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It Only Feels Like Magic

The word technology, particularly in its contemporary sense, is fairly new. Generally thought to have first been used in the mid-1800s, it comes from the Greek technologia, which means the "systematic treatment of an art."1 In its early English usage, it only referred to the applied arts (the process of decorating otherwise plainly rendered utilitarian objects),2 but its definition gradually changed over time to include a growing range of ideas that all center on tools and machines. Eventually, the concept settled into what we might consider its familiar modern meaning, a "means or activity by which man seeks to change or manipulate his environment."3 We could probably strip this definition down even further. As we use the word today, technology basically means a gadget; and that's the beginning of our problem because, so defined, the term loses at least half of its original sense—and the half it loses, the "systematic" part, is really important.

We all have seen it happen: a new gadget comes out, and a portion of society becomes so mesmerized by it that people are willing to stand in line for days to be among the first to possess it.4 There is something about devices, particularly personal devices that do very specific things, that many human beings find tremendously appealing. But this is nothing new. There just seems to be something in our collective psyche that responds to the notion of designing a physical system that performs a sequential series of activities that each progressively work toward accomplishing a goal, like a machine designed to rotate a set of stones between which grain is pulverized into flour when a current of air encounters an arrangement of large, paddle-shaped blades (a windmill); or a series of carefully arranged gutters laid end-to-end over great distances, at a carefully calculated gradient, through which fresh water flows from its mountain source to a bustling city below (the aqueduct); or even a cylinder of compressed charcoal encased in a sheath of soft wood that can be filed to a point and used to scratch symbols on different surfaces to capture and record a thought (a pencil).

Then there is perhaps the greatest technology of them all: language (the actual symbols drawn by that pencil), a systematic series of specific shapes (and their associated sounds), all with agreed-upon meanings and relationships that represent both physical objects and abstract concepts, used to transfer (as accurately as the skill of the communicator will allow) the ideas that occur in one brain directly into another, not only over physical distance but across time, so that the observations, knowledge, insights, and inspirations experienced by those who live in the now can become the foundation upon which those who will follow in the future can build their world, allowing them to advance from where their progenitors left off instead of having to figure out ...

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