The City Summer 2016

Technology, Knowledge, and Mystery

By Russell Hemati

Technological marvels are everywhere around us. Their ubiquity lulls us into forgetting the mysterious essence of technology and its impact on the way we experience nature, society, and the supernatural.

The Obvious Mystery

Technology is a mystery hidden in a highly visible place, an ancient mystery often overlooked. It is a mystery as old as the Bible: Proverbs 30 contains a statement by King Agur where he lists four things he considers too mysterious to understand. Three of them are about nature, but nestled between eagles, snakes, and lovers is the technological: the ship finding its way over the sea. Nature always contains new secrets to be uncovered and reveals tantalizing complexity even at its most simple, and so its dominance over this list of mysteries is not surprising. However, the inclusion of maritime navigation in this list is puzzling since it does not seem all that mysterious. The mysteriousness could be remedied by apprenticing with a mariner and observing the mariner’s activities. What tools are used to solve navigational problems? The compass, map, and sextant all come to mind as technological innovations that replace a much earlier technology – navigation by astronomy. In the simplest possible terms, one may follow the course of the sun to ascertain direction, and at night Polaris and the constellations serve a similar role. This form of navigation has its weaknesses, since without calibrated instruments accuracy is quite rough, and, of course, clouds can render the sun and stars invisible. The magnetic compass is not subject to fair weather, and is itself an instrument that can give measurements within fractions of degrees. The compass has now been replaced by a new form of astronomical navigation: artificial satellites placed into Earth’s orbit, and so, in a manner of speaking, the celestial arc of navigation technology has come full circle.

While the technology in modern GPS is impressive and we moderns are often amazed by its efficiency and miniaturization, no such technology was available at King Agur’s time, nor was the simple magnetic compass. However, the use of navigational astronomy has a long history and finding one’s bearings through astronomy is not difficult to learn. The rudiments are available to anyone who looks up and sees the sun. After considering the time of day it is easy to tell where north, south, east, and west lie. Perhaps Agur meant some other feature of “the ship finding its way over the sea.” Perhaps he does not mean navigation, but buoyancy. In that case the mystery is how a great heavy thing, laden with men and cargo, glides across the water – a substance in which men and cargo naturally sink. Yet again, this does not seem all that mysterious. The principles behind buoyancy and shipbuilding are easy to harness. Many children fashion rafts from small sticks or even folded paper. Survival tales commonly involve traversing great distances after lashing together logs or debris and floating toward rescue. While it is true that shipbuilding can require highly specialized skill, we do not find it “too mysterious to understand.” Given the right technique, anyone can fashion the tools necessary to create a simple dugout canoe and go on a long river journey. If neither navigation nor buoyancy is the mystery to which Agur refers, what is it that he finds too mysterious to understand – something earning its place alongside lovers, snakes, and eagles?

As I have considered this passage over the last year, I have come to believe that Agur is referring to technology itself when he cites the ship making its way over the sea. Technology is the mystery. Yet this also seems paradoxical since “technology” has an oft-repeated and non-controversial definition: applying scientific knowledge to solve practical problems. Though this definition is satisfying when considering this or that technological advance, it does not penetrate to the essence of what technology truly is. In order to glimpse the technological as it is, we should look to one of its greatest achievements – the computer.

The Essence of the Technological

Modern computers are strikingly complex. Long gone are the days of a single team of engineers designing and implementing a working computer. This level of complexity would be unmanageable if it were not for well-defined interfaces between each component. For example, storage devices have a great deal of variety: some use a single spinning platter, others use multiple platters, still others use no moving parts at all. The designers of a motherboard need not concern themselves with the inner workings of each different kind of storage device since each of those devices conforms to an interface standard. Likewise, the designers of the storage devices need not concern themselves with the variety of motherboard types and manufacturers. Each company need only produce products that conform to the interface standard and those products will all interoperate.

This interoperability creates a “black box” effect. When drawing out the block diagram for the motherboard, the designer can place a “black box” essentially stating “storage goes here.” What is important here is that the designer gains nothing from knowing what exactly is contained in that box. Any hypothetical advantages that could be gained with product X would be at best temporary since some other implementation of that interface in product Y (or even version 2.0 of product X) might not respond well to the hard-coded tweaks meant for product X. While it is true that the black box makes it possible to create things that work without knowing how they work, the effect is actually much stronger: the black box effect is such that knowledge of the how and why becomes superfluous – a mere curiosity.

