There once was a fellow named Jack Vance. Jack wrote a lot of very good stories about, among other things, a post apocalyptic Earth where science had advanced to the point where it was indistinguishable from magic and then a great catastrophe sent mankind spiraling back into the dark ages. In a grim, medieval society where knowledge was a precious resource hoarded by a few sages, the secrets of this technology was largely lost to the sands of time and it was treated as a kind of arcane engineering when someone figured out how to get it working. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because the concept has been borrowed more times than I can count, the most famous of which probably being the Warhammer 40K universe.
Now, the Dying Earth was only one of Vance’s claims to fame. His other big one was the idea that magic spells (or the technological equivalent) were a finite resource. His wizards were not graced with infinite cosmic power to throw around. They typically had to spend grueling hours committing a spell to memory, and once they cast it, that information was ripped from their brains in its entirety. Hope you don’t need to throw another fireball, because you only got one today and that was it. If this sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably played some form of pen and paper roleplaying game in the last several decades. See, a kid named Gary Gygax grew up reading a lot of Vance and absolutely loved the idea of Vancian magic. He figured it would be easier to balance this little game called Dungeons and Dragons if his spellcasters were limited in what they could do on a daily basis, and had to be very selective in which spells they committed to their limited memory prior to setting off on adventures.
Vancian magic itself is a topic of debate in the gaming community. Some feel it is too… well, game-y, for lack of a better term. It forces spellcasting players to pick the most flexible toolkit they have available instead of more specialized and possibly more fun spells to cast, and there’s nothing more frustrating than running into an encounter you could have absolutely demolished if you hadn’t picked the spell set you did this morning. There are a near-infinite number of permutations based off this magic rule, but Vancian magic is the grandfather.
Anyway, washing machines.
Ours broke the other week. Wouldn’t spin out properly, wouldn’t drain right, tended to leave things soaked and soapy. Not an ideal situation. I took it upon myself to fix it, but the thing is, I’ve never fixed a washing machine before. Never even seen what they looked like inside. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what the problem was. I was doing exploratory surgery without having picked up a scalpel in my life, but I figured I couldn’t make it worse and if I could figure out the problem myself I’d save us some cash.
Let me tell you, I have no idea how human civilization didn’t collapse before Youtube. I found half a dozen videos of people taking washing machines apart for fun, and after studying them and committing them to memory I was able to mimic the movements and the steps and found out that the stupid thing’s belt had gone off the wheel in the back. I had to remove the top and back plates and re-thread the belt a certain way to prevent it from slipping off again. I did all of that, put it back together, turned it on and it worked. I earned some big son in law points and convinced my wife I’m worth keeping around for a little while longer, and then I promptly forgot everything I did within a couple of days.
Really. If you asked me to write out the steps, I’d be lost beyond “take the screws out of the back.”
It was at this point that I realized the internet has turned me into a Vancian wizard. I’ve done it in the past, too. I did it with my car years ago, had some engine problems I was able to fix through a video tutorial and I have no idea what I did now. Replaced my air filters and now I don’t recall how I accessed them. There are a few little flashes floating around in my head, but I’ve largely shoved them aside to make room for more interesting stuff.
I do it when I’m researching a story, too. I’ve been working on a piece recently that I can best describe as the tonal equivalent of the first season of True Detective but dealing with an arson investigator and his lab rat chemical analyst partner who find themselves dealing with burning things that do not obey the laws of physics. I really get into the research for my pieces, particularly when they’re being set in the real world instead of a secondary earth. The more supernatural stuff I want to cram in, the more I need to ground the world in real rules.
As a result, I can now rattle off enough arson investigation guidelines to pass a written exam on the topic, I can recognize the effects of different accelerants, I know about burn patterning and the different forms that have to be filled out before a scene can be released for cleanup, where the paperwork has to be lodged, how investigators interface with local police, and tons more. I will probably forget most of this a couple of weeks after finishing the story and the editorial passes, when I no longer have an immediate need to know it.
I do this with a lot of stuff. I like becoming a temporary expert until the job is done and then jettisoning all the extraneous stuff to make room for new things. If I do find a really interesting tidbit I may want to hold onto, I can put in a little bit of effort and store it indefinitely.
It keeps bringing me back to some of the common complaints I hear about online communities and online friends. So many people, and I’m not trying to be age discriminatory here, but many older people have this vision of these relationships as being coldly mechanical and unreal. Like some horrible Borg collective. I honestly don’t see it that way at all, I see these groups I’ve cultivated online as a tremendous and overwhelmingly human resources. I have friends and colleagues who are experts in their respective fields, and they feed that information into this massive datastream I can tap when I need to. It’s been a source of everything from esoteric historical data to financial advice, and it’s a warm and caring environment. I guess if you’re mainly using search engines and wiki articles it feels a little cold and mechanical and unreal, but you can have that same disconnected feeling leafing through microfilm in the local library/archive/historical society, if it comes right down to it. Particularly now that I live outside of the US, I like being able to have regular roundtables with fellow infovores and talk about weird stuff we’ve all learned. Hell, I spent this week learning about the occult architectural history of Canberra and I was able to swap that for some fairly juicy info on Appalachian folk magic I want to work into a later story, and if that makes me one of the Borg then maybe resistance really is futile.