No such thing as magic: misinterpreting Clarke’s Third Law

Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.

However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)

The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.

Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.

It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)

There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.