Every time I get on a plane I find myself getting metaphysical. After settling in, checking out the reading materials and going through the usual aircraft emergency fantasies (the one in which the plane plunges into a vast jungle and only a handful of us survive, or how I single-handedly would subdue a team of 3 terrorists attempting to hijack the plane) I invariably start to marvel at the fact that I am in a small metal building that we have somehow managed to get off the ground and float through the air. It’s not really that impressive to get the building airborne since it is simply a matter of brute force. What is truly impressive for me is that we can do it with such precision, stability and predictability that we voluntarily agree to climb into these metal buildings while it shoots up into the sky and glides back down again thousands of kilometers away.
It has been said that a sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from magic and this would surely be the case for anyone experiencing an air flight for the first time. I also notice that the small video screens in front of us would surely be one of the most amazing feats of magic were you to watch it for the first time. Just as I’m thinking about this the in-flight movie begins and it is The Prestige. In the movie, David Bowie plays the role of Nikola Tesla, who many thought to be a magician of sorts.
But after the experience of magic wears off it’s even more impressive how we are able to fine-tune a technology so that it’s inner workings become completely moot and hidden to us. A modern automobile does not reveal that it is really working through the primitive technology of fire. We feed it with some sludge that we've dug up from the ground which is burned in an intense fire to move some pistons in order to produce locomotion. The reality of motoring is actually somewhat virtual for us. Even the act of going to a service station and filling up is really like plugging ports together and moving data or credits between machines since we never actually see the gasoline that goes into the car nor the fire when it burns.
When a technology reaches such a state of refinement and meshing with human behaviours and social patterns it becomes a part of our human being. If you watch a carpenter at work you will note that it is difficult to see where the hand ends and the hammer begins. The hammer becomes not just an extension of the hand but it becomes one with the hand and one with the practice of carpentry. Until the carpenter bangs his thumb or a plane crashes we will not even see the tool as a tool.
Designers of tools must always be thinking of the tool as a tool but striving to produce something that will, if successful, become invisible. Designers of future cognitive augmentation devices such as embedded memory expansion devices or built-in mathematics processors will one day create devices such that they will cease to be experienced as separate from our human brains. A human being will live with a myriad of expansion and augmentation devices with such meshing that they may eventually forget where the brain ends and the technology starts. Nano-technology may mesh the two realms even further to such an extent that we will blur the distinction between human, cyborg and robot. Reality will become mostly virtual for such a future being and we may wonder what to name it's peculiar type of being. I suggest that we continue to call it human being.