Learning from Fairy Tales

“In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists.”

-Norbert Wiener, “The Machine Age” (excerpts here)

This statement struck me coming from one of the grand theorizers of modern (and future) information technology. Here is an instance within the same article where he channels that gnomic wisdom, referring to a short story by W.W. Jacobs and mentioning One Thousand and One Nights:

“[T]he machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do[…]

There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently. [W. W. Jacobs’s] terrible story of the “Monkey’s Paw” is a modern example of this — the father wishes for money and gets it as a compensation for the death of his son in a factory accident, then wishes for the return of his son. The son comes back as a ghost, and the father wishes him gone. This is the outcome of his three wishes.

Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.”

When we read about tech, we gravitate towards non-fiction. If something fictional about technology, science-fiction will hit the spot. But there’s something to be said about fantastical tales that Wiener recommends here.

Because our technology now resembles magic more than we like to realize. The world is porous with possibility, flowing invisibly through our lives at an unbelievable rate. It cannot help but feel like magic

With that said, why can we not use fairy tales to better understand our relationship with the magic that is technology? They might prove more instructive now than they ever were before.

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