Technology and magic? [Part 1]

By | December 31, 2013

One of the better-known quotes attributed to the late Arthur C Clarke was his Third Law: ”Any powerful technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This is one of those pronouncements that seems at first bewildering, then profound, and finally more embarrassing than anything else. The bewilderment arises from our immediate sense that technology – science-based stuff – ought to be pretty much on the other side of the world from magic. After all, haven’t we spent all these umpteen years of the growth of civilization trying to get away from magic and make things more scientific? What sort of lunacy is this, anyway?

The profundity comes when we realize that a very large portion of what we now take for granted as the bases of our technological civilization could very easily be seen as magical to someone less versed in the idea of technology and the norms of science. In fact, the contents of your pockets or purse, if made available to your average civic magistrate of around 500 years or so ago, would probably guarantee you a one-way trip to the stake. It’s very easy for us to use Clarke’s Third Law as a basis for feeling really superior to all those present and past savages.

But the turning point, and the source of the embarrassment, comes when we stop to think about just how much of this vaunted technology of ours we really understand. I consider myself to be a reasonably well-informed user and manager of current information technology. I got my first personal computer in 1980, and I’ve been pretty much on the front lines ever since. Hey, I even build my own computers from scratch – how’s that for tech guy stuff? At one point, I even made myself a bet that I could build a whole working computer from assorted spare parts I had lying around the workbench; as it turned out, I was actually able to build two of them. Moreover, I’ve taught courses in both computer science (admittedly, at an elementary level) and information technology management. So you’d think I’d be pretty much on the technology side of the equation.

Wrong. In fact, just the other day I was trying to explain to a friend  something fairly elementary about how computers work – and found myself face-to-face with applied magic. For all practical purposes, personal computers run on magic. I’m facing a box that does things, but I have remarkably little idea how it does those things. And my chances of actually being able to do anything with it, without the benefit of the enormously complicated socio-technical infrastructure that keeps it operating, are essentially nil.

Think for a moment about how an applied magician actually works. (I say “applied magician” to distinguish someone who actually tries to use magic to do things, as opposed to a theoretical magician who tries to understand the underlying mechanics. A distinction with probably little application outside the Faculty Lounge at Hogwarts.) The magician has some tools of the trade – fancy looking boxes, wires and sticks, some potions, a book of spells, etc. He waves his wand around, chants some incantations, taps the box on its side, and something happens. Maybe a rabbit appears, maybe a genie pops out; or perhaps there’s a weak pop, a little fizzle, and a little smoke, and nothing happens. Well, back to the spell book or the potions bar and try again; even Harry Potter doesn’t succeed 100% of the time.

Well, that’s just about what most of us do when faced with our current technology. We wave some things around, plug in a couple of wires, mumble to ourselves as we thumb through the owner’s manual looking for the quick fix, and either it works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we mumble some more and try something else. Basically, we master our technology by beating it to death with the incantations more or less effectively written down by gnomes back in the tech services department. Grimoire, anyone?

And it gets worse. The more technology we have, and the fancier the technology we have, the less we are likely to understand it and the more we are likely to fall back on what amounts to magical reasoning – do something, and have something else appear, for which there is no apparent logical connection between the doing and the appearing. And the absolutely most powerful people, who command the very best and the very latest technologies, are probably the least likely to be able to use them in any way other than magically.

Well, there’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it?

We’ll pick this up again in our next installment, forthcoming soon. Keep those wands waving, folks!

  • SvdH

    Hi JD!

    I am posting this here because I’m pretty sure you will see it (since you saw my other comments). I think I am not doing something correctly because I have sent you two emails but I don’t hear anything back. (Been checking everyday.) I sent them to jde.pbt@gmail.com, the place where my “welcome” comment came from. I registered on this site as you suggested, but it said the moderator needs to approve me before I can sign in. Still waiting for that to clear. OTOH, it looks like I am signed in according to my avatar.

    So, anyway, I am looking forward to getting this thing up and flying for my fellow Dr. Kaku bloggers I’m hoping to drag with me, but I think there is a glitch somewhere. (I’m sure it’s a “me not you” thing.) Also, like the Kaku site, I’d like to get notifications of any activity here via my email. Do I need to add something (this site) to the Disqus section of my account? Yes, I’m asking you, professor, for a cheat sheet ;).

  • SvdH

    JD, why does it say “2 Comments” at the top but I only see mine? Do I need to do something? I tried to click on it at the top but doesn’t link.

    • It’s because I made my comment in reply to you, but made it internally and not through Disqus. I’ve fixed that, so you can see my reply. WordPress has many odd and wonderful features, and multiply that by Disqus and you really have a circus! In any event, I hope to have part 2 ready soon, and I’ll appreciate your thoughts there as well.

  • SvdH

    Fun and entertaining read JD. I can sure relate to a lot of the “auto-magic” stuff of the computer machine. In fact, whenever it comes to the “wires/cables” part, I get a brain freeze; a mental block. Like a deer in the headlights, I don’t know which way to turn. My eyeballs get big, pupils dilate, and panic sets in.

    Yea, I often think about the mysterious computer chip. They say there are some 1’s and 0’s involved in there somewhere and that they somehow interact at unfathomable speeds and crank out info. Yes, there’s a mind-boggler for ya. And when we Google something, I’m sure there is some kind of “word index” thingy that says “You have 1,340,786 results (0.19 seconds).” Anyway, the computer is the kind of thing that, when things go well, you love it. When things go badly, you hate it. The old hate-love relationship.

    Yes. I think I will bestow upon you an icon on my desktop. And give you prime real estate, right next to “Dr. Kaku’s Universe”. 🙂 I’ll be back! And I’m going to see if I can get others to join me here.

    Susan

    • DrEvel1

      I’m flattered that you took time to read the post and found it interesting, Susan. Part 2, when I get to it, will be about how it’s all right- within limits – to embrace and use magic, as long as we remember its limits and don’t confuse it with technology. Being really good at arm-waving and chanting doesn’t make you a technologist; it just makes you a good magician. But, I’d argue, one of the marks of a really good technology is the degree to which it can be made to work with only a modest amount of magic, so there’s always work available for good magicians.

    • I’m flattered that you took time to read the post and found it
      interesting, Susan. Part 2, when I get to it, will be about how it’s all
      right- within limits – to embrace and use magic, as long as we remember
      its limits and don’t confuse it with technology. Being really good at
      arm-waving and chanting doesn’t make you a technologist; it just makes
      you a good magician. But, I’d argue, one of the marks of a really good
      technology is the degree to which it can be made to work with only a
      modest amount of magic, so there’s always work available for good
      magicians.