Recently, I flew Northwest Airlines. The plane left Minneapolis right on schedule. The middle seat was unoccupied. And the meal — a cold Chinese chicken salad catered by Leeann Chin, a Minnesota restaurant chain — was downright tasty. The flight was thoroughly pleasant.
Miracles are where we find them. From my perspective as a former Osborne computer owner, miracles cover the landscape.
Right now, today, a business professional can carry an entire office in a briefcase. A laptop computer, Jazz drive, cellular phone, and portable printer make any hotel room a complete, productive work area. If you don’t think that’s a miracle, you haven’t been in this business very long.
Right now, today, you can assemble a project team, give the group a room to work in, and within a half hour create a functional collaborative working environment. Not a miracle? I remember when every NIC installation presented a unique challenge. (MacFolk — yes, I know Macs could do this a decade ago. I also know they did it with a pointlessly proprietary, extra-low-bandwidth network.)
And of course there’s electronic mail. Ignore its value for commerce. Within the United States alone, homemakers, grandparents, and kids in 10 or 20 million households regularly correspond with one another without ever smearing ink on crushed trees.
These technologies, supposedly too hard to use, have been socialized and are embedded in our culture, ignored until they break.
The technology by itself is awesomely complicated, appearing simple through the expedient of being commonplace. To cure your complacency, consider how many separate items, most of which you don’t understand at all, combine to let e-mail, or LANs, or a simple laptop computer happen.
There’s the CPU — millions of transistors connected in ways few of us grasp. The hard disk — capable of storing at least 15,000 complete novels and retrieving any one of them in a second or so. The LCD — how many of us even know what a liquid crystal is, let alone the engineering detail involved in a modern active matrix LCD?
And then there’s the operating system. Even Windows 95, nasty as it is under the hood, is an amazing accomplishment when you figure we used CP/M just 17 years ago.
Tally up the team that collaborated to make a laptop computer possible. Don’t forget the physicists whose quantum-mechanical theories made possible William Shockley’s invention of the transistor; the production engineers without whom Gordon Moore’s integrated circuit would have been a laboratory curiosity; and the materials scientists who transformed liquid crystals from another laboratory curiosity to a cornerstone of modern business and who have increased the ability of thin magnetic films to store information 10,000-fold over the past 20 years.
Thousands of people collaborated to produce your laptop computer, most unaware of the enterprise in which they were engaged. Thousands more created the Internet, the public telephone system, and all the other accoutrements of modern life, most of which ignore the boundaries of nations (no small miracle either).
Meanwhile, in the next room a 4-foot-high mammal practices “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on an electric piano. Her younger sister, having already perfected “Little Drummer Boy” for this afternoon’s recital, tries to keep me from finishing this column — the little shyster is learning to play chess, and eventually will outclass her dad, who manages to maintain a close friendship with his ex-wife (another miracle, for which my ex-wife gets most of the credit).
A mere eyeblink ago each of these bipedal, linguistically all-too-capable mammals lay in a crib. As all infants do, they had mostly reptilian brains and looked remarkably like Yoda. In another eyeblink they’ll be dating and I’ll need a baseball bat.
We live in an age of miracles — they’re all around us. Understanding how they happened makes them more miraculous, not less.
The season is filled with wonders. Make it wonderful.