What’s up, storytellers? You’ve seen the title of this video, so you know what’s coming. We’re going to be talking about the differences, the true differences between magic and technology. So we have a common question and we have me, someone who likes to drone on and on about magic systems, so I think we’ve got a video. So I’m C.R. Rowenson the magic engineer.
It’s time to talk about magic. Before we go any further, it is vital that I clarify what I mean by magic and by technology. Because if you’ve seen my videos, I’ve talked about how I think they’re actually the same thing. When we’re looking at them from the terms of a magic system, I believe that’s true because magic ,you’ve probably heard this before, is anything enabling effects or abilities beyond our capability or understanding. That is equally true for fireballs as it is for plasma rifles. So you’ve got magic, you’ve got tech. They both apply.
If you don’t trust me, there’s also Clarke’s third law, Arthur C Clarke, that says any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Then you have Agatha’s law from the web comic Girl Genius that states any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology. So hopefully between me and those other two laws, you see what I mean when I say both magic and technology are magic systems for building and crafting our stories. While we can use them both the same in our storytelling and in our story building, they do feel different. And more importantly, there are differences in how magic and true technology impact our world.
The Magic System Blueprint: A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Building Magic Systems So really what we’re looking at is technology as a society and world shaping force in our fictional world. And from that context, there is a difference between magic and tech, and that’s what we’re getting into. The basic difference between magic and technology is a matter of transference. If you aren’t familiar with the Magic System blueprint, totally fine. You can check out my book The Magic System Blueprint: A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Building Magic Systems, book a 30 minute consult or join my Patreon.
Transference is a measure. It’s a value that tells us how easily the magic in our system can be picked up and handed off and handed off and moved around and exchanged between potential magic users with traditional magic systems. That’s usually low transference because you either have the magic or you don’t. There’s no way for a magic user to gift their powers to somebody else.
There’s no way for a non-magic user to suddenly start performing magic or if there are, it’s very difficult to do. Technology is on the far end of the spectrum, right? If I have a plasma rifle that allows me to shoot bolts of plasma, that’s a magical effect. If I hand this rifle off to somebody else, they now have the ability to produce this magical effect.
That’s transference. And this is true across all forms of technology. Well, most forms of technology. Take cell phones, for example. What good would a cell phone be in terms of a society shaping force? If it could only be used by the person that created it, you wouldn’t be able to mass produce it. You wouldn’t be able to sell it to, uh, to the masses.
It couldn’t be there in significant numbers to actually start changing things. And I know if I bought a cell phone like that and only the person who sold it to me could actually use it. I’d be kind of pissed.
The other major difference between magic and technology is a matter of prevalence. Prevalence is just as you might guess, how prevalent magic is in the world.
How distributed is it? Is it commonplace? Is it very rare? And again, this may not affect how the magic itself works. But in order to really start shaping how the world functions and how people as large groups and societies as a whole start to behave. You need to have things and high prevalence for it really to make a difference.
And most of your traditional magic systems are lower in prevalence, where there’s a smaller number of magic users, oftentimes because they’re extremely powerful. And that’s one of the balancing factors to keep them from just taking over. So prevalence is the other aspect here to act as a technological force. Prevalence usually needs to be higher.
There’s one other aspect I would be remiss if I didn’t mention and that’s really just a matter of presentation. This is always a factor whenever we’re dealing with magic systems, but you can present it however you want. That’s why I don’t consider it an actual difference. It’s more of a stylistic one. And if you’re interested, leave a comment below. I would be happy to do a video where I talk about how you can make magic look more like technology and technology look more like magic. So let me know if you’re interested in that. Let’s explore that gradient a little bit.
High Vs Low Transference & Prevalence
Low Transference & Low Prevalence
Let’s start with a theoretical system that has low transference and low prevalence. In this case, people either have the magic or they don’t. They’re either magic users or they’re not. There’s very little way to intentionally learn the magic or gain the magic, and there’s little to no way to transfer between people.
Not only that, magic users are relatively rare now in this kind of situation. The magic users are actually fairly limited in how they can impact society. Yes, as an individual, they can incite change. And yes, they do have more power than other people to incite those kinds of changes. But in terms of mass population, behavior change, they’re a lot more limited.
One person and even a small group can only do so much in terms of the technological and capability landscape of an entire society. Now, let’s say that the magic users learn how to infuse their power into objects, and in doing so, I mean, this is kind of standard enchanting and doing so. They can now hand these objects off to other people and these other people can now produce magical effects.
We just had a big jump up in transference there. And at this point, our magic can start behaving like technology because it can now start shaping society as a whole by assuming that there are enough magic users, prevalence, to start mass producing these gadgets and these artifacts. Again, as they are able to transfer it and they’re able to produce more and more and more and more of these items are percolating out through society, then society will begin to change. However, this is still not a true magic system, which I’m going to get into in just one second. This is an area where you have magic that functions as a technological force and vice versa. You can do things where you have true technology that because of limitations on production or even limitations on transference begins to shift more towards magic.
Magic Vs Tech
But we had to go through this because now we can get into the actual difference between magic and tech. Now we can discuss the actual difference between technology in your world and magic in your world.
And really, really what it all comes down to is the means of production. How, how is the magic created? And these items or these things or these abilities that are passed off between people? How are those created means of production? But let me explain. Let’s say your setting is sitting in this magic tech, tech area. So you have these items, these essences, these powers that can be readily produced and transferred between people.
