Magic and Technology

A statement often repeated in discussions of technology, whether within the realm of science fiction (and literary criticism of the genre) or without, is Arthur C. Clarke‘s so-called “Third Law”, which states that

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The reader may refer to Wikipedia for a bit of background surrounding Clarke’s three laws and possible precedents for the third one mentioned here. While the law obviously makes predictions about the perception of technology in real life, it is equally relevant to fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, where magic and/or technology occupy prominent places as plot devices, motifs, etc.

What interests me in particular are the assumptions lying behind Clarke’s third law, and how the law and its assumptions can help (or hinder) us to understand the interplay between technology and magic as concepts of activity –  indeed, I was tempted to write “human activity” for a moment, but since neither technology nor magic are necessarily limited to the human species, it did not seem appropriate.

Firstly, the law appears to assume that both technology and magic are concepts that can be observed to function in practice by the person who “distinguishes”. More particularly, it is likely that it is the result of the application of either magic or technology that is considered to be most important. Obtaining tangible results is, after all, an important purpose of both technology and magic in the common understanding of the terms.

Clarke also seems to assert that the two are in fact separate concepts, that is, technology and magic can be indistinguishable but not identical.

What remains then, is that technology (in a certain “advanced” form) can be indistinguishable from magic (in general, or in a specific form) for someone: a person, a society. The ‘distinguisher’ or observer here, whether it be an individual or group, is also implied to possess a certain degree of ‘advancement’, because the technology must be advanced as compared to something else, in this case, the level of technology known to the observer.

In other words, if a technology is advanced beyond a certain point in relation to that of the observer, such as that the observer cannot understand its functioning, that technology is like magic, implying that magic by its very definition is something that produces results (or is believed to do so), while the underlying functioning of it remains obscure to the observer.

This leaves us with a bit of a conundrum in terms of interpretation of the third law. Assuming that there is a second observer – e.g. the creator of the advanced technology – who is able to distinguish between said technology and magic (otherwise the law could never be verified), there must be a fundamental difference between technology and magic. I will have to make a guess here, for I haven’t read Clarke’s essay, so am unable to put the law in its proper context at the moment. Perhaps the reader will forgive me, as the law is repeated so often out of that very context that it may have a life of its own anyway.

My guess is that for Clarke, the fundamental difference is that technology works, and magic doesn’t, by which I am placing him firmly within a tradition of popular scientific discourse which generally works with the same division between science that works, and magic that doesn’t (to which some might add: unless one believes in it).

This is my interpretation of Clarke (and popular usage: see for example the entry on magic on, and note particularly the word “presumably” under definition 2), and if it is correct, this use of the concept of magic can be placed in another discursive area, namely that which employs the term magic to cast doubt on the truth value (or moral value) of whatever is subsumed under it. In fact, the term magic and related ones have for the greater part of history been used in precisely that manner, and in opposition to, e.g. true Christian faith, science. It is therefore most often a purely polemic term, as comes forward clearly in Wouter Hanegraaff’s article on the subject:

In the post-colonial period Western scholars have become more sensitive about issues of ethnocentrism and Eurocentric arrogance, but the logical step of discarding the category of “magic” has not been taken. Many authors opt for half-way solutions such as speaking about “magic” while admitting that is a form of “religion”, but without explaining in what then relies its specificity. Others use adjectives such as “magico-religious”, but again without specifying in what respect this category is different from “religion” pure and simple. A more consistent and historically more fruitful approach would be to start by recognizing the religious pluralism that has in fact always characterized Western culture, and analyze magic as a largely polemical concept that has been used by various religious interest groups either to describe their own religious beliefs and practices or – more frequently – to discredit those of others. If any etic concept of magic is still considered necessary at all, it might be used as the common denominator of ‘a discursive field, in which different Occidentalist definitions of deluded or illusory beliefs were accompanied by doubts about the extent to which they were deluded, illusory, backward, or irrational’ (Pels 2003, 16). [Hanegraaff 2006, p. 718]

With that out of the way, I would like to turn away from Clarke’s law and the polemic use of the term magic, and focus a bit more on the relationship between technology and what has been called magic. If we accept that magic is a systematic activity geared towards obtaining a result, I see no essential difference between magic and technology where it concerns intention or purpose. Both encompass a system of knowledge and/or activities that are believed/known to produce results (see also the etymology for ‘technology’). In common usage, technology is generally associated with relatively complex physical objects, but essentially, it refers to any systematic interaction with the environment. Among the main things I would include in technology are language and tools, both of which range from the simple (calls, cracking nuts with a stone) to the highly complex (long texts, poems, computers, airplanes, etc.).

