This is my personal thoughts, opinions and musings place. I will also rant about things, especially politically-correct things that irritate me. And sci-fi. Did I mention sci-fi? There'll be lots of sci-fi stuff here. And movies, too. Mmmmm... Movies

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Of high technology, or when does it start being magical?

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that a “sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic”. While intrinsically true, it fails to make a distinction between three points of view. When viewing technology, there are three types of people. The first type is the person who owns the tech and has worked with it all his life. The second is the primitive upon whom the technology he has never seen before is suddenly thrust. The third is the super-advanced person for whom your technology is so primitive he doesn't understand how you even use it. As well, there are varying degrees of everything, and nothing is ever as black-and-white as the quote above portrays.

To a primitive living in a muscle-powered world, every kind of technology is magical. He doesn't even know what technology is, and to him everything you do with it smacks of a force of nature. Take a gun to a primitive world and shoot a wild animal with it in full view of a primitive native, and he'll think you smote the animal with thunder. Take a phaser and do the same thing, and he'll think you did it with lightning. In other words, like all of us, he'll equate what you have done with what he knows, which at that point in his development is nature, and so you, and your actions, will appear to be magical.

We, as the technologically advanced people we think we are, think entirely too much like our primitive predecessors for our own comfort. Like them, we equate what we don't know with what we do know. In Star Trek: TOS, a series made in the 1960s, computer displays were basically panels with blinking lights and external information storage was on thin tape units. In Star Trek: Enterprise, a show made in 2001-2005 and set a hundred years before TOS, computers were much more sophisticated versions of our modern computers and external information storage was on data padds, much more sophisticated versions of our modern tablet PCs.

On the whole, science fiction(especially visual sci-fi), no matter how hard it tries, reflects our current understanding of technology. There are certainly exceptions, such Stargate: SG1 where alien technology is so advanced and powerful, the aliens hardly even think about it, building space ships that are basically pyramids with hyperdrives attached. They even put burning fire torches at regular intervals throughout their ships. To primitives, the aliens appear as Gods, even to those primities they press into service. But we, as semi-advanced people, know that it isn't magic that powers their weapons or directs their spaceships. We may not know how it works, but we know what it is.

So, at what point does technology become magical? To a primitive, all tech is magical because he has no point of reference. To more advanced people, in my opinion, technology becomes magical when it is not visible, but will stop being magical as soon as we understand how they do what they do. If the manifestations of power come directly from some person, then that person will seem magical. The best example of that is Q in Star Trek. He carries no gadgets, goes where he pleases no matter how secure or inaccessible the place is, and comes and goes in a flash of light and a puff of insult. He seems magical, but only until you learn how to do what he does.

What, then, is 'magic'? I think that magic is merely anything that is unusual and that you can't explain. Once you explain it, it ceases being magical. And I think that it's a high price to pay for technological progress. That said, it's also true that as some magics lose their quality, other magics take their place. We live in a universe filled with magic, if only we'd open our eyes.

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