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On technology and magic

Rob Drilea
Rob Drilea
5 min read
On technology and magic

This is me, reading the first lines of a touching poem I just discovered yesterday by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who passed earlier this year.

But this is also not me. It is my voice, with my accent, with my intonation. My breath is in it.

And yet, I've never said those lines out loud.

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I usually hold on to statement-quotes like that for two reasons. Either they express something truthful, articulated with an accuracy and conciseness I couldn't replicate. Or, I save them as notes to my future self, when they express things I don't agree with, or don't feel like I have enough experience to fully comprehend or verify.

Clarke's quote has fallen into the latter category for me for a long time.

Had he said "(...) technology is indistinguishable from magic to the ignorant or uninitiated" I would probably not be thinking about it so much. But it seems to me that he intended to make a broader statement than that, and it is that broadness that I take issue with.

Magic, for one, is defined as the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

You don't have to be a savant to understand that technology builds cumulatively on other technology, and that if you strip down any machinery to its simpler parts, you can understand how any technology works.

The short audio excerpt I shared is the work of Overdub, a tool inside one of my favorite tools of late - Descript.

It works like this: you read a 10-30 minute script into the software, which is used to train an AI model to replicate your voice. The script made me feel like Sir David Attenborough for a few minutes. It begins:

A hundred years ago there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity.

Descript notifies you within 24 hours when your AI voice clone is ready. Then, all you have to do is type.

It might look like magic if you showed it to someone from Ancient Greece (or my mother, who refuses to use a smartphone.) But if you live in a modern society, you'll know that first, we learned how to transmit sound across physical distance. Eventually, we learned how to record voices. Much later, we learned how to generate robotic voices. We built text-to-speech engines. Up close, progression feels much more obvious.

I understand it, and still this is the closest technology has come to feeling like magic to me.

I've had joyful moments with technology before. On a walk in Buenos Aires I observed many streets were lined with the same massive trees speckled with scaling bark I hadn't noticed elsewhere. I opened up Google Lens and it recognized it for me.

London plane tree

Another gratifying experience with technology was when I participated in a mixed reality theater-meets-VR experience a few years ago, called Draw Me Close. I had to wear a headset, and all I could see was a roughly sketched animation of a door. As I physically stepped up to it, a handle was drawn before my eyes. I reached out for a handle with my real left hand, expecting to twist my hand for a tracker to recognize me pretend-opening a door like I had done before in VR. Except this time, a real handle was in my hand, just where I would expect it to be in physical life. By the end, my "mother" tucked me into a physical bed. I left the experience in tears.

What's it for?

We live in times of wild technological development. Capitalism has engendered advancements that at times feel like the stuff of sci-fi dreams of yore. Western society has incentivized progress in areas that make some of our lives easier, faster, unbelievably convenient. In a recent essay, David Perell coined a term for this: the "microwave economy."

(...) an economy that prizes function over form and calls human nature “irrational”—one that over-applies rationality and undervalues the needs of the soul.

I would argue that these improvements have not only happened at the expense of the needs of the soul, but also at the expense of tangible, physical needs that unfortunately are less profitable.

We get Sodastreams and sous-vide machines but we haven't figured out how to avoid 30-40% of our food going to waste in the US alone, when 9% of the world goes hungry (probably an optimistic estimate in the wake of an economically disastrous global pandemic).

Is it "but" or "because"?

In her 1981 essay "Women, Race and Class: The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework," Angela Davis calls out the hostility of the capitalist economy to the industrialisation of housework.

One of the most closely guarded secrets of advanced capitalist societies involves the possibility – the real possibility – of radically transforming the nature of housework. (...) Teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling, engineering technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively. (...)

And yet -

Socialised housework implies large government subsidies in order to guarantee accessibility to the working-class families whose need for such services is most obvious.

Four decades later, capitalism brings us the $800 Roomba i7+, calling it:

A spiritual successor to the Roomba 980 [with] a series of cameras and sensors onboard allow it to make a map of your home to guide it around sofas, chairs, and other obstacles.

The magic of technology works like this. Look here. Look at this shiny object. Wouldn't that make your life so much easier? Don't look there. You can't do anything about your neighbor starving.

Can you even call them your "neighbor" if they live on the street corner? Look here. Buy this. Your life will be easier.

For the kids who were into magic (I wasn't), there's always a bit of a "give me more" effect. We want to be tricked. We think we're wising up to it because maybe we've seen the inner workings of some other kind of magic. But we still keep going. Do it again. Trick me again.

We remain willful showgoers to a spectacle that is satisfactory, but not nourishing.


Rob Drilea

On creativity & work