Computers – Science or Magic?

In a discussion of what it takes to be “computer literate” – ie. having sufficient computer skills to manage – one slashdot poster noted the following:

Just for fun consider this: Computer support technicians and doctors are similar in many ways. They are both supposed to be highly paid, highly trained, highly skilled, and highly knowledgeable about an extremely complex machine that they did not design or create and of which cannot possibly know everything about. Often, they rely on their limited experience to make a best guess about the root cause of the machine’s particular problem and then follow up with lots of testing to see if they are correct or not.

In my readings, I’ve several similar parallels between expert computer users and scientific communities, and the comparison to doctors is no unusual. Famous computer scientist Fred Brooks wrote a similar comparison in his classic “The Mythical Man-Month“. Brooks specifically made the analogy between a computer programming project team and a surgical team at any big hospital. Featuring only one chief programmer or “surgeon” holding the scalpel, and all the others supporting him. Though not everyone agree that this is the best way to develop software. Brooks’ idea is a remnant from an old-fashioned corporate mentality that has since been left behind.

But the parallels with science continue, not just in Brooks’ work, but also in anthropologist Chris Kelty’s more recent examination of how Open Source reputation economy works.

I find the parallel to doctors quite telling, though. Both groups have immense technical vocabularies and authority to know and do right. To a certain degree, their understanding and work appears as magic for the casual observer. As Science Fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke noted:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

There seems to be little difference in eating the pill the doctor gave you, and magically feeling better; and having the computer support guy magically connect you to the Internet or restore your deleted files.

Of course, we know that there’s a perfectly valid technical explanation behind all of these instances, but sometimes even the experts have a hard time understanding or explaining them. A good account of this can be found in Ellen Ullman’s book “the Bug” in which an apparently inexplicable program bug slowly drives a software engineer insane as he tries to solve it.

This also goes a bit of the way to explain the frequent use of jargon such as “automagically“, “casting the runes“, “black magic” and “Wizard“.

I recently read Erik Davis’ “Techgnosis” which tries to fuse technology and mysticism together. He has a few interesting points, including some of the above, but mostly he seems to be a little too fascinated with random loonies. I’m still looking for a good discussion of this subject.

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