Magic and magicians

Arthur C. Clarke is quoted as saying: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Some people think I’m a magician; I make things they don’t understand work. I was reminded of this just after Christmas when I watched a toddler trying to make sense of a simple radio controlled car. He understood the “forwards” and “backwards” bit, but getting it to turn left and right was beyond him. Of course, once it disappeared from sight under a chair, then it became even more confusing! He seemed impressed when I could direct it to do what I wanted, but in the end he didn’t get as much from the toy as we would have hoped.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking. Thus far, I’ve spent a lot of my working time specifying, designing and fixing computer systems. Often I concluded that the people who were my customers didn’t really understand what they were asking for, and certainly didn’t understand the characteristics or limitations of the computers on which “the thingy” was going to work. More recently I have found myself simply explaining how to use very common applications (Word processors, spreadsheets, that sort of thing). A problem when you’re cast as “magician” is: how do you explain that something is difficult, or impossible, or that there is a better way of doing something? After all, “magic is magic”! Surely as a magician all I should have to do is tell them the right incantation and everything should work, even if they are pushing a spreadsheet to do more than it should (the use of spreadsheets as “trackers” and replacements for small, or even large, databases seems to be a situation where this happens quite a lot). An odd by-product of this, is that it can put the ignorant, or the outright charlatan at an advantage – all they have to do is say “yes” and then avoid actually explaining how to do it! Hmm, must think about his a little more.

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