Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

Te Rauparaha. From
Te Rauparaha. From

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond
Click to buy print edition from Fishpond
Click to buy e-book from Amazon
Click to buy e-book from Amazon






9 thoughts on “Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

  1. When the Israelis revived Hebrew as the national language they faced the problem that in resurrecting a “dead” language, it had no words for modern concepts. The one I remember is “tilim” — don’t know what it meant in the original Hebrew, but modern usage is “missile” in the sense of a SAM.

    Mostly I think your points above are well-taken, especially the concluding observation about Clarke’s purpose in making the remark. But what if the technology in question were based on something other than the mechanically and causally obvious to the observer? Suppose you need twenty, or a hundred, years of education to grasp the principles involved? Granted that there is still a rational chain of causation. But absent that necessary education, it might not be magic, but how would you really know, other than faith in the scientific paradigm? Faith, there’s that ugly word… 😉


    1. Yes, I agree – it could well be that in order to even understand the explanation for an advanced technology, the listener must first be trained in principles unknown to them – the explanation would otherwise appear simply as ‘noise’. And yes, it would have to be an act of faith in believing it. This wasn’t the case, certainly, when indigenous peoples met firearms-wielding Europeans in the nineteenth century; these were practical objects that could be understood. But it did occur at the same time relative to more abstruse aspects of culture. The words were understood but the meanings missed. And I guess that were an alien starship to turn up, we might find ourselves in just that position. One of my favourite Asimov stories revolved around that – ‘Buy Jupiter’.


  2. I think there are cases when Clarke’s supposition is correct. A lot depends on the mindset of the culture experiencing the technology. There have been cases, I believe, when the indigenous culture confused Europeans for Gods. In such a case, the might confuse their technology for magic. But in the case of North American Indians, they could plainly see that white men were just “men,” exceptionally clever in some regards, exceptionally stupid in others. Though they didn’t know how to make “fire-sticks” they could easily recognize an aimed weapon when they saw one. In fact, tribes like the Apache turned out to be skilled with them in very short order. They recognized a tool, not magic.

    If a starship suddenly popped into existence over the city today (no re-entry, no parking orbit first), that ship would be waaay ahead of us technologically, but since we live in a modern society dominated by science, few would think it was magic. I would simply suppose the aliens had mastered quantum-entanglement to advantage. Something we can’t do, but have theorized is workable. On the other hand, a modern religious fanatic, might be absolutely certain it was “their” religious messiah returning to fulfill a prophecy. Thus, they would interpret the event as magic. So it seems to me, whatever you’re inclined to believe determines how you perceive advanced technology.


    1. I agree. Actually I think we’d get both views at the same time, given human nature. And then argue over it… (I have this surreal vision of a voice emanating from the spaceship ‘Now now, kiddies…’) 🙂


  3. No matter how thoroughly they’re explained to me, I still think that speakers and cameras are magic. I know it makes sense (because it obviously works), but the idea of recording some experience and looking at or listening to it at a later time just… really? We can /do/ that? /That/ works?


    1. They are magical by any reasonable standard! It underscores just how amazing tech is – thirty years ago we’d have needed a room full of gear to do what a phone or slr will achieve today.


    1. I think this actually happened. We can imagine something similar happening to us were we to meet aliens that had mastered aspects of physics we are still exploring. Not a good notion if they turn out hostile. Whether bacteria would come to our aid, H.G.Wells style, seems unlikely…


Comments are closed.