Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Magical thinking; your iPhone might as well be an amulet

Without me quite noticing, my thoughts on Taken 2 turned out to be my 200th post, which a more self-important blogger might have kept for some state-of-the-blog reflections. I can't think of anything important which needs to be said about this blog; it's enough trouble to think of things to say about anything else without disappearing into meta-oblivion. I do continue to be baffled that it has actual viewing stats; I was much too lazy even to figure out how to look them up until I discovered that I had occasional commenters. The night before last, at one in the morning in Google time (GMT? UTC? does it matter?) there was a spike of 160 views, which I assume was some bot-related glitch that is making someone else microscopically richer. As far as I can tell, almost all the hits from actual people come from people wanting to find out about the Belfast episodes of Sons of Anarchy - notice how I don't provide a link to that post, since it's safe to assume everyone who cares has already read it. Despite the resulting temptation to make this all Sons of Anarchy, all the time, no sweeping change of policy is imminent. This is mostly me trying to remember how to write something which isn't a report on the troubles of the sandbox or the psychoses of Nordor and the lack of mass attention suits my purposes far too well to mess with obscurity.

Now, to my scheduled programming. The other day an email conversation broke out among my exiled friends in Mexico on the theme of "What the hell is wrong with SF these days?", though in much the same way as you can go to a perfectly good riot and a hockey game will break out, it wasn't too long before we were arguing over climate change and then inevitably someone mentioned economics. I'm not sure that we even got as far as agreeing that there was something wrong, let alone what it might be, but one thought did surface which I wish I'd had myself. This was that technology has become so glossy and unknowable that people are drifting into magical thinking. I've pondered the thought before that the rapid pace of change today is making people more interested in books where despite wars and magic happening at all times, nothing ever really seems to change. But somehow I hadn't made the jump to thinking about the kinds of technology we have today and how it's changed the way we relate to it.

Machines have changed in the past twenty years in ways which have completely altered our relationship with them. They've become much easier to use, but much harder to know. Modern cars are easier to drive and safer than what I first drove, but if anything goes wrong, there's no chance at all that you're going to be able to fix it yourself. I used to be able to pull the plugs out of my first car's engine and replace them in less than ten minutes (a leaking head gasket you can't find time to fix will build that skill very quickly). I haven't even been able to find the plugs in any car I've owned since then. I sometimes wonder if they actually still have spark plugs. My current car occasionally just sulks and the easiest way to deal with it is literally to reboot it; disconnect the battery and leave it for a while until the electronics reset. If that doesn't work, the next step is a tow truck. And if you can't fix it, do you really own it? Sometimes it feels like I have a bizarre lease on my car where I make unpredictable huge payments to the only garages in Mexico and Nordor that have the magical permissions to talk to the computers without which it's just a pretty 800 kilogram paperweight.

That's unknowability in things that we used to think we could know. It's deeper and denser with things that we never understood, like computers and mobile phones. I figured out once what a laser printer actually did to produce slightly chemical smelling perfect black and white pages and it froze me in place like a chemical-free acid trip. Go on and look it up; I can wait. That kind of thing might as well be magic. It's almost absurd that we use it for something as banal as printing out bank statements. It ought at least to be printing out the coordinates of distant planets or some such. Mobile phones; even before they put in cameras and GPS and touch screens, they were the stuff of wizardry, complicated computer systems in the background keeping track of exactly which phones were in range of every antenna in the country and handing them off more or less seamlessly from one to the next without the average user even blinking at the wonder of it all. It just works, to the point that we get borderline psychotic when for some reason it doesn't. GPS is a worked proof every microsecond of special relativity and all most of us think about it is that the user interface sucks and the maps are never up to date.

I have not digressed. Our world is full of small shiny objects which do things which were previously unimaginable, by means we don't understand. If they fail us, pretty much all we can do is throw them away and get another one. They might as well be amulets.

So Joe advanced the argument that a population surrounded by amulets is vulnerable to magical thinking, on the one hand looking for books full of magic - thus the growth of fantasy "literature", or harking back to a more comprehensible world where a man could get out three screwdrivers and a pincers [1] and have a shot at getting something broken to work again; hence the sudden growth out of nowhere of steampunk and its various outliers.

We read to get away from the world we're in, and the books we buy tell us a lot about the things we're trying to get away from. It's probably not a good sign that the growing trend in SF - the preferred reading of nerds, geeks, and all folks technical - is to run away from the technical side of the world we live in. 

[1] I haven't actually seen a pincers on sale in a hardware shop for as long as I can remember. Either they've been entirely displaced by better designs of claw hammer or we've given up on the idea of ever needing to pull anything out of something else.

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