Dark Futures
& Black Boxes

Some thoughts on science and technology inspired by Swancon XV

Leigh Edmonds

We were enclosed in darkness. Everything was painted black, light simply seemed to disappear into the corners and be soaked up by the walls and ceiling. The only attractions for our senses were the people on the platform, picked out by spotlights and amplified through microphones. This seemed an altogether appropriate setting for a science fiction convention on the theme of "dark futures".

There was much interesting discussion as speakers with different attitudes and backgrounds tried to make sense of what is being written about dark futures and how that relates to what is really happening and going to happen. Some speakers held the perhaps orthodox view that what lies ahead for the human race is ecological disaster, but that there is some hope that we might survive it, eventually. The convention Guest of Honour, Terry Dowling, held the more interesting and challenging view that what threatens to make the future so dark is not just the environment but what humanity is doing to itself. His point was that the future will be dark if humanity does not carry into the future a knowledge of its past.

I agree with Terry but, being a historian, I take him literally. Terry's main area of interest is writing and language so he probably means the kind of symbolic understanding of the past which is conveyed through things like stories and legends, painting, dance and music. Terry's ideas appeared to confuse some people who are, perhaps, much more fixed in the physical world when it comes to thinking about the future. Perhaps they are right, for what value does an appreciation of a society's past have if that society is completely wiped out? Terry would probably reply that a society which survives without its past has not, in a real sense, survived at all. Terry and I may then choose to disagree on whether that sense of society should be cultural or historical, but perhaps we can save that argument for some other occasion.

As part of the "dark futures" theme there was a panel discussion based on Arthur C. Clarke's old adage that "magic is simply technology that we don't understand". I was not able to stay for this item but I would have liked to have heard what people had to say because I have been studying the sociology and history of technology for the past few months. Clarke's adage seems to be one of those thoughts that is so obvious it has to be true, until you start thinking about it. The first thing you have to do is work out what Clarke (or anybody else) means when they use the words "technology" and "magic". If you push somebody he might define technology as "applied science", but that only leaves us wondering what "science" might be. Now we have three words we have to try to define: "technology", "magic" and "science". In this article I want to look at the idea of "dark futures" and those three words to show how I think they are related. So let's return to the idea of the dark future for a moment.

For those who are concerned about the future of the physical world the causes of the coming dark future are becoming clearer. Most well publicised is the greenhouse effect, which will result in the temperature of the atmosphere increasing, the oceans expanding and gobbling up an as yet undetermined amount of coastal land, and changes in weather patterns which will eventually mean a drastic reordering of the Earth's biosphere. Then there is the depletion of the ozone layer which will, in its own way, effect the biosphere and, more directly related to humans, cause more skin cancer for us and probably similar effects for many other organisms.

Other threats to the ecosystem include the destruction of the rain forests and the species diversity that lives there, soil degradation, pollution of the oceans and the air and the storage and destruction of toxic wastes. It seems that little causes can have big effects so that, for example, when enough people get the idea that the only way to polish their furniture or to kill insects is to squirt stuff from aerosol cans, or when enough people are convinced that they want to eat fast food hamburgers, the future of the human race is under threat. Only a few years ago people were discovering the dangers of a nuclear winter which would follow even a limited attempt by the Russians and the Americans to blow each other up but, these days, such a possibility has receded into the background in the face of much larger and more complex causes of a dark future.

It is common to hear people say that these problems are caused by technology. They suggest that things would be a lot better for everyone if we gave up technology, cut back on it or used "appropriate technology". But these proposals suggest that the real source of any dark future is not technological but caused by people. General Motors, Ford, Mitsubishi and Toyota could make as many motor cars as they liked, but if nobody drove them the exhaust emission which causes many environmental problems would simply not exist. The same thing can be said of most of the other results of technological innovation which are having an effect on the environment.

Technology is the source of tools that we use to change the environment, and if we did not have the tools we would not be able to make such radical changes with such ease. Also, there would probably be a lot less of us than there are at the moment and the life-styles of people in the developed world would be a lot different. So you can blame technology for the problems of a dark future, but only because it allows people to do what they do, not because it actually does anything itself. One problem with technology is that it is so prevalent in human society that we don't think about it very much. It is just there. It provides the things that we use, and we have become so accustomed to using tools, new and old, that we take them for granted.

