Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Published by Adenosine Triphosphate in the blog Adenosine's Notebook. Views: 299

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." — Arthur C. Clarke

There are several different definitions of the word "magic". One concerns the manipulation of supernatural forces, which is by definition impossible, because anything that exists in nature is inherently part of it. Were their presence someday confirmed, ghosts, ESP, and psychic powers would simply be an exotic part of the natural world. They would not transcend it, and neither would the Greek gods, despite their power.

A second, less common meaning involves the command of natural forces in a vaguely mystical manner. This is usually taken to mean the same thing as the first, but, if you so desire, it can be read in a more technical and inclusive manner. It is my contention that modern engineering fits into this category almost as well as anything else could.

The technology of the 21st century is, put simply, a marvel. Electricity gives us power over heat and lighting, chemistry allows us to attack microorganisms and create the same poisonous gases and fireballs as stereotypical fantasy wizards, and radio waves fuel communication by sending words and images across thousands of miles with a speed that might as well be instantaneous. To our modern eyes, these abilities seem mundane, but they involve powerful, complex manipulation of natural forces that were almost completely beyond us in years past. Our medieval ancestors had fire, but electricity escaped them, and they would have seen our control of it as fantastical, or perhaps even demonic. Our powers in this area are as mystical as any stereotypical fantasy trope short of polytheism or the afterlife, and we forget that only because of how inescapably common they are.

If basic chemistry and electrical engineering are equivalent to pyromancy, then the Internet and the computers that power it go far beyond even that. We have created, through a combination of natural energy and modern wiring, metallurgy, and plastic design (this is an oversimplification), an incredibly expansive, constantly-churning soup of information, entertainment, and pornography. What started as a series of data exchanges became a world all its own, fully realized in picture and sound. Its attractions range from vast virtual libraries to fickle, harsh social media sites, harsher news article comment sections, immersive, semi-hallucinogenic video games, and porn sites that are simultaneously despised by polite society and maintained by the desires of its inhabitants. Like the underworld of a cyberpunk novel (a genre which essentially exists in real life at this point), it holds enormous reams of forbidden knowledge, and its total landscape would take tens of thousands of years to fully explore. It may be our crowning achievement as a race, at least from the perspective of sheer, environment-bending advancement, and our casual, almost bored desensitization is a testament to how quickly the human psyche can acclimate itself to changing conditions.

On that note, both psychoactive drugs and ordinary medicines are fairly effective analogs of magical potions, if often more limited. We can't turn people invisible or treat every disease with a one hundred percent cure rate, but we can alter their thought patterns, give them temporary enhancements in emotional control or physical strength, and save them from infections that would have been fatal without assistance. The primary difference between my Vyvanse prescription and a magical energy serum, aside from its side effects, lack of silver bullet properties, and limited (but not entirely absent) utility for normal people, is that it actually exists.

There are other things I could point to as well. Genetic engineering can transfer traits from one crop to another, certain forms of composite armor are strong enough to block non-shaped explosive charges, cars allow us to travel hundreds of miles with speed that surpasses a racehorse, and airplanes can cross entire continents in less than a day.

Thus, as I use my electricity-powered laptop, the virtually-generated sound waves of In Flames' Colony, and the peak effects of said Vyvanse to write this, I am a wizard. I'm doing magic, and so are you. We do magic every day. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Marie Curie, skilled drug manufacturers, and other such experts are/were archmages. The rest of us are mere apprentices, and perhaps dark ones, depending on how badly all those fossil fuel emissions ultimately come back to bite us in the ass.

Of course, the definition I used to reach that conclusion can easily be extended to include the natural bending of heat and kinetic energy that create order and motion, as well as the chemical reactions that take place inside our own bodies. Everything is magic, or perhaps nothing is, depending on how you word it. I suppose that only goes to show how primitive the whole concept really is.
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