Hogwarts School of Technology

Very interesting discussion over breakfast at five-thirty this morning.

 It all started with the topic of my younger son’s new computer. Rishi is the sort who has brilliant ideas for poems and stories and is always writing. He used to fill uncountable notebooks and, ever since he got a computer, has folder upon folder of works in progress. He tries to talk to me about them but my brain starts hurting after a while.

“It’s not that your ideas are no good, or that they make no sense,” I assure him, “But that I don’t have the intellectual capacity or the imagination to process them beyond a certain point.” And this is completely true.

He recently got a new laptop because the old one was in its death throes. The poor thing was close to giving up the ghost because of the battering it had received at its owner’s feverish fingers. If he is not typing his stories and poems, he is playing games. And you know what that entails in terms of wear and tear!

In contrast, my older son has a Mac that he treats with more respect than he does the woman who gave birth to him (I jest. I think). Very visually oriented and a photography buff, Arjun can spend hours editing photographs, and has a great eye for detail. Wherever we go we are subjected to his critiques of posters, advertisements and signboards. Also interior design of restaurants, presentation of food…the list goes on. I think it is fair to say that I now see the world in a new way, thanks to this observant son of mine. And he usually sees it through the lens of his camera.

So you can see that each of my sons has a very different relationship with, and view of, technology. And that is why the discussion this morning was so interesting. Talk about how we use our computers led to the topic of technology at Hogwarts. Rishi thought it might be nice to write with a quill. I remarked that it would certainly separate the wheat from the chaff, because when your writing process is so slow and interrupted by all the ink-dipping, only those who can really hold their ideas in their head and organise them before committing them to paper would be able to produce any writing at all, as opposed to the “everycrap” you get when everyone can write whatever pops into their head (elitist oversimplification. I know). Arjun wondered why, with all the magic available to them, the students and teachers at Hogwarts used quills that had to be dipped in ink repeatedly to write with.

If you think about it, there is a technological divide at Hogwarts. While the average magical inmate scratches away with a quill on parchment, do you notice that only Dumbledore has access to a pensieve? Is that an indication that only he has so many thoughts that he needs a separate storage device for them? Or that only he can afford one? Or that only he is responsible enough to be able to use one?

And what of the horcrux technology? Only Voldemort wanted it so badly that he took the effort to learn how to use it despite all the barriers to access. Yet what if this technology, along with knowledge about its implications, had been brought out into the open and freely discussed? Would the lure of the dangerous technology have dissipated somewhat? Might constructive and socially beneficial uses have been found for it eventually if enough research had been allowed? The philosopher’s stone is another type of technology that was erased from the narrative after Voldemort had reframed its meaning. Limited access to the most powerful forms of technology seems to be a recurring theme. I’m not saying that’s wrong. It fits in with the polarizing of good and evil that is at the heart of the Harry Potter series. I just think that it is interesting to look at Rowling’s magical technology from the perspective of our relationships with real-life technology.

On another level, both the pensieve and the horcrux can be seen as metaphors for technology that we already possess. When we put our experiences and memories into blogs and online social networking sites via our photographs, status updates and other posts, we are storing them for later retrieval. As Dumbledore shared his memories with Harry, we can share them with our networks. Just as Harry noted that none of the people in the memories could see him or feel his presence, when we look back at our posts online, we see the interactions and the artefacts, but not the actual people behind them. Our lives move on after we have posted, yet these memories are embedded in who we are. Similarly, Dumbledore’s memories remain significantly intertwined in the later episodes of his life, and are relevant even after his death.

Sherry Turkle writes about cyberspace as a metaphor for identity, and suggests that just as we can be different people in different windows on our computer screen, so we can have multiple selves that exist at the same time, but which we cycle through with flexibility. This multiplicity of identity seems to me very close to the notion of horcruxes. You have a piece of yourself on a blog, another on Facebook, a third on Twitter and so on. Yet while the horcrux is seen as a dangerous concept, Turkle sees multiplicity of identity as a healthy thing, as long as we maintain flexibility in the way we move between our selves.

When you think about Hogwarts it is magic, not technology, that immediately comes to mind. Yet what is magic, if not a form of technology that is so poorly understood as to take on mythical qualities?  Let’s face it: to many of us, modern technology IS magic!


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