More Magic

2004-05-06

"Any sufficiently advanced society is indistinguishable from magic." What do I mean by that?

When Arthur C. Clarke formulated his third law of technology, I'd bet he mainly had in mind the usual whiz-bang gadgets and life-changing innovations. But I've come to see that society itself is simply a set of technologies. Law, money, markets, institutions, and much else besides are simply settled methods for solving problems. Technologies.

For someone transported to 21st-century America from, say, the Tasmania of 5,000 years ago or the Russia of 500 years ago or present-day North Korea, it is not merely our material technology that would seem magical. So would our softer technologies: contracts (how can you trust people to hold up their end of the bargain?), savings banks (are you sure they won't just keep your valuable stuff and not give it back?), humane societies (are you serious that people spend all that time and money to save mere dogs?), and thousands of other activities and institutions. Perhaps the seemingly effortless magic of America and other Western societies is what attracts immigrants and imitators the world over.


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