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Thread: Clarke magic in 2019

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    Clarke magic in 2019

    IIRC Clarke gave his "sufficiently advanced technology" statement about future inventions whose scientific principles had not been discovered at the time (was it about 1960?).
    Are there any such? Maybe quantum computers? Something else?
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    I’m pretty sure an iPad would seem magical to people in the early 60s.
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    Not even principles but simply advancements in existing technology. From Wikipedia:

    Clarke gave an example of the third law when he said that while he "would have believed anyone who told him back in 1962 that there would one day exist a book-sized object capable of holding the content of an entire library, he would never have accepted that the same device could find a page or word in a second and then convert it into any typeface and size from Albertus Extra Bold to Zurich Calligraphic", referring to his memory of "seeing and hearing Linotype machines which slowly converted ‘molten lead into front pages that required two men to lift them’".[7]
    In 1962 computers existed although they were large, slow and difficult to use. You could see that they would grow smaller (in fact miniaturization was already well under way across all of electronics), but it was not as easy to see all of the potential applications.

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    Still, I think there was enough of a technological base at that time, so that people would recognize an iPad as a manufactured device. Sure, they'd be agog at it's capabilities but I don't think they would mistake it as being something truly magical. And I think that's a complication within Clarke's premise: as a civilization advances its technology, I think it becomes progressively harder for it to be fooled into thinking a more advanced technology is truly magical.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Mazanec View Post
    IIRC Clarke gave his "sufficiently advanced technology" statement about future inventions whose scientific principles had not been discovered at the time (was it about 1960?).
    Are there any such? Maybe quantum computers? Something else?
    That's not my understanding of Clarke's statement ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). I always assumed the saying was more aimed at looking backwards - showing a caveman a flashlight, rather than showing a 1960s human an iPad.

    I completely agree with Peterscreek. I don't think anyone familiar with 1950s or 60s technology would have thought the iPad to be magical. Heck, Clarke's own fiction had similar devices (I remember that Rendezvous with Rama had technology called "memory pads" or something like that, which were tablet computers. Star Trek's tricorders and similar devices seem similar.

    Maybe I don't understand your question, but I can't think of any current or near-term technology that I would think of as magical. Even among technology described in science fiction, I can't think of too much I would think of as magical. A Star Trek transporter or a Dr. Who Tardis comes close. The powers of a being like Star Trek's Q seem magical, but I don't think I'd would describe them as technology either.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Maybe I don't understand your question, but I can't think of any current or near-term technology that I would think of as magical. Even among technology described in science fiction, I can't think of too much I would think of as magical. A Star Trek transporter or a Dr. Who Tardis comes close. The powers of a being like Star Trek's Q seem magical, but I don't think I'd would describe them as technology either.
    And that's the thing. Any technology that has been described in science fiction would be accepted as technology, even if we had no idea how it worked. Our (collective) imagination is always way ahead of our technological capabilities and so the threshold for something seeming magical just gets further away.

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    I think we can profitably flip it around, and ask what would seem like magic to someone in the 1960s - what effects did stage magicians aim to perform in order to give their audiences a sense of amazement? Not brandishing a book-like computer or demonstrating a rapid solution to the Travelling Salesman Problem, that's for sure.
    Antigravity, teleportation, vanishings and reappearances, restorations of destroyed objects, divining someone's thoughts ... Those are the things technology would need to do to "seem like magic".

    Grant Hutchison

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    Actually, something doesn’t have to be that advanced to seem like magic. Here we are almost in 2020, and magnets still seem pretty magical to me.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    Actually, something doesn’t have to be that advanced to seem like magic. Here we are almost in 2020, and magnets still seem pretty magical to me.


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    Totally agree... I bought some really powerful spherical magnets a few years ago...

    ...even more after i saw this video explaining that magnetism arises due to relativistic effects of moving charges.. don't know if that's actually true??
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TKSfAkWWN0
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    Originally Posted by Swift
    Maybe I don't understand your question, but I can't think of any current or near-term technology that I would think of as magical. Even among technology described in science fiction, I can't think of too much I would think of as magical. A Star Trek transporter or a Dr. Who Tardis comes close. The powers of a being like Star Trek's Q seem magical, but I don't think I'd would describe them as technology either.
    And that's the thing. Any technology that has been described in science fiction would be accepted as technology, even if we had no idea how it worked. Our (collective) imagination is always way ahead of our technological capabilities and so the threshold for something seeming magical just gets further away.
    Maybe I didn't make myself clear, but that is not my feeling. Just because it has been described in science fiction, I don't accept certain things as non-magical technology. Transporters seem like magic to me - I think because I can't imagine any physics or technology that would allow such a thing. However, FTL travel doesn't seem magical to me, maybe because there have been hypotheses on how it might be done.

