As we are dependent upon our technology, our society has become obsessed with speed and instant gratification. We keep making things better and faster than ever before, because we’re obsessed with having what we want when we want it. This drive has pushed us, industrially speaking, for centuries, and if you look back, you can see how each great advancement has spurred on more technological marvels.
Before anyone starts writing manifestos on the magic that exists in the world, let me be clear that I accept the possibilities of metaphysical magic, ritualistic power, and spiritual enlightenment. Nevertheless, the type of magic we see wielded in fiction and on the big screen has not yet been proven to exist in the real world. I can hope that it does all I want, but I’ve yet to see it exist outside my own fantasies.
So, since we as society do not possess the magical powers prevalent within the myths and legends passed on from our ancestors, we build our own type of magic – technology.
Without significant magic, we have found a different way to advance our society through the development of industry and technology. One has to wonder, though, would societies with access to magical abilities be as industrious as us?
As we currently know of no society with such magical access, I will have to base this discussion on what we have seen in stories and what we know of societal behaviors.
First of all, it’s difficult to decide if magic stifles technology, since many tales are set within a pre-industrial world. Stories involving magic are often set within a feudal system reminiscent of the Middle Ages, although many stories are also set within periods that have clockwork gear machinery and early forms of ammunitions, which would imply mid-to late Renaissance or early 18th century. Nevertheless, these stories are usually set before the Industrial Revolution to which we attribute so much of our modern advancements.
Without knowing the history of these fictitious societies, it also becomes problematic to determine if access to magic has diminished societal drives toward technological creations. Just looking at our own past makes one question the progression of our own advancements. To put it bluntly, modern man has existed for over 10,000 years, and in the course of those millennia we have advanced at different points and we have regressed several times as well, but most of what we call the epitome of modern technology has only happened within the last 200+ years. So, what exactly were we doing for the past 9,800 years!
[By the way – I know that a lot of our modern marvels were based on theories and models designed far before the Industrial Revolution. However, we still attribute so much of our current technology on the advancements made within the past two centuries.]
Of stories that do include magic in a more technologically advanced setting, there seem to be several limitations.
Within the Harry Potter world, for instance, they use their magic to create everything around them, including their own versions of traditionally mechanical technology (e.g., the radio that Harry, Ron, and Hermione listen to during the seventh book). However, magic users in the Harry Potter world have problems with Muggle technology. More often than not, technology seems to malfunction when they try to use it. Does this represent a clear distinction that you can either have magic or you can have technology, but not necessarily both?
Another limitation within the Harry Potter world, as well as other magic-based narratives, (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Merlin, Supernatural, etc.), is that the characters cannot seem to use magic for everything. It is not always easy to determine if this limitation is based on some sort of rule within each magical universe, (such as in the show Charm where the witches could not do anything that would result in self gain). The magic limitation could also be a plot device to avoid quick conclusions. Whatever the reason, whether it’s a lack of magical ingredients, cosmic rules, magical politics, or any other excuse, the message becomes clear that you can’t fix everything, even with magic.
One of the largest limitations to magic is not the magic itself, but who can wield it. In most stories, only certain people can access this power. They are either chosen, they aren’t quite human, they are part of a specific bloodline, or the powers-that-be bless them with the gift of magic. Regardless of the reason, the amount of people who can actually do magic in a modern setting seems rather low. The benefits of fewer practitioners include the fact that it’s easier to keep magic secret within these worlds. The threat of exposure, nevertheless, seems a common plot device.
Since magic has so many limitations anyway, why does the threat of exposure even matter?
Personally, I think the threat of exposure shows an underlying fear of a world with both magic and technology. Essentially, both of these things are power structures. Whoever holds the better power structure can potentially control the world. Therefore, the idea of exposure isn’t based on the fear of people freaking out once they discover magic is real. No. It’s based on the fear of what happens if you shift the power politics paradigm. Essentially, it would create a new arms race with the magic users on one side and the technology builders on the other. Each would try to create something to outdo the other until either a truce was established or mutual annihilation was achieved.
Perhaps that’s the real crux of this argument. Without magic, humans find another way – another source of “magic,” as it were. With limited magic, characters in modern settings use magic instead of technology as often as possible. The lack of technology does not stop them from doing what they need to do. At the same time, however, they do not contribute to technology as we know it either. Basically, their version of technology is magic, so instead of improving global society through machines, they improve their micro-societies through different types of magics. Technology users and designers do the same thing on either a global scale or, as some Marxists would argue, on a local scale based upon which classes can afford the technology.
In closing, to look at the title question as a semiotician, one could argue that the signifying chain of meaning might show the words “magic” and “technology” as representing the same concept, namely the use of a methodology to improve the speed and efficiency in which one performs a task. As long as a society supports the ideas of change and constant improvements, then the act of creation through either magic or technological advancements can never be truly stifled. The amount of people served by these advancements, however, remains in flux.