Since the designer need not know exactly what will take place inside that storage block, the best way to treat it is as a set of inputs and outputs. Instead of knowing the specific mechanism, which is distracting and perhaps harmful to his task of implementing the interface correctly, the designer needs to know only what kind of response to expect when the mechanism is issued those commands. If a command is sent to the storage block to power down, then the expected behavior (storage powering down) needs to occur instead of something else. What activities the device will perform when the “power down” command is received is dependent on the specific device and can remain unknown by the procedure issuing the command. All that is required in response is a signal for success or an error code indicating failure. In the same way, a typist can and should ignore all the layers of organization and physics that occur when pressing a key. Those layers are numerous: the rubber domes flexing with their characteristic mechanical resistance, the impression the base of the dome makes when it contacts the membrane switch, the electrical impulse that is then coded and sent to a serial interface, the gathering of that physical input by device drivers, passing through the operating system, being read by the word processing application through a standardized application programming interface, and so on – finally ending with the tiny shutters of liquid crystal becoming opaque or transparent in order to form pixels on the screen. None of this matters to the typist, nor should it. All that matters is that the key-press results in the correct letter appearing on screen. The typist knows that her input will result in the correct output.

It is here, in the carefully managed complexity of the computer, that the essence of technology is most clear: Technology is a transformational knowledge that reveals interactions to be a collection of inputs, outputs, and expected behaviors. When the technological reveals objects in this way it also hides the other kind of knowledge – the knowledge of the why and the how – within the black box.

The Necessity of Technology

There are two advantages to the black box: first, since humans are creatures with limited abilities to learn and remember, it would be impossible to create even the most simple computer program without being able to “ignore” what happens in the computer when something like an addition function is called. If I execute “add(x,y)” then all I need to know is that the function will return the sum of x and y. If I must also know the inner working of the function library, the compiler, the machine-code version passed to the processor, the way the processor translates it into microcode, and so on – not to mention the actual positive and negative charges sent along the various circuitry, as well as the physical laws governing electrons passing through semiconducting material – then my programming task never gets off the ground. The project would be suffocated in its cradle. Likewise, an automobile driver need not know how the transmission works, what exactly gives motor oil its viscous properties, or the exact chemical reaction of gasoline ignition. If that kind of knowledge were required in order to drive then nobody would be able to drive. No one person has exhaustive knowledge of all of those functions, not even the engineers that designed the car or the assembly line workers who built it. Seeing the car as a black box allows us to ignore how or why it works, instead giving us a few pedals and a steering wheel. Auto mechanics are in principle no different, though they have many such black boxes instead of only one. For example, the alternator has an input (a rotating shaft) and an output (electrical charge on a set of wires). When an alternator goes bad it no longer gives the appropriate behavior (the amount or stability of electrical charge at the output) when receiving input. The electrical engineer designing the alternator has many more such black boxes than the mechanic replacing the alternator, but in each case knowledge terminates in black boxes with their inputs, outputs, and expected behavior. As a result, each person engages with a black box appropriate to their needs, allowing the rest to remain hidden.

The second advantage extends the first: not only is it the case that no single person has exhaustive knowledge of all that is needed to drive the car or execute a simple computer subroutine, but further, no single person ever could exhaustively know even one of these elements. While it is true that the programmer does not know how and why electrons behave the way they do, neither does anyone else, not even the particle physicist. The further we dig into nature, the more we find. It seems to me unlikely that the child’s repeated “Why?” question will ever have complete answers. Without the ability to ignore what is hidden behind the inputs and outputs we could never drive cars, cook meals, follow a compass, or digitally store music. This kind of knowledge is truly a great gift, and is necessary for our survival. We cloak the unknown, wrap it in a usable skin, and give it levers and handles. By doing so we can bake bread, develop machines, and navigate the sea. Interacting with the unknown is a human specialty.

Where Technology is Most Dangerous

Technology brings with it disadvantages also. The danger is the use of the input/output/behavior paradigm when it is applied to human interaction – what ought to be the realm of the humane, the distinctively and uniquely human. Technology is so effective that as we use it to solve more and more problems we are tempted to see everything as nothing more than technology.

A prime example, now increasingly obvious, is in representative government. Why bother engaging in carefully reasoned political discourse when public opinion can be molded through the use of trigger phrases, media stunts, and branding exercises? If the goal is to win elections, then it would be a foolish candidate who ignores the tools that will shift the voting public a few percentage points in the desired direction. As these tools are refined to the greatest possible effect, we may find it the case that they are in fact more powerful than reasoned discourse could ever hope to be. If it is easier and more effective to push sociological buttons than to convince individual persons, political machinery will be ever more focused on those buttons to achieve the goals of a ruling class. Political theorists will develop increasingly detailed understandings of the inputs and outputs of a populace, continuously updating Juvenal’s simple “bread and circuses” inputs with a host of economic and media factors guaranteeing a non-revolutionary citizenry as its output. As recent elections in the United States have shown, even public debate is integrated back into technology, becoming yet another form of panem et circenses.

