Utne Blogs > Science and Technology

The Difference Between Technology and Magic

by Jake Mohan 

Tags: technology, iPhone, Kindle, science fiction, futurism, Arthur C. Clarke, internet,

iphoneHow revolutionary are the iPhone and the Amazon Kindle? Not very, according to Annalee Newitz at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She cites an engineering principle called the singularity, “the moment when the technology and culture of the present evolve to the point that they would be incomprehensible to people from the past.” The concept could encompass what the late, great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called the moment when a “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The test for singularity is to imagine explaining a technology to someone 100 years ago—a feat that would be fairly easy, Newitz argues, with the iPhone, the Kindle, or even the Phoenix Mars Lander. All are impressive innovations, but hardly incomprehensible to a citizen of the world in 1908.

So what would blow an early-20th-century mind, in much the same way that a man in the 1700s would be boggled by airplanes? Most likely, internet-based technologies like social-networking sites and viral video, which have fundamentally changed the ways we interact with others, would do the trick. This makes sense, since I often find it difficult to explain the relevance of Facebook or Obama Girl even to myself, much less a hypothetical person 100 years in the past.

Image by Eli Duke, licensed by Creative Commons.