Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Where Are the Wizards?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

It has been said that the line between magic and technology is located where the common person can look at a system and have no idea of not just how it functions, but why it functions. I cannot build an internal combustion engine (hell, I can barely change a spark plug), but I can look at one and figure out how it works, at least in broad strokes. Looking at a circuit board, however, isn’t going to provide and spark in my brain that will tell me how the computer I’m writing this on works, how my 46″ big screen is showing Handy Manny at this moment, or how I can talk to someone in Peru or Vietnam by dialing 13 digits into the phone the board may have come from. It is complex beyond my ability to ascertain, and I must simply rely upon it to work, to reply upon others to provide the networks upon which it draws, and to build be a new one when this one fails. Before it was retired in April of 2008, Air Force pilots had to rely upon their computers to make constant adjustments to the flight surfaces of their Stealth Fighters to keep the unaerodynamic Nighthawks in the air. Think about that– is there a higher presumed expert on the science and craft of flying than a trained US Air Force pilot? Even their skills and expertise could not keep an F-117 in the air; they had to rely upon a system with more expertise than they could ever hold. The trust inherent in relying upon these gadgets and systems of gadgets is awesome when you consider it, especially in those cases when even the “experts” are outside of their capacity in understanding and manipulating them, as in the Air Force example.

But is that trust warranted?

Much like my laptop and the Internet (series of tubes…?) themselves, our financial system is complex beyond simple understanding, even by the “experts”. The derivative nightmares that have crashed our economy were not the product of a bunch of execs sitting in a room trying to come up with a better way to make money but rather the end product of extraordinarily complex mathematical formulae that redefined risk in a way so out of keeping with realistic definitions of the concept as to have made these bundled junk loans look like an asset worthy of investment. Take those instruments and throw them into a milieu that sees incredibly complex markets interacting with complex personal decisions and trending, with overseas financial and security needs and philosophies, with complex logistical realities mandated by our “just in time” systems of inventory management amongst a host of other complexities and intangibles. Once you’ve done that, take a look at some of our experts on that overarching economic system– say Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, Zhou Xiaochuan, and Daniel McFadden– and understand that they have wildly divergent opinions of not only how to fix the system but in fact on how the system works and exists at all.

This is a system so complex that, although we rely on it for fundamentals such as food delivery, power generation and medical care, nobody does completely– can completely– understand it. We are assured by many “experts” that they have a handle on this thing, that they can tame and manipulate it to our universal benefit, that they can shield us from its temper tantrums and benefit us from its soaring successes… they think.

The same is true of so many systems in the world in which we live– can the President be expected to understand and process the self-interests of the many nations on the planet when they are all just guessing at their own self-interests? And if we can not hold that expectation, then are we prepared to accept that judgements made on war and peace are made in a manner that must ultimately be accepted as uniformed?

We are at a point in our societal evolution where our artificial systems have merged with natural systems with ultimately unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes becoming more the norm; it has long been a favored chestnut of science fiction writers, but the reality is truly emerging now into the public consciousness as a result of the financial crisis. What the implication of that will be for the future remains to be seen, but we cannot get to that point until we accept the concept that experts on these systems are not wizards and that while they can make educated guesses, they cannot speak with the authority that an expert on civil engineering can speak on bridge construction; to take anything they say as a firm prediction of probability may be a stretch; taking them as gospel is insanity.

It seems we have extended and expanded our reality right back to the point of trial and error. Welcome to the Nineteenth Century, circa 2009.


3 Responses to “Where Are the Wizards?”

  1. […] Where Are the Wizards? […]

  2. Larry said

    this is where H.G. Wells Time Machine intersects with ‘that One’s’ Matrix Revolutions, or where artificial systems meet up with natural ones. it’s the Matrix because they gave almost the exact same speech about not knowing how Neo works but knowing why he does. and it’s The Time Machine (one of my favorite movies btw.. the remake) because all systems are imperfect, as they should be; if they were perfect we would become complacent and get eaten by Morlocks. perhaps this is what you mean by being the chestnut of science fiction writers. and the implications on the future garners potential. if a system never breaks then the chances for it’s improvement or salvation lessens. they call it growing pains.

    perhaps the greatest trial and errors involve discovering our indiviual desires. for uniformed judgements are surely another term for mutual self interest. which is more important than how single devices like car ignitions or computers, steath fighters, our even a country’s economy works. it doesn’t matter how you arrive to it, the most important thing is that you do, before it becomes too late to fix them in any way one can.

    the whole reason our country hasn’t fallen into total collapse is because of mutual self-interest. it’s the one, most important thing we have to hang our hats on from selling out America to China or India etc… because when we screwed ourselves we screwed them too. sure we originally did it because of our own selfishness but the result now becomes a different animal altogether. if this were a game of chess, right now were are staring at 2 kings and a bunch of pawns, with every side wondering if anyone’s pawn can make it to the otherside and get a queen back. which rarely ever works. it’s essentially a stalemate.

    …once upon a time i said to a man who worked in the IT department at work, well, your the computer expert. and he replied, well, we all own computers therefore everyones an expert. the same logic can be applied to everything. from the person that walks out of their front door and feels the weather and is suddenly an expert on global warming. to the person that drives a car every day and becomes their own hack mechanic; to everyone that cooks and feeds themselves every night and as a result is a chief; to all of us that carry money in our wallet and have opions on the world economy; to pet owners that practically have to diagnose their pets before bringing them to the vet; some ppl are better experts than others but we all have the potential. the future right now is the age of information. potential and information is what separates us right now from the 19th century. the economy is like the internet, it’s so spread out now that no-one exactly knows how each works. but like the internet, when parts of falter, the system keeps chugging along. IT guys and economists intervene trying to fix or tweak the parts and get them back up and running because they have skills and knowledge in the basics of it’s operations. but the more complex the system error the longer it takes and farther you have to go back.

    this is where the past meets up with the present. like in The Time Machine, Guy Pearce had past wisdom about what humanity’s importance or potential. the ppl 8,000 years in the future had knowledge on the current system. together they combined their mutual self-interest and defeated the Morlocks. together they were all essentially experts on how to fix the system or in this case the economy.

    ..actually, im not sure i made any sense. but i sure do love The Time Machine! H.G. Wells is the master. the Robert Frost of sci-fi. 😉

  3. netboy47 said

    After seeing the title, I thought you were wondering where the Washington Wizards were. In case you were wondering , they’re in dead last place in the East.

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