People can't tell the difference between technology and magic - and they're scared of magic

1st May 2020

Earlier this month, as we all went into isolation and 5G was being rolled out by mobile phone providers, the conspiracy theory that 5G caused coronavirus (it doesn’t by the way) surfaced and resulted in telephone engineers being verbally assaulted and attacked as well as telephone masts in the UK being set on fire.

It reassuring to think this behaviour is as isolated and rare as it is stupid and dangerous. But, the chances it’s entirely possible ruining your own mobile phone coverage to avoid getting an infection is just the start of otherwise regular decent folk losing their minds over technology.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is usually used to point out the wonders, complexity and potential of technology. What is often missed is how humans have reacted to magic and those with arcane knowledge throughout history. They accused them of being witches and did deeply unpleasant things to them.

It may seem preposterous to think 5G is akin to magic, but the reality is, for most people, it’s inexplicable. Think about it: how well do you understand the technology that you interact with every single day? Chances are unless it’s your job, your knowledge of how your fridge, mobile phone and internet function is limited to knowing when they have stopped working and that someone else needs to fix it for you. That’s not a judgement, by the way. Time is finite and the complete mastery of all household technology is commendable but, in reality, an impractical use of time.

Once something is in the human imagination, we behave as though it is reality

This gap in our knowledge of technology, and the fact technological change is happening at an accelerated rate (as in, more new technology is being invented more quickly than ever before) creates a disconnect between what the average person thinks technology can achieve and reality. Technology doesn’t have to be sufficiently advanced to be magical. Humans are perfectly capable of imagining the magic is there as things are now. And once something is in the human imagination, we behave as though it is reality. To quote writer and magician, Alan Moore: “The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.”

Sadly, this means as technology increases in complexity at this increasing speed, humans will inevitably draw magical conclusions about the capability of these technologies. And so long as these conclusions detect sinister foul play, telephone masts will be destroyed and workers will be attacked. Depending on what technology we invent in the coming years (assuming we have some years coming to us) this sort of violent reaction will be more commonplace.

Futurist Alvin Toffler has described the psychological and social condition of stress, disorientation and being overwhelmed in the face of new technology as “future shock”. In short, it is the negative personal and social response to too much changing too quickly. Even within the last twenty years technology has changed so rapidly it has changed our lives. Heck, in the last twenty days, how many grandparents have had to learn how to use video calling technology, something younger generations may take for granted but has fundamentally changed what a generation of people assumed they knew about communication?

As technology advances, the world will start to make less sense to the average person

We’re on the cusp of finding out whether technology will allow huge sections of society to work from home. If it does, that will affect public transport, business cost and living conditions, creating future shock. And if it isn’t that, it’s the next revolutionary technology creeping over the horizon. Or the next one. Or the one after that.

Of course, the 5G conspiracy is just that, a conspiracy. It isn’t some Luddite response to industrialisation ruining society. But to again quote Moore:  “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening — Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”

As dangerous and ridiculous as conspiracy theories are, they almost a natural part of the human experience. Our brains are built to look for cause-effect connections and to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theories perform that function for the theorist. As technology advances, the world will start to make less sense to the average person and be less explicable. We will fill the holes in our knowledge with magical thinking and insane theories. It’s what we do.

Our comprehension of the technology we rely on is being (and will continue to be) outpaced by our creation of same technology, and our need to explain the darkness of the world means we’ll always imagine bogeymen machinating against us. As we advance as a species, at the same time, a conspiracy of technology is going to grow, and this is just the start.

1st May 2020