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First time here—be gentle with any ignorance of this stack's conventions.

Narratively, I'm telling an ultimately political story in a world where magic has existed and developed along side modern technology. To that end, keeping these things in balance is critical because I want them to be setting much more than plot.

Constraining magical influences to have been roughly as effective as traditional technology seems like the biggest hurdle, but also a necessary one, else there seems little reason for them to significantly coexist.

The thing I'm stuck on is magical permanence—basically, enchanting; if all magic needs to be consciously maintained, machines, and especially automation, rapidly have to prove superior, if not in terms of efficiency than at least in terms of desirability. On the other hand, keeping magic competitive with technology makes it tricky to have rational means of escaping perpetual energy machines and magic just escalating to absurd superiority quickly.

The thought I'm toying with is having homogeneity of materials be a poor substrate for enchantment; or perhaps the precise inverse achieves this better. I can argue both to myself, so I thought I'd seek help. Smash my assumptions guys.

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    $\begingroup$ Why not just have the reagents for enchanting be rare or hard to process? $\endgroup$ – krflol Oct 24 '19 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ Well, the problem is that the first thing you'd do is make the perpetual energy machine, if it's possible, at all costs, because it then makes the finding and processing of whatever made it possible in the first place incredibly easy. I'm quite keen to make something about consciousness or will power the rate-limiting factor on what allows magic to exist at all, that way it can't be accumulated, even gradually, which explains why anyone bothered with empiricism in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Jonline Oct 24 '19 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Why would that be the first thing you do? It would be a very long time before anyone would see that as valuable. Infinite energy doesn't make things easier to process. You need the, well, process, which is why magic would co-evolve with technology. Aluminum, for example, wouldn't be widely available as a reagent for a long time. Why would a perpetual motion machine be possible in your world in the first place? Definately a good idea to put limits on that.. $\endgroup$ – krflol Oct 24 '19 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ Respectfully I understand your proposed solution, it's simply incompatible with the world I want to set this in. $\endgroup$ – Jonline Oct 24 '19 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ Fair enough. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – krflol Oct 24 '19 at 19:03
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There is some good stories out there that address the permanence of magic in a variety of ways. A common one is that magic draws on the will or life energy, usually of the caster. This very basic limitation can be twisted and turned into all kinds of things while remaining internally consistent.

With that limitation it becomes really hard to build a perpetual motion machine to make magic bypass technology. If the caster no longer focuses their will, then the machine stops unless you start it up again. That is the direct application, kind of like pushing on a rock. When you stop, it stops.

Then you can come up with things that extend or store the energy. A common one is Runes. Invest a lot of energy up front into a rune up front and it will keep going for a while, but will eventually fail. The better or more perfectly executed runes are more efficient, and will go for longer, but the energy is finite.

There is nothing at all stopping you from making the energy transfer two way. Allow for runes that will absorb solar energy and release it back on demand. Then the energy can flow from the solar bank to the widget in order to keep it going even longer.

Those that create the best runes, the cleanest runes, the runes made of materials that don't break down, will be the most highly regarded and the most powerful.

What you are really doing with all this is simple considering Magic to be yet another fuel source. You can call it life force, mana, whatever, it doesn't matter. It is just another kind of fuel. We use fuels to make machines do work. The more precise the machine, the better it does the work with the fuel it is given. The better the materials, the longer the machine lasts. Since you are treating magic as fuel, you can logically rule out the perpetual motion machine.

I brought up runes because I have always been a fan of that concept, but you don't have to limit magic to just that. Other books have objects of various sorts that the magic user has around to focus energy in different ways.

In some books there is a distinction between on the fly magic that does not rely on anything being permanent and magic that is simply cause and effect based on the magic users life force. A magician can trow a fireball, but it is powered by his own life energy, it dies very fast as soon as he stops concentrating on feeding it more energy, and after it is out in the world, it has to do business with the rest of the laws of physics. Without fuel and Oxygen the fire dies.

There is no reason why you have to have a world with magic that does not also have technology. You could have a solar powered, rune driven car. It absorbs eneregy from the Sun, channels it through a rune that in turn powers the wheels. Or a gun that is totally silent, that pulls mana from the wielder in order to throw a dart at speeds just under the speed of sound. The wielder would get tired after several shots. Everything else in this world would work just as well. Gasoline burns just as easily, and could be used to power an internal combustion engine.

To be a bit more specific about materials in Magic and how they could work. If you create a rune out of steel, it would work well and last a while, but might rust and degrade over time. The purity of the steel might make it last longer. You might deem pure iron to be a better conduit for the enery short term, but as rust degrades the iron, so too would it degrade the magical efficiency. Create a rune from gold and it would never degrade purely from time, but gold is very soft and can be damaged. Diamond is very hard, but is also brittle. Link your magic into the properties of the material a rune is inscribed in. Spells that are more fire based might best be done in high grade clay or ceramic. Spells that apply force get inscribed in steel. Gold for the very fine workings, diamond for things that must cut precisely, and Granite for something that must be strong and long lasting. Let your imagination play around here. Heck, even pencil and paper for something fast and dirt that doesn't have to last more that a few minutes.

