Computers are Magic

Does magic exist? Are computers magic? Good questions!

Magic: non-definitions

Before explaining why computers are “magic”, it is important to have a definition of what magic is. Computers exist. If part of the definition of magic is “something that does not exist”, computers are not magic.

For example, if the definition of magic is “something supernatural”, and “something supernatural” is “outside the laws of physics”, and “the laws of physics” is defined as what is true, then of course magic is not real, and then computers are not magic. But this is kind of a weird way to define “magic”, if you want to be able to ask whether magic exists.

If the definition of magic includes “nobody understands it”, then it depends on what “understands it” means.

The average wizard might just a practitioner with little understanding of the theory. It would be weird, though, if magic was somehow discovered by humans with a process of complete, unguided by theory, of trial and error. In many stories about magic, the whole wizard community, put together, does understand magic well enough.

If your definition of magic is “does not exist”, it excludes computers by definition. If your definition of magic is “all of humanity, put together, does not understand it”, it excludes many magic systems in many fantasy stories.

Magic: commonalities

Every fantasy universe’s magic works a little differently. Calling all of them magic means diving into the commonalities.

Like most human concepts, it is unrealistic to expect a strict definition. The concept is explained with examples, and some heuristics and guidelines.

  • Special materials: many magical rituals require special materials, mixed in precise ways.
  • Spells: many magical rituals involve specific long spells which must recited precisely as written. The smallest mistake can lead to anything from the spell not working to a complete disaster.
  • Book-learning and practical training: wizards are usually trained with a combination of a lot of theoretical training and, on top of it, some sort of on the job training. Part of what novices learn is how to avoid seductive short-cuts that end in disasters.
  • Hard to understand: Even high level practicioners will sometime not understand all the details of how magic works. “Usually, this is a good way for doing spells, but for spells that affect metals, this is the bad idea.”

Not all of these are “required” to for something to be “magic”. But these criteria help decide if something “feels like magic”

Computers

Chips

The basic component of a computer chip is a transistor. Many transistors are made from silicon (sand), combined with Gallium arsenide and Germanium. These, in term, are made from Arsenic (a poison) and Gallium, a metal with some weird properties. Germanium is another metal with weird properties. The process is called “doping”, and is extremely precise.

These transistors are connected with barely-visible wiring made of gold, set in intricate patterns. A small mistake in these patterns will often cause a computer chip not to function at all.

Software

A chip by itself is useless. In order to use a chip, it has to be fed a long stream of meaningless symbols just to start interacting with the outside world.

Even those meaningless symbols are not enough: they just do something the initiates call “bootstrapping”. Another list of meaningless symbols, this time usually produced by a ritual called “compiling” from long phrases in inhuman languages, is needed to actually have it interact with a human.

This is just for basic human-computer interactions. In order to do things that are really useful, most people need to pay for custom additions to do things like help file their taxes or talk to their friends.

Even high-level initiates will often choose to pay for a pre-written addition, though when pressed, they will sometimes choose to write something themselves in their favorite inhuman language. This quick and dirty addition will be less polished, potentially dangerous, but will be suited to the special needs of the practitioner.

While some practicioners share their lore freely with the world, many guard their secrets jealously. Indeed, some practicioners have been arrested by police forces sympathetic to the ones guarding secrets for revealing the wrong secrets at the wrong time.

Understanding

There is probably no single human alive that understands everything about how a single computer works. They would need to have solid grounding in modern quantum mechanics, modern computer engineering, modern operating systems engineering, computer graphic abstractions, and more.

Most practicioners specialize in one area, and develop rough heuristics about the rest. When those heuristics break, the results can sometimes be global disasters.

The alignment of the heavens can also sometimes wreak havoc on otherwise carefully written computer spells. In recent times, this is mostly mitigated by powerful, though costly, magical spells.

Conclusion

If someone went back to 1850 and said that there will be special things that are made from melted sand and precise amounts of poison mixed in, inlaid in special patterns of gold, and that when specially trained practitioners, who often do not understand how the whole thing works, can still create long phrases in inhuman languages, and if those are written correctly, they will can do anything from figure out if a person is in front of them to help calculate your taxes, people will just stop them and say “so, magic, right?”

If they went on to describe the failure modes of computers, people would be even more convinced. A spell written incorrectly can simply not function, or can look like it functions until the exact set of circumstances appears that will cause everything to malfunction hilariously or disasterously. Some evil practicioners are trained in figuring out the subtle flaws in those long phrases, so that they can cause them to malfunction to their benefit.

There is no sense that an answer to “are computers magic” is “no”, unless “does not exist” is part of the definition of magic. There is nothing else that we define as fictional. Why should magic be different?