Magic, Technology, and Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

–Arthur C. Clarke

This quote from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has been ringing in my ears lately. I almost quoted it in the 3D Printing episode when I talked about how the press often references magic and science fiction. It crossed my mind when I was working on the Lisp episode and was thinking about how the MIT textbook was called the wizard book. I see this quote around a lot, but the more I think about it, the less clear (and the more intriguing) it seems.

This quote is sometimes called “Clarke’s Third Law” and appeared (along with the first and second laws) in the 1973 edition of a collection of essays in which Clarke struggled to predict the future of technology and to understand the limits of prediction.

My question is: Who is the subject? Who is it that can’t tell technology and magic apart? What technology is it referring to?

Is this about imagining how we might experience alien technology? Is it about how regular people (non-engineers) see contemporary technology? I’ve always assumed that those were the two options, but as I’ve thought about it more, I’m not sure. The term “magic” throws me off. Would we really think alien tech is magical? Impossible to guess, but I kind of doubt it. As for contemporary technology, I don’t really understand how a microwave works, and certaintly couldn’t build one, but I don’t find it indistinguishable from magic. As a figure of speech, we might talk about it as magical, but how deep does that figure go? Clarke’s Third Law ends up at the microwave = magic formula, but the path is a little bit longer.

The Imagined Other

There’s a hidden reference for the third law– historic colonial contact. It’s an old and familiar trope. The Euro-American travelers arrive in some previously unknown place and the people there are overawed by the traveler’s guns, cigarette lighters, radios, cameras, or whatever technology they have with them. Those technologies look like magic and the travelers are mistaken for gods or witches. It’s an imagined event that shows up in traveler’s reports and adventure literature.

It’s a problematic idea. It doesn’t, for example, give indigenous people a lot of credit for understanding what’s happening around them. There is a long history of how others have been a foil for or lens for the West’s (and/or the North’s) self-understanding and there’s an equally long history of the violence, exploitation, and destruction that followed in the wake of those travelers and their quaint view of the people they met.

I think this idea is also a hidden foundation for Clarke’s law.

Maybe we’re meant to think about how contemporary western technology might look to someone unfamiliar with it, someone like the imagined indigenous people in the traveler’s tale. We imagine someone on an island somewhere seeing a phonograph or smart phone for the first time. It’s this imagined other who can’t distinguish technology from magic. It’s unsettling to find this valence here, but we shouldn’t throw out the whole thing and I don’t mean this as a criticism of Clarke himself. This stuff runs deep in Western thought and it shows up everywhere. It is worth pausing to pick apart how this third law actually works.

There’s a strange kind of second degree vicariousness to this way of thinking about technology. Rather than admitting directly to the wonder of familiar technologies, we imagine seeing our world through other eyes. It’s only through this reflected gaze that the familiar becomes strange again and the magic sneaks back in.

The Mirror of Magic

But why the need for the imagined primitive mirror? Why juxtapose “advance technology” and “magic?” If the goal is to get back to a sense of wonder, could we just say, “In the right frame of mind, any technology can seem amazing?” Re-framing that way gets rid of the weird secondhand-ness (and uncomfortable colonial implications) of the Clarke’s original formulation. But is it the same thing? Is Clarke’s reference to magic just a shorthand for wonder and amazement?

Maybe there is something especially powerful about putting modern technology in the same space as magic. Magic, after all, has its own deep roots and complicated connotations. Magic implies mysterious powers, secret knowledge, and dangerous people. All possibly useful for thinking about technology.

There’s a lot to come back to in future posts. To stick two stakes in the ground for later: 1) How have people (especially the classic anthropologists) tried to understand the nature of modern science and technology in relation to “traditional” magic? 2) What role does the magic-technology distinction play in defining Science Fiction and Fantasy as genres? Stay tuned for more!

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