Just so long as you can create a consistent system and then stick to it.

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    $\begingroup$ This is overwhelmingly the closest anyone's gotten to even attempting to answer my actual question, I appreciate the effort —I agree with your thinking, and had considered magic suffering from entropy being a reasonable solution, too; the one I might go with in the end. I should have tagged this question for the science nerds, though, because I was more concerned with the ways in which modern engineering might be hacked by magic to do apparently simple things with very far-reaching consequences. It appealed to me more that it should be a material property, but this is my fallback constraint. $\endgroup$ – Jonline Oct 24 '19 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Jonline You can blend the material property in pretty easily though. Just think about tools. You could make a hammer out of chocolate, but steel is better. so use whatever material is best for the effect. Now to blend it into technology: Make a copper rune and stick it to the back of a computer to draw out the ones and zeros or blow the power supply. Have the sneaky magician scribe a rune of entropy linking the supports of a skyscraper to the constant destruction of molecules in the furnace so that the skyscraper inexplicably collapses a year later. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Oct 24 '19 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ I love you. This is the stuff I was after. The notion of a tool that magically absorbs logical bits is god damned genius and I'm stealing it. I get the logic you're operating from, I can probably extend that on my own, but don't be surprised if I hit you up in the future to bounce an idea or two around. Thanks so much. $\endgroup$ – Jonline Oct 24 '19 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Jonline You are welcome and Feel free to steal it. After all, I stole it from a number of sources. My thinking came a lot from Jim Butcher's Dresden Books, Patrick Rothfuss, Dungeons and Dragons, and so on. Patrick Rothfuss does a lot of neat stuff with runes and materials. Jim Butcher goes a lot into the whole magic-is-energy thing and creating links. The bit about an entropy rune bringing down a skyscraper was mine though. :) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Oct 24 '19 at 21:22
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From economic point of view, technology and magic are not that different. Both turn skilled labor and special materials into useful items or useful energy.

Wind, river and sun are all free energy sources, but a machine to make that energy useful takes effort to build and maintain. Likewise, magic might provide free energy, but keeping it stable requires continued focus of a magician, or presence of magical crystals that wear out or lose their charge.

If you want magic to coexists with technology, introduce variation in available resources and skills. A country with natural sources of magic (or lack of metals) will have magic better developed. A country with mineral deposits will have skilled engineers.

We now have cars that run on gas, diesel and electricity. All have their uses: diesel is cheaper for constant use, gas car is more convenient for family use, electrics have better acceleration and no smell. Maybe you can have magic replace electricity as the high-end tool. Or maybe magic can be the traditional workhorse like gas cars, and while technology is new and trendy.

Another idea is weaponry. A mage is more powerful than a musketeer, but mage must be trained from early age, while it takes couple months to learn to use the musket and stay in formation. Mage recharges naturally (maybe faster when near magical spots). Muskets require an industry to keep them supplied with ammo and repairs.

This goes well with an idea that secretes of Magic are owned by the nobles, while guns are manufactured by traders and wielded by common folk.

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traditionally in literature the big advantage technology has over magic is anyone can make/use technology while only a very select few can use magic, or there ability to use it is innately limited. Only someone who spends years of study and has a natural talent can make a magic broom and has to make them one at a time, so there is inherently few of them. Whereas cars can be made in a factory and anyone can learn to drive a car.

Basically every magic item has to be custom made but traditional technology can be mass produced. Magic can do better more powerful things but it is numerically limited and thus more expensive. Magic can teleport you to hawaii in less time than it takes to even gas up the jet that could take you there, but paying someone to teleport you costs orders of magnitude more than a plane ticket.

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To start with, homogeneity alone will not work. It just means you need to enchant each component to perform its exact function better instead of a device as a whole. Atomic homogeneity also fails to balance things out unless magic follows very strict and gimmicky rules like you can't use magic to make things harder.

The best way to balance magic with technology is Equivalent Exchange

Any time you build a system were two things need to balance out, it is best to begin with figuring out the utility cost of each thing, and finding out how to balance that cost. For example, the US Sherman tanks were not nearly as powerful as the German Tiger tanks, but they costed so much less they made for a fair fight. Likewise, just because magic can do incredible things that technology can not, does not mean your investment for what you get is not fair.

Consider first that technology always costs something. It takes an initial investment of resources to create, and the more potent it is, the more it needs something to fuel it as it does its thing; so, make magic follow this same basic rule.

