Differences between High Technology and High Magic

by Roger B. White, Jr., copyright December 2003

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-- Arthur C. Clarke, 1973

This sentiment, that high magic and high technology are hard to distinguish, is a feeling of the '80s. High magic and high technology are similar in that they are both wondrous, but there are some distinct differences between them. The most distinctive difference is that high magic (when characterized as a spell-casting system) is custom to each practitioner, and therefore limited in scale, whereas high technology is mass-produced, and therefore unlimited in scale.

If you look at an older fairy tale, such as a Grimm Brothers tale, the magician is simply described as casting a spell, and then the results of that spell are explained for that story. There is no attempt at consistency between stories, and little attempt at spell logic within the story. There is also little attempt at quantifying monsters from story to story. A recent example of such inconsistency is in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). At the end of the movie, the old warrior is poisoned, and the young girl he wanted to make his protégé knows the ingredients to save him. She rushes off to get those ingredients ... on a horse! All through the movie, this girl has been flying around, running up and down vertical walls, and showing off truly spectacular acrobatic skills assisted by her formidable mastery of Ki. But in this crunch, she chooses not to use any of her Ki-based magic skills, and chooses a horse instead. This is an example of the inconsistency that is common in spell-using systems.

There are differences in consistency between magic and technology. Another difference is quantity. Magic is the expression of one person, or a small group of people. Technology always carries with it the potential of mass production -- if one of a device can be made, and it works, an infinite number can follow.

As a result of this difference, magic can never deeply affect the world it exists in. It may be powerful enough to topple a king, but it can't eliminate poverty.

Technology, on the other hand, can wreak unending change. Unbridled technology resembles Michael Moorcock's concept of Chaos (unending change to the world) much more than unbridled magic does. This is why so many stories dealing with powerful technology end with the "McGuffin" being lost, destroyed by accident, or destroyed "for the good of mankind". A good example of this is the McGuffins in Season One of the Stargate: SG-1 TV series -- the obviously neat McGuffins they encounter, such as the sarcophagus, are routinely destroyed by the end of the episode. In the early seasons of that series, the writers were very careful to make sure no high technology got loose to change the society that supports SG-1. They wouldn’t have to be so careful if they were discovering magic items.

In conclusion, high technology looks like high magic, in the sense that both cause wonder, and both come from mysterious causes. The big difference between the two is that you can get a whole lot of high technology, but only limited amounts of high magic.

-- The End --