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Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic!

by Ryan Johnson, May 18 2010

On April 5th, I took possession of a device that still in many ways baffles my mind and creates a sense of wonder within all that behold it’s simplistic form and complex abilities.

Throughout the years mankind has engaged the minds of many to create tools and machine that would allow them to work, understand, communicate, be entertained by and create objects that advance our civilizations.

In the past, such persons who had mastery over their ability to create or understand, were often either revered or shunned by their fellow man.The Apple iPad

Recently, Apple Inc. released a device that they repeatedly claim is Magical and Revolutionary!

When I un-boxed the popular Apple iPad device, I kept thinking about how the word magical was a bad choice for marketing lingo. I get it, why it would be used, but my skeptical mind kept pushing back on it a bit.

The definition of magic describes many meanings in our popular culture:
I readily identify myself as a skeptic, and as such, I have found myself jumping to conclusions that I should not. I am careful to always mention in discussions about being a skeptic, that it doesn’t mean that I’m a cynic. …Though sometime I catch myself being just that.

magic |ˈmajik|
the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces : do you believe in magic? | suddenly, as if by magic, the doors start to open.
• mysterious tricks, such as making things disappear and appear again, performed as entertainment.
• a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, esp. in a way that gives delight : the magic of the theater.
• informal something that has such a quality : their seaside town is pure magic.
1 used in magic or working by magic; having or apparently having supernatural powers : a magic wand.
• [ attrib. ] very effective in producing results, esp. desired ones : confidence is the magic ingredient needed to spark recovery.
2 informal wonderful; exciting : what a magic moment.

I’m a techno junkie, and now an acknowledged Apple Fan-boy. Simply, I have found that for the majority of the work that I do on a daily basis, the products that Apple has made, have contributed to a more enjoyable, efficient and rewarding experience in those tasks. So, if Apple make the stuff I like and enjoy, I’ll continue to use their products. I look at these devices as tools, no more, no less.

I was literally counting down the days until my Apple iPad arrived several weeks ago. I couldn’t wait to see how the experience of this piece of technology would transform my experience of working with technology. But, “magical”? Ugh, c’mon! It sounds so hocus-pocus, and is apt to turn people off to it, I thought. I want this to succeed so that others follow and push the envelope of technology as Apple has. Call it magical and people are going to expect it vanish ladies and make rabbits appear!

Then an amazing thing happened. After the first week of “It’s so incredible” finally started to become more like “wow, I can do that too!?”, I got back down to business with this new tablet device in my daily workflow. If we strictly define magic as it’s stated above, the iPad, (and by that account, probably many other pieces of technology in our daily lives) could be said to be truly magical.

Certainly by it’s appearance, it COULD be held as magical. If I was handed an iPad in say, 1950 for example, would I not think that a glowing interactive device that is a mere ½” thick, makes no noise, does not get warm and consists of a smooth aluminum, case and shiny glass top was not a magical device, or maybe an artifact from an alien world? Though, admittedly, getting a WiFi signal in 1950 might prove a bit difficult.

Applying the definition above to this device, one could honestly say that it’s magic. The only element that pulls it from what we skeptics understand as magic would be the simple fact that we know that it is a manufactured piece of technology not from the future or alien beings even.

If we didn’t know this fact, how could we then, separate this from magic?

As our technology advances further and further, its becomes more and more difficult to rationalize with our individual minds how the things it can do are even possible. Arthur C. Clarke posits in his Third Law of Prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Mr. Clarke, so right you are. While I continue to inform myself and try to inform others of the REAL world of wonder and amazement separated from the false, and misleading in our lives, I will keep my little iPad tucked safely under my arm, and realize, that maybe, magic is real after all.

All of this is to say that, I and others should not be so quick to dismiss, but rather should re-direct the point of view in which we analyze things. Maybe we need to continually update and re-evaluate how we interpret the common language used in our world, and the gut-reactions that we skeptics come to infer from it.

Our skepticism can be a much more open and accepting world-view.

If we let it.

19 Responses to “Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic!”

  1. Brian M says:

    I fear this will turn into a pro-apple, anti-apple flamewar, due to the nature of the described technology…

    So, in the spirit of keeping it on topic, I think that the term Magic is ample. As a systems administrator and security expert, users find pretty much all computers to be “magic”. They don’t understand how they work, just that they do (or rather, don’t). There is no comprehension of what is happening. And while its not supernatural, it surely is magic. I don’t know if my personal definition of magic includes supernatural, but is instead more of a “by an unknown force”. Being skeptical, I dislike unknown forces, so I make said force known through knowledge and discovery (even if by google). Magic should instead be our precursor to learning something new. Even if its attempting to learn one of James Randi’s magic tricks, its still a process of learning something new to us.

