It's common for people to say that if a time traveler or an alien displayed advanced technology to ancient or medieval people, that they'd assume it was magic, and either worship him as a god or burn him as a witch.

But if aliens visited the Earth tomorrow and had technology hundreds of years in advance of anything humans have yet invented, I'd think few if any would suppose it was magic. You might say, "Yes, but we are technologically sophisticated people, unlike those medieval people." But people in the Middle Ages built complex clocks and other mechanical devices, and cathedrals and other buildings at least as grand as anything we build today. Ancient people built the Coliseum and the pyramids. The Greeks built complex mechanical devices -- like the Antikythera machine. Would the ancient Greeks have assumed that, say, a flying machine must be magical? Or would they have said, "Ah, like Daedalus built"?

So my question is, Is there any evidence that ancient or medieval people would be unable to distinguish advanced technology from magic? For example, are there documented historical examples of, say, 19th century Europeans encountering a primitive tribe and the primitive people thinking the European's machines were supernatural?

Later Thought

My intent here was not to get into a discussion of whether there really are supernatural forces in the universe. Whether there really is a God who performs miracles, or ghosts, or people with psychic powers, doesn't affect what I was driving at with this question. You may think that people are foolish and gullible to believe in religion, but even if you're right, it's not a matter of confusing technology for the supernatural, it's a debate about whether the supernatural exists.

I admit I may be splitting hairs here, but I think it's a fundamentally different idea. Suppose a con man tries to convince people that he can read minds. The issue isn't that people are confusing technology with magic, but that they are being duped by a con man. Odds are he isn't using any particularly advanced technology, but simple stage magic tricks. Very little stage magic depends on high tech gadgets: it's almost all slight of hand, a box with a hidden compartment, smoke and mirrors. I know some mind-reading tricks, and none of them involve high technology, they're all about having an accomplice who uses code words to pass you information and that sort of thing.

Very Late Update

I see a number of posters here have made comments on the order of, "If you don't understand it, it's the same as magic." No, it's not. It's true that people use the word "magic" colloquially to mean "stuff I don't understand" or even "stuff that's really impressive", as in, "we talked via the magic of cell phones" or "wow, this new cleaning product works like magic!" But my intent with this question was that I meant "magic" in the literal sense: something supernatural, ghosts, psychic phenomena, etc. I'm sure 90+% of the population of America and Europe don't know how cell phones or computers work. But they don't suppose they are literally evil spirits captured in a box.

Very Late Addition 3 Years After Original Post

I don't mean to sound rude when I say this, but when I've asked this question, here and elsewhere, someone always brings up Arthur Clarke's quote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and/or mentions some science fiction story they read or saw on TV where primitive people think the space travelers are gods (either advanced aliens visiting primitive Earth or advanced Earth people visiting some other planet). I'm sorry, but that doesn't answer my question. I'm not asking if any 20th or 21st century person THOUGHT that primitive people might confuse technology with magic. I'm asking if there is any evidence that primitive people actually did.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 30 '15 at 1:39
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Re "define 'magic'"... It means what you think of as "magic" in your context. You've excluded religious 'miracles' (whatever those are) and simple mind-reading cons that rely on simple stage tricks (but not ones that rely on advanced technologies perhaps rendered on a mid-air display?) We do some fancy stuff today that most "people" aren't aware of. Technology from just a couple decades from now would baffle all of us. $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Dec 30 '15 at 2:25
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I think the main thing here is the scientific culture, so to speak. Any culture that builds on reductionism and naturalism will tend to see advanced technology (and will revise what is and isn't possible over time). On the other hand, a culture where nature is ascribed to the acts of spirits, would not have even a tiny bit of a problem with believing that cell phones are magic - they accept all the "magic" around them already, so what's another piece of magic on top of that? $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jan 1 '16 at 2:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Is magic not just something we (as a society) don't understand (yet). $\endgroup$ – Martin York Jan 2 '16 at 21:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @LokiAstari magic=not understood? In a sense, but: Suppose, say, aliens came to Earth in faster-than-light ships. Presumably no one on Earth understands how they work. Would you call this magic? Or technology beyond anything we have on Earth? Would you say the aliens must be gods or demons? Or that they are mortal creatures just like us who happen to have access to more advanced technology? $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 2:18

26 Answers 26


As far as I can determine, the closest we have to hard data on this (which is not that close) would be first contact with people who have been isolated for a long time and have not developed or used technology themselves. This page lists six relatively recent incidents:

6 Isolated Groups Who Had No Idea That Civilization Existed (cracked.com, 17 aug 2012)

Based on that article, (not from a great source, but hey), I searched and read several other sources, like:

Among others. I searched and read a lot, looking for anything along the lines of "the long-isolated tribesmen were amazed at seeing a cell phone for the first time, and asked 'what kind of magic is this?'" But I have not found anything that relates a story of confusing technology with magic. Just to be clear, I can't say that has never happened, just that a fairly lengthy (and work productivity destroying) search of the internet has not turned up any documentation on that.

What is documented multiple times is the mistaken impression of the more "advanced" people being mistaken for supernatural beings - either gods or devils. What is fascinating about this is it could lead one to a more supported and also surprising maxim: "Any mildly different human morphology is often mistaken for inhumanity". Meaning, just having white skin, thinner noses, and different hair can make one seem to be not even human (at first) to someone who has only ever seen other humans with dark skin, broad noses, and curly dark hair. Rather chilling when you think about it.

Attempting to extrapolate what the long-isolated peoples in these first contact situations might think of about technology, they would likely see it as works of supernatural beings, and maybe not magic so much as miracle (or devilry). I suppose that's a form of magic, but it's interesting that the culture shock experienced by these peoples does not seem to be secular.

Now if we imagine that a group of humans were somehow whisked away from earth 10,000 years ago, have developed on another planet, and now return to earth with no head hair and greenish skin, one good guess at how our current culture would react would be to mistake them as completely alien, and not human at all. From there, most people would probably spare little thought to whether these "aliens" were wielding magic, technology, or anything else, and would instead be more concerned about whether they mean us harm, or will steal our jobs, or threaten our religious beliefs, etc.

