January 14, 2013

The Pursuit of Magic

In my better moments I pursue magic. I find myself in awe of a mystery and feel drawn to chase its shadow. Not so much to catch the rabbit, but more to simply chase it down the hole and see where I end up.

Magic is the excitement you feel when experiencing that which you don’t understand. It is stopping to consider a small bit of all that we don’t have a good grasp upon. It is the rush of shining a light into the dark and finding that you’ve revealed an even wider range of darkness to explore.

Confusion on the road to Wonderland

Magic can be uncomfortable. To pursue it, you must admit that you don’t know.

The world is pretty simple when you’ve got everything under control. When I was younger (and sometimes still) I liked to act as if I had things all figured out. It’s a tempting way to define yourself. When you’re doing it, you might not even realize you’re pretending most of the time.

I think many people find it preferable to have a false belief than to leave an issue undetermined. For example, consider the various conspiracy theories populating the internet about how group XYZ is secretly controlling the world. They each promise to enlighten us with the true nature of the world and only ask that we spread the word!

At first glance, these stories might seem like they make the world a more complex, dangerous, and confusing place to live in for their adherents. But perhaps it’s the opposite. Maybe these storylines are popular because they reduce complexity. They allow the believer to condense innumerable considerations and unknowns into a single story. Paradoxically, they offer the feeling of control. No longer is the believer lost amongst the confusion of world economics, politics, and sociology. Now they are an insider that holds the secret. The ills of society are not generated from our own nature, but by a certain small group of other people, and we know who they are! All we have to do is prevent their continued interference and then all will be well again.

The first step toward exploring the unknown must be admitting ignorance. Not only ignorance of the phenomena you are drawn to, but more importantly, ignorance of the outcome of your pursuit. Perhaps you’ll discover you aren’t capable of understanding or accomplishing what you set out to. Maybe you will find rejection. After your journey down the rabbit hole you might not even know if you found what you were searching for!

Ordinary magic

The funny thing about magic is that it’s hard to see. It disguises itself as the mundane.

Real magic does not hide behind a curtain. It does not have a price of admission. And you don’t need someone else to show it to you.

In technical circles someone might call a thing or process that they don’t understand the internal workings of a black box. We summon it and it conjures up a result for us. We all encounter countless things every day that from our point of view are black boxes. What is electricity? How does a computer’s CPU really work? How do human languages form? Why do we go to sleep every night?

I don’t have anything more than a cursory answer for any of those, but I use or do each of them every day. These are all ordinary things in my world, yet I bet hardly anyone I know could give a good, thorough answer to even one of them.

As a web developer, I deal with an endless series of black boxes daily. Maybe I understand how all of the code I’ve personally written works, but I take most of the functions in my libraries and frameworks for granted. My sites run in web browsers, but I only have a general understanding of how browsers are built. And I certainly don’t know how my operating system’s kernel was implemented.

My point isn’t that we should try to understand everything in our lives. That’s well beyond possible and likely not desirable even if it were. But I think that if and when you find yourself intrigued by a mystery, it can be a great experience to explore it. If something excites or scares you, there might be something there for you.

It can be a mystery on any level. It could be technical, personal, or even ontological. You don’t need to find the key to your black box necessarily — maybe there isn’t one. Simply giving it a good ponder might be fun. Sometimes you’ll gain a better understanding of something, and sometimes you’ll find out you don’t understand something.

Pursue at will

Black boxes are often useful as mental shortcuts. They let us take something for granted and bypass it so that we can think about whatever is most necessary at the moment. But they also prevent deeper, more interesting understandings and experiences.

To pursue a small bit of magic, identify one potentially interesting mental shortcut you often take and see what lies beneath it. Slow down, pay attention, and learn some magic spells!