I Got Your Magic Right Here!

Readers of Veritrope.com generally fall into two distinct camps: Some come here for AppleScripts or Mac-related posts, others for the less tech-oriented features.

Many of my friends are in the latter group. They’ve often told me “I started reading one of your computer posts and got a few paragraphs in… when I realized that I had no goddamn idea what you were talking about!

And so with this subtle encouragement, it occurs to me that some content that is less “nuts-and-bolts” and more “Why should I care about this nerdy stuff?” is probably in order.

Why Should They Care?

Earlier today, I was replying to someone in a forum thread about scanning paper documents when it occurred to me:

This is the type of stuff that is (or will be) important to so many people in their everyday lives, but it hasn’t yet made the leap into what we consider “The Ordinary”.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”1 I think he was wrong.

Any sufficiently advanced technology doesn’t seem magical — it seems mundane.

“We’ll Be Number One for Takeoff — As Soon As The FAA Finishes Rebooting!”

Whether you like it or not, the fact of the matter is that most people’s lives are getting geekier by the month — which means that what used to be “geeky” is becoming more ordinary.

Don’t believe me? Here in the U.S. earlier today, the Federal Aviation Administration suffered a “nationwide system outage”, which is another way of saying that the failure of a single, solitary internet connection created thousands of bored and frustrated people drinking bad Airport coffee for hours this morning.

Off the top of my head, here are three recent, mundane examples of how the concepts behind the way that computers make and use their files have impacted me or the people I know:

  • My fiancée (a clothing designer) calls me and says “I’m leaving work — just as soon as this dumb file finishes rasterizing!”
  • A client emails me saying “I can’t seem to download and watch my son’s video… and when I email the file to Windows users, they can’t figure out how to open it”
  • My friend who is a music producer sends me an MP3 of a track we’ve been collaborating on. In the time it takes me to walk to my subway station, I download the music to my iPhone and check it out while riding the train to an appointment.

I Got Your Magic Right Here!

Try to have a conversation with an ordinary person about what, exactly, electricity is and how it works…

Most people have a vague idea but, even so, it doesn’t make the idea of electricity feel daunting or especially mysterious to us.

It’s just something that hums along in the background of our lives.

Frankly, that’s okay: An understanding of how electricity works doesn’t make it work any better, right? Flick the switch and the light goes on.

An electrician that I know here in New York puts it pretty well: “Two hundred years ago, I would have been considered a “magician”. One hundred years ago, I would have been a “scientist”. In our time, I’m just a guy doing a job.”

But apply this notion to our modern, digital society: The concepts relating to how computers store and share information, which used to be the sole purview of the pocket-protector crowd, are actually now “the hidden loom” used to weave together so many strands of our everyday lives into a functional tapestry. It’s become more like electricity — something that is taken for granted, but upon which so many other things depend.

And yet, it’s also different than electricity in at least one key way:
Knowing more about how it works actually makes it work better!.

Stay With Me On This…

People are people.

Start to skim a posting like the one I was writing earlier today about scanning papers into your computer and you’ll see phrases like “compression ratio” and “downsample”.

Nine times out of ten — you’ll zone out and move on.

So how can we start to talking about this stuff in a way that captures your interest long enough to de-mystify it’s more boring technical aspects?

My approach-du-jour is this: Let’s make it real life, not abstract. And let’s also work in as many “Animal House” references as humanly possible.

On the Next Page: Flounder and the Not-So-Mysterious Art of PDF File Compression

  1. Report on Planet 3 (Signet SF, Y5409) []