The science fiction author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, noted that "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Others have adopted this saying, both in fiction writing, and in more serious works. But what does it mean and is it really true?
Clearly Clarke was not saying that we would find the technology we use today to be magical, but rather that if we came across technology from some time in the far future, we would find that technology to be magical. That seems to be relatively uncontroversial, but the ticklish phrase in this is "far future." How many years from now would the technology of the day seem magical to us?
At issue here is the extremely rapid pace at which technology is changing. Technology that we take for granted today would have seemed outlandish twenty years ago. For example, twenty years ago most people even in developed countries had no e-mail address, and no clue how to get one or how to use it if they had one. Today e-mail is common place and we get annoyed if our cell phones do not have the coverage to get our e-mails whenever we want them. So, is e-mail magical?
On one level, e-mail is almost mundane. It is simply one more way in which we can communicate with people, and humans have been writing letters for thousands of years (according to some, for about 7,000 years now). So that aspect of e-mails is not unusual or magical - it is simply the means by which the information is conveyed that is novel. Much of technology is like that, even the more advanced stuff.
For example, a lot of work has been going on over the past decade on creating direct brain to computer interfaces (or BCI). These allow the user to move a cursor on a screen with their thoughts alone, for example. While this is clearly pretty stunning technology on one level, and will be of enormous benefit to, for example, quadriplegics, on another level it is simply a variant on a keyboard or a mouse.
So a lot of technology is simply taking things we do anyway (writing letters, using a mouse) and improving on those things. But increasingly technology is allowing us, either individually or collectively, to do things that we have never done before. One such example of something new that we are doing collectively is social networking. Of course, networks have always been part of humanity - a tribe is a basic network. But the scale of networking involved in something like Facebook is phenomenal and unprecedented. According to Facebook's own statistics, there are 350 million active users of Facebook, 50% of whom log on to Facebook in any given day. To put those numbers in context, if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest country in the world (after China and India, but before the US). That level of connectedness among that many people is something that has never happened before. Each interaction is not particularly remarkable, but the potential of all those interactions is something we have never conceived of previously.
Which gives us a whole bunch of interactions that never existed before, and what else? The answer is we do not know yet, but we can make a few guesses. At the very least, politics around the world is likely to be profoundly and unexpectedly influenced by these large social networks. Beyond that, who knows - but whatever it is that develops it will both seem like magic, and yet, once it has been there for a little while (a week or two, or perhaps two or three months) it will seem oh so mundane.
So was Clarke correct? Yes he was, but perhaps not quite as he expected. The magic in technology lies not so much in the bells and whistles of the technology itself, although that can be pretty profound at times. Rather it lies in the impact of the technologies upon society - and that impact has the potential to be magical indeed.