Magical Technology

As discussed in the previous essay, we can consider the "witchcraft" in Harry Potter as nothing more than a complex of literary devices that solves plot problems while adding an imaginative and entertaining element to the story. However, even considering the magic as literary device, the question still remains of whether or not the magic in the world of Harry Potter can be used in an analogy with something in the real world other than the occult. After all, we do use the term "magic" to refer to things other than the occult.

When I was first reading Harry Potter I couldn't help thinking that the magical devices had a distinct similarity to the modern technology that I work with on a daily basis. To those who have never thought of technology this way, it may seem ludicrous to treat technology as something akin to magic. However, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is famous for his statement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."1 Larry Niven, another well-known writer of science fiction and fantasy, expressed this same idea conversely as "any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology."2 This may seem like a strange idea at first, but consider the following.

Of all the people who use computers on a daily basis, how many can explain the operation of a microprocessor? I suspect the number is a very small percentage. The typical computer user knows that only certain keystrokes in the right combination will produce the desired effect but does not know why. Isn't that a kind of magic? Since I am a computer programmer by profession, I actually do understand how logic gates can be combined to perform arithmetic and how a micro-code sequencer transforms an instruction set into register operations. Because we perceive the computer as technology and assume that somewhere there is somebody who invented this stuff and understands how it works, we think of it as mechanical and not magical. Yet, one definition of magic is "something that is inexplicable." For most people the internal operations of a computer are completely mysterious and therefore a kind of magic.

If I told you that every time you accessed a web site on the Internet you were spawning a demon to do magic would you believe me? Consider the following definitions from a dictionary of computer jargon known as The Jargon File.3

'daemon ': /day-mn/, /dee-mn/, n. A program that is not invoked explicitly, but lies dormant waiting for some condition(s) to occur. The idea is that the perpetrator of the condition need not be aware that a daemon is lurking (though often a program will commit an action only because it knows that it will implicitly invoke a daemon). Daemon and demon are often used interchangeably, but seem to have distinct connotations.

'spawn ': n. vi. In Unix parlance, to create a child process from within a process. Technically this is a 'fork'; the term 'spawn' is a bit more general and is used for threads (lightweight processes) as well as traditional heavyweight processes

'magic ' 1. adj. As yet unexplained, or too complicated to explain; ... 2. adj. Characteristic of something that works although no one really understands why (this is especially called black magic). 3. n. A feature not generally publicized that allows something otherwise impossible, or a feature formerly in that category but now unveiled. 4. n. The ultimate goal of all engineering & development, elegance in the extreme; from the first corollary to Clarke's Third Law: "Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced".

Computer hackers tend to be iconoclasts and love to borrow terms and adapt their meaning through analogies and metaphors. However, if we were to take these words in their ordinary sense, it would appear that the Internet is based on some occult, supernatural power! Of course, no one really believes that about computers, do they? We realize that this is a form of tongue-in-cheek humor and don't consider a computer as something supernatural. The meaning of a word can be extended by adapting it into a new context with a new usage, and that is what programmers have done. Once again, the point is that not all uses of the term "magic" have something to do with the occult. The word can also be used figuratively.

In a fantasy novel, and to some extent in any work of fiction, the author does not need to explain how things in the story really work. The author can take real places and move them around and alter them, within limits. Likewise the author can add or remove capabilities from some object that we know very well. For example, computers in fictional stories often have capabilities that far exceed those of real life or work differently than our desktop computers. We usually call these types of adaptations "literary license" or something equivalent. Thus, there is a limitation in how far we need to go in making an explanation of how the magic in Harry Potter actually works or drawing comparisons to things in our world. As long as the magic is believable in the context of the story we don't have to make any explanation at all. However, there is an interesting parallel between the magic in Harry Potter and today's highly advanced technology. First, we need to see if we can legitimately compare the story's magic to technology.

From the Harry Potter books we find out that the only real difference between Muggles and Wizards is that the Wizards have an innate ability to do magic. Most Wizards are born to Wizard parents, but some like Hermione Granger are the children of Muggles. Furthermore, not all Wizard children have the ability to do magic and are called Squibs. Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts, is one example. In one scene from The Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Filch has ordered Kwikspell, a self-help book on magic, in an effort to learn magic. However, it won't do him any good. This is important, since it indicates that magic in Harry Potter is not something that just anyone can learn how to do. It is an ability that you must be born with. That seems to make magic different from technology.

However, if we are to make an analogy between Harry Potter and the real world, we can treat magical ability as something akin to abilities caused by a genetic variation. For example, we could think of it as something like color blindness. Imagine if some device could only be used by people who could discriminate between red and green. Those who are color blind would never be able to use the device, or could only make limited use of it. To extend the comparison a little further, imagine there was a technology that required the ability to hear sounds above 20,000 Hz. That is the normal upper limit of human hearing, so this technology would require something like a genetic mutation that produced a greater hearing ability in some people. Only those people with this extraordinary hearing ability would be able to use the technology. We might even imagine that these "super-frequency" types would keep this a secret in order to avoid being considered freaks or to create some advantage over others lacking the ability. That is a fair analogy of magical ability in Harry Potter that doesn't preclude treating the magic similarly to technology.