  • 19
    $\begingroup$ Upvoted. Here is an answer that involves some research and some consideration, coming to the realization that the existing evidence does not appear to provide a single instance of the Clarke Wrongheadedness Law. The additional point about the tendency of visitors to THINK they've been perceived as superior divinities is extremely valuable. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Dec 30 '15 at 9:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Just to be clear, the stories I refer to above of long-isolated cultures perceiving ethnically different humans as either gods or devils are actually from the 20th century - or the 21st. $\endgroup$ – Todd Wilcox Dec 30 '15 at 19:15
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance And, to clarify this excellent point, let's bear in mind that most of the Mesoamericans with whom Cortes dealt in the brief, annihilating war on the Aztecs, fought WITH Cortes. They too perceived the weapons as fearsome, and saw a grand opportunity to take down the much-disliked Mixica empire. In other words, nobody thought "eek, magic!" or whatever, but rather, "hmm, those weapons they've got are brutal." $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Dec 30 '15 at 20:22
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ The Cracked article is amusing but too whimsically written to be useful. Like when they say that the one primitive tribe thought helicopters were "giant metals birds" that seek to "avenge the deaths of the last invaders", I'm pretty sure that was just a joke the writer made up, and not based on any actual statements of the people in question. The bit about another tribe thinking a white man was an evil spirit may be something those people said, but it's not clear. Etc. Articles like that can be frustrating when you're looking for solid information. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 31 '15 at 7:15
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Jay the Aztecs and cortaze is often used to support the of "wrongheadness law" but actually the that had less to do with there technology and more to do with when they arrived and what they looked like. The Aztec had a prophesy that predicted a coming king that looks so similar to a European that it's creep. The king was supposed to arrive on a giant raft on exact year that the Spanish arrived, it kind of creepy if you think about it. $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jun 14 '16 at 13:56

The example I tend to use for this question is as follows.

In your pocket is a small flat box.
It can be used to talk to other similar boxes. It can display almost any information on request. You can ask it, for example, who the most beautiful person in the world is.
There's a reasonable chance this box is sealed. You've been told approximately what's inside but it's too valuable as an intact unit to actually look.
Would it make any difference if the box contained a trained demon? The traditional statement is that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, can you actually, on the surface, tell the difference? One could also say, "sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology", or possibly Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!

The only reason you say it's not magic is that we've been taught to believe that magic doesn't exist. First you have to define magic, the simple definition is "something we don't understand". We now seek a scientific or technological answer to the question, but your mobile phone, in its sealed case, is indistinguishable from magic.

  • $\begingroup$ So, black box hence indistinguishable? Btw, as soon as I read the question I did a search on this page for that Clarke's law, and I'm happy that someone included that =D $\endgroup$ – justhalf Dec 29 '15 at 14:36
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @trichoplax - point taken. New policy: finish morning coffee before writing anything on Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Dec 29 '15 at 14:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM also make sure to finish the noon coffee, afternoon tea, evening energy drink, and the shot of 5-hour after dinner, depending on the hour. I've made a few bung posts at "reasonable" hours just because my mind was burned out from one thing or another. One answer at least was "I'm too weary from my own jQuery struggles to write any code, but here's the step-by-step." $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Dec 29 '15 at 16:07
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If there really is a demon in the box, and someone concludes that there is a demon in the box, than they are not confusing technology with magic, but correctly recognizing magic when they see it! You do bring up an interesting point: In a culture where the idea of magic is dismissed, any non-understood device would presumably be assumed to be technological and not magical, by definition. I don't think there's ever been a culture that believed in magic but said technology was a myth. Even the most primitive human cultures use SOME tools. Could we point to a culture that believes in magic ... $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 31 '15 at 5:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Except that if every mobile phone contained a trained demon, it wouldn't be magic - demons would simply be an accepted part of science. The big problem is that, nowadays, "not real" is part of the definition of magic. So any real phenomena is not magic, by definition; magic does not exist, therefore nothing can be magic, and anything that looks like magic must be some technology we are not aware of. $\endgroup$ – Benubird Jul 5 '18 at 10:36

It depends: When looking at general cultural development, and the structure of existing religions, we can make out a single connecting thread that could be helpful in answering the question: The harder something is to explain, the more likely it is that someone will accept a incomplete or wrong explanation.

Also a thing to keep in mind: You don't have to convince the smartest minds of each generation, just the majority.

Even popular fiction has, by now, accepted that a electrical torch probably wouldn't impress any but the most simple of civilizations, but there are other things which are far more likely to impress older civilizations, especially if you are willing to put on a good show.

Wireless communication: Invisible, instantaneous, and almost no way for a primitive civilisation to understand it. This one probably will net you at least the title wizard, or a quick burning at the stake.

Big Loud Machines: The bigger and louder the better. You'd probably have to cheat a bit, only showing off the machine at night, or during dense fog, in order to maximize the shock value of facing for example a loudly roaring attack helicopter.

Advanced Chemistry: Even nowadays you can form a moderately sized cult provided you have enough drugs. If you have access to something airborne, all the better, you can form the next temple of Sybils.

To summarize: Sufficient tech actually puts you on a power level far above what is possible during the times, and power is always a good nurturing ground for faith.

But these are all just theoretical scenarios. What lends credibility to the idea are three things:
- Cargo Cults
- Folklore
- Religion

Cargo Cults are a very real life example of a "mundane" thing, taking the guise of something ritualistic and supernatural. But it also shows, just how disruptive the influence of your knowledge/technology has to be to actually create such an effect.

Folklore is a nice little account, of just what people are willing to believe in/ what people don't bother to question cause it works.

Religion... Hoh boy... I kind of like one of the ideas Terry Pratchett throws around from time to time: For most people faith was probably not a thing of burning passion, but a sort of background noise, daily rituals and small gestures ingrained in your culture, but not necessarily backed up by true belief.

This also makes it that much harder to dispel such beliefs. Any new contender on the block, trying to pose as a god, probably would have to go up against decades of social inertia if he doesn't manage to integrate himself in this culture. If he does however... well, let's just say, that there are still people who believe that all of humanity descended from two people, even today.

