Saturday, March 30, 2019
"We are was gods...."
Vox explains just what's going wrong with the Boeing 737 Max. The long version is mendacity, greed, and the intractable problems of engineering v. desire. The shorter version: computers are mystery boxes with magic inside ("software") that will solve all our problems if we just let it. At least, that's the attitude that won out; and so here we are.
Pop sci is still full of metaphors for humans and computers (mostly software, now), and how understanding that solves all our problems (or at least divides what can be "solved" from what doesn't need to be solved, because it can't be analogized to software).
There are, yes, a number of problems with Boeing's design of the 737, but ironically it returns to an undue faith in technology, the same faith Wendell Berry critiqued after 9/11. Then the faith was in engineering to solve all our ills (what is modern flight but a triumph of engineering?). Now we "bypass" engineering by invoking the magic of software. Because magic has gone from being the mysterious force that rules despite man's will, to being the force of will working through mysterious means. Magic in ancient literature is the force that thwarts our efforts and understanding (look what it does for Macbeth). By Harry Potter, magic is just technology by other means; powerful, but fully within our control and wholly an expression of character and will.
And so we decide our will can override the physical universe, and software is the medium through which that will can be enacted.
Stewart Brand introduced "The Last Whole Earth Catalog," in what now seems a much more innocent (and certainly less technological) time, explaining that "We are as gods, we might as well get good at it." We kept the first part, ditched the last part, convinced that if we could will it, we were already able to do it, and so had to be good at it.
The Greeks called it hubris; but they meant we didn't have the power the gods did. The main difference is, now we think we do.
Posted by Rmj at 10:08 AM