In a fairly complex, technologically based society such as ours, it is almost impossible for one person to actually understand the complexity of how everything works. Consequently, we tend to ignore the reasons why our technology works; things simply become black boxes which do what we expect of them. I am typing this article on a black box called a computer; to make it work I have to do things like plugging it in, turning it on, loading the software and then giving the right commands so that it works the way I want. If I don't perform any of these rituals correctly the black box won't work. If I do all the right things and the computer still won't work I am helpless and so I take it to a wise man in a computer shop who does things that make it work again. He knows what goes on inside the black box, I do not.

This idea of black boxes is a useful way of looking at technology because it allows us to be as detailed or as generalised as we want to be about particular cases. For example, inside the box called a computer are other, more specific boxes called disk drives, power sources, chips and inputs and outputs. A person could know how a computer works in terms of how the various black boxes interact, but have no idea of what goes on inside each one. Or a person might know all about how one of those boxes works but not about the others. Moving to a different level of magnification, there is a much larger black box called the "computer industry" which contains smaller black boxes. There is the box that makes computers, another that produces software, another that provides capital, another that sells the product and another that publishes books and magazines about the whole system. A person who wants to make something out of the whole box does not have to know anything at all about computers or software or publishing to still take something worthwhile out of the total system. If a large multinational wants to take over a company that make computers it needs to know nothing about what goes on inside the black box called a computer or the larger black box called the industry, just that the company can provide the required profits. Perhaps a microscope is a good analogy, the higher the magnification the more detail you can see but the smaller your overall view.

Almost all human societies are technologically based. Even a society which uses animals to pull its ploughs and carry its produce uses all sorts of tools. In contrast to developed societies, however, the design and construction of ploughs or simple carts makes it possible for most people in less developed countries to build and repair their tools. In our society almost all tools are so complex, or their manufacturing processes are so advanced, that we are not able to make or repair them. Even a simple garden spade would be beyond the skills of almost all Australians to make or repair, and the growth of industrial technology has led to them being mass produced in factories rather than in local blacksmith shops, so we have no experience of their manufacture. Similarly, computers, being much more sophisticated, cannot be repaired by any but a very small percentage of the population.

Following on from these points I think that technology can be defined as tools, the knowledge about how to make them and the systems evolved to make and use them. Technology does not, however, depend on any explanation of why the tools it provides work as they do. This brings us to science and magic.

We are told that computers work because of the way in which electricity flows through some materials and not through others. But what does this mean to most people? The knowledge of why a tool works is almost completely irrelevant to the people who use it. (This is demonstrated by the books which come with computers which have special sections on what to do if they won't work. The first suggestion is to check that they are plugged into the power source properly. Obviously many people are not aware of the relationship between electricity and computers.) If computers worked because there were a million small people working away inside the black box recording the input material on clay tablets and providing output by lighting thousands of small candles, that would make no difference to most people. So long as the little people sprang into action when they were required, what would the difference be? If my electrically operated computer stops working somebody who knows about what goes on in the black box might say it was because of a "power supply failure", but if there were little people in the black box the expert might say that it was a "public holiday" or there was a "strike" inside the box. And if computers worked because a demon was trapped inside each one, a failure might be explained because I had not carried out the "right rituals in the right order" to make it do my bidding. But whether the fault is electrical or otherwise, so long as we believe the explanations we are given and the tool starts working again, the effect is the same.

The explanation for a tool working is therefore a belief which is probably irrelevant to how it works. The possibilities of a million little people in a box, or a demon, are not irrelevant to this kind of logic, they simply seem unreasonable to people who believe in science. Demons or imps are regarded as magic and science does not overly bother itself with them. Magic and science can be the same thing as far as technology is concerned because they are both belief structures which try to explain why things work as they do. This suggests that Arthur C. Clarke got his wording a bit wrong. It would have been better if he had said that "magic is simply science that we don't understand". The confusion of science for technology is interesting, however, because it suggests how easy it is to confuse the belief structure which western people take so completely for granted with the tools which they also take so completely for granted.

Although the differences between science and magic may seem irrelevant to the users of the technology which results from their application, scientists and magicians probably think that there are differences. Judging by Arthur C. Clarke's attitudes to the relationship between technology and magic he probably believes that eventually everything will be explainable in scientific terms. Magicians and theologians may, on the other hand, say that there are simply some things which can never be known in a scientific way. These kinds of arguments are based on beliefs about what is knowable and what is not, and how things are knowable. This could go on without resolution for so long as there are two humans left to discuss it, so this argument is best acknowledged but not joined, except to note that science does have the habit of moving into areas which were once in the province of magic or theology. For example, the movements of the heavenly bodies or, more recently, 'chaos' were once beyond the reach of scientific explanation. Newton, Einstein and their colleagues explained astronomy and, while only a few years ago chaos appeared to be beyond comprehension, modern science, mathematics and computing are in the process of generating a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. Will the turn of demons and imps ever come? Of course there is another way in which science deals with the problem, by defining "everything" to mean "everything worth knowing". Come back in a thousand years to see how this is going.

