An upcoming conference discusses the perils of calling technology “magic.”
The Temptation of St Anthony by Martin Schongauer. Image: Public domain
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," goes sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarkes oft-quoted "third law."
But is that a good thing?
Is the apparent magic of new technologies a proof of their prowess, or more an indicator of our own ignorance of how things work? And what happens when that "magic" isn't a benevolent sorcerer, but an unwelcome ghost haunting our devices?
This is the theme for an event within the upcoming FutureEverything conference in Manchester later this month, called Haunted Machines. Curators Tobias Revell, a London-based designer, and Natalie Kane, who works at FutureEverything, told me they'd been hearing the magic analogy more frequently, and it made them uncomfortable.
"We sort of noticed a trend for people to explain things they couldn't technically comprehend or understand, or that we didn't have the vocabulary for, using mythological or fictional, magic terminology," said Revell.
It's not an entirely new idea—Clarke's third law appeared in 1973, and even Windows 95 had a setup "wizard"—but Revell reckons it's never been more severe. "From a design perspective, it's become acceptable to make things illegible to users," he said, referencing Apple's slogan "It just works" and David Rose's 2013 design book Enchanted Objects, as well as the ethereal connotations of names for new tech like "the cloud."
"The intention of that, whether explicit or not, is to obscure the technical and often financial and legal reality of the system by covering it up with those terms," said Revell. In a world of things "just working," the curators want to remind people that magic doesn't actually exist; it's a sleight of hand, a deception.
"When you're distrustful of your laptop, it's a very difficult situation to find yourself in."
The magic they're so suspicious of is even more evident in the Internet of Things. When I later asked Revell and Kane for specific examples of haunted machines, they both practically shouted "Nest!"
Nest's smart thermostat was one of the first to open consumers' homes to the Internet of Things, and as such has become something of a symbol for smart objects. "Nest is like a poster boy for the horror of the haunted home," said Revell.
With these "things," it's not just a question of ignorance over how they work their "magic," but a worry about active haunting. Internet of Things devices are already pretty notorious for being hacked. Revell said his friend "trolled" his wife by using smart tools by British Gas to change the heating.
"We're essentially letting very vulnerable systems into our homes," said Kane.
And even when there aren't antagonistic forces breaking in, these devices can become spectres in the home. Kane recalled a man who forgot that his Dropcam camera was filming him even when he took his clothes off. Your smart TV is always listening.
Then, of course, there's government surveillance by the NSA and its counterparts, which the curators singled out as a particular type of "haunting." "When you're distrustful of your laptop, it's a very difficult situation to find yourself in," said Revell. "You either feel like it's cheating on you or haunting you or something."
In the end, we all become ghosts in the machine. We stick around on social media after death, popping up in end-of-year slideshows and leaving crumbs of digital legacies in the form of deceased accounts. These ghosts are now a feature, encouraged by Facebook's new legacy settings and purpose-built digital cemeteries.
The Haunted Machines conference will bring together speakers including ethnographer Georgina Voss, graphic novelist Warren Ellis, and artist Ingrid Burrington to discuss quite how "magical" our technology has become, though Kane and Revell said they don't expect to offer any real solutions.
But to start, they think engineers should be more transparent about how things work—and users should be prepared to dig past the veneer of marketing spiel to find out.
Part of it simply comes down to vocabulary. "Especially when a lot of these things are new, sometimes the words haven't been invented yet for us to talk about them in the right way," said Revell.
"Magic" is no longer an acceptable shorthand.