  • 20
    $\begingroup$ The cargo cults ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ) are probably the most well documented example of people thinking technology is magic, but even there it is interesting how systematic the methods used by the islanders to draw the cargo to themselves were, e.g. control towers. You could call it scientific thinking based on a wrong hypothesis. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Dec 29 '15 at 9:48
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance That applies to most magic/gods. One has to remember that magic is an attempt at understanding, or controlling the world arround us. $\endgroup$ – TheSexyMenhir Dec 29 '15 at 10:25
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance: Most "everyday-superstition" (XYZ means bad luck kind of rules) is extremely systematic, and possibly even originated from observations. It probably very much is a seemingly "confirmed hypothesis", merely flawed due to completely inadequate sampling. $\endgroup$ – O. R. Mapper Dec 30 '15 at 10:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ About "Big Loud Machines" - we can also note that when the first guns (arquebuses) were used in the battlefield, they did more damage by the fear they inspired because of the noise and smoke, than the effective bullets reaching the enemies. The same thing happened with the first native americans fighting against the conquistadores $\endgroup$ – Rayjax Dec 30 '15 at 10:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hrm... thinking about my last comment... I think magical thinking occurs when one believes their model to be right instead of an approximation, and begins inventing an extended, formal system around it to account for behaviors the original model could not accommodate. $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Dec 31 '15 at 5:07

Aladdin has a Genie. He can talk to that genie, and ask for things. That's magic.

Captain Kirk has a computer-controlled replicator. He can talk to it and ask for things. That's technology.

So what's the difference? Well, the difference is that we are made believe that the replicator/computer is built by and completely understood by humans, and follows the known laws of the universe. While the Genie just exists, and his magic abilities are not understood by humans.

Now you might say, the Genie has a personality, the Star Trek computer controlling the replicator doesn't. But then, Data does have a personality, as has the Emergency Medical Hologram. And yet, both are considered technology, not magic.

So the difference between technology and magic is whether you think it needs some supernatural powers to work.

Thus whether relatively primitive people would "confuse" technology with magic would very much depend on how they learn about it, and their general mindset about such things.

As of how much the mindset matters can be seen with people who claim to have supernatural abilities today. Believers tend to believe those people have the abilities even after they have been shown that such abilities can be faked (noting that the fact that you can fake them doesn't proof that their Guru faked it). While non-believers will be sure it is a fake even if they have no clue how those people did it.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ 'The difference between technology and magic is whether you think it needs some supernatural powers to work'. I agree. My answer, essentially, would be: It depends. On whether or not you presented it as magic, or told them how it worked by providing a (probably above their heads) technical explanation as to its internal workings. I would say, without a scientific background, they would tend towards a magical or black box explanation, unless you explained how it worked. They may not understand much of what you said, but it would be apparent that the workings were understood, and thus not magic $\endgroup$ – Adam White Dec 29 '15 at 19:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's the question, though. What would they think? And I was hoping to get some empirical evidence or some other "solid" evidence, rather than just "well I think primitive people might do this". Your or my intuition about what primitive people would do might be correct, or it might not. It's on the level of saying, "If I tell my mother I'm on drugs, I think she will do X". I might know her well enough to predict and I might not. In the case of what primitive people would do, I presume most of us here don't even know any primitive people, so we're just guessing. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 31 '15 at 5:56
  • $\begingroup$ Like if I was shown, say, a black box that if you put on this box in your pocket you are able to fly, and after studying the box I could not figure out how it did this in any way, still, I can't imagine I'd say, "It must be magic". I'd say, "Hmm, I wonder how this machine works." The fact that I don't understand it would lead me to conclude simply that it is technology that I don't understand, but, as you say, that the people who built it understand it, and that it is fundamentally comprehensible. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 31 '15 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ Did Kirk have a replicator? I don't recall that from the original series. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Jun 2 '16 at 14:44

I don't have anything to add about relatively primitive people, but many relatively advanced people confuse magic with technology.

We grow up in a society that teaches us there is no such thing as magic and which treats people who insist in believing in magic as fools or charlatans or con-men. So we get the phenomenon that people insist magic is science without having even half a clue about what science really is. ( They gave up studying science at the first opportunity. It was too hard or plain incomprehensible. )

Hence homeopathy. Orgone therapy. Secrets of Area 51. Heavily advertized cosmetics with added magic, sorry, vitamin QX71-complex. And less harmlessly, cults of various sorts whose members are foot soldiers for leaders with a secret agenda: get rich at the suckers' expense, or worse. Sometimes much worse.

Medics know that magic can actually work. They call it the placebo effect or the white coat effect or the talking cure. There is some scientific understanding of why it works but the patients are not party to that understanding and it would stop working if they became convinced of that science.

Hold up a mirror to our own society and in it you'll see the primitive one. We're all running our intellects on an ape operating system layered on a reptile's base hardware.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ As an aside, weirdly there is considerable evidence that the placebo effect can work even when the patient knows it's a placebo. Presumably the compartment of the mind that 'knows' is separate from the compartment where it works. $\endgroup$ – peterG Dec 29 '15 at 17:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @peterG Or perhaps it is that if they know what the placebo effect is, they know that it works even though you know it's the placebo effect, thus causing the placebo effect itself to have the placebo effect. But it works, and we don't need to know why... $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Dec 29 '15 at 17:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @peterG: I am an example of this. PhD in physics, years of training in biology, active anti-homeopath and science promulgator (ok, I am done). Now, when I have a headache I take some aspirin (the one which does pshhit when put in water) and I drink it. I am still drinking the water, it had no time yet to reach my stomach and poof, the headache is gone. $\endgroup$ – WoJ Feb 9 '18 at 20:59

It would depend on their cultural understanding of magic. Our typical Tolkien/D&D derived medieval fantasy worlds tend to have models of magic that are very amenable to the identification of advanced technology as magical. Crystal balls, particularly variants such as the evil Queen's mirror on the wall and Tolkien's Palantir, are basically cellular phones, with all the attendant powers and vulnerabilities of that device. The idea of cutting someone open and performing surgery on them to someone working with a humoral theory of human physiology will likely seem magical, as you are (to their understanding) correcting the flow of vital essences around the body. To the anachronistically Cartesian-dualist medieval fantasy mind, surgery is sorcery.

But there are other concepts of magic less conducive to identifying technology as magical in nature. For instance, if you have a basically animistic belief system, your cell phone doesn't resemble magical spirits as they conceive of them, it's more like a type of creature, even more-so considering an automobile or jet. Now, if you revealed to them that these creatures are not just tamed by these strange foreigners, but actually created by them, you're probably going to disrupt their core metaphysical beliefs and wind up identified as some sort of creator god. But probably not a "magic" spirit, you come at those another way.