When you look at how magical devices in Harry Potter are used, developed and improved, there is an even closer analogy with technology. In Quidditch Through The Ages, there is a lengthy discussion of the development of the flying broom. It reads much like a history of a scientific discovery followed by subsequent application and improvement as technology. In The Half-blood Prince Harry obtains a potions book that has many marginal notes showing alternative methods of producing potions. If the potion were considered something truly occult, it is difficult to see how someone could improve the potion or speed the reaction by varying the procedure. Potions seem to work in a manner much like advanced chemistry.

The magic wand the Wizards use is another example. The wand is not simply a piece of wood but must have something with magical properties embedded into it before it can be used for magic. (To those who want to make the magic in Harry Potter the direct equivalent of real occult practice, I would ask, where can I get a tail-feather of a phoenix or a strand of unicorn hair for my wand?) As Harry eventually finds out through a conversation with Ollivander, there is much about the Wizard's magic wand that even the Wizard's don't fully understand. That's likewise true of much of our modern technology. For example, scientists still do not have a complete understanding of electricity, even though we use it extensively in our day to day lives. We often have to put a bit of "magic" called a battery into our devices before they do anything useful.

When a Wizard in Harry Potter has his wand knocked away, his ability to cast or block spells is eliminated, or at least greatly reduced. Likewise, if the wand is not pointed in the right direction the spell will not affect the object the Wizard wants to affect. Consider this passage from near the end of The Half-blood Prince.

Harry tore past Hagrid and his opponent, took aim at Snape's back, and yelled, "Stupefy!"

He missed; the jet of red light soared past Snape's head; ... Twenty yards apart, he and Harry looked at each other before raising their wands simultaneously.


But Snape parried the curse, knocking Harry backward off his feet before he could complete it;...

"Incarc--" Harry roared, but Snape deflected the spell with an almost lazy flick of his arm.

The wand waving and hurling of spells between Harry and Snape continues until Snape knocks the wand out of Harry's hand. The magic wand in this scene is similar to a real world sword or gun, or perhaps an "energy beam" weapon from a science fiction story, but with a bit of artificial intelligence built in.

We also learn that spells and charms can be both invented and improved. Returning to the computer analogy for an example, it is much like what a computer programmer does. The computer only responds to the right words (it's instruction set), which act much like an incantation. However, the programmer can rearrange and combine keywords to invent new "spells" and make the computer do something it had not done before. We call these new "incantations" computer programs. If the computer is operated by a voice recognition system, the analogy is even closer. Of course the analogy is not perfect, but the two ideas are very similar.

Some may still object that the magic wand amplifies the thoughts and will of the Wizard and thus is nothing like a computer. However, those of us who work with computers will tell you that it is exactly like a computer. You see, we don't really need computers. As has been said, and every programmer knows, if we could run our software just as fast without them, we would throw the computers away as an unnecessary nuisance. In fact, we often speak of a computer as a "thought amplifier" because it does precisely the type of calculation and data retrieval that we normally would do in our brain, just much faster and with more consistency.

Another similarity exists between divination and Arithmancy in Harry Potter and statistics and trend prediction in our world. Every day people open up their newspapers and engage in a form of divination. I'm not referring to the Astrology pages, but to the business news section. The business section is filled with tables and charts of stock prices and market trends. Those who invest will spend time with pages of charts trying to see a pattern in the shape of the graphs. It's not that much different than trying to predict the future by gazing into a crystal ball or reading the dregs from a cup of tea. Both activities seem to have about the same level of accuracy as well.

Taking only what is in the story, the magic in Harry Potter is accomplished by a Wizard and his devices, potions, etc. Nowhere in the books is there any discussion of communion with demons or other supernatural forces in order to gain magical power. Some might claim that occult practice is really a use of an inherent human ability or natural force that relies on amplified human willpower without any demonic force involved. But, how is that really different from science and technology? A lever or pulley amplifies physical power; a computer amplifies abstract reasoning power.

Based on what is described in the story, the idea that the magic in Harry Potter is analogous to technology is a good fit and a fair and workable interpretation. As I already stated, no single theory that interprets the magic will fit all examples in the story exactly, nor does it have to. However, the comparison of most magic in Harry Potter to technology is very close whether or not Rowling intended it that way.4 Although not a perfect analogy, the similarity between magic and technology is close enough that we can interpret it as such and then draw some interesting comparisons between life in the world of Harry Potter and life in our world. We can state the analogy as: magic is to Wizards as technology is to Muggles.

One thing that I noticed while reading the Harry Potter books is that life for the Wizards is not all that different from life for the Muggles in many aspects. Both have to go to school to develop their natural skills, choose a career based on abilities and desires, and then go to work and earn money to buy things they need. Both are born and both die. What's more, the Wizards have laws that regulate the use of magic, regulate affairs between Wizards, and regulate relationships between Muggles and Wizards. This requires a political institution, the Ministry of Magic, with all the typical political intrigue, bureaucratic interference, and bumbling that comes with it. Because they have laws to enforce, the Wizards have policemen in the form of Aurors and have a prison with guards to hold and punish law breakers. Even the Wizard's newspapers don't seem to be any different. They often print innuendo, rumor and slander instead of objective fact and sometimes end up acting as a propaganda facility for the government. Apart from the use of magic as opposed to scientific technology, and some differences in dress and appearance, there really is not that much difference between the Wizards and the Muggles. Consequently, one could conclude there is not all that much advantage to being a Wizard. Much like a natural athletic ability, it would be nice, but a person's life will go on pretty much the same with or without it.

