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TINKER'S RAZOR

October 17th, 2019

 

 

A philosophical razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to shave off unlikely explanations for phenomenon

 

or

 

avoid unnecessary actions.

 

This second part about avoiding unnecessary actions is why Tinker’s Razor is not presented as a law.

 

Indeed, Tinker’s Razor pays great tribute and borrows its construction from Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law.

 

Clarke’s Third Law from Profiles of the Future states:

 

 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

 

 

 

Tinker’s Razor is a conditional form of Arthur’s Law and states:

 

 

Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from evil.

 

 

 

 

Technology and Magic have positive implications in Clarke’s law, however, we can easily call to mind the image of the evil sorcerer who like the wise and benevolent wizard uses magic.

 

This is the colorful dichotomy of technology in myth: the good wizard and the evil wizard.  Both are privy to esoteric knowledge and presumably cutting edge technology and know how to wield it to great effect. 

 

Whether that effect is good or bad though depends on a few different things.  The temperament of the person, certainly, but also the nature of the technology.  For example, it’s far more likely to do evil with a gun than it is to do evil with a pair of headphones.

 

Here’s a historical example of someone being a bit of an evil wizard.

 

The lunar eclipse of 1504.  The year prior Columbus had landed in Jamaica and by spring of 1504 the indigenous people were tired of feeding Columbus and cut him off.  Columbus than noticed  the date of an upcoming lunar eclipse in an almanac he had.  He then told the indigenous people that God was angered by the way the indigenous people were treating Columbus and that God would send a sign.  Needless to say when the lunar eclipse occurred, Columbus once again found himself well fed.

 

And indeed, predicting the lunar eclipse must have seemed like magic to the indigenous people.  But he lied about the cause.  Had the indigenous people been aware of the mechanics of celestial bodies in the same way Columbus was, they certainly wouldn’t have believed his tall tale about God’s anger.

 

But that’s the thing about technology looking like magic.  If you don’t know the details of how it works, then ‘magic’ is the word we use to account for our unknowing.

 

In the case of Columbus, the almanac provides the advanced understanding, but Columbus uses the privilege of this advancement in a disingenuous, somewhat evil way.

 

 

Another example that might fit is Robert Oppenheimer.  After leading the Manhattan Project and successfully creating the first atomic weapon, he almost instantly regretted what he had done.  He had created the most advanced weapon that our planet had ever seen, and yet, it was as though he only realized after the fact that maybe it was stupid to build something powerful enough to destroy your own species. 

 

The bomb was developed to combat the Nazi’s, who had risen to power a decade earlier in large part because of the development of the radio.  When Goebbels’s became the minister of propaganda in 1933, he specifically targeted the radio as the means by which they would spread their message.

 

This technological ability to spread a message of course has modern day echoes.  Much controversy surrounds the use of social media to influence the outcome of political elections.

 

In all of these examples, it’s possible to take the perspective that a stupid or unwise agenda was hugely aided by some technological advancement.  And certainly in some instances it goes without controversy to say that evil ends up being the result, whether that be the rise of Nazi Germany or the far lesser evil of innumerable mental health problems that have sprung up as a result of photo sharing apps and all other manner of social media. ‘

 

Tinker’s Razor is a guideline to keep in mind while building things.  In other words:

 

Be careful what you tinker with. 

 

It might be stupid.

 

And if you do a great job.

 

The result might horrify you.


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Podcast Ep. 550: Tinker's Razor

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