Monday, April 08, 2013

Magical Thinking and the Modern World

I just had to re-connect Excel to the local printer; when I went to print a document, I got an error. So I pushed the "connect to printer" button. That didn't work. I pushed it again. A slightly different error, but still no connection. One more push, and the printer was re-connected.

And now I wonder if we moderns are training ourselves to be more susceptible to magical thinking than people living with more obviously mechanistic technology. We turn USB drives over three times before they finally insert, we ritually unplug and plug, turn off and on, and repeatedly hard-restart devices that operate in ways we really don't understand.

We just know the rituals -- if the computer freezes up, try this key combination, then that one, and finally hold down the button if you have to. (And make sure you never let the magic black smoke out of the box; that means it's broken for good.) We know what works, eventually -- but we often have to do the same thing several times, or work down an opaque list of odd button combinations before something does work. But we never get a good sense of the connection between what we did and what happened.

I have no solution for this; I'm just another person who has only a slight, foggy notion of how a computer chip works. But, as those chips, and the rituals that make them work, become ever smaller and ever more embedded in all of the things we touch, this will happen more and more.

What happens when your hoodie has a color-changing chip in it, but that chip will only turn from black to red when you zip and unzip twice quickly? Or your shoes keep losing track of your total distance walked unless you whack the heels together three times? What kind of a world will we have then, and what stories will we tell each other to explain our devices?


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Make sure that your printer has the correct driver installed. That may be part of the issue.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Michael: It's not really "my" printer -- it's just the networked printer closest to my office. And it did reconnect -- but only after the magical three tries!

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