  2. Lukas says:

    I think the problem with using “magical” to describe such things is not that it isn’t apt; they sometimes *do* seem magical. Rather, I think the problem with the word “magical” is that it implies that we can’t understand what’s happening, that these devices are beyond comprehension. That is a bit of a sad way of looking at things. I don’t want people (especially children) to get the impression that modern devices are so advanced that they couldn’t possibly comprehend how they work.

  3. Bill says:

    Apologies for going completely off-topic here…but thanks for the earworm, Ryan.

    It’s thoroughly annoying.

    Never believe it’s not so.


  4. Luis says:

    Any essay by a sufficiently infatuated Apple fanboy is indistinguishable from a paid ad.

    • Beatrice Honningforth says:

      So true. Ryan’s writing might benefit if he bothered to re-read his prose when he’s sober.
      >If we didn’t know this fact, how could we then, separate this from magic?
      By prying the thing open, both physically and using software. In part due to the doings of Apple you currently have to break the law to do this.

      • Lukas says:

        Which particular law are you breaking by opening Apple’s devices (literally in hardware, or figuratively by jailbreaking the software)?

      • Max says:

        EULAs typically prohibit reverse-engineering.

      • Lukas says:

        So that’s not different from any other tech device, and it doesn’t mean that jailbreaking is illegal, because you are not reverse-engineering anything merely by jailbreaking the phone. Besides, it’s unclear which parts of an EULA are actually enforceable; these anti-reverse-engineering clauses always explicitly state something along the lines of “except as and only to the extent permitted by applicable law”. In other words, they don’t make anything illegal that would otherwise have been explicitly legal.

        I was hoping for something a little bit more reality-based and Apple-specific, since it seems the commenter was implying that there was something wrong specifically with Apple’s devices.

  5. MadScientist says:

    I hate gizmos even though I frequently work with the latest in this and that technology. The vast majority of my computer tools were developed in the ’70s and ’80s and simply refined over the years. I can work a lot of “magic” from a computer which simply boots to display the message “login:”. Since much of my work involves horrible computations, I don’t even need to see any graphical representation until after the computations are done. Maybe gizmos just don’t impress me because I’ve been working with more sophisticated stuff all the time and I see the gizmos more as mere toys. I disagree about Apple pushing the limits of technology – they don’t. They put things in a pretty package and advertise well though, and there is absolutely no doubt that their operating system is far better than their behemoth counterpart’s amateur operating system.

  6. Max says:

    Hey Mad, take a memo on your Newton…

  7. Ryan Johnson says:

    I WISH that Its was a paid ad Luis. Haha. If I had a commission for all the people that have started using Apple products because of me. I’d be a very happy man (With even more Apple products.)

    Seriously folks, as I’ve said. They are tools. FOR WHAT I DO, they work terrifically. For others, it may not be the case.

    I have no wish to make this a pro/anti Apple debate. I am more interested in how we as laypersons are able to distinguish brilliant technology, (Apple or otherwise) from what could be perceived as “magic”. By opening this discussion I am interested in defining a set of tools that could be used to apply to other sorts of things that baffle us in our daily lives.

  8. ZenMonkey says:

    I love this post, not because it has anything to do with Apple, but because it nicely illustrates why that Clarke quote is one of my favorites. For me it’s a way of examining the world skeptically: “This looks like magic, and I have no way of explaining it, so it is clearly some kind of sufficiently advanced technology.” And of course this goes beyond a narrow definition of “technology” to include natural events and all wonders of the world that many would choose to describe as actual magic.

    That quote says to me “We have no need to make up explanations for things we don’t understand anymore. We know that what seems inexplicable is only inexplicable *by us right now.*” And how cool is that, the simple idea that there is an answer for everything, even if we don’t know what it is? I suppose it’s similar in one way to the comfort religious people take in the idea that “It’s God’s will and we’ll figure it out one day.” Except of course that my faith is in science to figure out what we don’t know. (And before anyone jumps on that — no, I don’t view science as a faith or belief system.)

  9. Cambias says:

    It’s not magic because it is predictable, “learnable” and reproducible. In other words, dump an iPad in 1950 and scientists (or some teenagers who’ve read Cordwainer Smith) can figure out how to use it. Engineers could open it up and study how it’s made. Ultimately, after maybe half a century of research, they could figure out how to make one.

  10. Brian The Coyote says:

    I think another interesting question is not just how laypersons distinguish brilliant technology from magic but if the majority of them even care to make the distinction. “I don’t care how they work, just gimme my toys!” What percentage of people have even the most basic understanding of the quantum mechanics behind semiconductors?

