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In my world, magic is based on the use of magical words passed down as part of a long-forgotten language. The spells are "self powering", they do not cost the user anything.

The catch is that results will vary dramatically based on several factors including:

  • The mental state / concentration / emotional state / confidence of the user
  • Whether or not (s)he has used that spell before
  • Whether (s)he got the pronunciation right

For example, a drunk who has never perform the fire spell before might use the magic word for burn, and only set fire to a single blade of grass. Whereas a professional pyromancer who has been meditating for several hours might be able to incinerate an entire army using the same spell.

My question is whether this magic system is chaotic enough to encourage the advance of technology. Or will the presence of magic, however unreliable, still discourage technological advancement?

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    $\begingroup$ Would a robot be able to use this magic? $\endgroup$ – Mendeleev Dec 28 '16 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that the presence of magic doesn't prevent technological advances. Just on the opposite - it could propel forward technology to a much more advanced state if your kings are not stupid and invest on such powerful energy sources. Check World of Warcraft or Warhammer 40k for two examples of magic and tech side-by-side. In the case of WoW, Draenei are a especially Magictech-y people and worth checking out. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Jan 10 '17 at 17:39
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We can analyze this from a scientific perspective, as technological advancement will look at it from that vantage point. Your system will be viewed as a source of free energy. It either violates the conservation of energy, or at least appears to. That is sufficient for it to be abused.

So the question will be two fold:

  • Can an individual generate enough energy via a spell, that it is easier to learn how to properly pronounce the word and use that energy to accomplish what you would have used technology for?
  • Is the socio-political climate one which is conducive to large number of people learning these words acceptably? If one takes the dark side approach, the best power is one which is known by you, and nobody else. There may be political forces which encourage casters to not teach everyone the words, forcing the rest of society to use technology.

An interesting side effect might be that casters start obscuring their word amidst others to try to confuse people who might learn by example. Over time, this obfuscation may work its way into the teachings passed down from caster to caster. This might even accidentally obscure the word of power itself, causing it to be lost for all time.

In any case, this system is powerful enough that your story will be dependent on society and politics to contain it. On its own, without limits, it would completely drown technological advancement.

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If the enemy in a combat situation can make (preferably non-magic) reasonable actions to break your concentration (eg. loud noises), this could encourage physical weapon development. This would draw other branches of technology too, but, since you can prepare and rest in peace, it's maybe easier to manufacture a machine gun with magic, instead of machining. So to get a technology based industry, you could consider adding some truly random, dangerous factors. (making spells explode sometimes even in the best circumstances.)

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I'd say it depends on how many of these words there are, and how complex they are.

If a sober person with a few months or even years of training can reliably pronounce "magical flight for me, these people and those items", there's no need to come up with carts, trains, cars or airplanes. Just get some schooling for the young ones going instead.

If it requires years of studying and hours of meditation to be able to get a reliable "flight for myself and my luggage", that's a completely different animal - the upper class may rely on their magics, but the working people will innovate technologically to make their own lives easier.

Somewhere in between you may end up with magic-augmented technology - steam power that's driven by a certified pyromancer instead of coal, airships being literal ships held aloft by a crew of mages, that kind of stuff. Maybe even mages capable of lightning bolts being employed to generate electricity, Korra style ;)

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As long as a magic system is able to be systematized enough to be useful (i.e wiithout a big actually random component), at some point in history it will become a sort-of-science and will substitute some technology unless restricted heavily by scarcity.

Knowledge of a language, skill in its pronunciation and mental focus do not make magic less reliable. They restrict the number of practitioners and the amount of situations where magic is useful.

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