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.

james o'brien
6/16/2008 5:41:02 PM

"I'm sure if you ask some of the older, elderly people around, they may think the new phones and newer technology seem like "magic" to them!" Maybe it's because I'm one of the younger elderly people around (56), but the new phones seem to operate on the same principles as the old phones, albeit in smaller packages, with greater information storage capacity, and make more effective use of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. Technology in general, while advancing by leaps and bounds, appears to me to be following the paths predicted in and before the 20th century. For example in genetics, the work of Mendel, advanced by Watson and Crick, prefigures genetic prediction and alteration. The Internet seems like magic to me, but social and cultural magic, not technological. Internet surfing seems to be a new form of human behavior, a new part of our culture, that doesn't have a close analog in previous cultural developments. (Watching television and wasting time are different). Anyway, the current state of technology is very impressive, but not magical.


stephen wehrenberg_1
6/13/2008 11:55:13 AM

"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." I wonder if it is possible that the reason it's so hard to explain the relevance of Facebook is that it simply isn't relevant. "Relevant to what or whom?" comes to mind. Hey ... it's possible! ;~)


ken adams
6/12/2008 4:15:42 PM

Very interesting! Although I'm sure if you ask some of the older, elderly people around, they may think the new phones and newer technology seem like "magic" to them! I'm quite sure as a child none of them ever even anticipated some of these inventions.