Chaos Magick is a pretty recent development in occult thought, but the concept of magick (family of concepts really, as chaos magick is utterly pragmatic and practitioners change their favored concept as often as their underwear in order to better game themselves in different circumstances) it promotes usually involves something like modifying probabilities, fetching information from other universes/our future mind/a god, demon, or saint who likes to do fetch quests, or even just influencing which of the possible futures you or we actually wind up in ("Sorry, alternate selves, you should have invoked better!") This kind of concept of magick seems less likely to identify technology as magical in nature, but at the same time is very likely (i.e. in fact does) assimilate technology into magickal practice. For instance, there are certainly several apps in smartphone marketplaces that will simulate a tarot deck or rune casting. And chaos mages are probably the only ones using them, since they're the mental contortionists who can actually spin a criticism of pseudorandom number generators into an argument for why e-divination is even better than the 3D variety.


I find these concepts easier to understand if we stop thinking about them as categories and start thinking of them as a continuum. Why can't the ancient Greeks consider an airplane to be a magical device similar in nature to Dadelus's flying machine? Why limit ones self to merely one way of thinking or the other.

Of course, I readily admit the terminology is well entrenched for treating them as categories, so the next best thing would be to have categories that blur together nicely. A while back I came up with a chart I find very effective at capturing what I perceive as the relationship between magic and technology.

The chart is a quad chart with two axes. The vertical axis is "How predictable is this thing when operating within well understood bounds." If you have a well maintained gun, at standard operating conditions, and you pull the trigger, how well can you predict the result? If you have a computer, with 1.7 billion carefully arranged silicon transistors, how well can you predict what will happen when you hit the enter key, or the send button? A highly predictable thing is rarely "good" in its own right, but it is often a valuable tool to allow you to do good using it.

The horizontal axis is "how well does the thing do 'good' when operating outside understood bounds?" How well does it fare when grappling with the unknown unknowns? Would you be comfortable leaving it up to its own devices, or do you have to first make sure you understand its operating environment to make sure it doesn't do anything wrong (AI in a box theories: I'm looking at you)?

How predictable is
it when operating
in well understood
     |        +---------------+---------------+
     |        |               |               |
Predictable   |  Technology   |  Intriguing   |
     |        |               |               |
     |        +---------------+---------------+
     |        |               |               |
Unpredictable |    Boring     |     Magic     |
     |        |               |               |
        How good when acting outside
        of clear understandable regions
        of operation?

Some explanation of the regions:

  • Boring things are simply not all that useful to think about. You can't really predict what they're going to do, and they don't seem to do anything good on their own in any unpredictable fashion. Rocks sitting by the side of the road are pretty boring, unless you throw them (in which case they will follow a predictable trajectory).
  • Technological things are only useful if you think through them. Technological contraptions rarely do "good" unless someone thinks about how to use them for good and applies them that way. On their own, they tend to be rather ambivalent. A computer tends to not do much good without someone telling it what good to do. However, technological things respond very well to someone predicting how they will behave (mostly because they are designed to be predictable). You may not have predicted how your iPhone would check your mail for you, but Steve Jobs did!
  • Magical things do good when you least expect them to. You cannot really explain a rhyme or reason to it, but for some reason these things tend to do what you would consider to be good, even if you give them nonsensical instructions. Consider, as an example, the reading of runes drawn from a container. In theory, the runes drawn are highly unpredictable. However, for those who believe in rune reading, they find a remarkably amount of good comes from these runes, even when they aren't 100% sure why.
  • Intriguing things are... intriguing. They can do exactly what you ask when you ask under the right circumstances, but when you ask the wrong thing or at the wrong time, instead of being predictable, they simply do good things. The clearest example of this is human beings, especially your own children. They can follow orders perfectly in many situations, and then do something completely brilliant, unexpected, and contrary, and leave you wondering who is raising whom. There are non-animate things that can do this too. Safety equipment often works its way into this category. While a great deal of safety equipment is designing it to work flawlessly in the well defined regions it is supposed to be used in, the most loved safety equipment also has a strange and curious tendency to do what needs to be done in situations well outside of that standardized zone.

This shows a few things. First is the key for your question: which category something is in depends on their point of view. How well can they predict what it will do? What is their definition of good? iPhones seem magical to many people because the phones were very predictable technology to the developers, but few end users truly understand what goes into making them do what they do. They just observe that the phone, with its apps, does good for them surprisingly often.

This actually expounds upon Arthur C. Clarke's famous phrase, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." But it also shows that there's a second half to that: only "good" advanced technology earns this axiom's fame. Dinosaurs wouldn't find cell phones magic. They'd find them boring -- they don't exactly do anything to better a dinosaur's life!

It also suggests that opinions can change over time. You can have a magical device that, upon learning how it works, becomes technology. Or it could become boring, when you discover it can't actually do good on its own. Or it could even become intriguing if the understanding makes you appreciate it even more. Likewise, technological devices can become intriguing if you realize how effective they are in situations you didn't expect. They can even turn to magic if you realize just how hopelessly little you understood them and how they do good!

These categories are also fluid. There's no sharp line between technological and intriguing things. They flow.

Going back to your original question, the way the primitive cultures approach a technology such as an airplane depends very much on them. They might treat it as magical, or they might treat it as magical with an intent to develop an understanding of it. Accordingly, they may attribute personalities, or relate it to existing technology such as Dadelus's flying contraptions. Or perhaps it is forbidden for humans to fly above the jungle canopy, and the airplane is heresy! (I intentionally did not include a third column for things that do "bad," but you could add it if needed!)

As a closing, consider stage magic. Being magic, it does "good" when you don't understand how to predict how its done. Some tricks, when you learn their trick, become technology, especially prop intensive tricks. Others, such as cons, become boring when you learn how they work. However, the most beautiful stage magic illusions out there are the ones where, when you know the trick, they become intriguing. You understand what is happening, but the execution is so flawless and beautiful that you want to believe and want to help others to believe. That's magic.


One big different between people today and people in the past, is that most people in the past strongly believed in magic, while today very few do.

People look for what they are trained to look for.
If you are told by all your authority figures that magic exists, and that there are demons and witches and curses and such, then anything you don't understand that looks like magic must be magic.
Likewise, if you are told by your authority figures that everything is technology, then anything you don't understand must be some unknown advanced tech.

If aliens visited with replicator technology, most people now would look at it and wonder what science makes it work. In the past people would wonder what magic powered it.

If a real wizard appeared and was using a wand to perform real magic, then most people today would look at it and wonder how it worked, and if they could take it apart to see the machinery inside.

Turning the old quote around, any magic is indistinguishable from highly advanced technology.


I think the main difference between magic and technology is one of semantics. In most of the fantasy lore that I'm aware of, the wizards/mages/arcanists/ect usually spend long years studying these cosmic forces, and practicing the ways in which they can be manipulated. Sounds like college. The main difference between a mage and an engineer seems, colloquially anyway, to be that the focus of the mages studies are imaginary.

