Jul 062020
Bell X-1 – First balsa glider to break the silicone barrier.

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This is a succinct statement of a concept I consider very important to understanding human being’s relationship to technology. I think a good demonstration of the meaning is that a bic lighter would be indistinguishable from magic to a caveman, or a member of an uncontacted tribe, or to some degree an infant. It’s a poetic description of the consequences of the inability to connect the technological function of an object to its human sources of knowledge and materials.

I’m not extensively educated in industrial processes but I can do a fair job of explaining the origin of every material and functional property of a bic lighter. There’s no element of it that represents mystery and given enough time I can at least summarize the supply chains and scientific principles necessary to explain the function and existence of a lighter. More advanced technology such as a smart phone or a rocket engine are a greater stretch to bring back to human sources, but I am confident I have the tools to trace them back. A caveman has nothing resembling the knowledge necessary to make those connections even for common technologies we take for granted. Clarke’s third law is a great description of how humans perceive this disconnection.

Unfortunately, Clarke’s third law has been inverted to justify sci-fi premises that would otherwise be fantasy. And worse, it is sometimes used to predict technological solutions to any problem a human can imagine having a solution to.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic does not mean that any conceivable magic is achievable through sufficiently advanced technology.

Technology, under certain conditions, is indistinguishable from magic, but that does not necessarily imply that ‘magic’ is indistinguishable from technology. Science and technology are constrained by the possible, and even further by the provable. Magic is as unconstrained as the human imagination. 

The human mind is a fantastically conflicted place, but it is extremely robust in functioning despite logical conflict. The mind can effortlessly hold paradoxical concepts together in ways that make no material sense. I can ‘imagine’ a round square, or a circle with four sides. Though I’m not sure if there’s any visual imagination to those conjurings. I’m really just stringing together meaning from words, but there is no alarm or discomfort from mentally combining such incompatible ideas. If anything it can be somewhat rewarding due to novelty and occasionally generate genuine insight. So humans are pretty adept at combining concepts in absurd ways.

I know that ‘darkness’ is not really a property in itself, but an absence of light. Even knowing this I have no problem conceptualizing a ‘dark light’ that casts darkness in the exact same way that light shines. I can imagine it as brightening occluded areas, or darkening them, despite having no physical explanation for doing either. It doesn’t matter that it is complete nonsense in reality. My mind doesn’t require concepts to be materially compatible at all to create rich interactions that seem perfectly compatible with reality.

A dark light is ‘magic’ in a conceptual sense, not just technological. There is no conceivable technology that could make the absence of a thing behave as if it were the conceptual opposite, it’s just nonsense. But that doesn’t stop us from considering ‘dark light’ a potential ‘sci-fi’ concept.

I think time travel is the most interesting example of this. We understand we experience time as moving forward in a sequence, and we understand that sequences of things can be reversed. So in our minds there is no conceptual limitation to reversing time and we just naturally start filling in the blanks of what ‘reversing time’ would look like to a human experience, occasionally adding elements from interpretations of emerging theories such as alternate timelines or causal loops.

But the universe is under no obligation to expand to meet our conceptual potential. The passage of time may be an emergent property of the geometry of space-time and entropy of deterministic laws. Reversing it in a way that we could ‘travel’ through may be as nonsensical as ‘shining dark light’. There is no technology, science, or any other speculative study that would lead one to believe humans can ever use advanced technology to create a ‘dark light’, and I’d argue the same is true for time travel, there are just more people interested in arguing about it so it looks like a more compelling field of ideas.

Of course I can also ‘imagine’ a scenario where my future self shows up in a time machine with a dark light and shuts me right up. However, that’s another example of the same lack of constraint that allowed me to imagine the dark light in the first place.

We can clearly apply the indistinguishability of magic and technology to a less advanced observer’s perspective of technology we understand. But we can only imagine technologies so advanced that we might struggle to understand their human sources in a way that could make them appear as ‘magical’ to us as a lighter would to a caveman.

For something to appear truly ‘magical’, it must be so far beyond the observer’s context of understanding, that they cannot identify it as human technology. That’s an extremely subjective measure, and I could argue that it’s actually unattainable without a pre-existing belief in magic. Maybe even some very ancient individuals were so doggedly rational that once they saw something was possible, they would immediately understand it had to have been made possible by humans by virtue of its existence. Maybe if Plato saw a cell phone or a rocket he would simply be impressed with human progress. And some modern humans can hold demonstrably false beliefs about the Earth being flat while using technologies that would have to be ‘magic’ if it were.

So we have to take Clarke’s law as a very loose approximation even when analyzing the observer’s perspective of known technology. But it loses all relevance when we use it to predict technology based on our current perspective.

There are no relevant examples of anyone we consider ‘modern’ encountering inexplicably advanced technology, so even imagining ourselves in the position of observing ‘magic’ requires us to conceive of technologies that we not only don’t understand, but currently consider impossible.

To impress a modern, educated human with ‘magic’, you’d need to literally bring someone back from the dead, or something else that’s never been done and been proven to be impossible. And then you run into the Plato problem- maybe once they’ve seen it- they’ll assume there’s an explanation and the previous assumptions of impossibility were mistaken.

So there’s really nothing usefully invertible or reversible about Clarke’s law. It’s not a predictive law. It can only be applied retroactively to explain the perception of known technology as ‘magic’ to others, it cannot be used to predict the potential of any new technology or how we might perceive it. Basically it’s as meaningful as ‘yet’ in an argument over inconvenient explanations of why humans just can’t do some things.

So am I saying sci-fi is too unrealistic and all sci-fi should be hard sci-fi? Sort of, but not really- I still want my warp drive and teleporters and other stuff that goes against the whole point of this post. It is what it is. I’m satisfied that ‘sci-fi’ has become synonymous with ‘space-fantasy’ even in more respectable science fiction. Good ‘hard’ sci-fi is just always going to be rare. But it would be nice if the starting conversation for sci-fi was “what’s the most we could do with what we can do?” rather than “what’s the most we could do with no limits?”

So am I saying stop pushing the boundaries of science because they’re boundaries and it’s a waste of time- of course not, but I know that’s what some people hear when I talk like this. Those are generally the ‘I believe in science’ characters who see any objection to blind belief as resistance. But in some ways I envy people who can somehow believe that Maxwell’s Demon is just a description of a future technology. Must be hopeful. I guess I’d just like people to do a better job of distinguishing theoretical impossibility from practical impossibility, or at least stop dragging Clarke’s law into it.

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