Not fully understanding technology can lead to irrational fear of relatively simple mechanisms and gadgets.

Andrew Terefenko

Opinions Editor

 

Blind faith. Two words that perfectly encapsulate the way we co-exist with modern technology in our everyday lives. Is it a problem? Perhaps it is not an immediate crisis facing our species, but an issue worth any responsible human’s due consideration.

Imagine for a moment how an airplane functions. Visualize the complex mechanisms keeping you 11 km in the air and understand what each of the 970 switches, buttons and levers do to keep you safe. If that isn’t in your capacity, then I do not blame you, as you are the same as the other 300 passengers who trust that the technology is sound but do not truly understand it. Entire droves of people fly on a daily basis without understanding the basics of aerodynamics.

It is a reflection of a culture that has become so inundated with rapid technological advances that there is just no time for an individual to read a flight manual. People are too busy to intimately know the inner workings of their toaster. As long as it toasts bread, we can take solace in delicious, reliable breakfasts. The problem lies in a technological event horizon where the advances we desire require far higher increments of risk.

Consider for a moment a theoretical technology of teleportation. We want it so very badly to cut down our commutes to work, to save moolah on yearly family vacations, and to save precious bed-to-bathroom seconds. That kind of technology entails the entire breakdown of the human cell structure, down to the last atom, and transmit our biological make-up through radio-like transmissions to be re-assembled at our desired destination. If such a technology existed would it not be important, then, for a prospective teleportee to understand that they were about to be completely decimated atom by atom, and re-assembled on another end of the earth? Convenience would drive most decisions in that case, but it would be important to understand such a technology to weigh the risk of using it.

On that same train of thought, it is important for people to understand real technologies available to us today, even very basic ones we have relied on for decades. Magnetism, for example, is the driving mechanism behind most brain-scanning technology, and a basic understanding of how safe polarization mechanisms would aid an ailing individual who fears being sent into a magnetic resonance imaging machine. Global magnetic fields are what allow compasses to derive north from south no matter where you are on the planet, which is an amazing discovery yet most take for granted. Your debit, credit and loyalty cards all have a black magnetic strip on the back that actually encodes and carries information without any kind of scratching, poking or clicking, merely by altering the strip’s magnetic field ever so slightly. The human body has such a low inherent sensitivity to magnetic fields that all this technology is completely safe to us and integral to most of our daily tools and gadgets. So important, apparently, that a Yahoo! Answers search of “How do magnets work?” yielded an astonishing 2233 results. That is a staggering amount of literate, internet-savvy people who do not understand what is quite possibly the most important mechanism in their lives.

Magnetism is but one example, as similar searches in the popular question-answering site yielded similar results for inquiries about the process that creates rain, how gas powers a car and, to my astonishment, 300 results for “How does a lightbulb work?” I could not help but feel incredulous at this revelation.

We are busy people; I understand that. We have lives, obligations, families and Facebook routines, but I don’t think it’s a valid excuse.

It would take two minutes of browsing Wikipedia to learn how a doorknob works, which is two minutes most people spend looking at pictures of cats. Hopefully those cats explain the basics of atomic recombobulation because otherwise you can look forward to several more decades of blissful, stupid ignorance.

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