Imagine, for example, a world where electricity doesn't exist. Then someone in that world writes a story about the wizard Samuel Morse and the 'magical' telegraph system, which he built using arcane knowledge of 'electrical forces'. In the story, he's a wizard, because he's using imaginary forces, but in our world, he's just a smart guy who made some technology.

I suppose this is fairly specific to a more Fantasy type magic system, and the OP was more talking about 'primitive' people who really believe in some sort of theology, rather than some novel or game that we know is make believe. I guess it depends really on their definition of magic. Do they believe that spirit forces exist which actually do not exist? Do they misattribute the functioning of my technology to the wrong forces? That is sort of the essence, I think, of the original Cargo Cults. They got the causality wrong, they thought building runways would cause planes to land. They thought the planes were sent by gods. They just got the hypothesis wrong because they never went to the Mages College.

It's not that planes aren't 'magical', planes are magical! It's like Louis CK says, 'you're sitting in a chair in the sky! You're like a Greek god right now!'. What I'm saying, I guess, is that technology is just 'real' magic. So the question isn't, would primitive people mistake technology for magic, it's more, could you lie to primitive people about how your technology works? To which I say, certainly - if you went back in time and specifically told medieval people that the robot you brought with you was a golem you crafted through arcane sorcery, I'm sure they would believe you. But if you tried to explain the truth to them, they might not get it (most people don't understand electronics) but they would assign the correct causality to it, so it would be technology not magic.


Yesterday I gave a ride to two friends who are practicing ultra-orthodox Jews, and had never received any technological or scientific education whatsoever. I turned on the Waze app and was playing with the text to speech. One of them said that he heard that the makers of this app invited some people to a studio where they recorded the names of streets, the numbers, and a few other elements, and then it is "simply played back" in whatever order needed.

I mentioned that one of the voices was completely computer generated, with no human voice ever recorded behind it. That's impossible! The other man said. I think it's done like the numbers that turn into letters on the screen said the other. I was once in a course and they told us that there are millions of little numbers going through the computer and quickly turning into letters on the screen.

Oh! said the second man. I heard about that. It's talking in computer language. It's one of the creator's miracles.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ As a kid I remember an argument with an ultra-orthodox boy who said that riding on my bicycle was a bad thing because it caused me to go out on the streets and look around, which in turn would get me all confused and into believing all kinds of heresy like the idea that the world was round. Wait! What!! You don't believe the world is round?! I asked. What!! He countered. You actually believe it is?! $\endgroup$ – pashute Dec 29 '15 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ It would have been most interesting to take him to a coast where he could watch ships climbing over the horizon as they approached. "Ignorance is curable, stupidity is terminal". $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Dec 30 '15 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ I now remember another story like this. My mother brought a pilot-light gas stove from the US when we came to Israel in the early 70's. By 1979 or 1980 it wasn't lighting if you didn't give it a whiff of air with your hand, forcing the gas out at a higher pressure and starting the fire. She had an old illiterate cleaning-assistant helping her in the kitchen who grew up in Yemen. With awe she would watch my mother lighting the fire by gesturing at it with her hands, and then, once my mother heard her telling her husband on (our) phone, that my mother was a wonder-woman, due to her piousness. $\endgroup$ – pashute Dec 31 '15 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ Last but not least, read a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And then watch a few videos about James Randi. - He's still around. $\endgroup$ – pashute Dec 31 '15 at 11:02

If modern people that grow up with technology can confuse technology with magic then primitive people that don't grow up with our level of technology could easily confuse it for something else.

For example, in the 1990's there were not as many laser pointers so I had no experience with them. One night I was walking outside and this little glowing red thing appeared on the ground and started following me around. It was very fast and would sometimes run away at an amazing speed and climb a wall and then run back in the blink of an eye. It was glowing but there was no light beam going to it the way that a flashlight would shine. I was wide eyed and scared. I don't think I thought "magic" but I surely thought something strange was going on. I looked around and couldn't see anything else. It was sometime later that I started seeing people with laser pointers and realized that someone had been pulling a prank on me that night. I didn't immediately think "magic" but AndyD273 makes a good point that it depends on what you've been trained to look for.


If you present it well, of course!

It's less about the level of the technology, and more about the way in which it is presented. After all, stage magic is indirection mixed with showmanship and a dash of technology.

Consider a magic show I remember seeing when I was younger, around the late '80s, maybe early '90s. It was part of a yearly show they did back in the day where the greatest stage magicians would try to one-up each other. The actual show was in a theatre, but they broadcast it as well.

I vividly remember one act involved impaling one of the magicians through the stomach with a giant conical drill bit, and hoisting them until the magician was fully horizontal - well above the heads of the helpers. After a few moments, the magician was lowered, the drill was removed, and bows were taken. The magician was, as expected, fully unharmed.

It looked very, very real. Would it fool a more "primitive" society?


You won't fool everyone, particularly the local magicians (nearly every human culture has them), but you'll fool enough people to make it worth your while.

If you are really good, and you have good tech, you might even plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the local magicians - the imposter syndrome is your friend here.

If you're really unlucky, you landed in a world where magic is real and the local equivalent of Merlin will torch you for being cheeky.

  • $\begingroup$ An excellent point: in the modern world, it's just harder to "fool" people with magic (technology), only because there are far more "wizards" (engineers, scientists) and "apprentices" (regular people who are quite used to technology) than there used to be. A stereotypical "primitive" village probably only has a single medicine man; almost everyone else would react with curiosity or fear when encountering something new (firearms, flashlights, radios, whatever), whether they consider it to be actual magic or not. . $\endgroup$ – Seth Dec 31 '15 at 21:40

Consider a person who develops a small implanted personal teleporter, triggered by a recognized mental exercise. They then go on tour showing off their magical ability, like Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, Harry Houdini.

Now consider all of us today, looking at our pc, mac, smartphone, tablet, etc with no working knowledge of the physics of teleportation, mental triggers, and cybernetic implants.

Would we be sitting in the audience going "Nice teleporter!" Or would we be going "Wow, nice magic. (I bet they do it with smoke and mirrors)"

We're considering ourselves to be quite sophisticated when it comes to technology and we'd like to think that we wouldn't be surprised or fooled by advanced technology. But truly advanced tech would be so out of our experience that it could easily be mistaken for magic.


Yes, this is well documented in history.

