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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Saturday, August 19, 2006

indistinguishable from magic - or is it?

many people will know Arthur C. Clarke's claim that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." this is apparently the theme for O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference for 2007. I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to differ from the Emerging Technologies show at SIGGRAPH, but that's another matter entirely. what I want to get at here is the quote from Clarke. O'Reilly's website seems to indicate that the interesting part is determining "how advanced is sufficiently advanced" for a technology to be considered magic. however, I want to poke at the other part of the quote and ask, when is something indistinguishable from magic?

the page for the O'Reilly conference cites four technologies - the iPod interface, TiVo, Google, and BitTorrent - as examples of technologies creating "magical effects." however, to me, none of these seem particularly magical. the iPod interface is a case of good design (and iterative design - we're now on something like the 5th generation of iPod, not including the minis, color, nano, and shuffle). TiVo and various similar products are a combination of relatively simple technologies. Google can be seen as a form of social search across the web. BitTorrent is an application that distributes server tasks among clients. now, I'm not trying to downplay the technical acheivement of any of these technologies; each of them has certainly been influential, if not revolutionary. what I'm questioning is whether what they do is magical.

magic, I suspect, is in the eye of the beholder. whether or not I consider something magical is likely based on whether on not I understand it. I'm reminded of a rather silly television commercial for the premade cookie dough that's already dived into squares, which you them simply place on a sheet and pop in the oven. the commercial proudly proclaims, "like magic, squares bake round!" well, of course the bake round. it's the same way that a melting ice cube will become a round puddle. liquids reshape to fill their container. without any container, they spread out equally in all directions. similarly, BitTorrent magically solves the problem of distributing large files to a vast audience with limited server bandwidth. well, of course, it uses client bandwidth to act as a distributed server. not knowing these things, the exhibited properties may seem magical. conversely, knowing the reasons behind the exhibited properties may make them seem even more magical, such as the often awe-inspiring way that the periodic table of the elements so well exhibits so many interesting trends across its many rows and columns. what about the technological singularity of Verner Vinge novels? one of the common descriptions is that this convergence of technologies will endow humans with magic-like abilities. however, it's not magic, it's technology. but in that case, does technology become the new magic? or does magic take on an entirely different meaning? in the world of the singularity, where these technologies that seem magical to us are commonplace, what is the new criteria by which a technology is said to be indistinguishable from magic. the point here is that magicality is subjective.

and as such, whether or not a technology is magical is not a good yardstick with which to measure whether a technology is sufficiently advanced. I don't even what to get into unpacking what we mean by "sufficiently" here. I merely want to point out that whether or not a technology is indistinguishable from magic is likely not an interesting or useful metric in determining that technology's level of advancement.


  • Two points:

    To a magician, magic is not magical, and you, my friend, are a magician in this particular context. I think that you suggest in the post, but I wanted to write it anyway.

    Also, stop dissecting the marketing metaphor for the conference. It makes me feel good about myself. Like I could pull a rabbit out of my laptop at any moment.

    By Blogger Rubikzube*, at Sunday, August 20, 2006 3:24:00 PM  

  • not to worry, I have no doubt you could pull a rabbit from your laptop any moment now. in fact, I'm quite afraid you may...

    and, yes, one of the points I was trying to make, which you state so conciely, is that the magician does not see his work as "magical," and so thus magicality is subjective and likely not a good criterion by which to judge technological advancement.

    By Blogger Jystar, at Sunday, August 20, 2006 4:10:00 PM  

  • Dude, how awesome would it be if someone actually pulled a rabbit out of their laptop at a presentation at the O'Reilly conference! That's some major points for showmanship and dare I say it, taste.

    Also, just to be the wise ass that we both know I am, why not magicality or more broadly speaking any subjective criteria for judging technological advancement? We're judging, right? Let's be subjective. Because we are, whether we like it or not.

    Plus, advancement is sooooo loosely connotated anyway. I think magicality pairs rather nicely with it.

    By Blogger Rubikzube*, at Monday, August 21, 2006 12:37:00 AM  

  • I think you're both hitting on the immediate point, specifically that perception and point of view are at the heart of how we judge whether something we see or experience is magical.

    But another side to this, one that I think our over-achieving intellects are conveniently forgetting is that how we feel in the presence of something magical. More than merely a magic trick that we know a magician has dutifully practiced and expertly executed, Magic is something that surpasses "something we can't figure out." It is unfathomable, extraordinary, and most definitely not within our daily range of experience or expectation.

    I think the sort of reaction to 'magical' technology that this quote is regarding is the sort that we might imagine when thinking about a cave man first walking into (god forbid) a modern-day shopping mall. He is flabbergasted at the automatic doors, weary of the flashing light and just plain scared of the kids in Hot Topic. I'm have no doubt the glass elevator is magic to him.

    Now take a more germane example, my morning coffee ritual. At night, I place coffee grounds into a container, I then add water to another container adjacent to the first. A few button pushes and eight hours later I have the smell of fresh brewed coffee waking me up at the crack of dawn. I don't know how the machine does it. I do know that it does do it somehow. Most importantly, I expect it to start making my coffee even though I'm still asleep.

    Very asinine examples, I know, but what I'm trying to say is that as technology diversifies and advances, so do our expectations. Will are our technology ever get to the point where we think it's 'magical'? I don't know, maybe we've come to expect too much.

    By Blogger James, at Monday, August 21, 2006 8:08:00 PM  

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