Tuesday, 31 March 2015

indistinguishable from magic

Æon Magazine has an excellent reflection on how automata slowly infiltrated Western Europe thought, through accounts of ambassadors to far-off lands to the East and South and curious, remarkable gifts given to comparably dull European sovereigns by potentates of unbelievable wealth and learning, but rather than immediately try to reverse-engineer what wonders they’d seen or heard of, that thought veered towards the preternatural, an aberration with esoteric causes.  Albeit the spectacle of the courts of the Near East with animatronic menageries and mechanised stages sound a little like an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it was sure to impress visitors and it seems that Europe, even the educated caste, reaffirmed the maxim of author and inventor Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic many times over. Though I suppose innovative craftsmanship and technical knowledge was never completely ruled out, rather than cogs and gears, witnesses were at a loss to account for these displays and resorted to the usual quiver of superstitious explanations, demonic possession, planetary alignment, necromancy.
Once the forgotten industrial prowess of Antiquity was rediscovered in the late Middle Ages, clockwork and associated applications began to promulgate slowly—however, European courts also were big for the theatrical, special effects. It strikes us as rather naïve and unreasonable to think anyone could be so primitive to mistake robotics for magic, like the cargo-cults that pray to air-traffic overhead to bring more humanitarian aid, but I suppose it is quite a bit similar to the modern phenomena of readily attributing past human achievement and future direction to extra-terrestrials or conspiracy. What do you think? Is technology demystified the closer in comes to appearing like actual magic? Maybe so long as we’re privy to the research-and-development phase, we won’t cower in fear and awe.