“The Quest” and Clarke’s Third Law

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

The Quest is a reality show of sorts that runs on Thursday nights on ABC. It’s not a typical reality show like The Biggest Loser or The Bachelor or Survivor XXIV: Pebble Beach. Instead of twelve contestants locked in a gym or on a desert island or in a room with a narcissistic bachelor, the contestants are placed in a pseudo-medieval setting, complete with a queen, a Vizier (whose job is apparently to sneer at everything), mages, monsters, and so on. Challenges involve tasks such as hunting down dragon tears for the antidote to a poison that has been administered to the queen and swordfighting. Really, it’s more like LARPing than like a real reality show. It’s a very silly show, but Jennifer and I are actually enjoying it.

Watching this has made me think of the “Three Laws of Prediction” as formulated by science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the third of which I’ve quoted above (I had to look up the first two laws, which hardly anyone knows, but the third one is pretty famous). In “The Quest” there are a few elements of anachronistic “magic” which are really just commonplace technologies. The “fire orbs” which the participants had to hunt for in a recent episode were magical devices that glowed with an inner light, but in “real life” they were simply glass jars with a fluorescent liquid inside of them. In the Hall of Fates (where the participants must be judged for their actions and one of them voted off the show), the visages of previously banished contestants hover against a high, dark wall; though they are obviously just projections from a hidden source.

I find this use of modern technology to replicate magical effects pretty fascinating. It puts me in mind of an amusing post I saw on Facebook some time back. I wish I could track down the source, but like all things Facebook, the source is sadly lost to history. The post goes something like this:

How would you describe modern technology to a visitor from, say, the 1800s?

“I possess, in my pocket, a device which allows me access to all the world’s knowledge at the touch of a finger. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

When you consider that you can actually speak to Siri in your iPhone, or to Google in your Android device, it becomes even more fantastical. With ChromeCast or AppleTV you can use your phone to control your television or other devices. In short, your pocket device makes you the equivalent of a wizard.

Amazing, isn’t it? I can’t imagine describing modern technology to someone from the 1800s (or even the early to mid 1900s), let alone someone from medieval Europe. If a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then what would such a time traveling visitor think of our times? And what sorts of technology are yet to come that we can’t conceive of, that we would think magical ourselves?

All this, of course, has made me come up with an idea for a new novel. This annoys me, because it’s a very shiny idea, and I am already committed to finishing Code Monkey. No, you cannot have this idea. I’m hoarding it. Someday — probably in 2016 — I’ll be able to write it.