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By Jack Ganssle

Magic is Back.

Published 5/22/2003

The teenagers on the subway were engrossed in their cell phone games. When I asked if they knew how the phone works, I was met with sullen shrugs. One said "who cares, it just does."

Perhaps the two centuries before 2000 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. 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 no distinction between liberal arts and the sciences. Scientists were called "natural philosophers" and the educated man (sadly, that largely excluded women) was expected to have some knowledge of every discipline.

But now it seems there's an increasing gulf between technologists/scientists and the rest of the population, especially in the USA. The newspapers post a constant stream of stories about how math and science scores continue to plummet. There's a culture in this county that glorifies ignorance. Nerds - us - are the social misfits, tormented in school, paid as mere handymen to crank out a product. TV shows about lawyers, politicians, and doctors abound; movies like "Dumb and Dumber" glorify the stupid. When was the last time you saw a program staring - or even mentioning - an engineer?

Ignorance was once something to be ashamed of. The history of the great melting pot of the USA was that of poor immigrants devoting their lives to bettering their children's futures. Parents scrimped to get their children the best possible education. Now it seems schools are not creating truly educated people. They crank out highly specialized individuals tuned to be cogs in the great financial machine of the Western world. Perhaps the universities simply respond to demands from corporations, who ask for "units who can do X". But the world is much too interconnected for an accountant to know nothing of physics, or an EE to be ungrounded in the basics of biology.

Many years ago I became the legal guardian of a 17 year old whose mother could no longer care for her. Stunned by a National Geographic survey that suggested most high school kids know little about where things are, I tested her on a map - one that was completely labeled. She could not find the Pacific Ocean. She thought Africa was somewhere near Maryland. That jibed well with the study, and started the poor girl in an intensive ad hoc geography program run by yours truly. She works in Europe now, and knows exactly where she is!

We've built a highly-technological civilization that few non-techies understand. The VCR sucks in a tape and displays video. It's magic. How many people understand the fabulous intricacy of the head's helical scan? Or the clever encoding that supports both ancient technology black and white reception and color? The modern car baffles all but the most highly trained "service engineers". 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.

I'd never suggest that everyone must master physics, biology and engineering. But we must have a basic understanding of these fields and many others. The intricately interwoven structure of the modern world demands that we train a generation of Renaissance People who have at least a sense of the science and technology that will underlie solutions to society's largest problems.

And we techies must master the liberal arts: politics, philosophy, psychology and more. Big solutions to big problems need a marriage of both science and humanistic approaches. 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? How will privacy be affected by the proliferation of traffic cameras? In lieu of a technically literate populous, decisions will be left to politicians whose technical knowledge is limited or nonexistent, and whose views are formed by fund-raising rather than by social conscience. If every citizen doesn't make an effort to become technically and socially literate, these decisions will be made in the absence of the diverse input that is so important to a pluralistic society.

Magic is back. People are accepting the darkness, and are cowed by the technology they choose not to understand. How can we beat back the forces of ignorance?