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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 dic​tion​ary​.com, 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.