    Most science fiction technology seems non-magical to me, but not just because it was described in science fiction.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    And that's the thing. Any technology that has been described in science fiction would be accepted as technology, even if we had no idea how it worked. Our (collective) imagination is always way ahead of our technological capabilities and so the threshold for something seeming magical just gets further away.
    Was thinking about this and an example sprang to mind that would be more likely to be Clarke magic to you the more you knew about QM. If anyone ever worked out how to make that famous lazy sci-fi writers patch for FTL communication happen (entangled particles = FTL comms, right?) then the more you knew about how entanglement is thought to work then the more you'd think "Magic. Has to be".

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    Quote Originally Posted by Shaula View Post
    Was thinking about this and an example sprang to mind that would be more likely to be Clarke magic to you the more you knew about QM. If anyone ever worked out how to make that famous lazy sci-fi writers patch for FTL communication happen (entangled particles = FTL comms, right?) then the more you knew about how entanglement is thought to work then the more you'd think "Magic. Has to be".
    Yes, this is something that I alluded to in my previous post, but most of the things that actually do seem like "magic" to me are natural things, like magnetism (how the heck does that work?), gravity (things pulling on each other with no strings?!), quantum phenomena, consciousness, pair creation (something out of nothing?), quantum entanglement, etc.
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    Of course, I meant "magic" the way Clarke meant it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Mazanec View Post
    Of course, I meant "magic" the way Clarke meant it.
    But how did Clarke mean it?
    The example he gave in the second edition of Profiles of the Future, which is where the the third law originated, is of telling a nineteenth century scientist that you have two lumps of metal which, if brought together quickly, will release energy equivalent to burning tens of thousands of tons of coal. So it seems he intended "magic" to mean "I cannot imagine a natural process that could be harnessed to give rise to that effect".

    Grant Hutchison

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    And magnets et al above are known natural processes.
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    I like Grant's suggestion of looking at what a stage magician might do as a good reference for what would constitute "magic". It also seems like the trappings are important. If I put electrodes on your forehead and plug them into a computer, and the computer describes what you're thinking about, you'll be amazed, but you'll assume that I've got some amazing technological device that can read the electric impulses in your neurons and somehow use that to reconstruct your thoughts. Amazing, but clearly technological. If I do the same trick, but I'm waving my hands over a crystal ball and speaking strange incantations, that seems more like what we'd think of as "magic".

    Similarly, part of the reason the powers of Q on Star Trek seem magical is that he just waves his hand and it happens. If instead he pushed buttons on some handheld control unit, it would seem more like advanced technology that we just didn't understand. If you want to make your technology seem like magic, take the machine that's doing whatever amazing thing and make it and its controls as unobtrusive as possible.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Grey View Post
    If you want to make your technology seem like magic, take the machine that's doing whatever amazing thing and make it and its controls as unobtrusive as possible.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    Maybe I didn't make myself clear, but that is not my feeling. Just because it has been described in science fiction, I don't accept certain things as non-magical technology. Transporters seem like magic to me - I think because I can't imagine any physics or technology that would allow such a thing. However, FTL travel doesn't seem magical to me, maybe because there have been hypotheses on how it might be done.

    Most science fiction technology seems non-magical to me, but not just because it was described in science fiction.
    Personally I think transporters are more likely than typical SF FTL. Unless a hypotheses deals with the causality issues FTL introduces it is not a valid hypotheses, in my opinion. The Alcubierre drive ignores the causality issues as far as I can tell so it should be considered invalid. You can't pick and choose which laws of physics you are going to care about.

    It isn't just that FTL introduces the possibility of backwards time travel, the real problem is it produces contradictory viewpoints. Some observers will see you moving backwards in time while others don't. That's a contradiction. Simply moving backwards in time may well be possible, physics doesn't explicitly forbid it, however you can't be going forward and backwards in time simultaneously because that's a logical paradox. That would be "real" magic!

