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Letters from Downunder

Welcome to the world of magic

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke, 1962.

‘Tis true; there’s magic in the web of it.
Shakespeare, Othello, act 3 sc. 4

(1/2014) A happy magic year to you all. After a black cat and broomstick year we surely could do with a few happy wizards at Hogwarts, better known as The White House. Yes, I know you believe that your leaders are people of logic, science and cold reason, just as you believe that science and technology sets the world on its course daily, that somehow the sun rises and the world runs its space through the heavens because the laws of physics say so, and that’s the end of it; but there’s more to it than that. Today’s world is actually run by magic, particularly in politics.

Arthur C Clarke surely got the picture correct when he wrote the above quote, because today it is necessary to stop asking ‘how does it do that?’ and just apply the apps to our daily lives ad lib. No one can tell us the ‘how’, because these magical things have developed from increasingly arcane discoveries. Put all together in a hat with stars on it, shaken not stirred, they let us wave our finger in the air and call up the spirits of deep technology, including the odd black meow and flailing broom.

And isn’t it wonderful? No more trips to the library in the rain, no more difficulty in setting down ones thoughts and suppositions, just a box of biscuits that someone else has baked for our enjoyment. Critical reading not required. We can tick the wisdom displayed, even if it is from the flat earth society or the killing fields. If it looks right, is biased to our biases, and reinforces our narrow prejudices, it is good magic indeed.

And there’s more to come. The present magic has a price – the envelopes of our private life connections may be opened and their contents proclaimed, unclouded in the cloud, available for unscrambling by the descendants of 1984 – but at least our thoughts are still private. Aren’t they?

This is where the wizards really shine, and, depending on their mood, can introduce things you believe are good, or otherwise. No one person, or even a group, understands where this will all finish, but the rate of change in our new technology is on the vertical rise. The workings of an i pad, satellite system or facebook will seem as simple as heavy water, and the brave new world of the mind mine is going to outdo anything even Aldous Huxley could have dreamt up. For this newest magic will detect our brain waves at a distance, send our synapses into spasm and reveal our intimate musings.

We already see parents wiring their toddlers up to the TV in all its big screen glory, and this new world will also prefer a brain to have placidity. Child will not have to cry, ‘Mummy, I feel sick’ because mummy will already know, the thought having appeared on the monitor as it was formed. But ‘mummy, I hate you,’ will not usually get comfort, and ‘the government sucks’ will be dealt with by the Nasty Snoops Academy.

The trouble with magic is that there are always two kinds, exciting and neutral, or terrifying and invasive. One can morph into the other as we watch, just as social media turned into a spy agency’s wet dream. A brainwave will be more than a good idea, it will be the magic link between us and the robot. Unlike Mr. Asimov’s hope, the robot will win, because it won’t care. And neither will the robot’s masters. Fortunately, it’s a couple of decades away, so we have time to run. To see the outcome, read Alfred Bester’s ‘The Demolished Man.’ It’s funny how the magic of SF is the new reality, even to laser propulsion – yes, no more rockets, just the magical force of coherent light. No, I’m not making these things up. The prototypes are being tested, so imagine the thrill of zipping off into space in comfort as a robotic symbiosis. Ah! Progress.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the era of the expert will continue to guide our policymakers. You remember the expert, do you not? Someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. One will still set social policy, another fiscal, another foreign. And yet another will advise the president. Maybe that has already happened, how else explain the hex woven over health care? This is something most countries put in place over the past century or so, allowing time for the bugs to appear and be stamped on, keeping the running costs within bounds, and acknowledging the need to address human frailty at a national level.

In some past era America became spellbound at the idea of universal DIY, which is fine if all can do it, but uncivilized if they cannot. And believe me, they cannot. But to bite the bullet of health provision for those who cannot pay in your profit driven nation, with the need to ‘do it now!’, allows the cracks to appear all together. Experts cannot be expected to deal with problems, can they?

But – there is one good fairy who at least has waved her wand and brought the reform into reality. A great nation cares for its citizens. Great leaders are humane. And in the tangled weaving of society, now and into the future, may we determine the truth of Shakespeare:

There is magic in the web of it.

Lindsay, hoping you have a year of beneficial wizardry,

In Down under.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker