Indistinguishable from Advanced Technology

by Mike Sententia on June 28, 2012

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke

I hear this quote sometimes when talking about what magick is. But here’s the thing: Clarke wasn’t talking about magick, and he wasn’t even talking about actual advanced technology. He was talking about how advanced technology comes off in sci fi books, and advising authors to just say what the technology does, rather than trying to explain how it works in terms of current science (which would necessarily involve misrepresenting that current science). He was talking about how to tell a good story, not how to define the magick we do.

Think about it this way: If you were writing a story about modern life, to be read by ancient Romans, a microwave and a toaster would be indistinguishable. They both heat food, and you can’t explain either of them with Aristotelian physics. And Arthur C. Clarke would probably advise you not to try — simply say that there’s a box that heats food based on modern science, and leave it at that.

That doesn’t mean that Arthur C. Clarke thinks there’s no difference between microwaves and toasters, and it doesn’t mean he’d think there’s no difference between the magick we do and advanced technology. It just means he knows how to streamline a story.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kol Drake June 28, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Show up in Ancient Roman and light a candle with a pocket Zippo lighter and bet most would think it was pretty cool ‘magic’ even if it is really ‘just’ a fancy hi tech match.

Or, to pull in Star Trek… a ground survey team gets spotted by a city guard. One of the red shirts takes something from his belt and holds it near his head. Strange voices come from out of ‘thin air’. omg! They speak directly to the Gods and the Gods talk back!

Yes, he might have been telling other writers to *KISS* (keep it simple stupid) but, realistically speaking, be it a lead throwing pistol or a pocket lighter or a cell phone or an iPad showing “The Ten Commandments” (or Scooby Do), it would all seem like ‘magic’ to the ancients and hoo hum to ‘us’ oh so sophisticated hi tech, mocha loving readers.

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Mike Sententia June 28, 2012 at 6:45 PM

I agree with you: Ancient people would wrongly believe that modern technology is magic. I just don’t know why that should matter to a mage discussing what magick actually is, how it works, or how to define it.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at: I’ve had people bring up that quote when discussing what magick really is. And it seems related, since it includes a lot of those same words. But when you think about what the quote actually says, and what Clarke was getting at, it applies to writing stories, not to explaining what it is that we actually do.

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Kol Drake June 28, 2012 at 7:55 PM

Heh, I guess it does make for an illogical statement when one considers that magic(k) has been practiced in one form or another for several centuries, if not several millenia. It is only now that we try to turn ‘old practices’ into a nice tidy ‘thing’ we can cubbyhole and properly shove on a shelf with nice calligraphy on the label.

Just because science ‘might’ one day be able to duplicate the magick of the old world does not take away from those magick wielding pioneers of the mystic arts.

Maybe the quote will one day be “Any REALLY good magic is indistinguishable from some really sharp tech.”

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Mike Sententia June 28, 2012 at 8:32 PM

Where I go with this is, I want a positive definition of magick. What is magick, really? People reflexively say, “Whatever isn’t explained by science,” but that means that magick is constantly shrinking and moving, and that’s not good for a movement or a field of research. And this quote comes up in those conversations, so I wrote this up to have something to refer to when I explain why it doesn’t apply. Thanks for helping me explore these ideas, it’s helpful.

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