    FTL is just so darn useful to SF that we conveniently forget about the issues it causes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bearded One View Post
    Personally I think transporters are more likely than typical SF FTL. Unless a hypotheses deals with the causality issues FTL introduces it is not a valid hypotheses, in my opinion. The Alcubierre drive ignores the causality issues as far as I can tell so it should be considered invalid. You can't pick and choose which laws of physics you are going to care about.

    It isn't just that FTL introduces the possibility of backwards time travel, the real problem is it produces contradictory viewpoints. Some observers will see you moving backwards in time while others don't. That's a contradiction. Simply moving backwards in time may well be possible, physics doesn't explicitly forbid it, however you can't be going forward and backwards in time simultaneously because that's a logical paradox. That would be "real" magic!

    FTL is just so darn useful to SF that we conveniently forget about the issues it causes.
    I don't disagree with any of that. I think FTL to be extremely unlikely. It just doesn't seem "magical" to me, whatever that means. And that might be the fundamental problem - "magical" is a poorly described term. Clarke's quote is a "cute" one, but it not well defined, and the OP's use of it seems even less well defined. It is hard enough to decide whether some existing technology is "magical"; it is even harder for some technology that doesn't even exist.
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    There is another aspect of this...

    I suspect that most people have as much understanding of current technologies, such as GPS or nuclear fission, as a stone age hunter-gatherer. Do they (modern, non-technical humans) consider GPS to be "magical"? If not, why is GPS not-magical but a Harry Potter spell is? Is it because, as Grey said, that one has the appearance of technology (buttons and dials and lights)? Or was Clarke talking about how our perception of something changes as our understanding of it changes?
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    Clarke's example, in his Profiles of the Future article, involves a scientist being presented with advanced technology. I think that's quite important in interpreting what Clarke's Third Law was about, at least when it first occurred to Clarke. While magnets may seem "magical" to many people, a scientist will think: Yes, that's magnetism, I have a well-tested theory that lets me manipulate that aspect of reality. What Clarke seemed to be reaching for was the same scientist's response to a new phenomenon for which there is currently no tool in the scientist's toolbox.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    There is another aspect of this...

    I suspect that most people have as much understanding of current technologies, such as GPS or nuclear fission, as a stone age hunter-gatherer. Do they (modern, non-technical humans) consider GPS to be "magical"? If not, why is GPS not-magical but a Harry Potter spell is? Is it because, as Grey said, that one has the appearance of technology (buttons and dials and lights)? Or was Clarke talking about how our perception of something changes as our understanding of it changes?
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    What about Alexa or Siri? Without explaining it to someone from before computers where common they probably couldn't figure out how in the world you where doing that. And if you wove the use of that technology into a story about something magical (say spirits and the after life), and then started talking into the air and getting a response from a clearly empty room you could probably convince a large portion of the 1960's population that you could talk to spirits from the dead or something else magical (insert imagination here).

    Heck add in some voice activated controllers for the lights or even a drone on auto pilot and you could really sell the effect, and maybe even convince someone that you had telekinetic powers. It's really a question of how creative can you get with something like this.

    But.........to be fair that could probably convince a good portion of todays population that it was magic, which does bring up an interesting question. How much deception do you think you'd be allowed? Are you going to sit the person down and explain the technology, and only if they still think it's magic then you've succeeded? Because if it's this, I don't think anyone from 1960 couldn't follow along with a reasonable explanation. On the other hand, if you are going to try to trick them and then just see if they can guess how you did it then sure you could probably trick a large portion of the 1960's population, but you'd also be able to trick a large portion of todays population too. So would that count?

    Also, if the answer to this question does turn out to be "nothing would fool them into thinking it was magic", maybe a follow up could be "so then how far back would you have to go to be able to?". Pick someone from before electricity and I bet even after explaining your iphone in detail they may still think your a wizard!


    I just thought of this one too: What about Telsa's self driving car technology? Claim you can drive with a blindfold on using your magical divining powers. But again, the only way you'd convince them it's magic is to keep the real explanation a secret. If you tell them how a self driving car works, they won't think it's magical anymore.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave241 View Post
    What about Alexa or Siri? Without explaining it to someone from before computers where common they probably couldn't figure out how in the world you where doing that. And if you wove the use of that technology into a story about something magical (say spirits and the after life), and then started talking into the air and getting a response from a clearly empty room you could probably convince a large portion of the 1960's population that you could talk to spirits from the dead or something else magical (insert imagination here).

    Heck add in some voice activated controllers for the lights or even a drone on auto pilot and you could really sell the effect, and maybe even convince someone that you had telekinetic powers. It's really a question of how creative can you get with something like this.

