On Magic as Technology

Nov 28, 2011 | 16 minutes read

Tags: magic, technology, D&D, gaming

What I am about to explore are the ramifications of abundantly available magic in a society, such as the many, many examples presented in popular fantasy literature and role-playing games. I am doing so out of the belief that many instances of magic in fantasy settings amount to inscrutable black boxes, which means that magic itself is rarely examined or improved upon. That is, it may ACT like a technology, but is rarely TREATED as one. This discussion seeks to investigate fantasy-style magic in terms of technology, in a blatant inversion of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim regarding technology and magic.

The inversion reads like this: Magic (use) is indistinguishable from any sufficiently advanced technology. Put a different way, I would say that the use of magic, if it is abundant, reliable, and useful, must be considered a technology. There are a number of components and assumptions we have to tease out, though, before we can further examine how such a technology is likely to affect a human social order.

First let’s establish that the use of magic is a technology. Any number of us may be tempted to assume that the use of magic in fantasy settings is an emergent property of human evolution. This places it alongside language and the ability to devise and use tools. Both of these are features of humanity, and though we share them both with many other species, especially the other apes, we have specialized ourselves in language and tool development to a greater extent than our relatives.

While our understanding of tools is part and parcel of our animal brains, the actual tools we develop are not. There was nothing particularly inevitable about the development of writing, and indeed today there are a great many people who function perfectly well without it. Writing is a mere tool, a technology. But look at the things it enabled us to do (whether we should have or not is a far different discussion). Similarly, other tools we devise harness the emergent properties of other natural phenomena, including the interaction of chemicals (cooking), the various applications of physical force (chopping down trees), and the life cycles of plants and and animals (agriculture, among other things). These are technologies.

The key difference between an emergent property and a technology based on it is the effect it has on other processes. Language alone is not sufficient to influence the workings of the world, but it does enable an ambitious and intelligent ape species to develop increasingly specialized tools and process refinements that in turn can be used to harness other natural processes. A properly shaped stone in the hands of a chimpanzee can enable the ape to extract nutrients from hard-shelled nuts, but the same stone in the hands of a human can be further shaped, attached to a stick, and used to chop down a tree. (Both are technologies, by the way.)

We should realize by now that the dividing line between a natural process and a technology is somewhat arbitrary. After all, we couldn’t say for sure that the evolution of photosynthesis isn’t a technology; it is the harnessing of some natural processes, and refinement happens through natural selection. Any attempts to assign or deny agency to those individuals involved in the process seems simplistic, but we also cannot go chasing down every permutation of the argument. For now, let’s just focus on the human thread and argue, however feebly, that there would be a meaningful distinction between natural magic use and non-natural (i.e., human) magic use.

At this point, we need to make something else clear. Magical forces, insofar as they are explicated in their settings, represent a natural process, like the nitrogen cycle or mammalian reproduction. We will assume a baseline ambient magical force, something akin to that in the Star Wars canon, but which enables those who can harness and use it to create effects as outline in, for instance, the 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons Core Rulebooks. We can, if we like, just assume that 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons is typical of what we will find in fantasy literature (it’s not remotely the case, but for our purposes, it will suffice since there are many clones of it). So that’s what we’ll do.

The harnessing and refinement of ambient magical forces for use as tools make magic use a technology. That’s the maxim we are going to have to stick with for now.

Now that we’ve established that magic use is a technology, let’s examine some of the characteristics of magic in technological terms. I won’t suggest that the magic = technology equation is falsified if these characteristics aren’t present, but it certainly helps our case if they are. And anyway, assuming our baseline ambient magical force, these characteristics are present more often than not.

  • Magic is abundant. In our baseline, magical forces are assumed to exist everywhere. This counts as abundance for our purposes. Note that this also means that magical forces are always operating, even if nobody is aware of them. (Think gravity for a real-world analog.)
  • Magic is reliable. Reliability means that the process works the same way every time, and that cause and effect are easy to predict; predictability means that we can design tools that make use of the forces in question without needing to understand how they work. Returning to gravity for an example, we need not understand gravity’s mechanism to design tools that take advantage of it. Its reliability means that we can develop large projectile weapons like catapults and trebuchets simply by experimentation, observation and extrapolation (things we happen to be good at). Reliable magic will be the same. If the same combination of verbal, somatic, and material components result in the appearance of a fireball, then magic is reliable and predictable. If it is reliable and predictable, then we can, through experimentation, observation and extrapolation, determine how to make bigger or smaller fireballs, or to do something different with the fire we’ve conjured.
  • Magic is useful. Our third characteristic is usefulness. We must assume that usefulness is what makes magic worth pursuing in the first place. All technologies can be judged in terms of their usefulness to those who developed them. If magical forces existed but could not be harnessed in useful ways, no technologies would arise as a result, and we could expect magic to be feeble and unspectacular if anyone even bothered with it. But in our baseline example, magic is not feeble or unspectacular. It has been harnessed to be useful. A word of caution is in order here, though. Just because a force or process is not obviously useful today, that does not mean it can’t be harnessed later. A prime example is electricity. Humans and human ancestors had presumably observed lightning for 200,000+ years without being able to harness it. Even when they eventually did begin to generate their own electricity, it probably wasn’t obvious that the old chemical batteries bore any resemblance to lightning. (Also, who even knows what Baghdad’s inhabitants would have powered with their batteries?) That is to say, we humans have only found electricity useful for a fraction of a percent of our longevity as a species. All of this is a long way of saying that technology builds on technology.

