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How We Understand Our Gadgets

Lewis Lapham describes living in an American age of techno-wonder and unreason.

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

[A longer version of this essay appears in "Magic Shows," the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly, and is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

As between the natural and the supernatural, I've never been much good at drawing firm distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles per hour, but I can't shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII, who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn't move. So also the desk over which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by the witches in Macbeth.

Nor do I separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard's mirror of a television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.

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This inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect, guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of enchantment. I take my cue from Christopher Marlowe's tragical drama Doctor Faustus because his dreams of "profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of omnipotence," are the stuff that America is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation devoutly to be wished when America was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.

It was an age that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on the far shores of the world's oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior 150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller, the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and Paracelsus.

The medieval world was dying an uneasy death, but magic remained an option, a direction, and a technology not yet rendered obsolete. Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, found the air "not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils." To the Puritan dissenters contemplating a departure to a new and better world the devils were all too visible in a land that "aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incests, adulteries, whoredom, drunkenness, oppression, and pride."

Think Tanks of the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In both the skilled and unskilled mind, astronomy and astrology were still inseparable, as were chemistry and alchemy, and so it is no surprise to find Marlowe within the orbit of inquisitive "intelligencers" centered on the wealth and patronage of Henry Percy, "the Wizard Earl" of Northumberland, who attracted to his estate in Sussex the presence of Dr. John Dee, physician to Queen Elizabeth blessed with crystal showstones occupied by angels, as well as that of Walter Raleigh, court poet and venture capitalist outfitting a voyage to Guiana to retrieve the riches of El Dorado.

The earl had amassed a library of nearly 2,000 books and equipped a laboratory for his resident magi, chief among them Thomas Hariot, as an astronomer known for his improvement of the telescope (the "optic tube"), and as a mathematician for his compilation of logarithmic tables. As well versed in the science of the occult as he was practiced in the study of geography, Hariot appears in Charles Nicholl's book The Reckoning as a likely model for Marlowe's Faustus.

During the same month last spring in which I was reading Nicholl's account of the Elizabethan think tank assembled by the Wizard Earl, I came across its twentieth-century analog in Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. As in the sixteenth century, so again in the twentieth: a gathering of forces both natural and supernatural in search of something new under the sun.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company undertook to research and develop the evolving means of telecommunication, and to that end it established an "institute of creative technology" on a 225-acre campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey, by 1942 recruiting nearly 9,000 magi of various description (engineers and chemists, metallurgists, and physicists) set to the task of turning sand into light, the light into gold.

All present were encouraged to learn and borrow from one another, to invent literally fantastic new materials to fit the trajectories of fanciful new hypotheses. Together with the manufacture of the laser and the transistor, the labs derived from Boolean algebra the binary code that allows computers to speak to themselves of more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in the philosophies of either Hamlet or Horatio.

Gertner attributes the epistemological shape-shifting to the mathematician Claude Shannon, who intuited the moving of "written and spoken exchanges ever deeper into the realm of ciphers, symbols, and electronically enhanced puzzles of representation"—i.e., toward the "lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters" that Faustus most desired. The correspondence is exact, as is the one to be drawn from John Crowley's essay, "A Well Without a Bottom," that recalls the powers of the Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim, a fifteenth-century mage who devised a set of incantations "carrying messages instantaneously...through the agency of the stars and planets who rule time." Bell Labs in 1962 converted the thought into Telstar, the communications satellite relaying data, from earth to heaven and back to earth, in less than six-tenths of a second.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, Bell Labs produced so many wonders both military and civilian (the DEW line and the Nike missile as well as the first cellular phone) that AT&T's senior management was hard put to correct the news media's tendency to regard the Murray Hill estate as "a house of magic." The scientists in residence took pains to discount the notion of rabbits being pulled from hats, insisting that the work in hand followed from a patient sequence of trial and error rather than from the silk-hatted magician Eisenheim's summoning with cape and wand the illusions of "The Magic Kettle" and "The Mysterious Orange Tree" to theater stages in nineteenth-century Paris, London, and Berlin.

The disavowals fell on stony ground. Time passed; the wonders didn't cease, and by 1973 Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer believed by his admirers to be the twentieth-century avatar of Shakespeare's Prospero, had confirmed the truth apparent to both Ariel and Caliban: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

As chairman of the British Interplanetary Society during the 1950s, Clarke had postulated stationing a communications satellite 22,300 miles above the equator in what is now recognized by the International Astronomical Union as "The Clarke Orbit," and in 1968 he had co-written the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence—during which an ape heaves into thin air a prehistoric bone that becomes a spaceship drifting among the stars—encompasses the spirit of an age that maybe once was Elizabethan but lately has come to be seen as a prefiguration of our own.

The New World's Magical Beginnings (and Endings)

New philosophies call all in doubt, the more so as the accelerating rates of technological advance—celestial, terrestrial, and subliminal—overrun the frontiers between science, magic, and religion. The inventors of America's liberties, their sensibilities born of the Enlightenment, understood the new world in America as an experiment with the volatile substance of freedom. Most of them were close students of the natural sciences: Thomas Paine an engineer, Benjamin Rush a physician and chemist, Roger Sherman an astronomer, Thomas Jefferson an architect and agronomist.

Intent upon enlarging the frame of human happiness and possibility, they pursued the joy of discovery in as many spheres of reference as could be crowded onto the shelves of a Philadelphia library or a Boston philosophical society. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, colonist arriving from France in 1755, writes in his Letters from an American Farmer to express gratitude for the spirit in which Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightning rod—"by what magic I know not"—was both given and received: "Would you believe that the great electrical discoveries of Mr. Franklin have not only preserved our barns and our houses from the fire of heaven but have even taught our wives to multiply their chickens?"

A similar approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson's best hopes for the new nation's colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian Henry Steele Commager named "the empire of reason." An empire that astonishes the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason.

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