Posts Tagged ‘clarke’

Any technology,
sufficiently advanced,
is indistinguishable
from magic.

It’s been a busy, busy start to the new year, filled with terribly mundane things—buying/selling vehicles, gathering data for financial advisors, dealing with benefits coordinators—but while I’ve been working on all of these quotidian chores, I’ve been thinking about magic.

I’ve always thought Arthur C. Clarke’s classic quotation* (paraphrased above) was pretty spot on, but now I think it needs a slight modification. For the word “advanced,” I would instead use “opaque.”

For most of my life, I never saw this quotation play out, but in my father’s last years, I got an inkling of how it worked. My dad hated computers; he never used one, hated having one in the house, and after my mom died, the computer simply gathered dust. The main reason for his distaste was not only that he didn’t understand how they worked, he didn’t understand how they could possibly work. To him, the functionality of a computer was indistinguishable from magic.

Having a rudimentary knowledge of the processes inside computers, I tried to explain to him the basics of binary code and processors and data transmission, but I quickly hit a wall; he not only didn’t understand how they could work, he didn’t want to know how they could work.  His curiosity on this topic was nil, and he returned to earth happily never having touched a computer keyboard.

This all seemed quaint and quirky and undeniably “Dad,” but recently I was surprised when I discovered that I harbored similar attitudes about some things.

Specifically, textiles.

Textiles?” I hear you say. “What’s so technologically advanced about textiles?”

To which I’d answer “Basically? Not much,” but then I’d refer you upward to where I want to replace “advanced” with “opaque.”

Like my father, I know there’s no magic involved in weaving cloth, but there are parts of it that I simply do not understand. More to the point, I can’t even visualize how they work†. However, unlike my father, I do want to understand. I know these mysteries are only born of my own ignorance, and that the mechanism is definitely within my capacity to comprehend.

This was all brought top-of-mind by a book I’m reading, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. In it, Barber takes us through the history of textiles, from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age. While reading, I was struck by the vast importance of the invention of string, was fascinated to learn how string became twine and rope, how weaving got its earliest start, how looms evolved, and how a 3,000-year old piece of cloth was made of sufficient string to stretch from Seattle to Portland. All this was perfectly understandable and clear in my mind—loom, warp, weft, shuttle, bobbin, I can see the fabric being woven in my mind’s eye—but then the mystery crept in: how does the weaver make the different colors, patterns, and textures in the cloth?

Barber makes reference to these elements, giving examples of some of the earliest colored patterns in Neolithic cloth fragments and discussing patterns in linens from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, but she doesn’t show the how of it. And when my mind rushes forward from these relatively simple fabrics to the intricate silks of the Far East and the jacquards of the West, the creation of these textiles soars beyond the limits of my ignorance and enters the realm of magic. Perceived magic, anyway.

It struck me at that moment that we all probably have something along these lines. Questions about basic things that we know work, but don’t know how they work. Even the simplest things, like, “How does a knife cut things?” I mean, does it separate things at a cellular level or a molecular level, and how? “How does humidity work?” We know it means there’s water in the air, but how does that work, and why is it worse in summer than in winter? “DNA is the ‘building block’ of life, but how does it know to make eyes green or hair curly?” Four molecules of acid woven together in a microscopic tapestry are somehow able to “instruct” the multifarious builds that make up living creatures. “How does a vinyl record create sound?” “How does a battery store electricity?”

Or maybe it’s just me.

For my part, though, having recognize these black pools of ignorance in my own mind, I know I’m going to explore them. In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet that I’m going to build myself a small table loom and play around with it. And thinking ahead, I think it’s also a safe bet that I’ll spend a large part of my retirement exploring similar pockets of How.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably be giving away tea towels and scarves for a while.



* As an aside, regarding Clarke’s quotation: I always liked the fact that you could interpret it as having, embedded in the logic, a tacit belief in the existence of magic. If magic doesn’t exist, we can’t compare anything to it, can we. Yes, yes, you could say that Clarke means that tech is indistinguishable from our idea of magic, what we think magic would be like, but he doesn’t, does he?

† And don’t even get me started on sewing machines. I cannot fathom how you connect (repeatedly) two unbroken lengths of string/thread/rope. And every visualization I’ve seen (3D and otherwise) has not answered that question.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: