“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke
A relatively short time ago, on a universal scale, many very intelligent humans were stuck on a big physics problem. In everyday life, a gun on a train fires a bullet that is the speed of a bullet shot from a stationary gun plus the speed of the train. For some weird reason, light doesn’t work that way. Plagued by the idea that light didn’t seem to follow the regular rules, thinkers worldwide began to crowbar in some elaborate (and totally harebrained) ideas about something called luminiferous aether.
One pretty bright dude realigned his thinking and emerged with a startling solution: what if everything is relative to the speed of light itself? This is a hugely difficult idea because we do not (normally) travel at speeds close to the speed of light, so there really was no way you could ask even the most intelligent humans to viscerally understand this basic truth of the universe.
Flash forward to the present day: one furiously triple-clicks a hyperlink and curses as a windows pop up in succession one after another; another swings controller wildly in the direction the on-screen character needs to go despite actual buttons controlling directional movement; you say “the computer knows you are around, so now it is behaving;” we press harder on our smooth glass coffee table tablets; we yell obscenities at our smartphone assistants; we curse these machines for being so gosh-darn capricious.
All of these things are infallible machines of pure logic. We are not.
Computers are supremely logical tools that do exactly what they are instructed to do. But every computer that you interact with is layers deep in instruction that is designed to let you forget that it is a very complex calculator at heart. But they do what they are designed to do — that is read, write, and exchange data — very well.
We are fallible. We lie. We forget. We daydream. We’re a fundamentally different sort of machine. But when we interact with computers, we both treat them as another machine like ourselves and we trust our capacities more than the computer’s. It is not that we’re unintelligent. Quite the opposite; we’re still vastly more intelligent than any of our computing machines. But we still are not as good at remembering and computing as they are.
Yes, there are bugs. But a bug in your program was put there by the person who wrote the code that makes up the program. Why would they do such a thing? Because programmers too are fallible machines. Sometimes they forget that they already used that variable name. Sometimes they can’t remember some minutiae in a code library programmed by some Mötley Crüe fan in 1989 halfway around the word, but was able to get it to work by a stroke of luck; you may not be so lucky because your initial conditions are different. Or maybe, they are just putting a new layer of varnish on innumerable deeper layers that have built up over the years.
In the end, when you interact with your machines, remember a few things:
1. Computers cannot think. They cannot misbehave. They cannot act out of spite. They cannot act out of goodwill. They act as they were instructed to act.
2. You are a fuzzy information machine of fantastic and unmatched complexity, capable of creative thought, movement, and emotion.
3. You need rest. Computers do not.
So the next time you are working overtime and that Excel sheet will not do what you want it to do, go home. Eat a delicious dinner. Listen to an album. Have a glass of wine with your spouse. Get a good night’s sleep. Your computer will be there tomorrow, magically able to do what you want it to do. Only, it isn’t the computer that changed.