May 2004
2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Clarke's Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

Editorial License - Clarke's Corollary: The Loss of Reason
by Ernest Lilley

There are several homilies that Arthur C. Clarke has uttered which have made it to the status of Clarkian Law, but possibly the most well known is the edict that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.

I expect that  the esteemed author had in mind settings like those in his stories; often with aliens visiting Earth to do things so incomprehensible to us that we can only grunt and point, preferably from behind some large boulder. Occasionally, he turns the paradigm around, and lets us be the aliens amazing the locals, but either way, it's not too hard to imagine that it all started with European explorers demonstrating compasses and flintlocks to aborigines a century or so before.

But there's a more insidious side to this law, hinted at in a comment made by  Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed; "It is found that the machine unmans the user." While we've had ample opportunity to observe the atrophy of mankind's muscle and the resultant bloat of civilized man, it's only been a few decades that the common man has had machines to think for him, and I suggest that instead of empowering leaps of insight through the unshackling of the chains of things like spelling and arithmetic, we're actually losing the ability to comprehend the world we've created as the complexity of the technology we have created surpasses our ability to understand it. Science Fiction has certainly commented on this, and probably the best short story on this subject is "The Feeling of Power", which you can find in the reprint of Isaac Asimov's Collection: Robot Dreams (Ace / Penguin Putnam Trade $14) coming out next month.

So, we come to my corollary: When technology reaches a level of complexity that its users can not understand, they will turn to magic as a more comfortable alternative.

Which is why spiritualism has reason on the run. In a world where irony, the sound of the universe laughing at your best efforts, is the expected outcome, it's little wonder that more and more people are turning to magic and religion for answers.

2001 15

Like Clarke's Moonwatcher, standing under the prehistoric sky, we look up and do not understand what we see. Moon watcher had the benefit of the monolith to steer him in the "right" direction, and to crystallize the rational processes that led him to the conclusion that he could not reach the moon because he did not have a high enough tree. Unfortunately for us, we have followed this line of thought about as far as it will go, and still scratch our heads in confusion, a gesture that our ancestor would understand all too well.

When a taller tree proved insufficient, we developed optics that would bring the moon closer, seeming almost close enough to reach out and touch. When "almost" failed to satisfy us we built rockets and sent men to the surface of the moon itself, fulfilling Moonwatcher's quest at last, if only for a few. But touching the face of the moon, has failed to give us any answers about why we're here, and far worse, its shown us that no matter how much technological prowess we develop, we are not the masters of the universe. We are not even the masters of our own planet. In fact, we're hardly the masters of our own bodies. All this technology and the moon is still out of reach.

To throw one more quotation into the fray, as Leanord Nimoy intoned in the Star Trek (TOS) episode "Amok Time", " may find that "having" is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as "wanting." It is not logical, but it is often true."  So we have found with our understanding of the universe. The more understanding we achieve, the less happy we are with it. Reason, it appears, is the death of Romance.

So, what are we to do? Does technology necessarily contain the seeds of its own undoing? Will machines ultimately be the only creatures capable of understanding the world we've created? Is techno-utopia built out of unobtainium? Stay tuned. I'll be coming back to it as time goes by I'm sure, because it's something I've been kicking around for a while.

Ernest Lilley
Editor - SFRevu

Feel free to send me your comments at editor"at"

2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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