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Magic? The Choice is Ours


This philosophical article, published in March, 1990 in Electronic Engineering Times, explores the common man's apparent lack of interest in the technology that is so quickly reshaping all of our lives. If you disagree with the thoughts expressed... well, send us some e-mail and start a debate.

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By Jack Ganssle

Magic is back.

Perhaps the period from about 1770 to 1970 will someday be recognized as a brief flare of enlightenment before the dark days returned. During the industrial revolution wonderful new inventions were produced and utterly revolutionary theories postulated. Great ideas changed the nature of society from an subsistence agrarian culture to a highly centralized machine-based economy utterly new to this planet. A great belief in determinism arose; there was no problem that wouldn't be conquered by a the combination of hard work and the application of Newton's laws. The veil of mystery surrounding the nature of the universe was momentarily lifted, giving even the common man a peek at the workings of the cosmos. Few theories were so obtuse their outlines couldn't be understood by the average citizen. Intellectuals made little distinction between liberal arts and the sciences; the educated man was expected to have some knowledge of every discipline.

While scientists were making tremendous discoveries the great engineers devised astonishing new creations. "Roebling to build a bridge across the East River!" the dailies proclaimed. "Brunnel launching the Great Western" others announced. The purely mechanical technology of the times could be understood by all. Progress was being made and the nation as a whole approved of it.

Compare those stories to the features in today's newspapers. President Bush's remarks to the winners of the Westinghouse Science contest, a yearly competition that finds the brightest and most creative teenage science students, were published nationwide. The President admitted with a smile that he could not understand even the titles of the students' experiments.

Ignorance was once something to be ashamed of. Parents scrimped to get their children the best possible education. Now, in this age of scientific wonders, the President of the greatest technological society of all time almost seems to condone scientific illiteracy. This attitude is codified by articles such as the recent review of Edison's papers in the Times: "Today we tend to be ambivalent about technology".

Who cares? Everyone knows that science is just too complicated and too demanding for the average man to master. Let the techies worry about the details; as lawyers and managers we'll profit from trading the stocks of the companies they start, or as part of the country's service economy we'll get rich selling them hamburgers.

In the evenings these lawyers and burgermasters plug the latest ultraviolent Rambo movie into the VCR. The tape goes in and a picture appears on the TV. Magic. How many people understand the fabulous intricacy of the head's helical scanning? Or the clever encoding that supports both ancient technology black and white reception with color?

The modern car baffles all but the most highly trained "service engineers". In only a decade fuel injection, electronic timing, and even computer-controlled suspensions have made the shadetree mechanic as extinct as the dinosaur. You turn the key and it goes. Magic.

A maxim of science fiction literature is that any technology sufficiently beyond one's comprehension appears to be magic. Although long used in connection with the sudden appearance of aliens, I think it now pertains to the late twentieth century society. The relatively few techno-literates can misquote Pogo: "we have met the aliens, and they are us".

Newscasters concentrate on the sensational aspects of ultimately insignificant political trivia and ignore the real crisis. Schools are just not producing educated people. Worse, schools don't seem to encourage the sense of wonder and curiosity that is essential to a lifelong commitment to maintaining one's education. The world changes much too quickly to stand still; my grandfather grew up with horse and buggy technology, my father with air travel, and I with space flight. What will the world be like when my two year-old son is a man? He'll be prepared for it only if he understands what makes things tick, if he learns how to learn, and if he can keep the innate sense of wonder all children are born with.

While teachers insist they are above competency testing their classes are filled with seventeen-year olds who don't know if 87% of 10 is greater or less than 10. Fifteen-year-olds can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map. Most rely on electronic crutches to add and subtract. The statistics are so appalling as to be unbelievable.

But as we all know, teachers don't need competency testing.

Many people rationalize technical illiteracy by reciting what is becoming the mantra of the masses: "science has become so specialized that you need to be an expert in each very narrow discipline to understand what is going on". This is complete nonsense. Increasing knowledge has been accompanied by a plethora of well-written popular science books that are thought provoking, eminently readable, and far more entertaining than any sitcom. Science has never been more accessible.

Indeed, increasing specialization is a trait of our times, but it creates a balancing need for increasing diversity. Although the traditional sciences still follow a course of Descartian reductionism, a new sort of generalism is evolving. Whole new fields that attempt to tie together vastly different subjects have been born. As James Lovelock noted, Ecology is nothing more than the study of the relationships between the sciences, man, and the environment. Ecology transcends any one science or discipline. It is a science, a political system (note the Green party in Germany), and often even a way of life. Intelligent decisions about any aspect of this multifaceted discipline can be made only with at least some basic knowledge of all of its components.

Ecology is perhaps only the most visible tip of a revolution in science. Chaos theory, discovered by mathematicians, seems to underlie much of the nature of the universe. The hotly debated metaphysical concept of Gaia involves biologists, chemists, atmospheric scientists, philosophers and ministers. The recent cold fusion experiments were conducted by chemists, not the traditional physicists. No field of science is independent from any other; no science is independent from the world, and in today's fast changing society, no person is independent from any science.

The vast breadth and intricately interwoven structure of modern science demands that we train a generation of Renaissance Men - those who understand the science and technology that will be called upon to solve society's largest problems, yet who see the whole picture including social, political, and human issues.

Who will make the great decisions in the future? Will nanotechnology research be restricted? Is genetic engineering to be allowed in your backyard? What will we do about toxic waste? If Pons and Fleischman are proven to be correct, when and how will we deploy fusion technology? In lieu of a technically literate populous, decisions will be left to politicians whose technical knowledge is limited or nonexistent, and whose views sometimes seem more a product of third-party lobbying efforts than social conscience. If every citizen doesn't make an effort to become technically literate, these decisions will be made in the absence of the diverse input that is so important to a pluralistic society.

Like Camelot, these days may be an aberration in the flow of human history; a bright spot in the wilderness, a temporary reversal of entropy's relentless onslaught. In two hundred years of relative enlightenment the human race progressed from the iron age to the atomic era. Will the next two centuries see a plunge back into the dark ages? Sometimes it seems we're already seeing a Canticle for Lebowitz- like rejection of technology. While newscasters with little more than good looks for credentials try to convince viewers that technology is "taking over", those of us working in the field know that the average man is losing control of the world by abdication. Knowledge is indeed power; will we control the technology or be controlled by it?

Magic is back. Today's children will know a world we can't even imagine. They'll be prepared for it only if they're encouraged to think, to learn, and if their natural curiosity and sense of wonder is carefully nurtured. The schools are apparently ineffective; parents must become personally, intimately involved in their children's education. Two centuries ago children were educated at home. Parents who care will perhaps send their children to school to satisfy the letter of the law, but will return to the ancient system of home instruction as a defensive measure against institutionalized day care masquerading as education.