Sufficiently Advanced Technology: the Gathering

I can do magic. I don’t mean the card trick kind; I mean real magic.

I can hear dead people (I have on my iPod a wax-cylinder recording of a letter that Sir Arthur Sullivan sent to Thomas Edison, both of whom are dead).

Whenever a relative of mine is ill or has an accident, I know about it (my mom, who keeps in touch with everyone, calls me on the phone to let me know).

I can move objects with my mind, even from hundreds or thousands of miles away (my mind tells my fingers to do a Google search, which causes a disk arm in California to move).

We’re all familiar with Clarke Third Law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. A corollary is that magic is “merely” technology, if you understand what’s going on.


I put “merely” in quotes because I don’t want to belittle something by calling it technology. As my examples hopefully show, every day we do things that would have seemed like magic to generations past. We don’t have seven-league boots, but we have cars and planes. We don’t have palantiri to learn what’s going on in distant lands, but we have Google and CNN. We don’t have crystal balls, but we have meteorology. And, of course, we have magic that couldn’t even be imagined just a few generations ago, like MP3 players and microwave ovens and TiVO.

Today, we are in a better position than any previous generation to judge the truth of Clarke’s Third Law. Yet the terms “magic” and “advanced technology” survive as distinct concepts because they have different connotations, e.g.:

  1. An augur examines the flight of birds and listens to the king’s description of his dreams, and predicts whether the harvest will be good: magic
  2. An agricultural consultant consults long- and short-term meteorological trends, past and current land usage, and market expectation analyses, and predicts whether the harvest will be profitable or not: technology.
  3. Harry Potter concentrates, moves, then disappears from Hogwarts, only to reappear instantaneously at the Ministry: magic
  4. James Kirk flips his communicator, says “Beam me up, Scotty”, and disappears from the planet surface, only to reappear within seconds on the Enterprise: advanced technology

As the Harry Potter/Captain Kirk example shows, the difference between magic and technology does not rely upon whether we can explain the effect or not (after all, crystal balls are magic, while cable news is technology, even though few people have a good understanding of how TV works). Rather, I think, the distinction lies in whether or not we think there’s an explanation, even if we don’t know what that explanation is.

In Star Trek (and in science fiction as a whole), we are led to believe that the universe obeys certain laws, and that by setting things up correctly, one can cause a person to teleport from A to B in accordance with those laws. We can try variations on the original effect, and see what happens: can Kirk be teleported from the ship to the planet, instead of the other way around? Can a Vulcan be teleported instead of a human? Can a nonliving object be teleported? Is there a limit to how far teleportation works? Does teleportation still work if there’s an object (e.g., another spaceship, or a planet) between the origin and destination? A lot of the technobabble in the various Trek series carries the subtext that “yes, there is a perfectly good explanation for why this stuff works the way it does.”

In the Harry Potter books (and in fantasy as a whole), in contrast, magic is fickle and unpredictable. Spells, incantations, potion recipes, etc. are handed down from other sources, but are never discovered. Students are taught the spell that makes an object levitate, or the spell that makes something invisible, but are never taught how these spells work. They are never told, for instance, “This spell makes a teacup lighter, so that it floats. Now, how would you modify the spell to make a dining table lighter? How would you modify it to make the teacup heavier?”

Certain spells work for some people but not for others, or at some times of the day, month, or year, but not at others. Lupin turns into a werewolf when the moon is full, but we are never told what the connection is, nor are we ever led to believe that anyone has a good explanation.(If he were on the moon, would he turn into a werewolf whenever there was a full Earth? Or whenever he ventured onto the lit side? There’s no way to even begin answering such questions.

I’m generalizing a bit, of course: Larry Niven, in particular, wrote a series of stories in which magic was treated as the application of laws of nature (such as treating mana as a finite, nonrenewable fuel source), and even in the Harry Potter books, there is a certain amount of experimentation, e.g., if you misspeak your destination when traveling by floo, you’ll wind up someplace else within the floo network. But I think my main point still stands: an effect produced by technology has an explanation; one produced by magic doesn’t, and it’s pointless to try to find one.

In other words, calling something magic is a way of shutting down inquiry: “it’s magic; don’t ask how it works”. The same goes for the religious use of terms like “miracle” and “mystery“. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines these terms at length, but always with the understanding that no, you can’t know how this works. Worse yet,

The existence of theological mysteries is a doctrine of Catholic faith defined by the Vatican Council, which declares: “If any one say that in Divine Revelation there are contained no mysteries properly so called (vera et proprie dicta mysteria), but that through reason rightly developed (per rationem rite excultam) all the dogmas of faith can be understood and demonstrated from natural principles: let him be anathema”

In other words, “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty“, enforced at the point of a sword.

As you can probably guess, I’m not a huge fan of mystery, in the religious use of the term. The world is already full of things we don’t understand, including many that won’t be explained within our lifetimes. If you tell people they’re not supposed to understand how things work, it’ll just put off the day when we figure out something we can understand. And as I sit here, typing on a machine that can perform over 10,000 multiplications a day, I’m grateful to those who refused to listen to the priests, and figured stuff out anyway.

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