Invisible Witchcraft

Arthur C. Clarke’s was a brilliant futurist and science fiction writer. He is widely known—among other things—for his Three Laws, in particular the Third and most cited one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s third law has been traced back to a similar statement in a story by Leigh Brackett: “Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned”.

Teleportation or telepathy belong today to such realm of illusion, but 3D-printing and brain–computer interfaces may one day make them a reality. “Open Sesame” were the magical words used to open the treasury cave in the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Today, we use similar “Okay Google”, “Hi Siri”, or “Alexa” to summon our “magical” digital assistants and open a vast treasure of information. Ali Baba would have marvelled at them.

It turns out that the feeling of wonder created by “advanced” technologies, is only a very preliminary stage in the long process of technology adoption. The most successful and fundamental—once magic-like advanced—technologies eventually weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they become indistinguishable from it(1). They simply disappear.

Nobody alive today usually perceives the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furniture or the myriad metal or plastic objects that we use as pieces of sophisticated “technology”. They have been so much part of our life from the beginning and we are so used to them, that we cannot simply notice the technology inside them. We may guess that future generations won’t see touch screens or voice interfaces as magic, because the technology that makes them possible will have matured, spread and be fully integrated into the fabric of everyday life in a not too distant future.

Such a disappearance is a fundamental consequence of human psychology. Whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it. Good design plays a key role during the transition point, as depicted in this chart taken from Christensen by Don Norman:

Engineering a successful user experience is part of learning how to use yesterday’s magic and make it part of our everyday lives.

Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable. (Donald A. Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things”)

This is the long run march of technology adoption: from sorcery or fiction, to awe-inspiring evidence, to psychopathic dependency, to calm and invisible ubiquity.

If we can accept and reason about how man-made technology blends completely into the fabric of everyday life, we can also speculate about some more extreme possibilities. Caleb Scharf discusses here the extreme possibility that physical laws were the product of and Alien Intelligence:

perhaps our universe is one of the new forms into which some other civilization transcribed its world.

advanced life will not just be unrecognizable as such, but will blend completely into the fabric of what we’ve thought of as nature.

Maybe there’s something about life itself that affects the cosmos.

Perhaps hyper-advanced life isn’t just external. Perhaps it’s already all around. It is embedded in what we perceive to be physics itself, from the root behavior of particles and fields to the phenomena of complexity and emergence.

I have already discussed this idea as a potential explanation to Fermi’s Paradox. It lends substance to the idea of an “engineered” universe, which is akin to the idea that we might be living inside a computer simulation, which is not too far from the idea that someone (God?) created the universe.

This cascade of thoughts is interesting, cause it seems that as we raise the level of speculation, all the crazy narratives ever put forward to explain reality and the universe blur into a horizon of comprehension, a limit beyond which our intellectual capacity is completely useless. It is also worth recalling Richard Dawking’s remark that Clarke’s Third Law doesn’t work in reverse(*).

Having said that, the idea of an alien life so advanced that it is indistinguishable from physics is a thought provoking idea. I think that Arthur C. Clarke would have agreed that physics itself might be the ultimate witchcraft!

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(*) Given that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it does not follow that “any magical claim that anybody may make at any time is indistinguishable from a technological advance that will come some time in the future.” (Wikiquote, Arthur C. Clarke)

(1) Weiser, Mark. 1999. ‘The Computer for the 21 St Century’. ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review 3 (3): 3–11. doi:10.1145/329124.329126.

(2) Norman, Donald A., and Peter Berkrot. 2011. The Design of Everyday Things. MP3–Unabridged CD edition ed. Old Saybrook, Ct.: Tantor Audio.

Feature Image: Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF)

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