This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.
I've always had a problem with Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".
This may have something to do with my career for a long time involving both magic and technology. Magic's a perennial fiction obsession of mine, and my media of choice have always been highly technological.
Most recently, I just released Left-Hand Path. It's a Virtual Reality game for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive - obviously fairly technological - whose central conceit is that in it, you learn the skills to cast spells. And I don't just mean you select spells from a spellbook and then press a button: I mean you have to learn the gestures necessary to create the magic, and on occasion go through a complex system of ritual magic to create the effects you desire, flipping through your grimoire to remember exactly how you summon your ancient powers.
Now, all that makes for a great game. There's a sense of accomplishment as you learn to use the powers of magic to your advantage and remember how to cast the "Vis" spell as something nasty is closing on you. There's a sense of discovery as you learn more about the world, the way magic works, and find powerful new spells. And there's a sense of pant-crapping terror as you realise that the things your new ritual summons to eat your foes will cheerfully eat you as well.
(Fun fact: horror games are more intense in VR, by some margin. So terrifying, in fact, that I added a "Low Terror Mode" recently, after reading a significant number of people saying "I'd love to play your game, but I absolutely won't, because it sounds way too scary.")
Now, none of that description of magic sounds very much like the technology I use in 2017.
And this is a big but. (I cannot lie.)
None of what I describe sounds like the consumer tech that I use. That's not so much the case for the other technology I interact with.
And I think that distinction - and the points where Clarke's Third Law does still apply - may explain a lot about why technologists are increasingly becoming hated in many circles.
Speak friend().init and enter
Magic is arcane - in the original meaning of the world. It's occult - again, in the original meaning of the world. It's difficult, dangerous, and often quite impractical despite its theoretical incredible power.
...Ever tried to set up a Sendmail server?
The technology that we deal with as technologists absolutely obeys Clarke's Third Law. Indeed, I've often wondered quite how much Charlie's Laundry Files magic was inspired by the fact he had a career before "Novelist" writing PERL. I've occasionally wondered if inscribing a pentagram and blood sacrifice would be more effective in ranking a site on Google than the traditional approaches. I've made myself physically ill whilst creating other worlds in the first generation of VR.
Sounds like magic to me. Indeed, I've read multiple books where the wizard protagonist suffers a severe "magic hangover" after overextending his powers, and it sounds a lot like what I experienced after finally getting Minecraft to work on my Oculus DK1.
(Side note: on quality VR platforms, those being Oculus and Vive, the vomiting thing is mostly solved by now. Don't fear the Great God Huey if you're thinking of trying those.)
I mean, does this look like some magical incantation stuff to you?
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Ask the non-technologist in your life. Or just carve it on a stone tablet and leave it somewhere around Skara Brae for archaeologists to get excited about.
Klaatu barada MongoDB
So there's this class of people in the world who can do incredible things - like, say, teaching a car to drive itself. Or indeed crafting a literal Magician's Broom
to clean their towers - I mean, apartments.
And they do this by immersing themselves in obscure, difficult learning that on the face of it makes no sense to the average person.
They don't need large teams of people or masses of wealth to do these things. In fact, if one of them locks themselves up in their tower, they're likely to come out in 10 years having created an entire world for themselves as a plaything
They can cause harm to people tens of thousands of miles away using weirdly-named incantations - like "WannaCry".
They summon and control alien entities called "AIs". They don't always perfectly control those entities.
And they can amass unimaginable wealth and power by using these arcane skills.
What happens next?
Well, it's fairly clear from a cursory read over fantasy literature - and it's fresh in my mind as humans' reactions to magic users are also a key plot-point of Left-Hand Path.
They're either going to get worshipped as gods - or they get burned as a witch
Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Programmer To Live
Obviously there are plenty of other reasons why society at large might be getting a bit skeptical of the tech giants, Silicon Valley, and so on. There's the wealth disparity. The diversity culture. The threat of strong AI. And more.
But I can't help but feel, looking at a lot of the media pushback at the moment, that a lot of it is straight-up fantasy novel 101 "Reactions To Wizardry".
And it's particularly ironic because most of the people reacting are surrounded by the same wizardry. They've got daemons in their phones. They're organising using services that have been carefully massaged to not require "magic" to use. Their cars and their TVs and their fridges all contain little bits of complex, arcane magic that can only be understood by the "wizards".
Don't get confused with the real-world "witch hunts" here. Those witches didn't (probably) actually have magical powers. This is something else.
And as I watch 2017 unfold in all its craziness, I do start wondering whether the conversation should be less about robots, and more about straight-up magic. About a world which is increasingly splitting into those who can wield magic, those who can pay the magicians, and those who just use the things magic enables.
Because that's the interesting part: whilst Arthur C Clarke's maxim was true, and all
advanced technology was arcane and difficult, these problems didn't occur. It's only now, as technology finally surpasses magic enough to eat society as a whole, rather than just the beardy guys in the towers studying eldrich tomes, that society as a whole notices the wizards in its midst.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just released an army of scuttling, gliding, limbless, bodiless eldrich horrors on the general population
, and I've got to go see how they're reacting.
What do you think? Are programmers in danger of burning?