The Invention of Magic
When we think of the past, and the attitudes of the people who lived then, we think of superstition and fantastical beliefs. Before our modern age of reason and enlightenment, people believed in crazy things like monsters, curses, and magic.
In truth, historical magic is really quite boring. Sure, you could try to poison people with words carved into stone, or throw bones to tell the future to learn some secret. But no one ever really tried to shoot fireballs from their hands or raise the dead. Historical magic falls into two basic categories. Action at a distance, and knowledge at a distance. To move things without touching them, and to know things without seeing or hearing them. According to this simple definition, most of us use magic every day. II. Have you ever been bored in school or at work and tried to use the force?
How many hours have been wasted with people trying to push away a paperclip or fold a piece of paper with nothing but their mind? I swear I made a pencil move once, but nobody was around to see it. A person from the past might attempt this indefinitely, or get fed up and start moving objects around with sticks and string. Neither of these approaches count as magic. A modern person, with the same amount of energy, and some money, has many more options. Stick a radio transmitter and some sort of propulsion to an object, and you can move it without touching it. As long as you have the remote. But I doubt even a medieval person would be that impressed by an R.C. pencil. Fortunately, modern folks can perform much more dramatic actions at even further distances. NASA’s MAVEN probe recently achieved orbit around Mars. 225 million kilometers away people are controlling the probe from Earth. Beyond that is Cassini, orbiting Saturn while controlled from Earth. And beyond that is New Horizons, and the Voyager probes beyond that.
We are able to perform action at distances even farther than historical people could imagine. And we can lower our blinds, change the TV channel, or open doors with the push of a button. III. What good is being able to do things from far away if you can’t tell what is happening? For most of history, information was an extremely rare commodity. The next village down may as well have been another country. And other countries might as well have been made up.
People would eagerly await any news they could get. It was common for people to send payments for shipment that would never arrive, or swear fealty to a lord who was dead. If a King, for example, went off to fight in the crusades and died on the way, his peasants wouldn’t hear of his demise for several years. And there is the famous story of Andrew Jackson, who defeated the British at New Orleans during the war of 1812, Two weeks after the war had ended. Modern systems of mail delivery did a lot to remedy the problems, but getting a letter or a package in the mail doesn’t count as magic. No matter how reliable that mail system is.
Receiving news instantaneously from across the world is more amazing. If a person from antiquity knew that today we can immediately let the entire world know when we like something, they would be astonished. In the past people lived under the rule of a leader who, as far as they knew, may or may not actually be alive. Today we hear from world leaders dozens of times a day. For better or worse. Sure, you could explain to the time-traveller about radio waves. And they would probably understand what you were talking about. But understanding an amazing thing doesn’t make it less amazing. In fact, there are people who use computers every day, but couldn’t explain a thing about them. And they are not amazed at all.
IV. We live in an amazing time. We have the capacity for both action and knowledge at extreme distances. Just like all the old occultists would have wanted. Technology has the ability to turn anyone into a modern wizard, more powerful than Nostradamus and Merlin combined. But just because technology can make anyone a wizard doesn’t mean there aren’t still muggles around. That’s what Tech Support is for.