Unappreciated technology

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” or so said Arthur C. Clarke. What struck me when I was on holiday a couple of weeks ago is that there’s a level beyond that: when you don’t even notice.

We were sat in a restaurant having dinner and for reasons that I can no longer recall, conversation came round to the first UK hit by the Rolling Stones. ‘H’ said that it was “Come On,” ‘J’ swore that it was something entirely different. This all being at least ten years before I was born I had no real opinion on the subject but I did know a man who would have the answer. I immediately took out my mobile and texted him. A few minutes later the answer came back (‘H’ was right).

Of course, this was all taken for granted, except ‘J’ who now owed ten thousand dong. But have you ever considered the level of technology required to make this happen?

A very much simplified sequence of events looks something like this: my phone sends the message to the local cell tower (those things they put on top of schools that fry pigeons and cheaply microwave the chicken nuggets the kids are having for dinner). The cell tower transfers the message on to some “command centre,” a big room with stacks of computers, noisy fans and flashing lights being maintained by men in white coats clutching clip-boards. From here it zips all six thousand miles back to the UK, only pausing to make a note in the billing system. Once back in Blighty the network tries to find the phone, transfers the message to the nearest cell and on to the phone itself. The return trip would be similar but with the added complexity of having a UK phone operating on a foreign network.

All this happens faultlessly in just a few seconds. Isn’t that amazing?

Of course I’m not claiming to be the first to notice this. I remember hearing an interview with Douglas Adams where he marvels at the complexity lying behind a light switch. The difference, in my mind at least, is how quickly this immensely complicated technology has moved from magic to invisibility.