Written in 1961, Arthur C Clarke offered a great supposition on magic and technology and the interchangeability of the two. From Profiles of the Future, here is that quote:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Think on that for a minute and allow it to ruminate. What does that mean and how is it philosophically constructed? Finally, what does it mean for gaming? Especially, fantasy/sci-fi gaming at the tabletop or on the computer screen, this “law” of magic written by a forebear of the genre needs and deserves to be included.
Breaking down the law’s philosophy:
There are two plain examples through which to explain and detail what Clarke’s words mean: 1.) a child’s response to a flashlight; and 2.) cargo cults. In the first example, think of your child, little brother, or little sister the first time you had a flashlight and demonstrated to them that you could “create” light. It did not matter to them that all you did was press a button that illuminated the bulb through the batteries in the light. What mattered is that something mysterious had occurred and in that action; to them, you had spawned light. I remember my daughter’s look of surprise and imagination as she peered at the beam. To her, it was magic.
Cargo cults (see the link provided for a precursory exploration of this idea) function off the same idea. When dealing with a far higher technologically advanced society, these people view as Gods, Magicians, Spirits, &c the members of the superior group. Examples of these include John Frum movement in Vanatu (quite possibly the most extreme example) and other Southeast Asian peoples that were affected by World War II. Another, more noticeable, example is how the Spanish attempted to conquer the New World by declaring themselves gods. In any of these cases, the technology was beyond the ken of the infringed group whereas the infringing group was bringing it. In both cases, we find that this advanced technological base is a sort of magic to those that do not understand its principles.
Further, however, we can look at this concept from a rhetorical perspective to analysis and base decision making processes off the ideas espoused. Simply by analyzing and working with this quote, we can begin to garner inspiration for design decisions and further research. The use of “sufficiently advanced” provides a large amount of work in this sentence, but as it is an issue of scale it can be stripped away. “Sufficiently advanced” demonstrates that certain types of technology will be understood up until a specific point at which the device, item, or application thereof become magical symbolism to the uninitiated viewer. It stands to reason therefore that one either can understand technology is the vehicle through which an act is performed until the act being performed is so far beyond the pale of understanding that it appears to be magical! Therefore, I believe that, while important to the quote provided by Clarke, sufficiently advanced describes only a scale and can easily be changed to the following: “based the lack of understanding, any technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Rhetorical analysis allows one to continue working with this quote and devise it into something very culturally relevant, especially when attempting to understand other cultures, especially traditional cultures. By changing this quote to: “any magic is indistinguishable from technology and vice versa,” we do just that. For those of us that follow L.H. Morgan’s (and his academic descendants), it behooves use to remember the pyramidal aspect of culture of which the base was technology (of course, this was written for a primarily evolutionist frame of mind where cultures and people are continually moving forward into better, more advanced states), whereas ideology only made up the very cap of the pyramid. Yet, we find that technology informs magic, and magic informs technological aims. To Pasteur, it must have seemed magical the idea that by merely boiling water he could sterilize equipment. To physicists before Einstein, waves might have seemed to act in a magical manner. Therefore, it should be easy to note even in our own educational and western heritage it truly was not that long ago that we believed rats spawned out of clutters of hay in the corner of a barn.
On magic and culture
Magic, and its sister religion, has filled in the gaps where technological base has failed to fill. From Victor Turner’s analyses on ritual and cultural structure to Durkheim’s investigation on what constructs Sacred and Profane categories, magic offers a means to inflict harm, to call out game, to cleanse a person’s deviance, &c. In other words, magic offers the esoteric means through which a culture can attempt to “cure what ails it,” whereas technology grounds this. Where technology cannot go, ideology, faith, and magic take over. I present only the above as a means of introducing the concept of what magic can mean for culture. Often times, magic becomes a primary motivation to create and adapt new technological advancements (think some of the most wondrous scientific advancements of our OWN people).
On magic, culture, and gaming
By and large, gaming has merely categorized these esoteric means into Ranks, Spell Slots, or Mana of spells. It is easier to do so; wherein a spell may be conjuring and firing a massive fireball to decimate your enemies at level 5 Mage in D&D or the bread and butter spell of leveling in an MMO. But, magic is so much more than a delineated set of spells attributed to a spell list, used in spell slots, discipline points, or fragments of a mana source into which your character can cast.
It is difficult, yes, to develop a system through which a Player has the agency to determine the manner through which their character learns to cast increasingly freeform spells that demonstrate their perceptions of the world around them. But in doing so, it is rewarding to the Player as, hopefully, the point is not lost on the fact that magic in the real world was believed to have operated in a similar fashion. That a shaman, chanting and singing, looked to the heavens over 3000 years before present, and hauntingly called to the sky, for the great deer spirit to come out and ask her children to show themselves so that his people may eat. Or a druid on pre-Roman Britain believed that through sacrifice the rains would come and stop as he pleased so that the fields grew fat. Finally, the seid, attached to the ever humming essence of the world, sang her waning song to Asgard above to wish a warrior home.
That is what magic means to culture and that’s what magic means to gaming. It’s pulling it off that is the hard part.