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Magic: Let’s Ditch Clarke’s 3rd Law!

Thursday, November 14th, 2013 | Posted by M Harold Page

357px-Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” No it’s not.

People love to cite Clarke’s 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

No it’s not.

Grand old man that he was (and it’s true that his Pompeii-like as-he-left it home is fascinating if you can bribe your way in), we should put this law to bed.

Though I do concede that to a Dark Age barbarian, my 21st century flat would seem filled with magical wonders, I think an engineer or practical philosopher would be able to tell the difference between my home, and that of my neighbor Mat the Magician (his full name is, “Merlin Apollonius Trismegistus”).

When I illuminate a room, I merely flick a switch. Neither the switch nor the bulb bear any glyphs. I do not subvocalize a charm. Nor do I burn incense pleasing to a salamander. The human-technology interface is entirely arbitrary and can be devoid of symbolism.

Next door, however, judging by the chanting and the smell, Mat the Magician does things differently. It doesn’t matter how advanced — as in “understood and reliable” — is Mat’s magic, it will always lack that symbolically neutral mediating layer.

Now, I could modify my home to make it look magical — put red dragons on the light-pulls, house the burglar alarm in a brazen head, put eyes on my little robot vacuum cleaner. But I don’t have to. No matter how advanced my technology, it doesn’t need to look like magic.

Mat can’t even try to make his home look technological. Without the salamander in a bottle, his lighting won’t work because his lighting is the salamander. He could put a box around his brazen head and mark it “Burglar Alarm”, but the head would probably start to complain. His brownies keep his floor clean, but they don’t work when anybody’s looking and he has to leave out cookies for them.

Considering the two homes, we can also see that Technology is usually mass producible, but Magic is not. You can buy a burglar alarm like mine off Amazon. They’re manufactured in China to designs by Indian engineer. Mat’s brazen head took him a year to create, and only somebody like Mat or his apprentice is capable of making another one.

So, if we’re going to be pedantic, we can rewrite Clarke’s 3rd Law as “Any sufficiently advanced technology can masquerade as magic if you really want.” But that just simplifies to; “Clever people can fake stuff.” No, really?

This difference is why Magic-as-Trope does more than just lubricate the plot while delivering a dose of wonder. It serves a literary purpose; What if Art shaped Reality, and not the other way around?


M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. His debut novel The Sword is Mightier came out recently. His Foreworld SideQuest, Marshal versus The Assassins is now available on Amazon.

17 Comments »

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology can masquerade as magic if you really want.”

    Funny you say it that way, because, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from doublespeak.” (From the first Zork novel, if memory serves.)

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - November 14, 2013 10:55 pm

  2. I’m confused as to what the post is trying to say. But since this law seems intuitive to me, let me try to defend it.

    Your example includes two beings who are relevantly alike (yourself and Mat the Magician). But what if one of the two beings is far more advanced in intelligence and scientific ability? It seems to me that his or her advanced know-how could very well appear to be magic or magic-like to the lesser advanced being. That doesn’t seem to be an issue of being clever.

    Am I missing something? And moreover, what’s the big deal whether this “law” is true or not?

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 15, 2013 12:59 am

  3. As a counter point let me cite a few examples that may have influenced Clarke. Roman structures, such as walls and roads, were considered to be have been made by giants. Or so argues Saxo Grammaticus, a learned natural philosopher of his age.

    Also, Cargo Cults in Southeast Asia are made up of people who use sympathetic magic rituals to, hopefully, attract the plane (which they believe comes from the spirit world) to land and bestow upon them the bounty that it usually bestows upon the nearby airfield.

    In any case the whole point of Clarke’s Three Laws (which he admitted were not laws, but observations) are a way of saying that nothing is impossible, and that we should keep exploring, and pushing the boundaries of science. Because everything that is possible today, was at some point impossible in the past.

    Comment by darangrissom - November 15, 2013 3:43 am

  4. @darangrisson

    Built by Giants or other magical entities is still engineering. Nobody mistook the aqueducts for things that stood up by magic alone. Presumably Mat the Magician can get his Earth Elementals to knock up a garden wall for him.

