Why do people call computer experts “wizards”? or “gurus”? Or other names suggesting magical powers? What happens when the magic runs out?
In his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson compares these modern labels to the ancient Sumerian culture. We have a mainstream work force, he suggests, that is illiterate or aliterate, dependent on TV for most of what it knows or believes; we have a cadre “who understand that information is power” and who have “the semimystical ability” (or so it appears to others) to manipulate technology by speaking its own exotic languages.
Im reminded of Larry Nivens short story, “Not Long Before the End,” which recounts a sorcerers discovery that magic is a finite resource: that when the magic in a place is used up, “those lands which had been richest in magic had been overrun by barbarians carrying swords and clubs. It was a sad truth, and one that did not bear thinking about.” Real-world truth is painful, too, but thinking is not optional.
Since we first started building computers, weve enjoyed the powers of magicians: the ability to create any number of tireless servants, to conjure up fantasy worlds, to collapse space and shrink time with communications and simulations.
But like Nivens warlock, we see the warning signs that the energy of magic as we know it may soon wane. The National Security Agency flirts with denial, trying to do tomorrows job by doing what its always done—but faster. Others are finding diminishing returns in their search for new knowledge: IBMs Blue Gene machine, built to tackle the problem of protein folding, will harness more than 1 million processors. Ironic, isnt it? Proteins somehow figure out how to fold all by themselves.
We seem to be nearing fundamental limits of understanding, and new approaches like quantum and biocomputing may emerge from the labs just in time. Otherwise, as Niven wrote in 1969, “The whole world will be barbarians … and the swordsmen, the damned stupid swordsmen will win after all.”