The black box effect on human interaction is not limited to politics. This effect is equally apparent in the advice in child-rearing books, the practiced mannerisms of the pick-up artist, and the techniques of psychological counseling. At times my children apply their own techniques to me in order to get their way. The conversation starts with, “Daddy, I love you so much,” and ends with a request to stay up late, buy the latest toy, or spend the afternoon at the zoo. Children no doubt consider their parents to be unpredictable and mysterious, so some levers must be found! Discovering inputs and outputs on each other can be useful. Certainly it has its place, since having a swiss-army knife of techniques can help defuse tense situations and provide solutions when one is overwhelmed. Yet the humane is lost when the input/output/behavior paradigm comes to dominate human interaction.

Technology and the Supernatural

Unlike human relationships where technology must be used sparingly and cautiously, there is one arena in which technology must be resisted at all costs – the relationship to the supernatural. This relationship is a subject often considered. Arthur C. Clarke famously formulated this relationship in a dictum popularly known as Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[1] This statement codifies a sentiment that was prevalent in science-fiction since before the genre was identified. Indeed, much of science-fiction mirrors fantasy literature: teleportation, levitation, and transmutation all make their appearances in both genres. The only difference is the means – while one uses incantation, the other uses gadgetry. Fantasy literature is replete with mystical and arcane forces harnessed by the wizard, while science-fiction relies on natural forces harnessed by the engineer and the scientist. What is it then that separates the force field of the magician from the force field of the space ship? The tradition in which Clarke writes embraces the phrase “sufficiently advanced” in order to explain the difference. To a world which includes gears and levers the mechanical wristwatch will not seem miraculous; though indeed it might be a marvel of workmanship and precision it is not sufficiently advanced. But that same world has no vocabulary to understand how a digital watch works. The idea of a machine with no moving parts, harnessing the flow of electrons to do its work – that would be indistinguishable from magic. It is sufficiently advanced, crossing the gap between the merely impressive and the truly wondrous.

What Clarke’s Third Law hides is perhaps more interesting than what it states. What it hides in plain sight is the assumption that technology is, in fact, different from magic. Of course, there is an obvious sense in which they are different. One uses laws of nature while the other uses occult forces to unnaturally change nature’s behavior. A particularly stark way to illustrate this difference is to contrast pushing pins in an effigy in order to ward off illness vs. receiving a vaccination. In both cases objects are perforated with the goal of preventing disease, but only one does so by making use of the laws of nature. The other method attempts to use unnatural forces to accomplish its goals. This difference, such as it is, is clear. But what unites technology and magic is the harnessing of the mysterious. Clarke’s Third Law presents technology as the fruit of scientific knowledge, rather than the “handles and levers on the unknown” that I suggest. By doing so it obscures the fact that they both have the same methods. Technology redefines the sensory world to be a set of inputs, outputs, and expected behavior. Magic redefines the extra-sensory world to be a set of inputs, outputs, and expected behavior. This is the difference between being celebrated as a pioneer and being condemned as a witch.

If the extra-sensory world, the world of God and the angels, can be accessed with its own set of handles and levers, then technology and magic come together as one. Unfortunately, evidence of this unity is everywhere in Christian history and practice. Tetzel’s trade in indulgences offered inputs and outputs for purgatory. Unscrupulous pastors encourage sending in “seed” money promising miraculous returns. Well-meaning evangelists tell their audiences to recite a memorized prayer and receive eternal life. Since technology is, at its root, a method for interacting with the unknown and the mysterious, perhaps the siren song of technology is irresistible when thinking about the greatest mysteries – the divine and the afterlife. Perhaps we cannot help but craft technologies to deal with our irreducible, supernatural mysteries simply because there is no palliative exercise of digging out smaller black boxes from the larger ones. In effect, without the advancement of technology sating our curiosity about one black box by giving us the dozen smaller black boxes that explain its behavior, we are left with only technology. Faced with an unknown that cannot be explained, all our human ingenuity can muster is a set of handles and levers. Thus, our natural tendency is to pay our tithes as though they were an investment in a financial instrument, recite the sinner’s prayer like an incantation, and offer evangelism lessons by way of a flowchart.

This state of affairs is antithetical to true Christianity. The teachings of Jesus run counter to our technological instincts. There is no set of inputs and outputs for repentance, loving one’s neighbor, or proving oneself to be the neighbor to someone else. The sinner who prostrated himself at the temple and begged for mercy grasped no handles and pulled no levers. Not even the prodigal son was allowed to finish the speech he prepared before the father gave him a ring, sandals, and robe. Faith is the inversion of the technological since there are no inputs. Loving God and our neighbor is not an input, but a response to God loving us first. In stark contrast to the technological, by teaching us to love, Jesus opens a new and different way to connect to the unknown. We can no longer engineer our behavior to ensure an expected result. Instead, Jesus asks us to trust him, to be confident that he loves us and is preparing a place for us so that where he is, we may be also.

About the Author
RUSSELL HEMATI, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Hemati specializes in St. Augustine and Philosophy of Religion.


[1]          Arthur C. Clarke, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in the collection Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962, rev. 1973), 36.

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