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!