Clarke’s Third Law

So, a week or so ago I was visiting the fiancée and I was up late surfing channels while trying not to vomit (long-story short: turns out I’d picked up a stomach-bug from her wee-nephew; but, anyway…) and I happened across Louis C.K.’s 2010 special Hilarious on Comedy Central.

I came in at a point where he’s talking about how people in the current generations (his generation and forward) don’t really seem to appreciate technology (warning: video is NSFW due to language), specifically air-travel. He mentions how people complaining about having to wait for 40 minutes on the tarmac for their flight to take off has become an epic tale of woe and hardship nowadays, to which his response is: “What happened then? Did you fly through the air? Like a bird? Incredibly? Did you soar through the clouds impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?!

And, I thought to myself: he’s right. And, for some reason, that reminded me of Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We live in an age of wonders.

We can communicate with one another instantly despite vast distances (hell, we can communicate with people on the other side of the planet or in frigging Earth-orbit with only the slightest of delays). We can listen to and view events from anywhere in the world on light-weight boxes that allow us to also write books, make music, make movies, co-ordinate organizations, run businesses, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

We operate vehicles that move under their own power and transport us at speeds fast enough that we can reach distant points on the globe in the matter of a few minutes or hours that used to take days or weeks back when horses were our fastest mode of conveyance.

We have traveled beyond the Dome of the Sky and into the Deep Abyss of the Oceans. We have peered into the Heavens and seen worlds similar to our own circling other stars.

We live in a gods-damned Age of Miracles…but few people seem to appreciate that fact.

So, I propose Egelhoff’s Corollary to Clarke’s Third Law:

Any technology is “magical”, though its perception as such is dependent on either the observer’s own technological advancement (or lack thereof) or their philosophical views of the Cosmos.

Now, I’m far from the first to propose a corollary to any of Clarke’s Laws, but I think this is an important point. The first distinction in there is a key one: the perception of technology’s “magical-ness” is dependent upon an observer’s own technological advancement.

Take for instance, your shower: you have a device that pumps hot water out of a hole in your wall – inside your house – by which you can clean yourself or just luxuriate in the warmth during a cold winter’s morning. Even a 150 to 200 years ago, our ancestors would’ve been floored by that. Granted, they probably wouldn’t have prostrated themselves and immediately begun worshiping you as a god, but they would’ve appreciated the utility and luxury of something as simple as heated, indoor plumbing.

Hell, take a $1.00 BIC lighter back to the early Renaissance and you’d either have been hailed as a genius or burnt as a witch.

We mostly think of gravity drives and mega-scale engineering (i.e. – Ringworlds, etc.) when Clarke’s Third Law is invoked. But, that’s only because we’re already surrounded by a million tiny marvels and magical acts of scientific application. Our general conception of “magic” in modern Western society blinds us to the true magic that gets played out every day around us. We think of wizards flinging fire-balls from their fingertips and waving wands, witches flying on broom-sticks, or ceremonial magicians summoning up spirits to do their bidding.

And this is where the second distinction of the corollary comes in: one’s philosophical view of the Cosmos.

If one’s conception of magic is influenced by Tolkien, TSR, Dungeons & Dragons, and countless fantasy novels that permeate our society, then, yes you might not be able to see the simple act of reading these words on your computer screen as inherently “magical”. But, if one were to generalize Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic (“the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the Will” – Crowley’s “Will” is a smidge different than the common definition, but we won’t go into that here)…well, then, it doesn’t become hard at all.

A thought exercise: imagine yourself in a darkened room, you wish to have light in order to see your surroundings; what do you do?

You can grope your way through the dark, hoping to find a cord or a light-switch; maybe even a curtained window. Or, perhaps you have a lighter or a book of matches in your pocket that you can use to create light. Whatever path you choose to take, most likely, you’ll be able to generate light.

That is magic. You needed or desired to see your surroundings, and so you changed the environment to conform to your will. In the broadest sense of Crowley’s definition, the flicking of a light switch is an act of magic (which, to any of our ancestors who lived before 1880, would literally have been an act of magic: calling forth smoke-less, flame-less light in the darkness with the flick of a finger would’ve truly been a god-like act). Turning on a glass box that displays images and sounds, allowing you take in information from all over the world is magic. Having the sum of human knowledge just a mouse-click away is magic. Casually partaking in the benefits of having harnessed the Fire of the Heavens (a.k.a. – electricity) is magic.

To see beyond the banality of the mundane, to wipe away the cob-webs of entitlement and unthinking taking-for-granted-ness…is to open your eyes to the awe and majesty we are inundated by every damn day.*

Think about that the next time you’re peeved about waiting for 40 minutes on a runway.

*- And that’s just the man-made miracles, not even accounting for the natural wonders and miraculous things that we casually ignore on a daily basis like the bunch of dim-witted bovines we can be.

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~ by crow365 on January 26, 2011.

2 Responses to “Clarke’s Third Law”

  1. Nice article, Nick. And you’re completely correct, I’d say. Thanks for the moment of clarity.

  2. […] written previously about the subtle intricacies in the popular conception of “magic”, about how our […]

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