    But.........to be fair that could probably convince a good portion of todays population that it was magic, which does bring up an interesting question. How much deception do you think you'd be allowed? Are you going to sit the person down and explain the technology, and only if they still think it's magic then you've succeeded? Because if it's this, I don't think anyone from 1960 couldn't follow along with a reasonable explanation. On the other hand, if you are going to try to trick them and then just see if they can guess how you did it then sure you could probably trick a large portion of the 1960's population, but you'd also be able to trick a large portion of todays population too. So would that count?

    Also, if the answer to this question does turn out to be "nothing would fool them into thinking it was magic", maybe a follow up could be "so then how far back would you have to go to be able to?". Pick someone from before electricity and I bet even after explaining your iphone in detail they may still think your a wizard!


    I just thought of this one too: What about Telsa's self driving car technology? Claim you can drive with a blindfold on using your magical divining powers. But again, the only way you'd convince them it's magic is to keep the real explanation a secret. If you tell them how a self driving car works, they won't think it's magical anymore.
    I think you've correctly identified this issue.

    There is no such thing as magic. It is now and has always been, deception. Once one is aware of that, any mysterious actions or devices naturally become technological.

    At least technology can be explained and demonstrated to be factual. Just because many people don't understand it doesn't make it false. On the other hand, explaining a piece of magic makes the magic evaporate.

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    But Clarke's adage doesn't say "Any sufficiently advanced technology combined with deception can be used in stage magic".
    His example is of a scientist who is baffled and astounded because the technology being described (an atomic bomb) involves unknown physics. A skilled technologist and a knowledgeable scientist from the nineteenth century could dismantle the atomic bomb and examine its parts with being able to figure out how it worked.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    But Clarke's adage doesn't say "Any sufficiently advanced technology combined with deception can be used in stage magic".
    His example is of a scientist who is baffled and astounded because the technology being described (an atomic bomb) involves unknown physics. A skilled technologist and a knowledgeable scientist from the nineteenth century could dismantle the atomic bomb and examine its parts with being able to figure out how it worked.

    Grant Hutchison
    My point is that magic doesn't exist, so your 19C scientist, if they were a true scientist, would have to assume unknown technology rather than sorcery.

    Maybe Clarke's quote would be better phrased as
    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to the sufficiently credulous"?

    ETA, I guess it depends on your definition of magic. I can see it being used as a synonym for wonder maybe.

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    Quote Originally Posted by headrush View Post
    My point is that magic doesn't exist, so your 19C scientist, if they were a true scientist, would have to assume unknown technology rather than sorcery.
    I doubt if Clarke ever intended to invoke sorcery, or to imply that people might indulge in magical thinking when confronted by his imagined advanced technology. It's perfectly possible to believe that an effect is the product of advanced technology, while stating that it is "indistinguishable from magic" - that is, you are at a loss to come up with a natural, physical explanation for the effect demonstrated. That's why I drew the parallel with stage magic, which we all know involves the application of physics and psychology, but by which we are nevertheless amazed and baffled.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    I doubt if Clarke ever intended to invoke sorcery, or to imply that people might indulge in magical thinking when confronted by his imagined advanced technology. It's perfectly possible to believe that an effect is the product of advanced technology, while stating that it is "indistinguishable from magic" - that is, you are at a loss to come up with a natural, physical explanation for the effect demonstrated. That's why I drew the parallel with stage magic, which we all know involves the application of physics and psychology, but by which we are nevertheless amazed and baffled.

    Grant Hutchison
    Sure, I understand. I guess I got caught up in the idea that credulous people might mistake that technology for actual real magical forces.
    Appearing magical and being magical are two different things.

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    While I'm clearing my misunderstandings, what do people here think about the "cargo cult" phenomenon.
    Is it real? I've read about it and seen photos but I've seen photos of many things that later turned out to be false.
    If it is real, which aspect of "magical" do we think applies to the primitive* societies involved ? Magic powers or amazed and baffled but inwardly sceptical?

    Unfortunately, I'm the kind of person who can't see a magic trick without attempting to divine the secret. I find it hard to suspend my disbelief.

    * I'm not sure if this is a non-pc description. I only use it as a relative term.

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    I think Clarke's point is not so much that it's hard to tell magic from technology, but that there is literally no difference.
    Last edited by Ken G; 2019-Dec-20 at 11:20 PM.

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