Magical thinking in Silicon Valley

By Nathan Pensky , written on January 21, 2014

From The News Desk

In 1962, science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote his Three Laws of Prediction, on how to think about future technologies. The third law is by far the most popularly quoted: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Sometimes I wonder if we’re entering a period of history where technology advances at such a fast clip that the thinking of ordinary people about tech starts to approach this sort of superstitious reverence.

It’s a well-heeled paradox that a technologically advanced society, while owing much to science and empirical inquiry, must also rely on the authority of almost Shamanistic experts. We all know there’s no magic in the iPhone, that every function can be traced to basic physical operations that can be easily observed and reproduced. Yet the ordinary person, myself included, is mystified how it works. For that, we must rely on the Geniuses.

In a very real way, the role of technology, even simple technology, is to unstick menial tasks from the user’s experience of linear causality. Rather than start a fire to keep myself warm, I turn up the thermostat and warm air rushes through the heating vent – who knows how? When my car breaks down, I take it to a mechanic. I couldn’t tell you how to fix it any more than I could perform open-heart surgery. Bowing to the authority of auto mechanics isn’t superstitious, but it has elements in common with a belief in magic.

Sir James Frazier, author of the classic work on religion and mythology “The Golden Bough,” describes belief in magic in terms of a dissociation of cause and effect, something like that between my need for warmth and the turning of a thermostat. Frazier organizes this belief into two groups: the principle of Similarity and the principle of Contagion. “Similarity” involves the belief that if certain rituals are performed, a desired outcome will be achieved regardless of the line of causality between the two -- like, say, performing a rite to a fertility god to have a good harvest. “Contagion” has to do with belief in the effect of magical objects.

In a way, both the "Similarity" and "Contagion" dynamics are relevant to the modern person's relationship to technology. If a person can't draw a line between "how something works," his belief that it will work approximates "Similarity." Likewise, a person's belief that a given product will go on working, regardless of his ignorance as to how, gets into the realm of "Contagion."

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss described a connection between a society’s understanding of technology and magic in his book “A General Theory of Magic.” Mauss posits that, as magic becomes metaphysically distinct from religion in the development of cultures, and is seen more as a means to practically manipulate nature as opposed to enact communal ritual, it approximates a culture’s understanding of technology, which is also practical. In other words, as societies progress through the stages of rational enlightenment, at certain stages they think of technology and magic as performing similar functions.

But certainly our culture must have evolved well beyond the quagmires of magical thinking, right? Maybe not. Writer and psychologist Matthew Hutson claims that magical thinking is common today, even intrinsic to the human experience itself. Hutson's definition of magical thinking is quite broad. He includes the ownership of sentimental objects, believing in universal principles of fairness, or even getting mad at inanimate objects when they don't function properly.

Silicon Valley and the world of technology trades on a belief in magical thinking. It's not just the complicated circuit-boards of hardware and code and algorithms of software. Magical thinking pervades the rhetoric by which Silicon Valley raises money and advertises and promises its futuristic vision. "Disruption," when it describes the replacement of old tech for better, is certainly rational. But this word has also come to connote technological advances that defy all rationality, as well as the shifting morality that has emerged as a result of this techno-cultural upheaval.

Look no further than Google for perhaps the most absurd undertaking yet (or forward-thinking, depending on your point of view): Project Calico, the reported mission of which is to "solve death." This is perhaps the epitome of Clarke's second law: "The only way of testing the limits of the possible is to venture a little past them to the impossible."

Building a startup at all could be characterized as an exercise in magic thinking. Recent studies suggest that three out of four venture-backed startups do not return capital for investors, and those that find a way to succeed do so only through tireless work. Founders frame their narrative as romantic. But we all know what happened to the man who read too many romances. He started tilting at windmills.

[Image via Wikimedia]