Does The Fact That Clarke's Law Is Becoming A Reality Signal The Downfall Of Civilization?

A long time ago, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke posited that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” As Richard Fernandez has posted, we are seeing the return of magic, and it's not good.

The 21st century is turning out to be mix of incompetence and brilliance, high technology and primitivism, fastidiousness and brutality all coexisting side by side.


Too many everyday things are already indistinguishable from magic to the average man.  Four centuries ago everyone knew how everything in their village worked.  Even a hundred years ago an intelligent person could figure out how anything he would likely encounter, even the steam locomotive.  But today people are surrounded by things about whose workings they haven't a clue.  Medical devices, synthetic pharmaceuticals, designer pathogens.  The proportion of those who can explain the world is gradually shrinking.

This is something I have noticed over the years.

Just within my lifetime I have seen the increase in the level of ignorance about how things work. I'm not talking about just the high tech gizmos that have become ubiquitous, but items and technologies that have been around for generations. I'm talking about things like internal combustion engines, power generation (and the distribution grids that go with it), aircraft, radio and TV, telephones (the plain old telephone systems that require wires), telegraphs, film cameras, light bulbs, steam engines, looms, and a whole host of other tech that has been around for a century or more and are still in use today. When we get into the 21st century tech that we use every day the level of ignorance about how it all works is staggering and getting worse. As I have heard more than one colleague opine over the years, “People think all of this neat wiz bang stuff works by FM – F***kin' Magic.” It never ceases to surprise me how many people I know outside of the geek network haven't a clue how things work. They just know that it does neat stuff.

Many of these folks think that electricity comes from a wall outlet, food comes from a supermarket, gasoline comes from a gas station, and the Internet comes from thin air. They haven't a clue about all of the 'hidden' things that make all of those things possible or how any of it works.

As Richard has written, the number of people who understand it all and can explain it is shrinking. At some point those of us who do understand it, know how it works, know how to fix it, and know how to make new things will be looked upon with awe, and most probably, fear. We will have become the new wizards, or better yet, Techno-Mages, to borrow a term from one of my favorite sci-fi TV series, Babylon 5.

As I mentioned before, this is not a good thing. On the other hand, this could lead to something created from the mind of Ayn Rand – Galt's Gulch. Those of us who understand science and technology, who can actually create things never seen before and extend mankind's knowledge, will sequester themselves away from the growing ignorance and barbarity and wait for everything to fall apart. Or better yet, get ourselves off of this world and expand out into the rest of the solar system and beyond. But I digress.

Such a division is not a good thing as it can lead to unintended consequences. As Robert Heinlein noted:

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

If you look at the above quote and then at Atlas Shrugged you'll see he is describing exactly what happened in Rand's dystopian tome.

Think it can't happen? You'd be wrong. We're already seeing the effect today as the willful ignorance typified by reliance on pseudo-science and so-called 'spiritual' beliefs supplant the knowledge of technology and science. The time will come when they denigrate those who are the keepers of all of that hard won knowledge, assuming it hasn't already reached that point.

Am I painting a dark picture of what ignorance about how things work might bring about? Yup, absolutely. Am I off the mark about a likely outcome if this ignorance continues unabated? No way in hell. If anything I'm probably understating the effects of the problem.