Monday, August 22, 2011

Technology or Magic?

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Arthur C. Clarke.
In the last 24 hours, two things have happened that show us just how much technology has changed us.  What was miraculous when I was born is commonplace now.  Or, thinking about it another way, it's - magic.

First, there is the revolution in Libya - live on Twitter, live online with streaming feed on Al Jazeera English and other sites - I watched, transfixed, last night, leaping from Twitter to the live feed, while CNN on TV blared in the background.  And why? Besides the obvious wanting to know what was happening, I have a Facebook friend who lives in Tunisia.  I messaged this friend in Tunisia and was reassured that things are peaceful in Tunis right now. 

(I also chatted with my friend last month, when I was visiting the Centreville/Chantilly, Virginia area (because he used to live in Vienna, VA) and asked him questions about traffic, and parking at the Vienna Metro station.  Just stop and think.  I'm asking someone in Tunis about the traffic on Rt. 23.  And complaining about the parking charge at the Dulles branch of the Air and Space Museum.)  Magic?

At one time the ability to do this kind of thing would have had you executed for witchcraft.  Now, we take it for granted.  Even when I was born, seeing live footage from across the ocean would have been totally impossible.  There were no satellites in orbit.  Transatlantic phone calls were difficult, had bad connections, and were tremendously expensive.

I could have called my friend (maybe) but I would have needed a bank loan to afford the phone charge.

The other "magic" moment of the last 24 hours is brought to us by Hurricane Irene.  We turn on the Weather Channel and everyone is talking about this killer storm heading for Florida.  On Facebook, my spouse's cousin posts about her preparations.

We so take for granted that we will be warned to get out of the way of a killer storm.  But if you could bring, say, Henry VIII into your living room - he would have thought it was satanic.

As an aside:  Do you wonder what hurricane forecasting was like before our modern technology?  You don't have to look too far.  History gives us one relatively recent example - the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.  Think here "between 8,000 and 12,000 dead." and that was before the major population growth of the last century in the Houston metropolitan area.  No Weather Channel, no storm-spotter planes, no enhanced satellite images, no ability to move large populations out of the way quickly.

Technology (or magic) can only do so much, of course.  Katrina took about 1800 lives for a variety of reasons and bad decisions.  And Irene, if it lives up to its billing, could do similar damage if people don't listen, or make the wrong decisions.

But still, we have the advantage of technology.  Or, if you look at it another way - magic.

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