Since the explanation for what happens inside a black box does not necessarily have any relationship to how what goes in effects what comes out, it is apparent that what is important is not the "truth" of what happens inside the black box. And, because human scientific knowledge is limited (so far), we have to accept that in every field of scientific study there are areas beyond which there is no explanation for what happens. This suggests that the difference between magic and science is not measurable by some abstract truth but in the style of the explanation itself. This means that we can tell the difference between what is magic and what is science by the way in which explanations are constructed.

It seems to me that the way in which explanations of science and magic disagree is that in all scientific explanations you are not allowed to violate the Law of Conservation of Matter. If an explanation is "scientific" the input to the black box (be it a computer, an ecosystem or colliding particles) must be precisely the same as what comes out. This situation is described most succinctly by the acronym TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). On the other hand, this law does not have to apply to magical explanation. For example, if demons are immortal then, so long as the casing of a demon-powered computer could also last forever, the machine would work without any external power source or, perhaps, any external inputs. More mundanely, magic may do things like move objects, transmit messages over distance and produce objects without any physical input, or with less than should expended to get those results. The Laws of the Conservation of Matter are thus broken and somebody does get lunch for nothing.

Well, perhaps not. Magic may be related to other sources of power apart from those in the physical world. You might have to sell your soul to get access to other kinds of power, God may perform miracles, swords may house demons and draw their power from them, or there may be any one of countless other explanations. The point is that these explanations do not require that the same amount of matter (or energy or velocity) that goes into a black box has to come out again. Magic may say either "well, something for nothing is just the way it is" or "what goes in equals what comes out except you can't measure some of what goes in or comes out scientifically".

It may well be that one of the reasons that a person like Arthur Clarke could confuse science with technology and compare them with magic is that so much of our technology seems like magic. As I am writing this I am listening to Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto, a very nice piece of music. A hundred years ago, when somebody wanted to hear this music he had to get an orchestra together, find a hall to put them in and obtain the services of a virtuoso pianist to take part. Today I simply put a thing called a "cassette" into a "walkman", put some "headphones" over my ears and there it is in full stereophonic beauty. At the most superficial level I give the black box some very simple input and get a long and intricate output. But when we think about it even slightly we realise that behind this simple understanding there are levels upon levels of complexity. What is involved in making a cassette and recording information on it? What is involved in manufacturing a machine which can read that magnetic information and turn it into music? What about the power source?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole process of being able to listen to Mozart in private is the way that it is powered. The cassette player holds two rechargeable batteries so, while I might be able to cheer myself with the idea that I am somehow helping to preserve the environment by not using disposable cells, I am indirectly using electricity which has probably been generated by the power generators at Collie, quite a few miles from Perth. The electricity is generated by digging coal out of the ground and burning it to make heat to drive the generators there. At Collie, as well as making electricity they also make greenhouse gases and solid wastes while using up a non-renewable resource. However, because the only part of the whole process I see is a couple of little batteries which drive the cassette player, it is very easy for me not to think about the cost to the environment of what I am doing. This is because I only see part of the input and only part of the output of the technology of power generation that let's me listen to Mozart. It is only ignorance that gives the impression that I'm getting something for nothing.

We are now facing a dark future because, although we should have known better, we've been treating our science-based technology as though it were magic. Humans are very funny like that. It is our ability to focus only on some parts of an overall system that gets us into trouble. It is how we have come to be able to pollute the environment so efficiently, use up resources at such an alarming rate and wipe out or endanger what were once common plants and animals. Almost deliberately we have been ignoring the complete systems that we are dealing with and the fact that you get out the same amount as you put in. So when society generates electrical power the resources used to make that power and the by-products have been discounted, especially those that just get dumped into the air or water where they are not so obvious and can be forgotten. This means that even though the technology used is based on science that says that input must equal output, practically we have ignored the law. At last, however, our television sets and radios are starting to tell us that while we thought we were having a free (or at least fairly cheap) lunch, we have instead been making a complete mess and it's time to clean up the picnic area or else.