I have been reading a lot of books about early European explorers in Africa recently, and the tribes there believed much of the explorers' technology, and especially the gun, was magic. Here's some representative quotes.

Most impressive of all, however, was the power of the gun, which was presented to the African populations as the white man's magic and witchcraft - and a very strong witchcraft at that. - The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai


The Masai, living near by, know nothing of guns, nor seem to have any desire in that direction. To them the gun with its noise and smoke is a mysterious product of the white man's power of magic. That there was some uncanny connection between those little punctures in the skins of the stricken animals and the hollow tubes of our rifles, they understood, but beyond that they shook their heads and answered "dower" (magic medicine). - Scouting for Stanley in East Africa, Thomas Stevens

The real difference is whether a society is already conceptually familiar with a scientific/technological mindset or not. Once one is, even if it is primitive, it will interpret advanced items with the mindset of "they must be advanced technology". If one is not and interprets everything as magic or spirits, then it will of course interpret them in that way. (I will note that in a story, either one can be wrong...) So a more "primitive" but fundamentally technology-minded society would probably not consider higher tech to be magic.


Uh, in what respect is bringing technology from a different world that cannot be reproduced by means available to local humans (as well as the individuals bringing the stuff in) in any amount of effort and time different from "magic"?

Something like a computer may obey understandable principles, but that's usually also ascribed to magic. Could you create a computer from its raw materials, ores and sand and stuff like that? In what respect would it be non-magical in a world without the supportive technology?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So smartphones are magic to 90+% of the world's smartphone users? For some definitions of magic that may even be true. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Dec 30 '15 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, gets into our definition of "magic". If by magic you mean "anything I don't understand", then sure, cell phones are magic to well over 90% of the world's population. I'm a software developer and all around smart guy and I have only a vague idea of how cell phones work. How many people could build a cell phone from scratch without an instruction book? I couldn't. But that's a very loose use of the word "magic". I was thinking more of "supernatural", as in, "must be powered by ghosts or demons". $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 31 '15 at 6:15

I see that a perfectly straightforward interrogatory: "Would any primitive people really confuse technology with magic?" has led to some truly unusual postings.

Here's the short-form reply--- this "scam" was played on several Native American tribes by a scam-artist whose name was evidently James Williams, beginning around 1854 or 1855.

Williams was in Boston when he had been introduced by a confidence man to "Electropathy." That was the notion that electricity could be used to cure diseases. The source of the juice as a Voltaic pile (a collection of early batteries) that had been made in France, where the whole "Science of Electropathy" had begun.

Back then, electricity was used both for medical quackery, and somewhat less-commonly, for winning bar-bets. . . the "Doctor of Electro-Pathic Energies" would work "cures" on "upper-crust marks" in communities. (Meaning the people in town with lots of money, and ample time to worry about their health.) Most were like the other "Snake-Oil Salesmen," making their fortunes by rapidly shifting operations from town to town.

Electric shocks didn't do diddly, in all reality, but the placebo effect was good enough for the "marks" to feel better for a short period of time---or, for them to claim they'd felt better; nobody likes to admit being taken to the cleaners!

If the con-man wanted a couple drinks and some quick money, he'd go to a tavern, and boast he could knock down the strongest man in the room with just a touch. He'd then zap some ham-handed and ox-like drunk with a massive charge of electricity, using the insulated copper rod "wand" wired to the Voltaic batteries.

Usually, although not always, the charge would pole-axe the drunk long enough for the shyster to grab his winnings and whip his horse to a lather, getting out of Dodge (or where-ever.) However, this wasn't a lead-pipe cinch, and the supposed "victim" would sometimes stagger erect, blood in his eye and murder in his heart.

One version of the tale alleged Williams got the Voltaic outfit from the "effects" of a "late" con-man . . . .

Somehow or other, Williams had managed to get his hands on a "Voltaic Pile," which he fitted into a back-pack or pack-basket. It was said that he had covered the pack and most of his back with a voluminous buffalo-skin cape, making him resemble a hump-backed bison bull.

He then "toured the Native American tribes of the far West." According to my late uncle, who was a Lakota shaman, (and who had first told me about Williams in the early 1960s) Williams had boasted he was the "Son of the Sun," come to Earth.

He acted more like an Aztec god-king, though, as he settled on the idea that "his people" should honor him with those gold and silver coins used by the Whites!

Obviously, he ran into opposition at every village; from both warriors and medicine men. He had thought it all out, however: In the "showdowns," he would allow his opponent plenty of time to "raise his Powers." Then, step up and casually knock his opponent flat with a vivid blue spark! As these confrontations would usually take place at night, the blue spark jumping several inches from wand to victim, would be obvious to most onlookers!

He had apparently wanted his victims to work up a sweat, because the shock would be more potent, that way!

During his time among the tribes, he had also made sure to marry all the available eldest daughters of the chiefs along the way, so even after the batteries had given up the ghost, he could rely on many area blood-alliances in the form of children!

Eventually, it was said, Williams tried to "return to Civilization" with his "Tribute;" but disappeared along the way.

So to answer the question, YES! This rascal had managed to use "high-technology" in the form of a Voltaic array to convince several hundred Native Americans in several Tribes that he was a "Supernatural Being!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Did they believe him to be supernatural, though, or just too powerful to oppose? $\endgroup$ – user243 Jan 2 '16 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ He had convinced them he was "The Son of The Sun." He entered villages of 100s of armed people without a weapon of his own, before making this proclamation. He had allowed the Medicine Men to work up "Magic" before stunning them. His "choosing a wife" proves it-- no betrothed warrior would allow his bride to be taken away without killing the MAN who did it; only a GOD could do that. He lived, unarmed, for years among thousands who cold have killed him at any time--- but who had not. Yep! They thought he was "Supernatural!" $\endgroup$ – Fred Kerns Jan 3 '16 at 15:37

What is your definition of magic? Not all languages have a word that exactly corresponds to English "magic".

What if their language has "wizardry", "high knowledge", "prohibited knowledge", "sacred art", "unclean art" or something. What of these is magic?

Well. I suggest the following.


First possibility, the most direct thing that can be defined as magical is something done by the force of thoughts, words, spells as opposed to done with hands.

Second possibility is the divine (or spiritual) intervention (by the god, spirits, ancestors, higher beings).

Third thing, is something related to life, consciousness and biology because living beings cannot be made by hands even now and there are philosophical issues with mind.

