Magic Technology

Arthur C. Clarke’s third Law of Prediction reads as follows:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I personally consider the rule to be quite appropriate, but what amounts to “sufficiently advanced”? In order to determine this somewhat—I am by no means trying to produce full empiric evidence here—I posit that oftentimes, ten years is enough for something to be sufficiently advanced. To try this hypothesis, we’ll look at some breakthrough technology of the past fifty years and put it to the ten-years test.

1960’s

Kevlar: ten years prior, in the mid-50’s, the idea of a thin, wearable fiber that would protect you from a gunshot straight in the chest would certainly seem like magic. Needs for such fiber had been around but unanswered for decades.

Artificial heart: back to the mid-50’s again, and discussions on “mechanical hearts” that can keep you alive if your own heart fails, would quickly include mention of the word magic. It might not even be a total coincidence that the term “Cyborg” was coined in the 60’s.

1970’s

Microprocessor: even in the late 60’s, scientists thought the idea of “a computer on a chip” was far into the future, and in the early 60’s scientists weren’t even (seriously) considering the idea at all. Intel made it a reality as early as 1971. The ENIAC, a large computer from the 1940’s with the same computing power as Intel’s first 3 by 4 millimeter small microprocessor, contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. Intel’s processor? 2,300 metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) transistors. Before the end of the same decade, Seymour Cray invented the Cray Supercomputer (now on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California).

Cell phones: all this talk these days about smart phones, feature phones and mobile devices may lead us to forget that cell phones as a technology came about way back in 1979. Ten years earlier, though? Good chance that people considered a small, handheld communications device capable of putting them in touch with people anywhere in the world[1] as “magic”.

1980’s

Macintosh Computer: go back to the mid-70’s and describe personal computing, a revolutionary level of ease of use, and home desktop publishing with the LaserWriter printer and Aldus PageMaker. Magic? You bet.

1990’s

World Wide Web: while ARPAnet had been around for a while, even back then, if you’d tell people in 1980 of a worldwide-connected network of documents that anyone who was “on-line” could explore from their home personal computer, they would have considered it a pretty magical thing. Especially given that back then, the Macintosh and the idea of a Personal Computer hadn’t even been invented yet.

2000’s

iPod: Compact Discs had been around for some time, but they contained about 60-70 minutes of music, tops. MP3 players existed but were either uselessly small in storage capacity, or unusably large in physical form—requiring a backpack or bag to carry them around with you. The iPod changed all that in 2001, and ten years earlier it would have been nothing short of magic.

iPhone: Sure, touch screen technology existed in the 90’s, and sure, personal digital assistants were around then, too. But a small handheld device that allowed you to access the Internet, watch videos, play music, explore digital maps with, read your e-mail on the go, make phone calls and more, would have been many flavors of magic compounded into one back in 1997.

Suffice it to say, it appears that ten years is indeed long enough for technology to seem “magic”—meaning that ten years from now, we’ll be using technology that today we can only imagine.

However, our increasingly tech-savvy world of today has our belief in the term “magic” waning; even non-scientific people are more likely to simply consider something beyond their wildest dreams as “wondrous technology” rather than magic. They no longer think of it as something magical or beyond the realm of the possible, just as a piece of technology they don’t understand.

Which, perhaps, is what magic is truly all about.

  1. Perhaps not quite yet at that time, but global communication was the premise and ultimate purpose of the technology.

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