Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Magical Machines

It often bothers me that people use machines and technology while having no idea how they work. Now I am not talking about knowing all the exact details on how to build a computer chip or maintain a car, but rather the basic understanding of computer and auto parts. You don't need to know how the combustion of gas in a car propels the vehicle to get from place to place, however one should. When someone doesn't know those details, I feel like they are ignorantly living.

There are two instances in my life that illustrate this point. The first is from literature. In a new book from the fantasy genre, a magical character tries to explain how magic is a tool just like technology. She argues to the protagonist that just like he doesn't know how the phone works, so too -- she doesn't know why magic works and what it does. She says something along the lines of: "you don't know how the voice is recorded by the phone and passed through the air to any location to another person whose device interprets the data..." However, I think we should know how that works. We should know about radio waves and how they are transmitted and received, we should know about cell towers and satelites, we should know about electro-magnetism and speakers, and we should know about electricity and digital storage and transmission of information. This doesn't mean we should be able to build a phone from scratch, but rather that we have a general understanding of how things work.

Another example comes from an Android commercial. The Claim: Android searches the sky and projects an image of the sky on your phone - with labels for the astronomical features. To the ignorant user, that is what the phone does - it searches the sky. However, the user should understand GPS and digital sky charts, and physics and astronomical calculations that make such programs feasible.

It is not that technology is magical, but rather there are simple techniques and devices that are used ingeniously to fulfill certain functions. For example, a CD is is just a thin string miles long that either has spot with indents or not indents that reflect a laser to send information --- 1's or 0's. Similarly, ones Hard-drive functions the same way but on a much larger scale, but slightly different. Understanding how data is stored, how cars work, how phones work, allows people to appreciate the world without the lens of ignorance.

I am not saying that we need to be able to understand things to the point of perfect detail, but rather we should learn things as much as possible and appreciate the brilliance behind the technology which we possess. Its often not to hard to grasp. Websites like www.howthingswork.com are great resources.  Take a peek and open your eyes...

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