Following this, we might just as well consider magic to be an offshoot of technology. It too is based on systems that use technology (language and/or tools) to influence the environment in some way. Among the ways in which different kinds of magic does this, we can notice the following:

  • Many forms of magic are based on communication with a being that is in some way more powerful than humans. Through the use of language in the form of prayer, binding spells, or negotiation, the magician seeks to compel or convince that higher being to produce some effect that is desirable to the magician.
  • In certain belief systems (as Foucault would have it: the whole Classical view of the world), knowing the ‘true name’ of something imparts true reference and thereby true knowledge of an object. This knowledge can prove instrumental in manipulating an object in other ways. More importantly, this allows knowledge to be discovered by indirect means (e.g. divination), as empirical observation is not necessary if the ‘true name’ can be obtained otherwise.
  • Alchemy is an example of  a system of knowledge where the terms technology and magic are entwined to such a degree that it becomes pointless: “One cannot simply speak of “alchemy”, but must distinguish its practical, theoretical, naturephilosophical, mystical and medical aspects. Among alchemists there are, correspondingly, scientists, medical men and mystical seekers after truth, and even charlatans.” [Principe 2006: p. 15]

The practice of any form of magic is, in any case, based upon a certain matter of conjecture, i.e. we expect/believe/hope the system we use to produce a desired effect. To me, this does not seem essentially different from using technology one does not fully understand (which we do daily). If it functions, it is technology, if it does not, it might still be, but we may just be applying the system wrongly. One has to learn to create a car, just as one must learn to combine molten metals into alloys.

We can use (and have used) magic as a term for all the forms of conjecture that don’t pay off. Alchemists, as far as we know, have never been able to create gold from base metal, so that practice has been discounted as magic. Creating bronze from copper and tin hasn’t, because it works. The only difference is that the systematic approach happens to be wrong in one case, and right in the other. Both, however, are systematic and by my definition technological.

Strangely enough, in fiction things are even more confusing! ‘Magic’ is a staple motif in fantasy literature, as is well known, but there it works! Sorcerers use spells to create fire, move stones, bewitch minds, etc. In the sense of producing tangible results, in the fictional world magic functions if the system is correctly applied. Different authors may be more or less thorough in making the supposed system explicit, but a system is always implied: some people know how to do magic properly, while others do not.

In science fiction, on the other hand, the term magic is less readily applied, at least to my knowledge. That however, does not withhold authors of the genre from including motifs that can be considered, indeed, conjectural technology. Especially when such technology is not explained in detail, it can be difficult for the reader to distinguish it from magic ( – that last sentence probably sounds familiar by now). Precisely this theme is discussed in the entry on “Magic” in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Shippey & Nicholls 1993), which lays particular emphasis on how the juxtaposition of technology and magic in fiction is heavily dependent on contrasting the familiar and the uncanny.

Lt. Kaidan Alenko using a biotic ability in Mass Effect

Video games are another case in point, where the terminological distinction is particularly difficult in cases where magic and (conjectural) technology perform more or less the same in-game function. The only distinction may then be the idiom of the genre in which the game is set. As an example, consider the use of a skill called “biotics” in the Mass Effect series of games. In the science fictional setting of the game, biotics have a scientific underpinning, its users being able to manipulate force or mass through amplified thought. In the game, this is basically only used in combat, to throw or lift enemies, or similar effects. In what way is such a technology functionally different from telekinetic powers or magical control of the wind in a fantasy game? Which is technology and which is magic, and why?

To conclude, I believe Clarke’s third law holds up to scrutiny in one respect, since technology is indeed in many cases indistinguishable from magic. What I’ve hoped to show, however, is that this has less to do with the actual real-world referential characteristics of both terms, than with the use of the terms itself. If a system works, it is functional technology. If it doesn’t, it’s non-functional technology. The term magic can be used for both:

  • for functional technology by the observer if he/she does not understand it and because the two are therefore indistinguishable (this is where Clarke’s law applies), and in fiction because the idiom demands it: magic that doesn’t work in the real world, but does in fiction is still called magic.
  • for functional technology if the user of the term does believe it works, but seeks to make a moral distinction between forbidden magic and other practice (see below).
  • for non-functional technology if the user of the term doesn’t believe it could function anyway. This is the polemical use that distinguishes non-functional magic from supposedly functional prayer or belief, and/or from functional technology or science.

Obviously, all these uses are highly subjective, which might make one think twice before describing anything as ‘magical’.


  • Hanegraaff, Wouter. 2006. “Magic I: Introduction”. In: Hanegraaf, Wouter (et al., ed.). Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Leiden / Boston: Brill. pp. 716-719.
  • Principe, Lawrence M. 2006. “Alchemy I: Introduction”. In: Hanegraaf, Wouter (et al., ed.). Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Leiden / Boston: Brill. pp. 12-16.
  • Shippey, Tom & Nicholls, Peter. 1993. “Magic”. In: Clute, John & Nicholls, Peter. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit. pp. 765-767.