    The Cargo Cult counter example is a good one. However, on the face of it that just shows that advanced tech *can* be mistaken for magic, not that it is always indistinguishable.

    Comment by M Harold Page - November 15, 2013 5:08 am

  5. @James McGlothlin & Darrangrisson

    The point is a literary one and is well illustrated by the Cargo Cult:

    In the Technology, material effects produced symbolic meaning.

    In the Magic (the Cargo Cult), people attempted to use the symbols to produce material effects.

    The two have very different aesthetics and emotional resonances, and support two very different sorts of stories. A blaster is not a wand of fireballs or vise versa.

    (
    I find that when SF – usually actual TV SciFi, Dr Who and Torchwood being major offenders – treats technology with a magical – i.e. poetic – logic, the effect is to make the story trashy and disposable.

    Conversely, when writers treat magic like technology, I lose any sense of wonder and become emotionally distanced from the story. If you treat dragons as Stuka dive bombers, then you might as well use Stukas instead. If you engage with the fact of the dragon, hover, then you have an interesting story.
    )

    Comment by M Harold Page - November 15, 2013 5:19 am

  6. Hi there M Harold Page. I understand what you were getting at in your blog post. I think that those commenting above have confused and conflated issues. For interest, JG Frazer in his classic book, “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and religion” (volume 1) includes a perceptive treatise on the basic theoretical and practical aspects of magic, which is well worth a read. Of course, he was talking about magic in the spiritual-religious sense and not in the fantasy sense.
    As I see it, the difference between technology and magic is that with technology, sooner or later you could ferret out the physical laws that govern how it was done, whereas with magic at its finest, the process is governed essentially by will power alone (though some practitioners seem to feel the need to use props like chants and potions and so on). As far as I understand, with technology – output matches input every time – whereas with magic, anything might happen because physical laws do not govern the process. Magic is supernatural – and supernatural implies beyond the laws of physics.
    Another aspect of the confusion in the above comments concerns the use of language to describe something. Thus, when a chronicler from a past era refers to an engineering project as having been carried out by giants, we cannot tell (unless we have studied all of his other writing) whether he was being literal and was a credulous believer in magical events or whether he was merely writing metaphorically – how might a person 1000 years from now take the comment that we are sitting with the giants whose shoulders we are standing on?!

    Comment by Fiona T - November 15, 2013 8:56 am

  7. To elaborate: the process of magic is governed by expression of will power and the result depends on the nature and force of the practitioner’s personsonality.

    Comment by Fiona T - November 15, 2013 8:59 am

  8. Hadn’t considered the will. Doesn’t apply to magic items though. My Sword of Smiting doesn’t require my willpower. However I would be ill advised to file off those odd symbols on the blade…

    Comment by M Harold Page - November 15, 2013 9:01 am

  9. I think the point being missed here comes from not considering two of the words in Clarke’s Third Law: “sufficiently advanced”.

    The problem I think is one of perspective. You must place yourself completely outside the frame, or else, like in a physics experiment, your observations are skewed.

    Take as an example a member of an Amazonian tribe that has never had any contact with the outside world, and who exist to this day on the edge of the Neolithic age.

    Many items of today’s technology would surely be viewed by them as akin to magic, as they have no framework against which to judge it.

    A standard flashlight for example, despite its obvious construction and operation to us, is made of materials they have never seen and emits light as if by magic. The same observation might be made by someone from the middle ages. Although they know of metallurgy and if allowed to handle the flashlight could see it was such, if it were a sealed case LED type, they’d still have no idea how it operated.

    And so it would seem like magic. And if it were my technology, I’d certainly not let them bash it apart to try and figure out how it worked.

    A quick trip to Wkiipedia yields the following:

    “It may be an echo of a statement in a 1942 story by Leigh Brackett: “Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. Simple science to the learned” “

    From that we can see the proper frame in play, “ignorance vs. learned” has a similar implication to “sufficiently advanced”.

    For it to truly seem as such to us in this day and age, it would have to be advanced indeed.

    Comment by Gruud - November 15, 2013 9:37 am

  10. I should probably add, it also pre-supposes an actual belief in magic, which has been quite thoroughly beaten out of us. 😉

    Comment by Gruud - November 15, 2013 9:56 am

  11. I am also of the opinion that that the premise of this article is somewhat skewed since it doesn’t take into account the most important words “sufficiently advanced”.

