The visionary Arthur C Clarke once said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ I spent an intriguing day this week in the presence of just such magic, at the Informatics Department of Edinburgh University.
Informatics is the science of information and information processing. If that sounds dry, picture a lab festooned with cameras and microphones which record every word uttered and every movement made by each member of any group that gathers there – essentially an intelligent meeting room that can capture the discussions and interactions that take place in it, and analyse them by practically any set of criteria you care to think of.
Alternatively, imagine a table top which is also a multi-touch screen from which you and the other people sitting around it can individually summon information or entertainment, share knowledge and communicate, or even play a game together, all by lightly pressing the glass in front of you.
A small, curious group of us were there as token consumers to brainstorm possible commercial applications for these technologies. We hadn’t the faintest idea how they worked, and to that extent they were magic; the things they were capable of doing seemed miraculous.
It struck me that good writing can also seem miraculous in its ability to touch the heart and stir the soul, enliven the mind and ignite the imagination. Yet, effortless and transparent as it might appear, it’s similarly underpinned by the application of, in this case, a finely honed craft rather than technology, to an idea that has germinated in the fertile recesses of someone’s brain.
And when the craft, like the technology, is not sufficiently well developed the idea itself is likely to wither – as, sadly, business writing all too often demonstrates.