"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Arts, Sciences and Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Reading a bit of trashy sci fi over the past weekend — good "hardboiled cyberpunk" about the encoding of consciousness into data and transferring between physical bodies as a way of managing interstellar exploration — while traveling in Mexico got me thinking about the old "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" argument. I think I came up with some good riffs, and even some navel-gazing about me and my weird mercurial career, so here goes.

It's easy to dismiss outlandish ideas about interstellar travel as flights of fancy, and indeed there are good physics reasons to be skeptical we'll make it beyond the Solar System in any real way in the next few generations. But that also kind of misses the point. The original quote by Arthur C Clark is meant to position us as "people of the past", encountering some awesome technologogy of the future, possibly alien. How can we not react with awe? But what about all that we've learned to take for granted already? There's another threshold which we pass over when fantastically complecated and difficult processes become six or seven-sigma reliable and ubiquitous, things like Big Macs or indoor plumbing. You go from magic to assumed fact of life.

Take for instance the MP3 player going poolside on a carribean beach resort, playing Elvis. Here you have a device manufactured from raw materials that might come from three continents (rare earths, etc), forged into components in a number facilities about 8,000 to 10,000 miles away, assembled and delivered via an international shipping and retail process that is literally hundreds of thousands of people's jobs to operate.

Its powered by (let's guess) a coal power plant that's at least a few hundred miles away, which is burning aincent plant matter — the remnants of photosynthesis; literally the energy imparted by the sun hundreds of millions of years ago — which was subducted and processed inside the planet itself into a form we've figured out how to exploit, and then dug up with fanstastic machinery which dwarfs the human scale, itself provided via an even more complex if somewhat less high-volume manufacturing supply chain.

The music was composed, performed and recorded by people who have all been dead for years. They spoke into a machine that made a temporary analog record of the way their instruments and vocal chords made the air vibrate onto a magnetic tape. This was safeguarded over the intervening decades and eventually transcribed into a digital format which was then "shared" to the person playing it by around 150 anonymous strangers who also happened to have a copy on their own fantastically complex calculation devices, all of which are connected via a constantly shifting, amorphous network that largely defies physical description.

It's just a boombox playing Elvis; an assumed fact of life. But dig into what all is required for that little fact of life to exist and imagine trying to explain that to one the geniuses of history — say, Sir Issac Newton or Ptolmey — let alone some rube from the 19th century. Try explaining it in detail to the people having fun in the pool for that matter. The reactions would range from blank incomprehension to irritated boredom. Why are you bothering us with these details?

Personally I sometimes have trouble with technology professionals who hand-wave at how something proximal and critical to their work works. The truth is nobody can know everything. It's all about where you draw the line in what you know — for instance, in the above example is it germane that the silicon circuits that make it possible to create the music from vibrating electrons are created by melting down sand, printing giant blueprints, and then shooting x-rays through the prints onto the melted sand to create impressions, the same way an old-style photo enlarger shines a bulb through a negative onto light-sensative paper? I don't know. It's a fantastic detail for texture's sake, but it's not really operationally relevant.

But in the technology world, you'll encounter plenty of people who can't explain directly tools they're using. They're the computer shamans, and even if they get under my skin sometimes, they're absolutely necessary. If there's the need for a professional in the room whatever you're doing isn't six-sigma standard (less than four defects per million operations) and doesn't work reliably enough to be an assumed fact of life. You need a person in the loop, and the chances are good this person will not have total understanding of what's going on.

This yelds a range of behaviors. At one extreme there's the fairly benign practice of fixing things by turning them off and on again — to "power cycle" as the pros say — which works in a lot of cases, and is itself a kind of appeal to underlying technological integrity: if we can reset everything, it should work. It's a purifying ritual. Towards the other end of the spectrum is the somewhat more alarming but very common programming moment of having your code suddently work without you really understanding why. Sometimes it feels like there are ghosts in the machine. There aren't, but part of how our monkey brains are wired leaps to that kind of answer.

Mysterious puzzles are part and parcel of what we do. Again, if we were just punching buttons in time, a robot would do it for us and people would be removed from the room. The question is, how do you handle the the unexpected and unexplained? Do you shrug your shoulders and say, "yeah it's weird sometimes" or do you dig in and figure things out?

There's not really a right or wrong answer here, because again nobody can know everything and you have to pick your battles. Still, there's a sort of Computer Shaman vs Computer Scientist sensibility that you develop somehere along the 10,000 hours of mastery.

And really, a practical matter, operating as a part of small teams near the edge of the possible, you can't be entirely either. Pure shamanism is far too flaky to trust when the chips are down, but pure science demands too broad a base of knowledge and evidence to move fast, and often misses the forest through the trees.

You've got to have the raw smarts and analytical skills to bisect and find the root cause of phenomena, and you need sufficient experience and contextual knowledge to actually grok wherever in the system you're operating, to know the ins and outs and parameters. But at the same time, you also have to make gut calls and use pre-cognative intuition. There's a spider sense that goes along with any complecated technology environment. It's a must have.

Creative work takes good instincts, it takes taste, and it also takes serious dedication to details of the craft, to understanding things from every angle, including the history, and nailing the nuts and bolts cold. This is a frame of reference I'm comfortable with given my background and training as an artist — in spite of all the (trueish) stereotypes about wild creative types, anyone who takes it seriously has to bring their left-brain A-game to the table. You need both ends to make anyting good.

Maybe it's just the happy place I go to when seeking answers, but I suspect this perspective is one more people in my industry would benefit from having.

Maybe there's something to be had here. Like, how is it that I just found out that Clay Shirky (one of my internet idols) was in the theater? He worked with Elevator Repair Service, who I frigging love. Seems pretty perfect to me.