an electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection, and several computers in it. I pretty much understand the basics of how an internal combustion engine works, but when mine stops working, can I fix it? HA. I’m mechanically reclined, not inclined.
I have an 8-day cuckoo clock. Doesn’t have a bit of electronics in it, it’s all mechanical. Do I know how it works, how the chimes and music box “know” when to chime or play? Not really.
We’re all like this, right? We’re surrounded by machinery big and small that we use every day, yet in many cases we have not the foggiest idea how it really works. Oh, sure, we can operate it, we know how to push the right buttons or turn the right knobs in the right order to (usually) get it to do what it’s supposed to do. But do we know how it does what it does?
No Luddites Allowed
People “of a certain age” hearken back to “the good old days” when they understood how machinery worked. I have friends who pine for the day when they could fix the cars they drove. Or they could fix a toaster that went on the fritz. Or they wish they could go back to a typewriter. But did they know how that toaster toasted or that typewriter smacked bits of type against the ribbon?
Since the dawn of the mechanical age, we’ve used things that worked but we didn’t know how they worked. I can argue that most of the folks who walked behind a plow being pulled by a couple of sturdy horses didn’t actually know how the blade split the earth. They just knew that it did, and that was good enough.
Need to Know
Truth is, we don’t need to know how something works most of the time. We don’t need to know how the computer does its magic, or the microwave, or the phone, or the car, or even the cuckoo clock. We learn how to make it work the way we want it to—most of the time, anyway—how to operate it, in other words, and get on with our lives.
Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To those who didn’t grow up with it, anyway.
There’s “magic” all around us every day and we don’t think a thing of it. We press a button, touch a screen, flip a switch, turn a knob, move a lever, and something happens. Most of the time it’s what we wanted and expected, and we’re happy.
It’s a magical world.