Erratic Discourse On the Use of Complex Tools

Earlier this week, I had a glass of wine with Jane at a local watering hole.  She is a middle-school teacher with a passion for philosophy, which means our conversation is not dull.  As we spoke, the question arose of what broad social implications inhere in the widespread disconnection in the use of a higher-order tool when the lower-level principles governing the development of that tool are unknown to the user.

Clear as mud, eh?

The context is this:  In “my day” — circa 1994 — the World Wide Web was starting to blossom into the public consciousness.  I have had an e-mail account in some form since the 1980s, with the QuantumLink service I accessed through the 2800-bps modem I plugged into my Commodore 64.  When the Web started to grow, there wasn’t much in the public domain regarding advanced development tools, so I had to learn HTML and I hand-coded my first few complete Web sites (which included many images and framesets) by FTP’ing the files I marked up in Notepad.  As such, I have a fairly strong understanding of the fundamentals of how the Web works and what is or is not possible with the technology.  Although I’m not especially conversant in Java, and my PHP skills are rudimentary, I grasp the concepts quite clearly.

However, there are many people today, especially young people, who use GUI-based tools to simply drag-and-drop things on their MySpace page or whatnot.  They couldn’t parse raw HTML if their lives depended on it, and they lack a clear foundation in how the technology that they use so blithely, actually works.

So, what of it?

On one hand, people can drive a car with no problem even if they can’t quite grasp the concept of the internal combustion engine.  On the other, as with sailing, unless a person has a thorough knowledge of the physics of sailing and has mastered all systems from plumbing to diesel maintenance, their effectiveness in the face of difficulties on the open water is severely curtailed.

Perhaps the larger point is that human society is evolving past the ability of the average person to have a complete understanding of the various tools he uses to manipulate his increasingly complex environment.  People can understand some things, but not everything; I may understand how to markup HTML, but I couldn’t replace the transmission in my Grand Cherokee to save my life. 

Is this a problem?  I suppose there are two levels to the question.  For one thing, if there is a catastrophe of some sort that affects these higher-order tools (e.g., widespread power failures), many people would have serious difficulty surviving; dependency on complex tools is helping humanity to spread to the stars, but when our survival is increasingly dependent on those tools, we do become enslaved to them, and it seems like there’s something significant in that fact.

For another thing, human society takes time to accommodate new technology.  We still haven’t fully mastered the fermented grape, and we’ve been dealing with it for more than 3,000 years.  Radical new technologies take centuries to work into our culture, but the dizzying spike in the quantity and complexity of today’s newest marvels is out-pacing our systemic ability to adapt.  At some point, this will come crashing home, and it’s not clear what might happen when it does, since we have no historical analogue for it.

Actually … come to think of it … this makes an interesting premise for a novel.

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