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Software, fear and witchcraft

I'm Peter, a Rails developer and entrepreneur. I'm an ex-computer vision researcher, the former CEO of Clickpass and a YC alum. I have built and sold a lot of different software and am now the CTO of - which lets you quickly create stunning sales pitches

A throwaway comment I left on HN today resonated enough to make me rethink its significance.

“Evidently the corollary to Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote on technology and magic is that those who create it are witches and wizards. You like the magic and you need a few practitioners but when things start getting weird, it’s pitchfork o’clock.”

It was really only meant to be cute but it got so many upvotes (31 83) that it made me realise that it was accidentally more true than I realised.

The quote from ACK is of course that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Back in the day magic was (to my uneducated understanding) largely chemistry, slight of hand and showmanship.

Magic led to both fear and respect. Witches and wizards feature frequently at the right hand of leaders but seldom seemed to make their deathbeds in a single piece.

As technologists, we wield our powers for the advancement of ourselves, our world, and just for fun. We can do pretty crazy things and create wealth and power out of seemingly nothing in a way that witches and warlocks of yore would have been awe of. We are perhaps too glib about the comprehension and understanding this takes from the rest of the world.

Take the legend of a chosen redhead. Even as a child he cast a spell so powerful it blanketed the entire world. His spell gave him the power to hang the thoughts, fears and dreams of a billion people in front of him like the silvery strands of the pensieve. It was magic so strong that neither the young nor the old could resist. All were seduced. Finally, unsatisfied at merely holding the thoughts of the world in his hands, the talented magician went further. Within a year he had emptied the purses of the richest merchants in the land to the tune of the combined value of the greatest shipping and trading companies of his day.

As crazy (and implausible) a tale as this is, this is the world we live in. This is the magic we practice and the power that it gives us.

In the wake of the terrible news of Aaron Swartz there have been several followup stories of information crusaders, crucified by the establishment. It’s maybe easy to overlook the fact that those who mete out such punishments are not just reacting to the action. They are presumably also reacting to their own fear.

Nobody with any real understanding of the facts and technologies involved would have offered up 35 years in jail as the appropriate punishment for Aaron. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that witchhunt is the word that we reach for in these circumstances.

When power destroys things we presumed safe, awe turns to fear and fear to a call to arms. 35 years is better than being burned at the stake but it’s similar enough to stop and think. Why would facilitating the distribution of legally available academic research papers carry a greater punishment than stabbing and beating someone to within an inch of their life which (in the UK at least) carries a maximum sentence of 18 years?

In abstract it seems crazy. The trolly problem is a bona fide moral dilemma. If however you were offered the alternative of either a) stabbing someone to the point of their lifetime paralysis or b) making some already-public scientific papers more available it wouldn’t even qualify as a dilemma, merely a question of how quickly the papers could be set free.

And yet in the eyes of the law, freeing the papers carries twice the sentence of stabbing someone. There has to be more to such irrationality than simply an unbalanced emphasis on intellectual property.

Magic: “the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature”

Technology at its best, as Arthur C Clarke said, is indistinguishable from magic. But throughout history, magic has come hand in hand with fear.

In dealing with others’ perceptions of magic we should remember that it is fear that whistles through the pitchforks and fans the torches. Arguing that the mother would have died during childbirth regardless and that the healing spell was not what killed her won’t allay the villagers’ fears. They need to know that the spell can’t kill their wives and mothers.

When faced stories such as Ahmed or Aaron’s, we technologists focus simply on the rights and wrongs of the act itself. Consciously or otherwise though, non-technologists are reacting both to the act and the magic. Perhaps sometimes we underestimate the importance and significance of simply demystifying ourselves.

Discussion on Hacker News

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  1. peternixey posted this