Clarke’s Third Law

Posted: February 22, 2020 in Uncategorized
Ethical and perhaps boring…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

Absolutely UN-ethical, but also not boring.

By the time I reached middle school in 1980, this statement about knowledge and perception was common enough that Mr. D’Amato explained it in seventh grade Social Studies (an overview class with elements of Anthropology and Archeology). He used the example of some douchebag going into the Amazon and waving a lit Zippo around among the tribesmen from whatever uncontacted society fit the hypothetical discussion. Makes total sense…if you don’t see something previously and the person showing off the magic doesn’t carefully open up his/her hands to reveal the wires, well, what else is it, but magic and likely dark magic at that?

 Over the many years since I’ve become a writer and now actually retroactively care about the things I was taught; I’ve had a lot of time to consider the statement. And start asking the questions that go over a twelve-year-old’s head. And to see how some of my favorite books and shows did amazing toe dances with the concept long before Mr. Clarke put it in writing.

My first read of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings roughly coincided with the Social Studies class mentioned above, maybe eighteen months before. Wonderful book. Great movies (even the Ralph Bakshi version that everyone else seems to have hated). And if you read closely…is it magic or technology?

Case in point. Gandalf is being a douchebag scratching the Thief Seeking Employment symbol on the freshly painted door at Bag End. Bilbo waxes quite craptologically about Gandalf’s fireworks remembering fond times when the wizard blew a lot of cool shit up at one of the Old Took’s parties. This later pays off at Bilbo’s Eleventy First (111) birthday when having Gandalf back for a command performance proves an excellent distraction for the worthy Hobbit taking the runner to Rivendell and, with a little bit of encouragement (arm twisting), leaving the Ring to Frodo.

Is Gandalf a wizard or just a really skilled chemist with a taste for pyrotechnics and showmanship?

If we judged only from Gandalf’s fire and other blowing shit up “magic,” we can’t tell. He carries Glamdring, a presumably magicked up elf blade, for all the times when there might not be enough orcs on the board to use up a spell. Does he have stamina issues where it’s just easier to cut orcs in half most days?

At Minas Tirith, the White One was seen behind the wall working up a big one. Yes, villains do blow up on a regular basis through the course of the story. But once we start re-reading these passages with this question in mind…grenades prepared in advance and kept in a hidden pouch or great and terrible magic that coalesces hydrogen out of the air ready for a spark? That I suppose is up to the reader. FYI, Saruman sends a fairly small orc on a kamikaze sapper mission to take out the drainage culvert at Helm’s Deep with a barrel of black powder.

To be fair, Gandalf’s real magic seems to fall into the Leadership, Strength of Character and Morale categories. This is harder to dismiss, especially when given various halo and light effects in the movies.

Have a king wasting away from having to listen to the kind of advisor that only maybe certain unpopular presidents could love? Send in the wizard to do the long-distance exorcism and fistfight leaving Saruman a little roughed up on his tile floor.

Need to buy time for everyone else as they run out the back door? Well, there were quite a bit of bright white lighting cues anytime Gandalf stood up to the really bad monster. Harder to dismiss as fakery and people did have more hope…for a time. Yes, he bats about .500; the Balrog killed him and the Witch King of Angmar decided to pick the fight later on better terms.

Fakery. As I got older, I realized that Mr. Clarke had the beginnings of wisdom, but not the end of it. How much of the example of the Zippo in the Amazon depends on the actions of a stage illusionist, possibly an unscrupulous one? Someone who knows how to hold the lighter so the less advanced observer can see the Behold, I Make Fire trick without seeing the metal lid to the lighter or burning one’s fingers.

Gandalf is a showman. The description of practically having a Beavis & Butthead sense of – “heh, heh, coooool!” – when it comes to blowing up his fireworks gives it away. This means he also knows how to palm a lighter or, more to the point, a firebox. This means he knows how drive eyeballs over here, while – “ignore the man behind the curtain!”

Let’s take a few other examples from our shared narrative database. Moses? Direct line to God, or a cranky magician with a better local calendar than the Egyptians? Various waterways that presumably went blood red during the Plagues have gone crimson since…iron ore deposits stirred up and red tides being the main explanations. To be fair, the one good argument for Work of God is the except in Goshen rider to most of the middle Plagues. Yeah, how do you pull that off without a lot of help that still might not exist in current technology? I’ll get back to you when someone burns the trick for the next Fox Special, “Breaking the Magic Code Pt. 5003, Egypt.”

Do you get more out the swarm simply knowing when the locusts are due and timing the pitch to Pharaoh (your half-brother) accordingly? And did he make up some mumbo jumbo about lamb’s blood on the lintel and the Angel of Death to provide cover for a small dedicated team of guys with nothing left to lose running around the countryside putting the First Born to the sword? We weren’t there and the rest is simply what we choose to believe.

Mark Twain understood Clarke’s Law a hundred years before its publishing. He has his protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court blow up Merlin’s Tower with black powder, lightning rod and outguessing the next storm. The rest was all about – “I need several days to prepare the spell, Your Majesty.”

And convincing Merlin to vacate. Really? It’s a good idea to bunk out for several days while some pipsqueak newcomer says he going to level your house? That alone suggests the con-artistry of the average stage magician. Hell, it’s straight up performance art!

Clarke’s Third Law also comes into play in the average Star Trek episode where a Prime Directive violation becomes inevitable and must be managed instead of avoided. The character that made the mistake opens up his/her hands and shows the box, tells what it does, apologizes for the intrusion, but only to the smart local who seems like they understood the most. Essentially, Captain Archer/Pike/Kirk/Picard/Sisko/Janeway shows off the cigarette lighter…

“See here, my good man, this is a cigarette lighter. It makes fire.” Opens lid. Flicks striker wheel. FIRE. Awe. “This wheel thingy is made of flint. There is a flammable gas held in this cotton part. Spark. Fuel. Air. And…” “Fire, Boss.” “Right, fire. Now the lid also…” SNAP CLOSED. “…takes away the air. Would you like to try it?” “Yes, Boss.” “Okay, there’s a little bit of a trick to it so you don’t burn off your fingers, but it’ll take a couple seconds to show…”

Ah, the wonderful ethics of Star Trek. On the downside, there are almost no stage magicians and other showmen left in the Federation. It shows in the ugly civilian clothes common to all the shows, until recently.

The Continuing Mission also gets us to ask the really good corollary question to Clarke’s Third Law – is there a point where the observer is sufficiently advanced that instead of believing in magic, they simply go looking for the wires or the cigarette lighter?

Looking for the wires turned Ardra the Mighty into a joke when Picard’s team uses his distraction of the arbitration hearing to find her starship. One more con man scratched off.

This ethic of “it’s not magic, we just haven’t found the wires” runs all throughout Picard’s dealings with Q. Go back to the episodes. How many times does Picard just ask Q to drop the stupid showmanship and theatricality, usually with a non-verbal cue? In one episode, Q claims to be God. In another later one, Q backtracks to “I knew him.” Neither time does Picard seem very much impressed and asks Q to get to the part where he says what he wants. He’s found too many cigarette lighters in his time.

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