It’s “Magic”

This week I got to play with an iPad for the first time – let me tell you, it’s a pretty impressive product. I really does look like a big iTouch, but the experience of using it is completely different. In fact, it’s all the computer my wife needs, and I have great hopes for tablets like the iPad to assist those who, while not blind, are severely visually impaired (like my son). Heck, I’d like to have one to use around the house.

There’s something about the iPad’s marketing tactics, however, that’s been nagging at my mind since it was first announced. Yes, the name is…. unfortunate (it might be the rare instance in history where a focus group actually would have improved a product), but I’ve gotten used to the name. What’s been nagging at me about the iPad’s marketing is the proud proclamation that the iPad is “magic.” Geeks like me have jumped all over that word, it seems to be the united opinion that hearing “it’s magic” about the iPad is akin to having someone run their fingers down a chalkboard. I share the sentiment, but because of who I am I started to think, “Why are we reacting to this word so strongly?” I’ve come to the conclusion that we geeks react so strongly to this word because we instinctively understand what this means.

“Magic,” in the Western Context, has come to encapsulate any kind of secret knowledge that’s kept from the uninitiated by a guild or secret society. Those who are not initiated into the guild need this protection because if they used it they’d only end up harming themselves and others. A great example of this view of magic can be found in the Harry Potter series (the ban on under-age wizards) and also in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (Unseen university exists to keep people from using magic, which can accidentally destroy the world on a routine basis). Geeks understand this, when we drop to the command line and people’s eyes glaze over we get a glimpse of how the uninitiated see our world – “ls -l” might as well be an incantation to a non-geek. We like the fact that we stand between the user and their self-destruction – and it’s one of the reasons why we get so upset when users decide to use the magic, bypass our safe-guards, and then cry out for help when the digital demons come to ruin their day. We refer to this problem PEBKAC. If you don’t know what that means, chances are you’ve been a PEBKAC at some point in your life, you’re not in the guild.

Now, as I said, we’re quite happy being the digital wizards (or, if you want to go religious, “priests”). We stand between the users and chaos and we take pride in that. This is why we hate it when the iPad is referred to as “magic.” First, it offends our sensibilities that the uninitiated would be given the power of our digital realm without having to be taught how to think. All someone who uses an iPad has to know is where to touch and how to type in their password to buy an app – yet, they’ll still get to dance around the tablet like they know what they’re doing. Second, we geeks bristle at the fact that we, who know how to think are are initiated into the grand guild of geeks, are only allowed to use the same limited magic on the iPad that people who are normally PEBKAC get to use. It’s like Apple is saying that there’s another guild that only exists at 1 Infinite Loop, and we aren’t allowed to even consider joining it. So, we get peeved and think, “Who does Steve Jobs think he is, anyway?” What really hacks us off though, is that Steve Jobs isn’t really even considered a geek by the initiated, he’s an artist who employs geeks to merge the worlds of art and digital magic for the PEBKAC peoples of the world. In Steve Job’s world, it’s like we’re unnecessary, his special guild is all the world needs to be protected from digital chaos – and so we get miffed.

The thing is, we know that Steve Jobs still needs us, and he knows it as well. After all, without us where would he get the geeks to create the alloy of his art and our digital magic? So what do we do? We take our guild underground, we “jailbreak” our phones and tablets, and teach others the secrets that are happening under the screen of limited (yet pretty) magic that Steve’s guild offers to the PEBKAC masses. Yes, we know that there are other platforms out there that we don’t need to break into, but the pride of geeks is huge, and so we break into the walls of the iCastle in an act of rebellion. Yet, I think the best of us will eventually find the Artist waiting for us in some hallway of the iCastle with a smile on his face – and before we can attack he’ll say, “Oh good, I’ve been waiting for you. You see, I have this idea….”

It’s like…. magic.

2 thoughts on “It’s “Magic”

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C Clarke

    I’m fortunate, I suppose, to have not heard any of this “it’s magic” nonsense. This is an interesting way to look at the world of geeks, however.

    Though, I think that the truth is really deeper. I mean, geekdom is not about hiding information. Sure, we enjoy sitting on our thrones of pizza boxes, condescending to give our aid to the ignorant masses, and, sure, it’s annoying when one of those ignorant masses interrupts our very important work because he doesn’t know how to check whether his Caps Lock key is on. But, at the same time, one of the key rules of hackerdom is that “information wants to be free.”

    The difference is that we’re the ones who have put forth the effort to learn how to understand that information.

    The thing that riles us, I think, is not so much that the ignorant masses have access to the magic. It’s that they think they’re us.

    It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with my father in law. He was talking about this guy we both know who is a sort of “tech whiz kid”, or, at least, that is how he is perceived to be. Sure, he can do a lot of cool stuff with technology, and he does enjoy doing it. However, I think my FIL was spot-on when he said that, at the core, this friend is just a button-pusher. He knows that, if he pushes the buttons in this sequence or that sequence, something cool happens. But he doesn’t know *why* it happens, and he doesn’t (at least, as is my impression) particularly care to know.

    And, honestly, that guy is more deserving to be called a geek than most people who use the term these days.

    In another world, it’s sort of like the difference between myself and my grandfather concerning cars. I can use some reference materials and some basic problem solving skills to do a bit of work on my car and keep it running. My grandfather, however, is a mechanic. He doesn’t just know that part A attaches to part B, he knows why part A attaches to part B, what part A and part B do, how they do it, and, if they don’t fit together exactly right, how to make them work together, and so on. My grandfather told me recently how he figured out the firing order on the first car he got to work on with. He didn’t have a reference manual; he figured it out on his own. He once had a mechanic cross-thread the drain bolt on his oil pan; he re-tapped the hole, and machined a new bolt to fit it.

  2. For those of us advanced PEBKAC’s of the world (somewhere beyond the traditional clueless but not quite up to the level of the geek wizard) we also find “it’s magic” irritating. In this case it’s because we bristle that anyone would market anything as magical. We have been burned enough by various technologies to know that there are going to be problems. (Something that’s a bit more than basic than normal that’s not so easy to do, or that is tucked away in a weird way. To jump platforms PCs are great for this one.) And we know enough about the workings (however slim) to realize that it’s not just button pushing & magic.

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