The Coming World of Magic

I was not too surprised to see an article titled U.S. millennials post ‘abysmal’ scores in tech skills test, lag behind foreign peers in today’s Washington Post. The article says that in a test of literacy, math and technological problem-solving skills, US millennials (defined as age 16-34) ranked very low against their peers in other countries no matter how the data was cut by race, gender, and education.

This ties to a recent revelation of mine. I have been coaching an FTC robotics team this year. The team has done well and has designed a very innovative robot. The boys on it are all bright, eager, and have learned a great deal. In many ways, they are much like me at that age: geeks fascinated by technology, computers, military history and so on. But there was one surprising difference: not one of them knew any programming.

There are kids out there at this age (15-16) who do know how to program. But in a sample of 5 hard-core geeks, not one knows how to code? I was rather shocked, to be honest.

But it comes back to a trend that the test cited in the article above gets at: users of technology do not necessarily understand it. Today’s technology with its ready games, images, social media, suck up a lot of the time. This has already had a noticeable effect on the reading of books. Less recognized is the effect it is having on the sorts of skills mentioned in the article.

If a teenager is spending an hour on social media and another few hours on gaming or surfing, that’s the same time in their busy lives they might have spent in the past reading, learning to program, learning how a radio works or fixing a lawnmower. It can lead to a generation of people who are savvy about navigating the web, have an innate sense of how a GUI should work, but have little idea of the technology behind it.

In the case of this particular study, the results are relative: the US scores low, other countries score high. Some of the distractions for US youth must be present for youth in other countries. This may mean that the scores have little to do with technological distractions but, then again, the US may be worse because it was an earlier adopter of the new marvels.

We’ll see how this plays out but for the science fiction author in me, it’s not hard to imagine a future where most of the world population has a superficial understanding of technology: they know how to order a pizza online or track down an old friend, but they have little idea of what happens behind the scenes. It’s not like 20 or 40 years ago, the average person understood the underpinnings of technology but if the geek portion of a generation isn’t learning how the technology works, then there may be very few technologists and very little innovation down the road.

From a story point of view where conflict is necessary to drive the story arc, one can imagine a future where the rich countries are complacent and comfortable in their technological cocoon but have lost the ability to create new technology. Or perhaps this is what happens to very mature civilizations: maybe Earthlings encounter a space-faring race where very few of the aliens really understand how their technology works, leaving them unable to react quickly enough to an aggressive, more flexible race (us).

It would be an interesting turn-around from the uber-dominant, militaristic alien races to have one that, while more advanced, is more like a clumsy giant, out maneuvered by a still agile humanity.

As to the article itself, I can’t say it is all doom and gloom for the US. These things always have a way of coming and going. What I wouldn’t advocate as a response, however, is more homework. I think homework has been over done. Free time to explore is what kids really need. And maybe incentives to understand their world better: maybe more tangible rewards for the ones who start writing or programming, ‘doing’, instead of soaking up all that lovely media out there.

To circle back to the title: if we do create generations of descendants who have no understanding of the technology in their bright and shiny world, they will essentially look to technology as magic.

Arthur C. Clark’s 3rd law is:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

I think most of us, when seeing it, imagine it applies to a less advanced race experiencing the technology of a more advanced race. But what if, instead, the technology of the advanced race appears to themselves as magic?

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2 thoughts on “The Coming World of Magic

  1. I read that article, too. (What was that, last weekend?) Anyway, it made me think along the same lines as you did. However, I’m not a programmer. I never have been, though I did learn a bit of programming back in the day (elementary school, where I had to get the little ‘turtle’ across the screen). That knowledge of programming languages has served me well in learning scripting languages and just knowing how things get done on a computer.

    I suppose it is similar to what cars technology went through. When they first came out, only a few understood them. As they proliferated, it seemed everyone had to be their own mechanic (or at least, farmers had to know a bit about engines and how they worked). Now, we just take our cars into specialists. I think our basic infrastructure is the same. Can you get a working electrical grid going? I can’t.

    But you are right that it seems our youth (hell, I’m in this boat, too) do not have the basic skills to compete in this new, and constantly evolving, world stage. Where’s my magic wand?

  2. The world is way too complicated for everyone to know the fundamentals of every domain. I’m sure Grandma or Grandpa 80 years ago probably thought that horseless carriage thing was pretty magical. But when the geek-element is too dazzled by media to dig into how it works, it is a little odd to me.

    If you aren’t a software type but understand scripting, that’s a big leg up and all you really need to understand that the web and your phone ain’t magic 🙂

    Anyway, I don’t really see it happening any time soon and certainly not world-wide: maybe some rich pampered countries lose their tech innovation edge but then they aren’t likely to remain rich and pampered very long.

    From a story point of view, it has potential. What is a wand other than a focus that translates hand motions and thoughts into action? It’s not too hard to imagine a future where your thoughts are turned into actions (with or without a wand). It’s also not hard to imagine very few people who used such tech would understand how it works. Maybe after 10, 20, 40 generations, for all practical purposes, they do, in fact, think of it as magic. it might certainly look a lot like magic.

    I find it interesting to consider the greatest application of Clarke’s 3rd law within the high tech society and not so much from between high tech and low tech societies.

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