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Regulating the Magic of Technology in the 2020s?

Published on 31 December 2019
Updated on 19 March 2024

As the new decade dawns the promise of technology seems endless. The horizon is unlimited. Beyond it the sky looks blue. Now more than ever tech looks like a kind of magic, carrying us above old limitations and beyond the predicaments of the here and now. The analogy is nothing new: as Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ 

But as Clarke knew all too well, technological progress brings serious challenges as well. To meet them we must be careful in how we frame the digital story we tell, and I want to suggest that thinking more deeply about the analogy of tech and magic can help us to do so. 

Digital rhetoric has made grand claims about its transformative potential for decades, and it is indeed true that the digital revolution offers a future full of human progress and improvement. For some the only problem is the slow pace of progress. Facebook’s unofficial mission statement is to ‘move fast and break things’. As the manifesto of Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm Founders Fund famously complains, ‘we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.’ The way forward, we are assured, is continued and rapid innovation. 

Yet while many possibilities have been realised in our headlong charge into the future, many others have not. A landmark 2016 World Bank Development report found that digitalisation has not increased productivity, reduced inequalities, nor improved governance. These are failures identified as well by the UN’s recent Report on Digital Cooperation, which concludes that the gaps between digital promise and reality must be bridged as a matter of urgency if we are to assuage the current ‘tech lash’ and to ensure that innovation in tech remains an engine of progress and human empowerment. 

Alongside squandered opportunities there are also threats. Developments in AI promise miracle breakthroughs in medicine, warfare and space-travel, for example, but the ethics and regulatory practice that will guide us in their application remain unclear The internet’s democratization of information is a wonder of human history. But the downsides are rapidly becoming obvious in the age of the online troll, fake news, and impregnable social media bubbles. For all its promise, we now see, tech progress can undermine social structures and erode human cognition and creativity. 

How we think about these issues matters profoundly. Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, imagines human technological progress as the process of blindly selecting balls from an urn. Some balls are pure positives, others have drawbacks – while some might lead to the destruction of humanity. I don’t agree with Professor Bostrom’s fatalism about human progress. But his model does issue an important warning about a full-speed-ahead charge into the technological future. If we are to avoid becoming the victims of our own innovation, we must start thinking in new ways about the governance of tech, and it may be that thinking anew about the old analogy of tech and magic offers a model for such a paradigm shift.  

The digital world seems unique. But its fundamental challenge is as old as time. Bostrom’s urn metaphor itself reaches back towards older ways of thinking. Most people know the story of Prometheus, who defied Zeus and gave mankind the gift of fire. Everybody knows the story of Pandora as well: she opened a forbidden urn (not a box) and released evil into the world. But although these look like two opposite understandings of human innovation, one optimistic and the other tragic, in fact they are the same story. In Hesiod’s version, Zeus fashions Pandora from the clay as revenge upon Prometheus. ‘As fire’s price I’ll give an evil thing,’ he says, ‘which all shall cherish in their hearts, embracing their own scourge.’ 

Prometheus and Pandora are far from isolated examples. Stories like these that understand magic as a double-edged blade have been fundamental to nearly all world cultures. Magic has explained our unique capabilities, underwritten our ethics and provided the basis of social contracts that foster and maintain cultural harmony. But at the same time magic has been considered with caution. The Old Testament, for instance, forbids the faithful from visiting sorcerers. Although miracles may occur they are licensed by God, and magic that is not subject to divine governance tends to look evil. Throughout history, magic has been carefully ring-fenced and regulated in these ways on the understanding that its promises are matched by its threats. 

Perhaps stories of gods and magical urns seem remote from our contemporary concerns: artificial intelligence, surveillance, the spread of fake news. But ‘embracing our own scourge’ seems a very apt way of describing our relationship with social media and the internet giants, and in fact the way that humanity has thought about magic does provide a useful precedent for thinking about tech. Ludditism is not the answer: the potential for digital technology to enhance the human experience is too great not to be seized. But we have much to learn from these traditions that celebrate mankind’s unique capacities yet also warn of the dangers that accompany them. 

As we move into 2020 these are not abstract or distant problems. It will be a whirlwind year, and one during which humanity needs as a matter of great urgency to agree on crucial questions of future digital governance, especially in the field of AI. As we face this possibility-filled yet dizzying and unpredictable future, we would do well not to forget the wisdom of centuries past in dealing with the promise and the dangers of our own magical potential.

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