Fourth is anything done with hidden, secret knowledge (maybe obtained from gods or powerful ancients), even if by hands.

So given that, we say that various people can or cannot perceive a thing magical depending on their version of the origin of the thing and their definitions.


What makes you think we are not primitive? May be we are still confusing "that something" with technology. Our ancestors found a word "magic" to replace "that something" and later we found the word "technology". Perhaps next generation would find some other word and call us primitives.


I think the answer yes, but not necessarily in a good way. Lots of people got burned as witches on pretty scant evidence - e.g. none, or perhaps a working knowledge of herbal remedies and an accusation.

So it's not that much a stretch when someone's looking for an excuse to be horrible to call it 'evil witchcraft' and get enough people to say that it is.

Even today, we have people who believe in things that are a bit lacking in substance or efficacy. Like homeopathy, crystal healing, etc. They don't call it science, but 'mystic forces'. Or at risk of getting a bit contentious - there's still a lot of people who are religious, and believe it makes a material difference despite rather a lack of objective scientific proof.

So I think it eminently reasonable that in any society, you'll have those who would prefer to 'explain' something by 'magic' than 'science'. The less scientifically enlightened, the greater the proportion of people prepared to do that.


There are plenty of people, living in our technical age, using cars, phones, computers, who nonetheless prefer a magical explanation for some things.
Maybe, when the aliens arrive, these people will choose to build a religion around them.


There are two aspects to your question. (1) could primitive people confuse technology for magic, and (2) could they correctly identify technology as science and not magic.

Assuming that they have the concept of magic, then they could easily confuse tech for magic. A door that opens only for a given hand or at the command of it's owner, seeing things from far away, making images appear on glass (or even out of thin air!)..magic.

Could they correctly identify advanced tech as tech, even if they believe in magic? That would depend upon their ability to associate cause with effect. Science is the process of developing a verifiable explanation for a phenonema. Which basically means that a mechanical device could possibly be correctly cataloged, but electronic devices would be impossible to identify -- they would have no framework to place the effects in.

A glider is easy to identify as a device, the legend of Icarus is sometime before 650BC, from a glider to a plane with propelers is a short step, although how the propellers are powered would be difficult to imagine. Still, possible. A moving and talking holographic image? Ghost or magic, what other possible explanation could there be?

Glasses, amazing technology, hearing aide, magic.

In short, some things would be easily identified as advanced tecnology, some things would be all but impossible to imagine as anything but magic.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, not necessarily. If someone showed me a black box that did something that I could not explain, that was as far beyond my knowledge of science as electricity might be beyond an ancient Greeks, I can't imagine that I would therefore conclude it was magic. I think I'd assume it was technology that I don't happen to understand. Simple proof: I like to think I'm a smart guy, but there are lots of gadgets out there that I don't understand. I don't suppose that any of them are magic. I'd guess most Americans have no idea how computers or cell phones work, but they don't think they're magic. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Jay: I did say "concept", but what I meant was concept and befief in....if your belief in "magic" is limited to "unbelievable things in stories told by Fred", I wouldn't expect you to attribute anthing except stories by Fred as having any magic. If on the other hand, you use believe magic is a viable answer for just about anything verifiable, there's a good chance technology can be used to achieve to achieve a reasonably close fascimile. $\endgroup$ – jmoreno Jan 3 '16 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ Not to get into a debate, but: Some psychics claim to be capable of "distant viewing", seeing a far away object, even if it's in a locked box, etc. Of course we can accomplish the same thing with technology, like a video camera connected to the Internet. The fact that technology and magic can/could achieve the same result does not lead me to conclude that the psychic really has magic powers, nor that the technology is really magic. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, we must wrestle with definitions of "what is magic". If you define "magic" as "doing the impossible", than presumably anyone who agrees with that definition must inevitably agree that there is no such thing as magic. If someday someone was able to prove that, say, ghosts really exist and really are some element of the personality of a dead person that has survived death, we might at that point say that he has proven that ghosts are not supernatural after all but are science. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 22:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Jay: no, doing the impossible is a terrible definition of magic. A scientific type definition would be something like "a process whereby the physical world is effected via ritual and/or will power. Also the means used to communicate with the spirts of ghosts, places or animals". That's probably not exactly what someone that believes in magic would say, but it's a lot closer than "impossible". Those that believe in magic don't consider it impossible, they consider it not only possible but LIKELY. $\endgroup$ – jmoreno Jan 19 '16 at 2:13

Theodore Dalrymple writes in an article about Africa:

The examination over, we chatted about the Congo: he was delighted to meet someone who knew his country, by no means easily found in England. I asked him about Mobutu, whom he had known personally.

“He was very powerful,” he said. “He collected the best witch doctors from every part of Zaire. Of course, he could make himself invisible; that was how he knew everything about us. And he could turn himself into a leopard when he wanted.”

This was said with perfect seriousness. For him the magical powers of Mobutu were more impressive and important than the photographic power of satellites. Magic trumped science. In this he was not at all abnormal, it being as difficult or impossible for a sub-Saharan African to deny the power of magic as for an inhabitant of the Arabian peninsula to deny the power of Allah.

There are many reports of tribes considering photography to be dangerous because it supposedly steals a persons soul. You can make a decent argument that those tribes consider photography to be magical.

Even among people born in the West you find many people who consider Derren Brown to have real magic powers and aren't willing to believe that he's just using a bunch of tricks.

  • $\begingroup$ The quoted text doesn't say that primitive people confused technology with magic, but rather that some believe magic is real, which is a very different question. If someone believes that, say, the dead may come back as ghosts, he may be right or wrong, but either way he's not confusing technology with the supernatural. If he sees a TV picture of a dead person and says, "Zounds! It's a ghost!", then yes, that's an example of what I'm asking. But if there really ARE ghosts, then he's not confusing anything. If there aren't, maybe he's confusing a vague creepy feeling when he visits an old ... $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ ... house with the supernatural, but that has nothing to do with high tech. I'm not familiar with Derren Brown, but when I looked him up just now it said he freely admits he's a stage magician and doesn't have supernatural powers. But even taking people who claim to have magic powers, they rarely use high, but rather slight of hand, misdirection, etc. Of course if someone really did have magic powers, again, there's no confusion, that would mean it's real. If they're frauds, then it's not that people confuse technology with magic, but that they fall for a con man. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ RE primitive people believing photographs steal a person's soul: Okay, I've heard that, but can you point me to any actual documentation? The point I tried to make in my original post here is that people often SAY that primitive people confuse technology with magic, but when I try to track this down, all I can find seems to be "it sounds plausible to me that they would", which of course doesn't prove anything, or even "of course they do, just read this novel or watch this movie where the characters do that", which of course proves zero, it's admittedly fiction. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jan 3 '16 at 22:14



  1. the art that, by use of spells, supposedly invokes supernatural powers to influence events; sorcery


  1. any mysterious or extraordinary quality or power: the magic of springtime.