Science fiction is probably a symptom of this wish fulfilment view of technology which has led to the looming dark future. Because technology is based on science, and science proposes to explain everything, it should be possible for science fiction writers to open up a black box and explain what is in it, down to the interaction of subatomic particles. Usually writers don't go that far because such levels of explanation would spoil the fiction, but that is the quiet understanding that props up science fiction. On the other hand, writers of fantasy do not have to concern themselves with the contents of boxes and we do not ask for explanations. Science fiction can become fantasy when the writer is unable to explain the contents of the black box in a reasonably sophisticated way. There is the converse of this when, for example, Anne McCaffrey explains what is overtly fantasy in a scientific fashion. She made a box called "thread" but explained that it was from another planet and also explained that "dragons" are the results of breeding experiments. If she had not done this most people would still have enjoyed her books as fantasy. Of course, the thing that makes science fiction a fiction rather than a fact is that, at some level, there is no plausible explanation. Although a fictional spaceship might be feasible in most of its features, sooner or later the explanation must contain black box explanations which, while they have perfectly feasible inputs and outputs, have nothing inside them. (In the case of some spaceships absolutely everything in the explanation is feasible. The reason they don't exist is that on a much larger scale, treating spaceships as a part of a total technological system, we find that the boxes labelled "capital investment" or "social will" are empty, and so the whole concept on which the spaceship is based becomes fiction.)

Just as it is impolite to ask about the basis of much of the magic that occurs in fantasy, it is equally unkind to ask writers to explain what happens in some of the technological black boxes of science fiction. In this way science fiction and fantasy are so similar that they cannot be distinguished. The input and the output of black boxes is seen and understood, and everything makes logical sense if we decline to look inside. (Some science fiction, usually called "hard", supposes to delve into some of these black boxes, but that fiction is based on other black boxes simply hidden elsewhere in the explanation. For example, beanstalks were the fashion a few years back but the main black box there was the material they would be built from. Look inside that box and find something for nothing.)

Consequently, when some fabulously wealthy American called Turner says that he will pay half a million dollars for the best science fiction story that shows how a bright and happy future might be achieved soon, all he is doing is asking some inventive writer to conjure up a black box explanation. Writers of physically based science fiction might propose a drug or a new form of telecommunication which would make everybody see things correctly and so ensure that happy future. Writers of socially based science fiction might propose a new world religion that promotes the right values or the coming of a world government through new educational techniques. Whatever they propose it will be based, eventually, on a black box explanation which turns out to be empty - to give something for nothing. The work of fiction might be a ripping good read or might give people the impression that they are reading a real and viable blueprint for the future, but if the explanation which the author gives is examined it will be found to be based on an assumption or assumptions which are not based in the physical world. Ultimately the work remains fiction.

While there is nothing wrong with people reading this kind of fiction for their pleasure or as a form of education or inquiry, there is something wrong with them claiming that humanity can be saved from its problems by a solution which is fictional. More important, though, is the false sense of security that science fiction can give us in the way it poses as science when basically it is magic. This leads to the careless attitude expressed at one fan gathering, that we have to develop space travel because then we will be able to leave the mess we've made of this world and move on to make a mess of others, all in the name of progress. To a large extent we have consigned the problems of pollution, ecosphere degradation and resource depletion to a black box which we called the future, if we've thought about them at all. Now that the future is starting to open and what we had thought might hold some magical solution turns out to be empty, it seems that people like Turner are not happy with what they have failed to find and hope that, if they look hard enough, something might turn up. While that would be very nice for us all, if we believe in science there can be no easy happy ending but, instead, just hard and comfortless reality. Even worse, if we keep on putting our problems off into that future in the hope that a solution will happily present itself, the problems will be even greater when we are forced to look at them.

One of the troubles with most fiction is that it all works out in the end. This is particularly so for science fiction in which the convention is that, sooner or later, all boxes will contain explanations. Science fiction gives us the idea that science will eventually solve all our problems but, if we take that message too literally, we may still be waiting around for the explanation and the solution when there are no trees to print our stories on, no electricity to illuminate our night time reading and the skies are also dark in the daytime. The growing inevitability of a dark future is partly the result of a common view in the developed world that science and technology will provide solutions but, contrary to the teaching of science, we seem to expect solutions as though by magic. Science fiction may only be a symptom of this attitude but, if we accept it without understanding what we are doing, we will soon find ourselves living in the dark future that we discussed so glibly at Swancon.

Originally appeared pp55-64, Eidolon Issue 01, May 1990.
Copyright © Leight Edmonds, 1990. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.