Nature, Technology and Magic

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Design of Experiments, skmurphy, Startups

What seems natural, artificial, or supernatural is a function of familiarity. Nature is the background or context for innovation. The challenge is that we live in a world and culture formed by millennia of innovation so that some incredibly advanced technologies seem natural. The difference between technology and magic is not that one works more reliably than the other but that technology is part of the adjacent possible–seemingly impossible but comprehensible. Magic breaks our existing paradigm and is initially incomprehensible. As entrepreneurs we need to present our innovations as technology not magic.

Nature, Technology and Magic

When you are considering how creating a new product you to consider how to position it within a prospect’s existing frame of reference.

  • Frame of Reference: Natural / Normal / Born / Simple / News
  • Adjacent Possible: Artificial / New / Made / Complicated / New
  • Incomprehensible: Magic / Unnatural / Revealed / Chaotic / Uncertain

If it fits within the frame it’s better, if relaxes one or more design constraints to explore the adjacent possible it may initially be viewed as impossible, and if it’s the result of a new design paradigm it may initially be unthinkable or incomprehensible.

Normal, New, and Unnatural

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Douglas Adams in “The Salmon of Doubt

Sufficiently Familiar Technology

“Textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature.”
Virginia Postrel “Losing the Thread

Sometimes in their concern with the new entrepreneurs can lose sight of the power of the status quo and the advantage of rapid prototyping that relies on as little invention as possible and simply integrates existing solutions to add one or two small differentiating pieces.

Binary is Millennia Older Than Punch Cards

“Weaving is the original binary system, at least 9,000 years old. Warp threads are held in tension, and weft threads go over or under them. Over-under, up-down, on-off, one-zero. Punch cards could control looms because weaving is intrinsically binary. By the time Joseph Marie Jacquard’s card-driven machine came around in 1801, human weavers had been imagining and recording complex either-or patterns for thousands of years.”
Virginia Postrel “Losing the Thread

Sometimes it’s hard to see the technology that is woven so deeply into the status quo. Generally because it works so well. For the most part new things don’t work (yet).

“We notice things that don’t work. We don’t notice things that do.
We notice computers, we don’t notice pennies.
We notice e-book readers, we don’t notice books.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

What Will Your Product Regard as Natural

Especially in a startup you have too few resources to compete across the board with existing products. You have to pick your battles and decide what you will regard as a natural part of the environment that you will co-evolve with instead of trying to re-engineer.

Very few technologies actually die and as they age they become cheaper and more stable.

“Generally, old media don’t die. They just have to grow old gracefully. Guess what, we still have stone masons. They haven’t been the primary purveyors of the written word for a while now of course, but they still have a role because you wouldn’t want a TV screen on your headstone.”
Douglas Adams in “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Future

Related Blog Posts

 Sufficiently Advanced Magic and Technology

Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws from his essay collection “Profiles of the Future

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s this third law that triggers a number of variations:

“Advanced technology is indistinguishable from a sufficiently rigged demo.”
Andy Finkel

“Any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature”
Virginia Postrel “Losing the Thread

“Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”
Gehm’s Corollary to Clarke’s Third Law

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature.”
Karl Schroeder in “I am the very model of a Singularitarian

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Cthulhu.”
Hugh Hancock

“Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.”
said by the character Jane Foster in the 2011 Movie Thor (still looking for real source, attributed to “Arthur C. Clarke” in the movie; it’s certainly another riff on his Third Law).

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