"Magic always comes with a price, dearie!" ~ Rumplestiltskin

Now let's say you have an engineer and a wizard both trying to make a weapon that could kill from a range. The engineer needs time and materials to forge a gun, and the wizard needs time and materials to fashion a wand. The engineer then needs to invest bullets to fire his gun, the wizard needs to invest something to fire the wand. Both people being of similar skill in their fields make equally dangerous weapons with the same relative investment. However, just as a masterful or better funded engineer can design a better gun, so too can a more masterful or better funded wizard fashion a better spell.

Since magic always costs something, you can not use it to make a perpetual energy machine, because a machine that can output infinite energy would have an infinite cost to the wizard casting the spell. What you want magic to cost will be up to you though. Whether it costs gold dust, unicorn poop, or human souls does not matter, as long as the pursuit of that thing taxes wizard society enough to balance out.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm think you've misunderstood what I meant; I was suggesting that pure iron, for example, might hold enchantment better than an alloy or iron-oxide—that molecules would inherently be worse at this than atoms. The idea is that there's often not very much we can do with a pure, so that the more useful the material, the less powerful it can freely. As to your last paragraph, I don't see how any of that follows at all. If you can enchant a single candle not to extinguish you can power an interstellar civilization for free. $\endgroup$ – Jonline Oct 24 '19 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Jonline But what does it cost to enchant a candle to never go out? Is that cost similar to making more candles? If no then you have a balance problem and one method will win out over the other. $\endgroup$ – Muuski Oct 24 '19 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ You can not enchant a candle to never go out. You can enchant it to burn under water or you can enchant it to burn for 100 years, but eventually the magical power you infuse it with will dissipate. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Oct 24 '19 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki What on god's earth do you mean "you can't"? I can't even wrap my head around how someone could write that sentence down. $\endgroup$ – Jonline Oct 24 '19 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Jonline I mean that a candle that never goes out would create infinite energy. Infinite energy is infinitely expensive; so, a wizard can never muster the power for that manner of enchantment. However, a candle that will burn for 100 years has a finite cost, therefore THAT cost can be paid and that spell be casted. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Oct 24 '19 at 20:51
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This seems similar to the issues with a magic system I've been puttering with. I wanted magic that could accomplish certain goals, but without eclipsing technology.

The chief limit, of course, is as in John's answer; technology works for anyone, only a few can directly use magic. (I also have spells, which can be created by magic users and then used by anyone. They have additional limitations.)

Briefly, some of the limits I came up with are:

  • Magic doesn't violate conservation of energy. Worse, the energy has to come from living things. (By political law, either the user or the beneficiary.) This puts a very low limit on what magic can do. (See for example How much can a magician lift if constrained by her own body's energy?, Magic and physics with human power output and How can wizards do such powerful things running on pure human metabolism?.) No perpetual motion.

  • Spells require a magic user to create, and they wear out. Technology can be mass produced, maintained and/or repaired by anyone, and may last longer. (I allow my spells to be recharged, but again, only by magic users. You can tune bits of this as needed.)

  • Spells aren't very flexible. They have to be carefully crafted for exact operating conditions, or, at best, they won't work. (Spell crafters will take care that their spells do nothing rather than doing something wrong. The latter is bad.) Technological "gadgets" are more conducive to kluging.

One of the effects of this is that (my) magic is great for some tasks (low power, high precision), while technology is better for others. A magical scythe, for instance, is much better than a mundane scythe, but a steam-powered machine can harvest much more in the same time, with fewer people. A magical nail driver is, in some ways, better than a hammer, but can't compete with a pneumatic nail gun (at least not for number of nails driven). Water and wind powered mills (never mind steam and later energy sources) are similarly far superior to anything you can do with magic.

As far as your original question, I would suggest this as the key take-away; namely, you are asking the wrong question. Rather than having magic and technology "complete" with one another for existence, structure things so that they complement each other. In my story, magic does things that are very difficult or impossible to do with technology ("discrimination" tends to be a theme), while technology does things that are very difficult or expensive — usually because the energy cost would be prohibitive — with magic.

To that extent, I think it would be helpful if you were to give us more details on what you want your magic to be able to accomplish. (Unless you just want to "have magic", in which case this answer is hopefully useful.)

p.s. As far as mixing magic and technology, I highly recommend reading Wen Spencer's Elfhome series. (In fact, I highly recommend reading anything and everything written by Wen Spencer, but that's somewhat OT ☺.)

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To prevent perpetuum mobile and similar anomalies, you can subject magic to thermodynamic laws/conservation of energy. Magic then would be merely means to transfer energy some distance from one place into another place/form, to do stuff that technology can't.

To cast and maintain spell, you still need nearby classical energy source - like fire, electricity (haha imagine a wizard like: "sorry, my battery was empty"), mechanical/water/wind movement, temperature difference, sunlight or radioactivity (nuclear sorcery would have quite a wow factor).

Disadvantage: things that require vast energy input like transmutation of elements would be impractical to do magically, either. Very fine matter manipulation like healing, that requires very much information processing (such as locating and killing only sick cells, not healthy cells) could be rather expensive too.

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