Clarke’s Confusion About Magic

We all know Clarke’s Law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. One of the things wrong with this cliché is the fact that any proposition that includes the word “sufficiently” is tautologous. That is, if you claim that any X that is sufficiently Y is a Z, and I show you an X that is Y but nevertheless not a Z, all you need to do is retort that it is not sufficiently Y. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Moreover, Clarke does not define what he means by “magic”, and shows no sign of having thought about the question. If the word magic means “stuff that doesn’t work”, as it often does, then he is saying that advanced technology doesn’t work, which can hardly have been his intention. If magic means “stuff that makes bystanders go “Gosh-Wow”, and advanced technology makes bystanders go Gosh-Wow, then the proposition is true but extremely uninteresting. If magic means “stuff that works but ordinary people don’t understand how”, then again, the proposition is true but seriously boring. Perhaps he means that even our own scientists would not understand how sufficiently advanced technology worked; but somehow I doubt that if aliens brought such technology to us, our scientists would call it “magic”. For that matter, I doubt that “primitive” earthly tribes thought of European technology as “magic”, if this means not wanting to know how it was done. If magic is what we condescendingly call their own technology, then they could reasonably return the compliment, but both they and we are focused on learning the trick of it, because that is who we are.

Posted on July 14, 2009 at 09:52 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Ghost in the Machine
    on July 26, 2009 at 13:02

    Methinks you’re insisting on an overly rigid grid of interpretation here.

    The magic of which you speak is one of perception. IMHO, the telephone, telefax and the Internet are right up there with magic.

    On the other hand, in my book, David Copperfield is at times down there with Russian oligarchs, bought-and-paid for Republican senators, Fox News and Burlesconi.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on July 26, 2009 at 13:32

    Can you define the “magic” that the telephone and so forth are right up there with? I am looking for an actual coherent meaning for this word, so far without much success.

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