    For that matter, how many people have much more than the most basic knowedge of how an internal combustion engine works? And how many care?

    If everybody can forgive another classic SF reference, in one of the Foundation books Isaac Asimov wrote about a society where the “techies” elevated themselves to a priestly class and called what they did magic. But I think in the end that techies will delve into what makes things tick and the rest will be content to be consumers.

    To make a leap to another area of maybe-magic: I don’t know how my mom makes her Christmas pudding, but the taste is pure magic.

  11. Scott C. says:

    To me, the foundational issue here is the precision in language to which skeptics are constrained. In common discourse, words like magic, awe, wonder, purpose, spiritual, and miraculous are perfectly understood. They are expressive and convey a shared cultural meaning beyond the literal, but they are off limits to skeptics. That’s why it’s so difficult to convey the awe and wonder, and the magic, that can be derived from the rational worldview as a competitor to the feel-good imaginary one. We’re basically speaking a different language.

  12. Chris K says:

    Isn’t this just all down to whether you use a word literally or metaphorically?

    I mean we know IPad’s aren’t powered by a magical energy- they are powered by electricity but most of us can happily admit that due to their technical sophistication how they actually function is sufficiently mystical to appear ‘magical’ in the metaphorical sense.

    I mean, when a commentator says someone ‘scored a magical goal’ they are not actually making a statement about how the player defied the laws of physics and utilised some secret power to score, they are simply making a comment about how impressive the goal was.

    I think some skeptics have a tendency to get hung up on metaphorical language because they focus on literal meanings- which isn’t always appropriate. As is apparent in this case!

  13. Jim says:

    I couldn’t care less about some asinine debate over whether or not “magical” is an apt metaphor for a completely predictable and evolutionary device. Advertising frequently engages in silly hyperbole. But what does that have to do with Clarke’s quote? And what the hell does this have to do with skepticism?
    Clarke’s quote has to do with technology that is so far beyond the understanding of the people with whom that particular piece of tech ends up that it is genuinely indistinguishable from magic. That is, there is no way for that group of people, using their current understanding of technology, to understand and replicate that piece of tech. As such, it is completely absurd to talk about the iPad as fitting into Clarke’s idea of technology appearing to be literally magical when it is sufficiently advanced.
    I don’t see what this has to do with skepticism at all, either. I don’t care about some Apple vs. Windows (Linux, Unix, Commodore) fanboy showdown. I’d feel the same if the post was on the Joo-Joo, HP’s possibly-coming-but-maybe-not Slate, or the latest Android device running Froyo. This comes off as a terrible review that says nothing of substance about the product with some bizarre non sequitur tacked on at the end about being open and accepting. There’s no argument within the body of this post gushing over how the iPad really is magical (no, really!) that shows why it’s good to be open and accepting, nor is there anything to suggest that skeptics aren’t open and accepting anyway. In fact, I’d challenge this caricature of skeptics as “close-minded” and have done just that several times in discussions. But, regardless of the validity of the supposed moral we’re to learn, the point here is that the lesson is never taught in terms of this post. Instead, we have something that, as Luis pointed out above, sounds like a paid ad.

  14. Matt says:

    OMG everyone calm down. I see this as a breath of fresh air. Plus I actually was wondering what other skeptics thought of the ipad, seeing how cooooolll it looks. Ha. Just adding to the wood to the oven.

  15. David Vanderschel says:

    I think that the iPod Touch is actually more magical than the iPad. I’ve seen the acronym MID, for Mobile Internet Device, applied to such things. What makes the iPod Touch more magical in my eyes is that it is so _small_ and yet it can still perform the same kinds of functions as the iPad. Indeed, the vast majority of the large number of applications Apple touts for the iPad are just iPhone apps that will also run on an iPod Touch. Yes, the large screen size of the iPad makes it more pleasant to use for many things, but you can’t just stick it in your shirt pocket when you are on the move.

    I have never had the need for a mobile phone, but I was always greatly impressed by the technology of the iPhone. When I finally realized that the iPod Touch was much more than an MP3 player, that it was kind of like an iPhone minus the phone function, and that wi-fi acess from my own router was free (compared to high 3G costs), then I decided I must own one – just because it is so cool. I have grown up with this technology and these devices actually exceed the capabilities us techno-optimists were just dreaming about 30 years ago. I actually use it more than I anticipated when I bought it just so that I could have the satisfaction of possessing such impressive technology. In the larger iPad package, the high-tech nature is actually less impressive.