How are they being made? Is it technically possible for anybody to craft them, or is the actual construction of these items limited and to a few people, a small group of people? Because if it is, you’re effectively dealing with magic still. And the people, the only people that can create it are your magic users. They still hold the power, the rate limiting step at that point. are these people of which your story, your people may not have figured out how to transfer and duplicate that ability. So if it is limited to a small number of people, the means of production is limited, then it is still considered magic. But if it technically is set up so that anybody can produce these items and artifacts, then then you have true technology.
So allow me to repeat that difference one more time. The true difference between magic and technology in our stories is the means of production, whether everybody can produce it or only the magic users can produce it. Now I get really excited about this. This is a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, and even if you disagree, I hope that you can take some value and start thinking about this means of production because that has massive implications for how things are going to work in your world and in your setting. So means of production, memorize it. But I’m not just going to leave you with that. Let’s talk through some examples. Starting with Star Wars, we have two aspects.
Example 1: Star Wars
In Star Wars, we actually have two magic systems. We’ve got the force and we’ve got their technology. So the force is low transference and fairly low prevalence. I mean, it depends on when you’re looking at things, but for the most part, it is far lower than anything else in the system.
Yes, technically, everybody has access to the force. There are people, though, who are born more force sensitive than others. That’s that’s your magic user coming out, that’s your have or have nots is you have the potential to be a strong Jedi or you don’t. Not only that, we know that in the billions, if not trillions of sentient creatures across the galaxy, there’s the Jedi Council and there’s the Sith Lord.
If you look at the size of that, even at their peak, that’s not many people now. They can’t hand their powers off. They might be able to use their powers to manipulate people and, in some cases, heal them, and which is arguably extending the effect. I think they’re still in control of it. So that’s a fairly classic magic system of low prevalence, low transference, and will not enact any kind of technological change in the world.
Now, there’s the tech I specifically want to talk about the hyper drives. Those are high prevalence as they get, they’re everywhere. That’s how people travel between worlds now. So incredibly high transference, right? I can move from one ship to the next and I can move the hyper-drive engine from one ship to the next and transfer that ability. Most importantly, is the means of production, right?
Anybody can make hyper-drive provided they have the information and the materials. So there is no specific quality that people have to have in order to produce hyper-drive. So you have one magic system and you have one true technology in the Star Wars universe.
Example 2: Harry Potter
Then there’s Harry Potter. If we consider the world as a whole, it’s medium low prevalence and maybe, maybe medium transference because they can produce a lot of magic items and there are magical creatures and stuff that can lend their powers.
But in all of those cases, the ability to produce these items and the ability to perform magic is always a quality specific to certain people. People in the wizarding community, which means it can never be a true technology because muggles will never be able to replicate it. They won’t be able to build it the same way that wizards wizards can.
Now on the flip side, if we change our scope and we stop looking at the world as a whole and we just look at the wizarding world that changes things, perspective is amazing. Watch videos on the Blueprint to learn why. Point is, if we narrow it down just to look at the Wizarding World, things change. It is now high prevalence and medium high transference.
Granted, I can’t give you my ability to perform magic, but within the Wizarding World, pretty much everybody has that ability, which means pretty much anybody can create these magical items as long as they have the knowledge and materials. There’s no longer a specific quality that some people will have and some people won’t. When we’re just looking in the wizarding world. So even just changing the perspective, things can shift from being magic to being a true
Example 3: The Stormlight Archives
Last, I want to talk about The Stormlight Archives. In there we have the Knights Radiant, who are, those are your magic users. They are people who gain these special powers and they’re especially in the series, prevalence is quite low, transference is low, medium, low starts to go up because they start understanding the process. More people start fulfilling the oaths and becoming knights. The knights have their squires, but it is still limited. And what’s more, they haven’t found a way to really extend it to people beyond just their squires. And so that really limits the transference.
And they are hugely impactful in the world. But again, in terms of shaping the capabilities of society as a whole, they’re kind of limited. They’re the only ones who are going to be able to do stuff. But then you introduce the fabrials. They are engineered items that use the same magical power source that the Knights Radiant do. They both are fueled by Stormlight, but anybody can create the fabrials, and the fabrials can actually be used to replicate some of the Knights Radiant powers, which is just amazing and an excellent example of blurring the lines between the tech and the magic.
But fabrials are actual true tech, even though they are producing some of the same magical effects and, in some cases, magical effects that the Knights Radiant cannot do.
I hope I have clarified the difference between magic and technology. Not only that, I hope you have enough examples that you can see how in your story you might turn it from magic into tech or tech into magic.
Or if you don’t want to do that, how you might start blurring the lines between those two by doing things like magic, magic tech or Los Tech and that kind of stuff. Let’s just do a final recap, because this has been a lot of information. Once again, magic is anything enabling effects or abilities beyond our capability or understanding.
And when I talk about true technology, I’m talking about technological change and society and the world. Now, your magic can function as technology if your transference and your prevalence are high enough. But the true difference between actual technology and actual magic is the means of production. Is the means of production limited to magic users, or is the means of production available to everybody?
That’s all I’ve got for now. Thank you so much for sticking around. Please leave some comments below and let me know what you think about my analysis on the difference between tech and magic. But whatever you do, please keep writing and stay awesome.