The rest of us are end users

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

More people believe in magic than we would care to admit, Richard Fernandez says:

ISIS is currently carrying out a campaign against wizards in their midst and is executing those they suspect of dabbling in it. But that is understandable given their world view.


When the last cellphone in the Caliphate is destroyed or worn out no one will know how to make another. Their 8th century is capable of producing fanaticism but probably couldn’t make a ball point pen. Objects in the ISIS universe are “magical” — put there by Allah in the possession of the infidel for holy warriors to plunder and enjoy until the power which inheres in them gradually fades away.

Surprisingly much of the modern world is not very different. Many people treat technology like magic even in the West. How does a cell phone work? Dunno. Where does it come from? The store. Civilization depends on the knowledge of a small fraction of the world’s 7.5 billion population. The know-how to make pharmaceuticals, complex devices, aircraft, computers, industrial chemicals from scratch is probably confined to a few million people concentrated in North America, Europe, Russia and North Asia. The rest of us are end users.

If a global catastrophe destroyed all of civilization’s works yet spared these few million they could re-create every object in the world again. By contrast if only these few millions perished the remaining billions though untouched could continue only until things broke down. It is knowledge which sustains civilization.


  1. Felix says:

    “these few million … could re-create every object in the world again”

    By magic, presumably, as the author apparently believes.

    In the real world these few millions would struggle to survive as inept cave men.

    That’s even if they were magically transported to the same Garden-of-Eden location on Earth when “all of civilization’s works” were destroyed.

  2. Ross says:

    -Take one (1) sprinkle of sufficiently advanced technology,
    -Mix with dash of Atlas Shrugging,

    Serves none.

  3. Hulagu says:

    Same as with us Mongols. We can destroy but we cannot create. We can use the inventions of others and the technology of others but cannot create technology of our own making. When we destroyed the library of Baghdad we threw the books into the river because the books did not talk to us. What good are they?

  4. Isegoria says:

    I was reminded of Joe Rogan’s point that we are not smart.

  5. Lucklucky says:

    But are smart people smart in everything? Or are they smart in some ways and stupid in others?

  6. Cassander says:

    See I, Pencil. No one can re-build the modern world. A jet-engine engineer in North America might know how to design and build an engine, but he knows nothing about how to mine for the ores he makes them out of, how to write the CAD software he designs it on, how to coordinate a global logistical system to refuel the jet once it’s built, and so on. The system depends on, at least, hundreds of millions, everyone of whom is an end user for someone.

  7. Lucklucky says:

    Precisely, Cassander.

  8. Gaikokumaniakku says:


    Technically, there are no literal falsehoods in I, Pencil, but it is usually misinterpreted.

    It is true that no one man can make a pencil that satisfies the specifications laid out in that essay — weird metal thing holding eraser, eraser, graphite “lead”, yellow paint, etc.

    However, there are many men who can single-handedly make a functional writing utensil.

    Those writing utensils don’t match the specs given in the essay, so they are not counterexamples.

    However, the propaganda usage of I, Pencil conflates exact specs with essential functions.

    It’s propaganda, and no engineer should believe it.

  9. Mike in Boston says:

    To me, the focus on the exact specs of the familiar yellow No. 2 pencil is a worthwhile metaphor for how hard it would be to re-create from scratch the production of technological artifacts which depend on duplicating past specifications more exactly. Damascus steel or Polaroid film seem like good examples.

  10. Grasspunk says:

    Or Nixie tubes:

    It’s not adding much beyond what Mike in Boston said but it’s way cool.

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