The Economist, in its print edition of August 16, reviewed the book “Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen” by Philip Ball. The review, as usual, is thorough, covering the gamut of the book and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the writer.
But there is a point, rather a couple of them, mentioned in the review that caught my eye. I had to go back to re-read them and ponder. The Economist wrote:
[…]in traditional magic tales, all that was needed to make something invisible was special knowledge or powerful friends. The feat itself was not awesome. Once invisibility had been secured, “no one was particularly surprised or impressed” by it.
While this totally makes sense, it also raises a question of how we view things. Even in Harry Potter books, we never question how and why magic happens. We never question how and why everything is the way it is and how the invisibility cloak works. We never bother to worry about how the feat happens. Why? Is it because we aren’t curious about it? Or is it because the feat itself is not awesome but the benefits that it brings with it are?
The Economist explains its point further:
People today can show a similar lack of curiosity at the invisible forces that surround them: how many readers will know exactly how mobile phones work or how books can appear on their e-reader? It is the benefits that such forces bring that enthrall.
We’re fascinated by digital devices, heaping laurels and trolls on the latest gadget in the market. But we barely know how mobile phones work. We barely know how social media technologies should be used and we barely worry about knowing the intricacies of it.
My question is: should we?
As a user of a mobile phone, do I need to know the intricacies of its operations? Do I need to know how the wireless technology works and how a phone call is made? Do I need to know how data is transmitted when I am on Wi-Fi? Do I need to know the intrinsics of stuff all around me?
Sometimes I think the answer is yes, but in most cases, I think it is NO. I think it is not necessary to know how stuff works. It is more necessary to know how to apply stuff that works.
I, then, certainly become one of the people who show a lack of curiosity at the invisible forces that surround me. But I think that as long as I know the benefits that such forces can bring in, I don’t necessarily need to kindle that curiosity within me. I am not against knowing. I am one of the strongest proponents of obtaining any and all kinds and types of knowledge. After all, what is life without knowledge ?!
The lack of curiosity that the Economist mentions refers to the invisible forces that surround us, like the operations of a mobile phone and the e-reader. But if I am well-versed with the applications of such technologies, then I will certainly not condemn myself for not having the curiosity to know how it works. I don’t necessarily need to know how stuff works if I am able to derive benefit out of its use and application.
In a smartphone, what would matter more to me is not the knowledge of how the telecommunication networks work, but whether I can make a call, text someone, use the internet at my desired speed, communicate via apps and be a part of the larger ecosystem. I may lack the curiosity to know how a smartphone works, but I certainly do not lack the curiosity to know how to make the most of it.
The other point I want to mention is value, a misused yet much-used buzzword in business circles. When we think about what gives us more value, there are several perspectives to it. Some would argue that knowing the intricacies would enable us to innovate, but others would argue that using what already exists is more beneficial to drive innovation. What will increase value – knowing how books are printed or using a printed book to acquire enough knowledge to print a new book?
The moot point is to question whether it is really necessary to know the intrinsics of stuff. What should matter more – the ‘how’ or the application?
What do you think matters more? What should matter more? What will increase value? What will drive innovation? Do drop me a line. I hope to learn from you.