Magic (2)

  1. a. the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
  2. a. an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source

    b. something that seems to cast a spell



  1. a. A word or formula believed to have magic power.



  1. an established form or set of words, as used in religious ceremonies, legal proceedings, etc


  1. a. a method, pattern, or rule for doing or producing something, often one proved to be successful




  1. pertaining to or being above or beyond what is natural or explainable by natural law.



Using the contemporary definition of the word "magic", any device that, by use of a word or formula, supposedly does something that is above or beyond what is natural or explainable by natural law is magic. If we simplify, "Magic" is just stuff we can't/won't explain - e.g. just listen to the word "Magic" being used in marketing speech.

Many contemporary devices fit the bill by that definition. Semantics depend on what word the people from the past would actually use and what the exact meaning at the time it was used would be, but they would certainly realize that some devices are beyond their current understanding, just like they are beyond the understanding of most modern humans.

  • $\begingroup$ No, although a cell phone (to pick a popular example on this page) may seem magical, it is not "beyond what is natural or explainable by natural law." $\endgroup$ – user243 Jan 2 '16 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades You ignored the word supposedly. If, as you claim, it seems magical, you only need to tell people it's beyond natural, and then that supposedly is the case. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jan 2 '16 at 10:10
  • $\begingroup$ I did read your post. However, by that reasoning, I could claim that my elegant handwriting is beyond natural, and "poof" it's now supernatural. The belief of the other person is what's in question, and you've not offered an argument or evidence that a pre-industrial person is or is not likely to ascribe a supernatural origin to advanced technology. $\endgroup$ – user243 Jan 2 '16 at 15:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades: Magic does not have to be supernatural in origin, check the Webster's definition. it simply has to be either mysterious or supernatural in origin, making Clarke's Law a tautology - everything one doesn't understand is, by definition, magic. $\endgroup$ – Pieter Geerkens Jan 3 '16 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades If your handwriting is really beyond what normally can be expected, become an artist, and if you stick with it long enough I guarantee you someone will refer to your handwriting as "magical", because it is the proper term. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jan 3 '16 at 19:09

There's an important qualifier in the adage that you're missing: "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". The basic idea is that there are things we know we can do, things we know we can't do but that we can conceive of, and then things we don't even know we can't do; it's inconceivable to think of the ability at all because we have no parallel to the ability in any human experience.

As modern humans in the age of technology, we think that window is shrinking; humans at this point have seen enough "can'ts" go by the wayside that the ability to accept that new things are possible because of technological progress, even if the exact workings of the technology are totally unknown, is fairly widespread.

Modern humans in fact go a bit far the other way in assuming that something is technology and not magic; when the Afghan Taliban first saw U.S. Special Forces in the field, they thought they were up against robots or cyborgs. They had these concepts of self-aware machines and human/machine hybrids, and when they saw what was actually a human in full ballistic armor, comms and nightvision/augmented reality headsets, they went to the extreme of their concept of technology.

However, there's probably a litany of things that are so far beyond any human experience that we've never even thought about doing them. By definition, this set of abilities is beyond our comprehension and is probably shrinking; if we can imagine uploading our consciousness into spacetime itself and becoming beings of pure energy able to transit spacetime as if all known dimensions were spatial, then it's hard to just come up with something we've never thought of doing on the spot. To experience something totally beyond our comprehension would likely cause us to either oversimplify it; we likely wouldn't use "magic" to describe it, but we'd likely explain it to ourselves the way parents explain TV to their young children, because they'd be unable to comprehend the required technical detail (and many adults don't realize just how complex television as a technology is, even or perhaps especially in the analog era).


The unknown is by instinct something that is a potential threat. Therefore it instills fear and is approached very cautiously if at all.

If it cannot be understood by or if the scientific approach doesn't exist, explanations are attempted, often evoking the supernatural.


Well, just as a simplistic example, earlier today when I was writing about this very topic, when I was saying that the technology in the time period of my world would have been indistinguishable from magic to the same extent that telegraphs, or telephones, or smart phones would have seemed like magic—each more powerful magic than the previous one—to a primitive civilization, I said, “such as pre-technological people,” meaning, not yet having agriculture, the wheel, or even complex tool use yet. I wouldn't have used like Romans or even just post-Neolithic people in general as my example. I would say, if you are holding some kind of mechanism, at least some people will not be entirely convinced that it's magic. If it's small enough to be implanted inside your body or brain and it can be powered by your own muscle movements or the planet's electrical field or something like that, I think most 19th-century tech level or earlier people, at the very least, will be hard to convince it isn't magic. Hell, there're people alive today who would be.

And who's to say it's not magic? If you have a technology that can bend spacetime or hack into the laws of physics and rewrite them to your specs, is that in the category of technology or magic? I would classify it as being both, personally.

  • $\begingroup$ "If you have a technology that can bend spacetime or hack into the laws of physics and rewrite them to your specs" ===> ex falso sequitur quodlibet. So, for instance, "if you have...." a lol cat is currently the master of the world without us knowing it. Meow to the king. $\endgroup$ – GameAlchemist Dec 30 '15 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @GameAlchemist Well, yeah. But it's about building fictional worlds, right? It's fiction. Anything could follow! A lolcat could be the current master of a fictional world without the characters in that world knowing it, maybe only the readers/players would! :P $\endgroup$ – Josh Zmijewski Dec 30 '15 at 21:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The intent of this post (-unless i misunderstood-) is not to think about a fictional world where 1+1=421.23, but rather to speculate on hypothetical primitive peoples's reaction to technology. $\endgroup$ – GameAlchemist Dec 30 '15 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @GameAlchemist Yeah, true. That's why I included that bit as just kind of an afterthought. The main “meat” of my answer was in the first paragraph, which pertained to the question… in question. Lol. $\endgroup$ – Josh Zmijewski Dec 30 '15 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ I'm the kind of person who see 'afterthought' as the main though -just hidden-. There are near 32000 views at this time. $\endgroup$ – GameAlchemist Dec 30 '15 at 22:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.