Another aspect of magic in Harry Potter is that the magic is not omnipotent but is actually limited in many ways. Magic can heal, with the right herbs, potions and spells, but cannot bring someone who has died back to life. In some cases the magic cannot counter curses either, as in the case of Neville Longbottom's parents or Dumbledore's hand. We also find out that the food the Wizards eat is not created by magic, even if it is prepared and served by magic. Magic potions can take months to prepare and require specific magical ingredients that have to be collected or purchased and wands require rare elements to make as well. The Wizards aren't able to conjure up everything ex nihilo. Wizards can fall off their brooms and get hurt, and apparating can produce some really uncomfortable and potentially dangerous side effects. In short, the magic is useful but doesn't provide all of a Wizard's needs in life. That sounds a lot like technology.

Also, we don't consider a person good or bad simply because they use some particular technology. That is exactly how things are portrayed in Harry Potter. What makes Voldemort and the Death Eaters evil is not simply that they use magic. The opposition to Voldemort also uses magic, although there are limits they will place on themselves that Voldemort will not. Voldemort and his followers will use the "unforgivable curses" representing torture, enslavement and murder without hesitation. The good guys won't except under exceptional circumstances such as self-defense. Many of those who treat the magic as occult practice condemn the books for promoting the idea of "white magic" as OK and only "black magic" as evil. But if magic is treated as representative of technology the objection goes away. We do not condemn a police officer for using a gun in the line of duty, but we do condemn a criminal for using a gun to commit a crime. The difference is in the intent of the use, not in the object itself. Technology is for the most part morally neutral and we do not see that fact as somehow promoting moral relativism.

Neither for the most part do we talk about a battle between "white technology" and "black technology" although there are some areas where perhaps we should. Just as there are unforgivable curses in the Wizard world, there are unforgivable uses of technology in ours. Nuclear bombs, biological weapons, some applications of genetic engineering, and synthesized hallucinogenic drugs are some examples of things that probably should have been left alone.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that Harry does not truly overcome Voldemort's attacks through equivalent use of magic. Harry is no match for Voldemort in either knowledge or experience of spells, hexes and charms, yet at each trial Harry succeeds. If you think about it you will see that Harry overcomes evil with something other than the same magic being used against him. He may use some of the same magical devices and spells along the way, but in the end it is the character, virtue and moral choices of Harry and others that win the battle. Lily's sacrificial love for her son protects him from Quirrell. Harry's courage and fidelity in the Chamber of Secrets allows him to pull the sword out of the hat. His compassion, mercy and self-sacrifice are vital factors in other battles. In the end, Harry overcomes evil with good, the highest "magic" of all.

Consider the magic of Harry Potter as technology and think of what that implies for us. I think this leads us to consider an important fact of human life. As Dumbledore explains to Harry at the end of The Sorcerer's Stone:

You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all--the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.

No matter how powerful our technology becomes, even if it were to be so advanced that it could provide for all our material desires, we would still have to deal with the same problems of human nature and good and evil. We would still have to make moral choices and accept the consequences of our choices when we choose wrongly. Another writer on Harry Potter came to a similar conclusion. In his essay, Harry Potter's Magic, Wheaton College Professor Alan Jacobs wrote:

Christians are perhaps right to be wary of an overly positive portrayal of magic, but the Harry Potter books don't do that: in them magic is often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous.

And so, it should be said, is the technology that has resulted from the victory of experimental science. Perhaps the most important question I could ask my Christian friends who mistrust the Harry Potter books is this: is your concern about the portrayal of this imaginary magical technology matched by a concern for the effects of the technology that in our world displaced magic? The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort: how worried are we about them, and their influence over our children? Not worried enough, I would say. 5

I couldn't agree more. Hoping for a solution to the problems of life through magic is no different than betting all of our future on technology. Neither one will ultimately work to solve all our problems. We must find purpose in life by pursuing virtue, not mere technology. And, like Harry, we must overcome evil with good.

1. This is known as "Clarke's Third Law" and is from "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", in Profiles of the Future (1962). (Wikipedia)

2. Niven's Laws

3. The Jargon File is also published in printed form as The New Hacker's Dictionary (MIT Press).

4. Both magic and science can be seen as attempts to control natural forces and there are various historians that link the development of modern science to magic of the late renaissance (e.g. Lynn Thorndike). The thesis is based on treating magic as a mechanical and mathematical system that models and describes manipulation of natural phenomena. It is possible that Rowling used information from these books in developing the magic for Harry Potter, but I have not been able to confirm this. In an interview for in 1999, Rowling did state, "We owe a lot of our scientific knowledge to the alchemists." (

5. Alan Jacobs, Harry Potter's Magic, (website).


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