With these characteristics in mind, let’s examine magic-enabled human civilizations through a couple of different lenses. The first lens is the progression from discovery of magical forces through a few stages of refinement. We can’t say with any certainty what the end-state of magic use refinement looks like, just as we can’t say now what the end-state of our technologies based on harnessing gravity looks like. So we need the second lens, which is where the technology of magic use fits into the various stages of development we’ve undergone so far. Again, this is a difficult and likely error-prone exercise if for no other reason than the presence of magic would have shaped human civilizations in ways we might not even be able to imagine. But we’ll try.

Discovery, Harnessing and Refinement

Putting aside for the moment that a great number of modern peoples and individuals believe in all sorts of magic today, from gods to mystical quantum forces to positive thinking, we can assume that the discovery of a real magical force would give rise to a great deal of misunderstanding that limited its uses. What’s particularly unclear is whether spirit magic would have been potent or not; my guess is that fundamental misunderstandings about the world and its many physical and chemical processes would preclude repeatably testable magic where spiritual explanations had already been offered.

The earliest attempts to harness magic, therefore, would have been those that produced the most direct, tangible results. Moving or otherwise physically interacting with objects, especially heavy ones, and people (including the self) would likely have been chief among these. Anything that augments or replaces particular tools would have been valuable. Harnessing so-called elemental forces (to make fire, for instance) would have been beneficial if methods could be determined. And transporting people or objects would also have been incredibly useful.

A close second would have involved facilitation of communication. Signs, signals, language conversions, and long-distance communication seem like plausible uses for early magic. How the presence of magic in early human social settings would have affected their development is anyone’s guess, but I surmise that a long history with magic would result in a human-like species that is otherwise completely alien to us. But let’s not let a little truth deter us.

Discovery of magic is likely to have been the result of observation, first and foremost. After all, how can we know a thing exists if we haven’t observed it? Even without explicit words for it, our ancestors would have known about gravity. Their understanding of it may have been primitive, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t use it. Let go of an object and it will fall to the ground. Throw it in the air, and it will eventually come back down. Birds, then, must have been magical without an understanding of the physics of flight. Just as our ancestors drew conclusions about the way the world must have worked from observing it, the discovery of magic would have been predicated on some observation. What this means is that magical forces, to be discoverable in the first place, must have been observable in nature without human direction.

We can use the discovery of fire as a ready analogy. It is presumed that humans encountered fire somewhere in their habitat and learned to collect it. I am certain it was as fascinating to early humans as it is to modern ones, and they would have taken note of it, experimented with it. Eventually they must have worked out a reliable and predictable set of properties, and through observation they discovered other processes that resulted in some of the same characteristics. For instance, friction creates heat, and fire is hot. Experimentation would yield a method to transform friction into fire, which is what we indeed see with any number of surviving hunter-gatherer groups today.

Let’s posit a scenario by which early humans discover the magical forces of the world. Suppose that magic works just like the rules outlined in our baseline source material, the 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons Core Rulebooks. Many spells are combinations of specific verbal utterances, gestures (somatic components) and materials. To successfully cast a spell, all components must be present, and the correct procedure must be followed. (Because this is magic, we can’t be sure what happens if the components or procedures are slightly off, or why some combinations work and others don’t. That’s where real-world analogies lose their usefulness to our discussion.) A typical ancestral human ventures out one day to hunt one of the plentiful game animals nearby. As he moves through the terrain, suppose he finds a feather from a giant bird (one known to snatch children and carry them away). Perhaps he utters some words about how he wishes he could fly, then makes some movements or gestures (swatting at flies or sidestepping a snake). By luck, he has all of the ingredients for a spell to make him levitate off the ground! He will spend the rest of his life attempting to replicate it, and he will do so many times, to the delight of the other members of his tribe. He has just discovered magic and created a tool out of it. Within a few generations, it is common for members of this tribe to fly around its hunting grounds, using that advantage to extend its range and perfect its hunting techniques. By further experimentation, the tribe will have discovered at least one or two more useful applications of this discovery.

Refinements to this magic would have happened as quickly as any other tool use, which is to say it would vary. As tribes encountered one another, it is doubtful they would hesitate to show off their magical prowess, but once such a thing is revealed, it can be learned and repeated like a language. New methods and effects would show up more or less continually as the tribes had time to investigate and practice. We could eventually expect dozens of variations on the fireball, or levitation, or speed enhancements. As the number of known spells grew, specializations might have arisen. But one thing is certain: everyone who had interest would have been able to practice magic, and almost certainly everyone would have been able to perform the most basic spells, since they would have made life so much easier.

