Thursday, 19 January 2012

Part 1: Magical Technologists

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

I'm reading Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, and in the opening he compares computer programs to Harry Potter's magical spells.  It seemed spurious when I read it, but now I'm wondering how it looks from other eyes.

I'm the go-to tech guy at school, and I dig the position.  I've joked before about how people need to sacrifice a chicken (or just wave a rubber one over the computer) if they want something to work, but now the metaphor is resolving a bit more.

Today our soon to retire head of guidance came in all worked up because he couldn't take a document and put it in his powerpoint.  He was using and old, hobbled, board laptop with an ancient copy of, well, everything on it; it was state of the art in 2002 when he got it.

I copied his (wordpad!) file onto a USB key, opened it on my competent, not-board computer (it actually uses Windows 7 instead of XP - the ONLY OS of choice for our board) and MS Office instead of Wordperfect.  I opened the DOC in Office (which just works, unlike Wordperfect on the board laptop) and then screen grabbed the guidance material he wanted into two jpegs.  I then copied them onto the USB and moved them back over to his sad, old laptop.  In moments I had one of the jpegs filling a slide on his powerpoint.  After I did the first one, I got him to do the second one.  He was happy, it all worked, and he even had some idea of how to put jpegs into powerpoint too.

Looking at the order of operations above, it looks pedantic and pretty this/then/that to me, but many people reading it would get lost in the acronyms or the logical sequence of it.  It assumes an understanding of what works with what and how to bypass difficulties around software not cooperating, among other things.

From another point of view, it might look like I pulled out my own, newer, better wand (laptop), and made some arcane gestures (trackpad), spoke some gobbledigook (tech-talk) and dropped a regent into the spell (the USB key).  and made what seemed impossible possible.  Without comfort level, experience and equipment, it looks like I made something happen out of nothing.

The councilor with him said I was the secret technical mystic they turned to when things just didn't work.

I try to be transparent with what I'm doing, and explain it to people as I'm doing it, but I see their eyes glaze over when I use the first acronym and then they just sit there with a happy smile on their face as the issue gets resolved.  I'd like for everyone to be able to cast their own spells, but I fear many would rather just applaud the magician.

Which takes me back to Harry again.  There's a scene where Dumbledore escapes from the evil Ministry in spectacular fashion.  He could have just disappeared, but he doesn't, he does it with a flourish.  Kingsly the auror says afterwards, "Dumbledore may be a criminal, but you've got to admit, he has style!"

If you're going to be a tech-magician, and if you're reading this you probably already are, then don't cast your spells flat, be like Dumbledore, have some style!