Any sufficiently advanced technology …

Legendary Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three “laws” or adages the third and most famous of which is “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Whenever a hear it I am am transported back to my first trip to Africa to do my dissertation research. I was doing research on the effect of a Lutheran mission on the religious beliefs in a village about a hundred miles from the capital. When we went there the foreign missionaries had been replaced by a home grown Lutheran church who were only to eager to rent a house on the old mission grounds to cash paying Americans. It was a small, comfy, one bedroom house with a fireplace with a large cross sculpted into the wall above. We lived there for eight months and never had occasion to use the fireplace.

It had indoor plumbing, but the source of water was stone platform higher than the house with three 55 gallon interconnected drums. There was another 55 gallon drum on the ground connected by pipes to the drums on the platform. One filled the ground level drum with water and then used a waggle pump to push the water up to the drums on the platform. Then gravity would bring water to the pipes, sink and toilet in the house upon demand. It was a quite ingenious system. The hard part was in bringing water to the ground drum from a creek somewhere between a half and three quarters mile away.  We hired a young man to do this for us. His name was Larry. It was hard work but he was willing to do this as we were one of the only sources of income available in the village. He did many other things (e.g. killing the occasional snake that got into the house,  wringing the neck of chickens so we could eat them, harvesting avocados from the backyard trees etc.) and in general took care of us for the months we were there.

One of the first questions he asked us had to do with entertainer James Brown. Brown had a hit record at that time that had made it all the way to Africa called “I got ants in my pants and I’ve got to dance.” Larry’s question was “he doesn’t really have ants in his pants does he?” I answered “no” and explained that it was just that he had an urge to dance. Larry was quite bright and while we were away for a few days getting supplies from the capital, we returned to find that he had rigged up a system so that rainwater could be caught and directed into the upper water drums. He therefore lightened his work load by not having to make as many trips to haul water for us. It was using his ingenuity and taking initiative to make his (and our) life better.

Enough setting the scene let’s get to the main event. We often talked and I told them if there was anything about America that he wanted to know he could ask me. He thought for a while and then asked “is it true that in America you can put pads on your hands and take a hot pan off the stove or out of the fire without getting burned.”   Of all the things different about America I was shocked that the thing he wanted most to know about was a potholder. Yet here was a simple thing which seemed almost magical to him. I hadn’t thought much about potholders before, but with insulation and silicone, a truly “magical” thing had been created to perform one of the daily and most useful of tasks. I admitted to him that it was true to his amazement. We had many more talks about more important subjects, but I never forgot his amazement at this simple thing that I took for granted. There have been more sophisticated and complex changes in tech have brought to our lives. I look with awe at the cellphone in my hand which  is a digital camera, video recorder, personal communication device, more powerful computer than NASA had for its early space flights, and a link to the most extensive data-bank of information (and misinformation) ever created by humans (the Internet.) I know that tech has been used by the profit-driven to wreak havoc on our planet, it is unevenly distributed by geopolitics and social inequality, and it has been misused to create a sedentary and obese population in our country. These are problems with humans not with the tech itself.

It is now over forty-five years later and I think of Larry often and I remind myself I must stop and marvel at the magic around me. So should you.

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