Magic in the Stages of Human Development

Our second lens is our own history of human development. If magic had existed when we were all living as hunter-gatherer tribes, it’s difficult to imagine human societies needing much more without the threat of environmental changes. The fact that we’ve developed into what we are now stands as likely proof that some environmental shift occurred that spurred us to create and/or extend agriculture and eventually our modern societies, and we didn’t have magic to mitigate it. If we are to create an analogous timeline for magic-using humans, we have to assume that environmental changes were too great to be met with nascent magic use, or that accretion of magical technologies benefitted more from less mobile lifestyles.

We’ve already covered in pretty good detail what the discovery of magic would have been like for ancestral hunter-gatherer humans. I can’t conceive of a likely scenario in which magical forces have always existed but weren’t discovered prior to the rise of agriculture, so I’m going to assume that prehistoric discovery is the the most plausible scenario. That leaves us with at most two steps in our refinement process during the long agricultural period and the same number during the industrial and post-industrial periods.

During the agricultural era, practitioners of magic are still incredibly widespread. If it’s easy enough to learn, this is quite unlikely to change without some very drastic measures. And since it was discovered prior to the rise of written language, it has to be somewhat easy to learn. However, as human societies become more complex, their repertoires of spells grow considerably. It will eventually become necessary to catalog all the known spells, an endeavor that will be undertaken almost as soon as writing appears. We can surmise this because the first libraries in our timeline appeared within a thousand years of written language, and the earliest uses of writing were primarily for business/economic purposes.

Spells of most use will be those facilitating communication (to maintain complex social orders), warfare, the movement of large objects (to build large structures like palaces and monuments), the curing of diseases and injuries, and those affecting crop yields and animal husbandry. Many will attempt to control the weather, and many will seek to prolong their lives or the lives of others. Thus the possible steps are: 1) discover some new spell; 2) refine one or more existing spells to achieve better results. Because of the administrative machinery necessary to oversee property systems, permanent classes of bureaucrats appear. In our timeline, organized religions also appeared. We can guess that magic will either have its own set of dedicated practitioners, or they will be subsumed by religious or bureaucratic orders. Either way, some subset of the population will be dedicated to perfecting magic in a rigorous manner.

This continues to happen more or less unabated for generations, enough time that agricultural humans will have forgotten their ancestral roots and formed cultures based around property and individuals. Wars and disasters will shape who knows what at any given time, and knowledge may be lost only to be rediscovered later. Eventually, the development of magic becomes a scientific endeavor. Industrial technologies are augmented with magical means, and humanity probably resembles some version of Steampunk. Spells to increase understanding, replace or improve human cognition, solve problems, and perform most or all of the preceding functions are the ones that are most useful. These spells, along with those for ever faster conveyances, better communications, and better resource extraction mean that humans probably never really need to develop cars or cell phones or computers. Thus we can’t say meaningful things beyond the industrial period.

The Problem with Magic in Fantasy Settings

But almost none of this is what we see in fantasy, is it? And why not? The most obvious reason is that fantasy, despite the kinds of wizard/goblin/demon inclusions that make upstanding religious people uncomfortable, is deeply conservative. It assumes an almost eternally unchanging narrative, in contradiction to the chaos of the real world. It is always backward-looking, quite often serving as monarchist apologetics, and incredibly resistant to external forms of change. Magic is not a scientific pursuit in most settings, and where it has even a hint of science behind it, such settings also include a cascade of things that are unexplainable in scientific terms. Our baseline setting has scant rules for creating new spells, but they are so unattractive that it’s hard to imagine how any magic was discovered in the first place.

Aside from the insistence in fantasy settings that magic and technology be diametrically opposed, they almost universally posit implausible administrations around magic use, without explaining how so much power could be concentrated in so few hands. Unlike money, magical forces exist as a tappable resource all around the people inhabiting these worlds. The likely humble origins of magic discovery mean that it is incredibly democratic. Anyone could learn how to do it, just like anyone could learn how to cook. Talent affects the outcome, and intensive training increases access to spells, but even without these, successive generations of humans could and would replicate the discovery of magic even if all of the most powerful wizards were locked in the tallest tower together.

All of this I think leads up to my sincere advice for writers, either of fantasy literature or role-playing games. If you’re going to include magic, I highly suggest you think about what that means for the people who live in your world. You need to be able to answer questions like why the presence of magic in the world and its use by that world’s inhabitants didn’t prevent them from adopting agriculture; or why only some people can use magic and not others.

I hope this article gives you some sense of what magic can do to a society if it’s treated as the technology it should be, and I am interested to hear what others have to say about it. If I get good enough (or any) response, I would like to revisit this topic in the future, so be sure and let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong, missed anything, or could have clarified anything better.

(Note: This is an article recovered from a now-defunct blog. It was originally published on 28 November, 2011. I have made some edits for clarity and to blunt some of the overly critical aspects, but the thrust of the article remains the same as the original.)