Saturday, 11 August 2012

Glamour, social media and technology - thoughts on magic

Magic is a tricky, rather contested idea. Not something to be played with idly. Yet a useful metaphor nevertheless if somewhat over used.

The big problem with magic lies in what we mean by it – is it the mysticism and spells or the shaman or is it a hyperbolic expression of transformation or occasion? When we say the wedding was magical we don’t mean it was presided over by a magus chanting spells (whatever we may think of the Church, its spellcasting is ever so English and not remotely mystical) but that the event was wonderful, exciting and filled with delight.

This of course brings us to Facebook and what Damien Thompson calls the “magic of social media”. And, as we find with clever pundits much of their magic is wrapped in the deliberate confusion of meaning. Here we find both meanings of magic intertwined – first we get the Arthur C. Clarke quotation without which any comment on technology is incomplete:

“...any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

By which the sage understood that we (the users of technology) had no idea how the stuff actually worked. I recall a conversation between a senior IT manager and an engineer wherein the engineer explained as follows:

“You know how to make computers work for you but I know how computers work.”

Into this trap our pundit tumbles – carrying on from Clarke’s quotation:

He was writing in 1973, and I’m not sure it’s true any more. Young people everywhere are far too tech-savvy to be baffled by technological wizardry.

Somehow I’ve a feeling that the typical gadget-strewn twenty-something may know all the buttons to press on his or her iThings but has only a tenuous grasp of how it is that those iThings weave their magic. Clarke was right; the iThing is a magic item – Galadriel’s ring or Elric’s sword – rather than a prosaic tool akin to a hammer or a spoon.

Social media are a consequence of magic not magic of themselves. Such things as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Yammer are faerie glamour – the illusion not the magic itself. We have all obtained these iThings and use them to craft vast magical empires, places to chat, to play, to work and to learn. But the magic we wield is outside our knowledge, we do not know why we can download films or upload photographs (indeed we will mostly struggle to explain how the films and photos come about) merely that we can do so and that the results are “magical”.

For Thompson – adopting the doomsayer’s cloak – this is not good, such empires of illusion are dangerous:

This is exciting, but not necessarily in a good way. Accelerating change will tie economic activity ever more tightly to fragile charisma.

The success of magic – of technology (and Thompson confuses Apple who create new magic items and Facebook where people play with those items – the first in Clarke’s terms is magic, the second merely glamour) – is, Thompson says, down to that charisma and to the idea of cult. Thus technology businesses like Apple are akin to Pentecostalist preachers driven by the founder’s magical presence rather than by the real magic of technological innovation.

Now I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg set out to create a massive social media monster when he created Facebook. But what he and others did was to remove the stopper from a magic bottle releasing a veritable horde of djinni. Whether they will survive remains to be seen – at some point us users of the djinni will have to pay (there is always a cost to using magic) or lose the power.

However, this relates only loosely to the real magic – the robots, the computers, the little metal and plastic slaves that do things we could but dream of a few years ago. Watching colour images beamed back from Mars or hearing of nanotechnology allowing the most delicate of brain surgery. This is where Arthur C. Clarke’s magic is now.

Damien Thompson sees the pretty things built by magic and believes them to be the magic. If those pretty things are sometimes designed to deceive they just reflect humans – the deception is just the same as those Pentecostalists with their laying on of hands, speaking in tongues and preference for showmanship over devotion. But this is not the magic – we must look instead to the things we don’t understand but take for granted. Televisions, computers, mobile phones – all the paraphernalia of modern living – these are the magic.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The magic part is surely in the physical manifestation of these once dream/astral objects in the material world.

The uses you then put them to can be magical or mundane, once again the magic is in the vision of the operator.

Chance made me scroll down to this post,but your will was to make a connection.
The magic seems to have worked.