The Coming Age of Magic

The coast-to-coast solar eclipse that crossed the US in 2017 revealed some interesting insights into some people's thinking.  One rapper, perhaps attempting to emulate a similar reported feat by president Trump, deliberately stared at the sun without protective glasses with unfortunate effects.  Others took precautions against retinal damage but not of the right kind.  Bruce Lee at Forbes reports that some patients were admitted in Ohio for putting sunscreen on their eyeballs. "This is not the way you are supposed to use sunscreen. The directions on a sunscreen bottle typically do not say: 1. Open bottle 2. Squeeze some sunscreen on your fingers and hands. 3. Put on eyeballs."

We might be tempted to laugh at other people's ignorance but should we? The Great American Eclipse drew an estimated audience of 220 million people. "It's so far the largest crowd to witness the rare total solar eclipse in the history of eclipses." Never in history have so many of the ordinary been exposed to the extraordinary.  When 200 million people look up at the sky some of them are going to smear sunscreen on their eyeballs.

Can the common man cope with the esoteric?  Two hundred years ago the average person probably understood virtually everything he encountered in daily life. Today the average person is surrounded by objects far more complex than the Apollo 11 guidance computer. Under those circumstances, as help desk workers all over the world will attest, technical ignorance is the rule rather than the exception.

Modern smart devices are purposely designed to be operated even by an idiot. Technology has allowed the burden of intelligence to be shifted away from the user to the machine. As a result people routinely use tools they barely understand implicitly believing they will work.  It works but there's a danger.  As Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".  In our high technology present an increasing percentage of the global population must relate to their world in terms of magic.

The classic characteristic of magic is wish fulfillment.  Sigmund Freud argued that "the motives which impel one to exercise magic are easily recognized; they are the wishes of men ... At bottom everything which he accomplished by magic means must have been done solely because he wanted it." Psychologically it is a most unscientific world.  Desires replace the laws of physics.

Ironically that primitive attitude accurately describes the contemporary public attitude toward technology better than rationality. The idea that people ought to know better than to apply ointment sounds bigoted.  Things should simply just work.  The politically correct solution is to create sunscreen that YOU CAN apply to your eyeballs so you can watch the solar eclipse in safety. The morning after pill, the eat all you want but never get fat diet, the bottomless credit card, "affordable healthcare" despite accepts all preexisting conditions are applications of this principle.  The preferred solution to today's problems is no longer to intelligently avoid injury but to abolish its consequences.