Some words to live by

Is any advanced technology indistinguishable from magic?

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

I have long thought that we would be more focused in every area of life if we had a clear, stable set of principles to guide our daily decisions and choices.

At their best, these would be words for those of all ages and situations. They would be true and relevant today, next year and maybe even a few lifetimes from now. And were as true a hundred, or even a thousand years ago as they are now.

British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages that are known as Clarke’s three laws. They framed his thinking, his career and his continuing reputation.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he/she is almost certainly right. When he/she states that something is impossible, he/she is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke’s third principle is probably the most well-known.

Just a couple centuries ago, virtually any tool or implement was essentially transparent – anyone could see how it was made and how it worked.

How understood it was might still be a question.

A simple magnetized needle floating on a cork would work as a compass, even though the earth’s magnetic poles are barely understood even now.

But two hundred years ago, the vast majority of tools were accessible to anyone.

Rope, hammers and saws and axes were about as sophisticated as any tool would get for most uses.

The omnipresent “black boxes” we all live with and depend upon on a daily basis would be a total mystery to anyone from a previous time. As, of course, they are to most of us still.

We might use our phone or other digital device on a near constant basis, but who among us really understands how the things actually work? For example, what are they capable of that we have yet to discover? And what do they know about us that we might wish they didn’t?

The devices we trust are light years from any simple tool of brute force like an axe or hammer.

And to anyone of a previous generation our digital devices would indeed appear as magical.

And they should.

Most of us might think of “magical” as referring to the mystical or supernatural, but it doesn’t need to be.

The premise of magic is actually embedded in the famous magician word “abracadabra,” which is not (contrary to popular belief) gibberish; it is Aramaic, meaning “let it come to pass as I have spoken.”

Aramaic, of course, is the language spoken by Jesus of the New Testament.

And “let it come to pass as I have spoken” is exceedingly close to “may it be so.” Or even the “make it so” dictum from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

You could call it magic

The core aspect of magic, from this perspective, is that it is the word we use to translate our inner vision of how the world ought to be, or could be, directly into physical reality. In other words, any act of creativity is, by this definition, magical.

We make something real that never existed before.

Or we could say that what one person sees, that no one else sees (yet) is, by definition, magic.

Following the rules

In any category of life, from ballet to jazz to running a business, we learn to follow a certain set of basic rules. At first we do it mechanically by rote, and then a very strange thing happens; we absorb them, and then, at our best, we, in a sense, leave them behind or at least let them drop into the background.

A music student might, once they know the basics, mangle, re-combine or mash-up existing familiar tunes and make something largely, if not entirely, their own.

The difference between the first stage and the final stage is the deep understanding of why the rules are there; basic rules, of cooking, music or any discipline exist as a foundation. They are literally the base – not the final point – of any endeavor.

Driving a car, after all, is not about following the rules (as important as they are). We drive to get somewhere – not to adhere to certain essential, if barely acknowledged, guidelines.

With mastery, or at least years of experience, some rules become less important (and binding) while others might emerge as more important – if not essential to the discipline at hand – if not much more.

Some rules, perhaps like speed limits for some of us, are followed approximately, but some, over time, become second nature.

Oddly enough, those rules and principles that were rote for so long, somehow begin to set us free and allow and equip us to move into unknown and undiscovered territory.

The biggest irony perhaps is that digital technologies have begun requesting that human beings prove that they are human

“I, robot” has become “I’m not a robot”.

We, as humans, may learn any skill, from driving to playing the piano, by learning the most mechanical of basics, but it is our learning, our absorption of those skills, that defines us and allows us to make it our own.

The irony of current technology is that it allows us to do all kinds of border-line miraculous things, (like GPS or tracking our purchases) but we rarely see, or comprehend, how those things are accomplished.

Our ability to transmit messages or images (for example) is, to a large degree, still a “black box” of mystery to most of us.

It might be in our hands every day, but that doesn’t mean that we understand it.


In many ways our current technology, like every tool from hammer to blade, is an extension of who we are and what we value.

And our devices may just as easily embody and reflect our tendencies we would rather not see embodied.

And our clumsiness, even outright evil, just might be hard-wired into our creations.

If you’ve ever seen a toddler in a full-scale tantrum, or even worse, a boss or spouse, in maximum meltdown, you know that bare, unbridled humanity can be a powerful, unquenchable force.

Our technology, with something like a life of its own, could just as easily project a destructiveness unbound by basic human characteristics like guilt or regret – or even limitations.

Like a toddler, world leader or machine out of control, any sufficiently advanced stage of cluelessness is indistinguishable from outright and deliberate malice.

Our tools, for better or worse, are, in any context, an extension of our bodies, our beliefs and our tendencies – for good or ill.

And, to return to Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws, it is perhaps his first ‘“law” that is in fact most relevant; to describe virtually anything as “possible” is likely eventually to be true.

To describe any act or technology as “impossible” is likely, sooner or later (probably more sooner than later), to be proven false.

Time travel? Invisibility cloaks? Intergalactic colonies? Perpetual motion machines? Just give humanity enough time and we’ll get there.