An enchanted world

- Technology as magic

2021-05-11

You do not touch an unknown switch on a computer without knowing what it does, because you might crash the computer. The switch was labeled in a most unhelpful way. It had two positions, and scrawled in pencil on the metal switch body were the words’ magic ‘and’ more magic ‘. The switch was in the ’more magic’ position. - A Story About ‘Magic’, Hacker Folklore

In short, there is a double binding between computing and magic. On one hand, computing is the epitome of rationality but on the other hand, the effects of computing most of the time appear as being magical.

And why shouldn’t technology appear like magic? In a sense we live in an enchanted world; wherever our gaze turns we see gadgets that we use to conjure effects and control our environment. We don’t fully grasp this technology, it just works. ‘Knowing’ that technology deep down has a rational ‘essence’ involves a leap of faith considering that not even specialists claim to fully understand all details of an advanced device.

The relation between computing and magic was strong in the early days of programming. I don’t know if there is an explicit link, but it’s fascinating to note that the early hacker culture seems to echo Sherlock Holmes explaining to Dr. Watson that a skilled detective can perform conclusions about people and their actions “as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid” and,

So startling would his results appear to the uninitiated that until they learned the processes by which he had arrived at them, they might well consider him as a necromancer.

Anyone who does not understand the underlying chain of deductions would thus live in a reality where specialists’ insights are so fundamentally different from one’s own abilities that the specialists‘ powers appear to be pure magic. A thought that Arthur C. Clarke pursues by claiming that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

And if so, what does it say about modern reality?

Interestingly, the link programmer-wizard is part of the self-image of the early hacker culture in which the programmer gains almost supernatural powers through his or her dominance over the computer. The notion of the programmer as a magician gets a canonical explanation in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs by Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman in which they point out that,

A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer’s idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of ma er at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer’s spells.

Of course, Abelson and Sussman do not think that the processes running on the computer would in any way be lack a rational basis, that the processes are mysterious. But they believe that hardware and software are so complex that even a specialist must give up the belief that he or she could penetrate this complexity in its entirety.

The quoted passage should rather be taken as a playful expression of a heuristic aiming to release cognitive energy by treating unknown processes as pure magic, viewing a body of code as incantations available to exercise control over the computing process. And in this specific situation, it doesn’t matter much how the whole or the individual processes work behind the scenes.

The programmer can do things the uninitiated would think of as magic; the programmer can force the spirit in the machine to follow his or her commandments. It’s hard to find a more striking image of how myth and enlightenment are woven together in modern reality.

In another of the cult books of the early programming culture, The Jargon File, in which Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is called The Wizard Book, “wizardly” in many ways makes the connection to the introduction of this text obvious,

wizardly: adj. Pertaining to wizards. A wizardly feature is one that only a wizard could understand or use properly.

In The Jargon File, what position a hacker-wizard is considered to have shines through in the description of a so-called “Wizard mode”: A special access mode of a program or system, usually password-protected, that permits some users godlike privileges” and a wizard a person that has internalized a set of technologies to the extent that these have become part of one’s identity. A programmer is not a profession; a programmer is something you are.

Considering this view it’s perhaps not strange that the early hacker culture with dry humor regarded “the ultimate goal of all engineering & development [to realize] Clarke’s Third Law”.

It seems that the more the world is enchanted and the stronger the processes we use to master it grows, the more fundamentally incomprehensible becomes the hard, technical core of the world. The foremost symbol of rationality - the modern computer with its applications - may have a rational basis, but its complexity is of such a nature that the leading specialists admit themselves incapable of understanding otherwise than fragments of this complexity.

Based on this, it is almost like every new version number in the totality of applications being distributed on the whole constitutes a kind of approximate index of how much the more incomprehensible world has become since yesterday. Perhaps, in any case, there is a deeper truth than one first thinks in Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea that man “ever since Copernicus rolled out from the center towards X”?

The fact that it is possible to question the version numbers’ claim for progress does not mean that it is reasonable to question that the applications are becoming increasingly complex. And even if this progress in some special cases are possible to question or even dismiss, it is hardly possible to question that the applications - the sum of all the applications, a kind of diffuse totality - for every year at a furious pace exercise ever-increasing domination of the world. But for every step forward, one step back. The greater the power humantiy have through technology, the more incomprehensible a world.

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