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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Arthur C. Clarke (p. 241)

From chapter "Complexity"

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about a line by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

We’re often told that when Europeans first invaded the Americas, various indigenous peoples perceived many European technologies or trappings—including big ships, domesticated horses, armor, guns, and so on—as magical or as sent from gods. Likewise today when we think about extant indigenous peoples encountering airplanes (or pop bottles falling from the sky), movie theaters, televisions, telephones, or other pieces of modern technology, we can sometimes believe—rightly or wrongly—that indigenous peoples continue to perceive these technologies as forms of magic, or as the work of gods (crazy or not). I’m not sure if this is always true—not only because I’m not indigenous and so don’t know their experience, but also because I’ve seen videos of indigenous peoples firing arrows at helicopters, which suggests they saw these helicopters not so much as being magical as being intrusive—but it does seem to me that it would make a certain amount of sense, in that when we—any of us—see something new, our first impulse is often to attempt to categorize this new thing according to our current perceptual framework. Of course. Until and unless one’s current perceptual framework is broken or otherwise abandoned (insofar as a perceptual framework can ever be fully abandoned), it will in great measure determine our interpretations of everything we see. So a person who believes in magic and who sees the divine in everything will quite possibly perceive new things within that framework, perceive them as magical, as manifestations of the divine. Likewise, a person who believes in capitalism will quite possibly perceive new things through the lens of how he or she can make money off of them. We see this latter all the time, as those who believe in capitalism—which sadly, is most people in this culture—will not only attempt to make money off of, for example, global warming (see the moneylust with which the capitalist press is describing the potential for profit as melting icecaps open a northwest passage as well as new oil fields), but will also in general project their greed and propensity to exploit onto the natural world. Or another example: nice people often perceive others as nice until their perceptual framework is smashed, and more hostile people often are quicker to perceive hostility. And another: if I believe nonhumans are sentient, I will, all other things being equal, be more likely to perceive some new action by a frog or tree or river as a sign of this other’s sentience, and if I believe nonhumans aren’t sentient, I will, once again all other things being equal, be more likely to perceive that same action as reinforcing my belief that these others don’t think. And so on. It’s pretty straightforward: believing is seeing, until something dramatic happens to shake my original belief.

There’s another way, then, to view the original contacts between the civilized—those who rely on the technology of machines—and the indigenous, who are generally considered by nearly everyone within this culture to be technologically backward (after all, they never invented chainsaws), and whose cosmologies are considered by many of the civilized to be based on superstitions, that is, based not on sound scientific principles, but rather on magical thinking, on such nonsensical actions as rain dances or conversing with plants, nonhuman animals, spirits, ancestors, and so on. Many of their cosmologies are based on what to the scientific mind would not be considered principles involving direct cause and effect. In short, many of the civilized look down their noses at the indigenous, and can say, voices dripping with either scorn or condescension and pity, “They believe in magic.”

I know that the word magic is used in this sense pejoratively, but what if we remove the implied insult and ask, what if these people are right? What if traditional indigenous people do believe in magic? And more to the point, what if Arthur C. Clarke’s statement, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is also correct? What are the implications?