The perils of ignorant dependance

So I came down with a cold on Wednesday, and was re-reading Lord of the Rings and came across a wonderful quote. It's from Gandalf, of course.

"Perilous to all of us are the devices of an art deeper than we ourselves possess."

This is spoken to Pippin after Gandalf realizes that Saruman has been perverted by his use of the palantír, a device made in the depths of time and no longer completely understood. It is, of course, a cautionary tale, and taken with a grain of salt I think there is great wisdom in it that can be applied to technology, but especially to computers. It is no coincidence that the palantír is essentially an communications device, like the modern day computer. I was pleased to run across this mailing list post by Kragen Sitaker that goes into some depth of explanation.

There are several lessons, actually. First, do not get frustrated with people, especially older ones, who stubbornly refuse to use certain kinds of technology. It may be stubbornness, but it may also be an intuitive understanding that nothing comes without it's cost.

Second, it brings to light how much of our lives are governed by "devices of an art deeper than we ourselves possess". Kragen uses the examples of software and cars, but certainly there are many other engineering feats that fall within this exegesis. I don't really know what it takes to build a road, for example, or a house, or how to weave or farm or do any of the many things it takes to keep me alive.

There is obviously something to be said here, but it's not clear if it's already been said. Certainly it is troubling to be so far removed from the activities that actually support my life. But the only peril that could really harm me is outright global catastrophe, I think. Our society is extremely skilled in understanding information, and if given sufficient incentive, recreate processes at virtually any level of the technological scale.

There are other perils, of course, of the "enemy of the state" variety - where one's "identity" is maliciously perverted or removed.

It is strange, our world. Life is so very easy with money; food is so cheap as to be free, even basic shelter (at least in most parts) may as well also be free. But with *no* money, it would be very hard to live. One cannot pick one's own food in the city. Certainly it would be difficult, if not impossible, to build one's own computer from raw materials. That in itself makes the computer perilous, I suppose.

In a sense, the entire society in which I live is a 'deeper art than I possess', because I don't really understand how it all fits together and why it doesn't all just fall apart. To use a physical analogy, why is society apparently stable, like an airplane, rather than unstable like a helicopter? Why does it all-of-a-sudden become unstable and convulse into revolution and war?

With respect to software, one thing is for certain: if you take Gandalf seriously, all computer users should understand computers to a far greater degree than they currently do. Since we all use computers now (in one form or another) that means we all should really understand them. Furthermore, we can minimize our peril by using thick client open source software. That way we can, if we have the skill and the desire, peek into the black box and see how the gears turn. Closed source software isn't so easy to peak into, but it is at least possible. Thin-client applications like Google are the most opaque; as a rule, one only sees the interface and has no chance to see how things work behind the scenes. Practically speaking, it makes no difference to the public-at-large, since the source code of Firefox is just as inaccessible as the algorithms of Google. Well, I think it makes a difference, and surely that counts for something?

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