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14 Jul, 2017 | Fred Crawley
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
These words, from science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, were put to paper in 1973, when the Sinclair pocket calculator was at the bleeding edge of digital technology.
Some 44 years later, we live in a world of driverless cars, voice-controlled homes, and hand-held devices which can access all of human knowledge. To people living before the advent of electricity, our society would seem to run on magic.
And what is magic? To chuck in another quote, this time from Victorian magician Aleister Crowley, (who despite being a very dubious character, had a nice turn of phrase), it can be defined as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”.
Now, forgetting that Crowley wore scary hats and spelled ‘magic’ with a k, this is a pretty succinct definition. And if you think about it, it applies equally well to technology, which the Oxford English Dictionary calls “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”.
In essence, technology is using knowledge to alter the world according to your wishes and the more advanced your knowledge, the further you can alter it. Hence, QED: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The issue I’m getting to is that as technology advances, there’s an ever-widening gulf between the knowledge required to understand and create it, and the knowledge required to wield it. The coders, engineers and analysts are the magicians, and the rest of us are novices, marvelling at their work.
Software in particular is a black box - data goes in, results come out, but few of us understand what happens in-between. Back in the 17th century, this sort of thing was called the occult - from the latin occultare, to conceal. Before all the connotations of black magic and bad metal music, ‘the occult’ simply referred to processes like magnetism, where the action behind a process was unseen.
So, why am I labouring this point about technology and magic? Because when we talk about these technologies, which we cannot help but interpret as occult and magical, even if we would never be so daft as to describe them that way, we succumb to magical thinking.
Magical thinking is a term in anthropology and psychology describing (among other things) the irrational belief that by invoking things in thought or speech, we make them real. I’ve talked about this before in my article on ‘cargo cult copy’, where I looked at how corporate communications invoke meaningless ‘businessy’ words and phrases in the hope they will magically produce more business.
Look at the way we discuss technology at conferences and in releases, and you will see something similar. Business leaders, even those with a deep understanding of technology, will talk about big data, machine learning and SEO as black boxes; occult forces which unquestionably bring great power, but cannot be broken down and described in detail.
At the end of May, Aviva chief executive Mark Wilson said: “We want to change Aviva into being a fintech”. There was plenty of positive coverage around this, but little of it seemed able to go into detail about what “being a fintech” was, beyond the adoption of a general air of innovation and technology - a wizard’s hat, if you will.
There’s no doubt that people within Aviva are looking at hugely complex technologies that will improve their business. But the challenge in communicating those improvements is to break open the black box of technology and find a non-reductive, plain-speaking way of describing what happens inside.
As technology becomes ever more like magic, we need to find less magical language to describe it.
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