The Consequences of Magical Thinking

Arthur C. Clarke was a science-fiction author. His most famous work was the screenplay for the Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He once pointed out that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What did he mean by this? Well, our experience with technology is based almost entirely on power and not knowledge. We experience what technology is capable of. We experience its utility. We marvel at technology, but we don’t understand it. Much like magic. It’s worth noting that he said this decades before the invention of the internet and smart phones. If you had to explain exactly how the internet works or how your phone makes calls and sends texts, you would be clueless. If you had to describe how the camera in your phone was designed, how the materials for it were acquired, how it was assembled, and finally how it actually works, your answers would be laughably incomplete. Because of the sheer number of people who work on something as complex as a smart phone, even most of the people who worked on creating and manufacturing your phone couldn’t explain how it works in sufficient detail. Your phone is indistinguishable from magic. It is inscrutable. Yet, we all use it and very much take for granted that somehow it works.

Here’s the interesting thing to ponder, the vast majority of our lives in the modern world are constructed upon this magical foundation. Despite all of our access to information, we really understand almost nothing about how the world actually works. Technological man, in all of his feigned sophistication, is not altogether different from the medieval forefathers he sneers at. Medieval man was at least willing to admit he lived in a mysterious universe full of forces that he couldn’t rightly understand. The unseen spirits that populate and animate our world are 1s and 0s.

The magical thinking that I’m describing has consequences. The most significance consequence is that we are blinded to the messiness of reality. Our magical technology offers us a comforting illusion that buffers us from the world as it actually is. We come to expect two things almost as a birthright. First, we expect a lack of interruption. Technology is just supposed to work. Period. Interruptions are not “natural.” Interruptions have a nearly moralistic flavor to them. They are wrong and must be fixed (by someone else, we aren’t exactly sure who) urgently. Second, we expect progress. Technology must offer us more today than yesterday. Things must be easier, faster, cheaper, and more accessible. This isn’t debatable; it is expected. In those moments when the world bursts through this shield offered by our technology, we are left unprepared, disoriented, and angry.

A good example of this is the supply chain. There are few modern technologies more complex and inscrutable than the supply chain. As far as most of us are concerned, consumer goods just kind of show up on our shelves. We couldn’t tell you the history of the clothes we wear. We don’t know how they were made or where the cotton came from. The “Made in China” tag reminds you that this shirt came from a distant land. Like most of our goods, we’ve never seen the factory where it was produced or interacted with the workers who produced it. The shirt might as well be from Mars. We don’t know about the ships on which they crossed the Pacific or the trucks that carried them once they arrived on our shores. It’s not just that we don’t know; we don’t even think about these things. The clothes just “show up.” Most stores don’t even let you see them stocking the shelves. They wait until after business hours, so when customers show up the next morning, abracadabra, the shelves are once again fully stocked. The era of Amazon has made consumption even more magical. Now we don’t even have to bother with the store. We tap a digital image on our magical phones and somehow the object shows up on our doorstep days later. It’s like a slow motion Star Trek replicator, which is another way of saying, it’s magic.

But this magical technology has been disrupted in recent months. All of a sudden, Americans who have grown accustomed to uninterrupted progress were greeted by empty shelves at the local Walmart. They were subjected to frustrating delays in shipping. Some items became (gasp!) unavailable. This was jarring to Americans who had been discipled by the principles of unbridled consumerism for so long. Add to this, the discomforting reality of discovering more about our consumer goods that we ever cared to know. Technology conceals, but technology also reveals. Technology makes it so that we don’t have to think about certain things, but it also forces us to think about other things that were once hidden. So now Americans have to think about whether or not that shirt they are wearing was manufactured by slave labor in China. China, it turns out, isn’t Mars. And Chinese people are real people. The illusion of easy consumption buckles under the reality of discovering where our consumer goods come from.

The painful realities of war have also disrupted our magical thinking this time in regards to the energy that we consume. Most people don’t think about the gas they put in their car or the electricity that powers their home. They certainly know how much it costs, but they don’t think much about where it comes from. Electricity just kind of shows up at our house and gas stations will always have the gas that we need. It’s magic. Magical thinking has enabled us to believe convenient lies about green energy. We think it’s easy. We just get rid of fossil fuels and nuclear power and replace them with green energy (as long as those windmills are not within my line of sight of course). It is within our reach to reduce carbon emission to zero! The only problem with this is reality. So-called green energy isn’t anywhere close to replacing fossil fuels for our energy needs. The Prius you used to drive and the Tesla you currently drive will not “save the world.” We choose to not think about the massive factory used to produce it and the other factory used to power it. We’d rather comfort ourselves with the illusion. I’m not saying that we should be callously dismissive of environmental problems. Far from it! I’m also not saying to not drive a Tesla. I hear they’re great. But we also should be willing to tell ourselves the truth. For years, wealthy nations have deluded themselves about where their energy comes from. And then Russia invaded Ukraine. Like everyone else, I’m shocked, saddened, and outraged by the atrocity and injustice of this war. Compared to the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the cost of gas is insignificant. However, this invasion has challenged the magical thinking about energy that exists in much of the western world. We’ve been painfully reminded that our dreams of clean energy have been propped up by energy from some of the worst governments in the world. Magical thinking comes at a cost – whether it is the cost of slave labor in China or cheap oil from Russia. Having the protective shield of magical thinking lowered, we are left to wrestle with the realities.

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