    I’m sure that most of us, if seeing someone wave their hand to turn on a device, would conclude a technological reason. Even if we could not detect EM waves being broadcast or an audible command spoken, we might assume some other trick or cunning pseudo-AI program running a passive scanner.

    …but what if your tests failed to detect any type of signal and the subject was utterly isolated from the device (no passive detection possible, faraday cage on the other side of the planet level of rigour), what would the average person think then?

    And this just assumes something like a microscopic internal packet of quantum entangled particles linked to a receiver seamlessly built into the nano-structure of the device.

    What happens when said person can teleport objects, suppress gravity or open dimensional gateways – with no apparent equipment (whether built into the person at a sub-cellular level or via remote devices aka Krell machines)?

    At this point I’m sure most scientists and engineers would begin to wonder whether such demonstrable effects beyond their comprehension to explain via known or even imagined physics, would lead to them identifying it as ‘magic’… Especially if said person had a preference for dressing in long robes, using verbal activation & control commands in an obscure programming language, and riding a bio-engineered lizard (heck, who knows hoe fashions will change in the future!) :)

    Comment by Pete Nash - November 15, 2013 10:18 am

  12. Ah, but a Medieval person might assume that Alchemy or Natural Magic – using the occult properties of things directly – was at work.

    But yes, I take your point. Perhaps I should have argued that Clarke’s Law only works in one direction? That Magic can’t pass for technology.

    Comment by M Harold Page - November 15, 2013 10:21 am

  13. “I should probably add, it also pre-supposes an actual belief in magic, which has been quite thoroughly beaten out of us. ;)”

    Except that the majority of the western world still love and wonder at street magicians, follow a multitude of strange superstitions, and find comfort in prayers or organised religion. In other parts of the globe such beliefs are far stronger.

    Science and magic continue to rub shoulders even today! :)

    Comment by Pete Nash - November 15, 2013 10:24 am

  14. I can’t speak for the other posters, but in my defense if I “missed the point” of the essay I think it may be because it could’ve been written a little clearer. That, or I’m denser than most.

    I’m also not a writer, so I approached the essay as a philosophical issue, not an aesthetic one.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 15, 2013 10:52 am

  15. I recently went to a reading of Max Gladstone’s, in which he made a pretty compelling case for a cell phone being equivalent of a magical artifact. It went something like, even if you handed all the raw materials needed to make a phone to an engineer, who has a basic understanding of how such things work, they’d largely be at a loss of how to put all the components together to make an actual working cell phone. And most people who use cell phones actually have no idea how they work. I mean, I consider myself a well-read, well-educated individual, and my basic understanding of a cell phone is that it beams a signal to a satellite and that signal goes somewhere else, but even that is very abstract and if I have to visualize it, it looks a lot like a magical light show to describe something that happens invisibly.

    Which is not to say that magic and tech are indistinguishable, but that when we take tech for granted enough without really understanding how it works, it might as well be magic.

    Comment by alanajoli - November 15, 2013 1:43 pm

  16. Mr Page,
    I think you’re defining magic too narrowly. I used the Giants example because it was a supernatural explanation for technology that could not be explained within the cultural context of Anglo-Saxon society. No one was thinking about the architecture of giantkin. They just couldn’t explain how the objects came about.

    In fact that strikes at the core of what Clarke meant, you can’t just look at something and say, “I can’t explain that, but it must have a scientific explanation.” You have to understand the technology, otherwise the statement is as much one of faith as, “A wizard did it.”

    Most people today do live in a world of magic. Technology is so complicated that no one can walk around with the entirety of their culture’s technology in their head. Most people have very little idea how cell phones work. Ever ask someone what 4G actually is besides a faster connection? Any idea how to develop sustainable traffic patterns in a midsize town?

    Because my cities planner certainly doesn’t.

    Comment by darangrissom - November 16, 2013 5:21 am

  17. […] Magic: Let’s Ditch Clarke’s 3rd law […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in November - December 29, 2013 7:56 pm


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