“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That little aphorism is called Clark’s third law, and it haunts all our efforts to find alien civilizations. If we want to search the galaxy for signals of aliens, how will we be able to recognize them if their technology is so advanced that we won’t even be able to recognize it as such? And for folks who want to think about UFOs and UAPs, Clarke’s third law works the other way, allowing every protest of “that’s not possible” to be swatted away with the simple claim that aliens can do anything because they have super-hyper-mega-advanced technology.
So, with these questions in mind, let’s take a moment to look critically at Clarke’s third law in terms of our search for intelligent technological life in the universe. But before we begin, as a cautionary tale, let’s note that Arthur C. Clarke published his three “laws” in a 1962 essay called “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” And his first law states, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” While I may not be elderly quite yet, I’m no spring chicken — so you may need to keep that in mind for what follows.
From stone tools to jet planes
Since the beginning of the scientific age some 400 years ago, we have seen massive, stunning advances in our technological capacities. In 1500, the fastest you could travel was 30 or 40 miles per hour on a galloping horse. Now we routinely travel at 600 miles per hour in jet planes, and we carry smartphones in our pockets that certainly would have seemed like magic to our ancestors. We came of age in what some have called the “Great Acceleration” where everything has gotten faster and smaller and more extraordinary. But if we want to think about other civilizations in space, particularly older civilizations, the question becomes: Does this kind of technological acceleration continue indefinitely?
Let’s look at that question by answering another: What was the fastest speed an ordinary person could reach in 1962? The answer, remarkably, is about the same as today. Jet travel was available to people in 1962, and they traveled at the same 600 miles per hour as today. So across more than half a century, our ability to move ourselves from one place to another hasn’t undergone anything like a quantum jump in capacity. The technology for moving stuff has stalled. We do not have anti-gravity flotation or teleportation zappers. How long can this kind of technological stasis last? Our deep history offers some insight.
Consider the toolkit our distant ancestors had at their disposal. The genus Homo distinguished itself among its animal cousins by its advanced ability to use tools. While there are many other animals that use tools (chimps and birds are but two examples), our ancestors a million years ago were crafting tools from stone in ways that outstripped anything seen in the animal kingdom. But progress was very, very slow. If you look back one million years ago, you find sharpened stones used as scrapers or hammers. If you look 250,000 years later, you find sharpened stones used as scrapers or hammers. Even 250,000 years after that, there are more sharpened stones used as scrapers or hammers. While this description is a bit simplistic, it is true that across half a million years, there was no leap from stone tools to the wheel or sail. The technology of our ancestors stayed remarkably stable.
Are we limited by imagination… or by physics?
These examples raise a point that we all too easily forget now because we have been blinded by the insane progress of the last 400 years: Technology does not have to accelerate endlessly. What if the four forces physicists have discovered really are all the ways possible to push or pull things? What if the “exotic energy” that theoretical physicists like to pop into their equations to imagine things like stable wormholes really are nothing more fun figments of our imaginations?
It is possible that we could use physics that we know exists to refine key aspects of our technologies — like rockets and fusion and smart materials — to produce marvels but remain stuck well below the speed of light or never gain the capacity to manipulate gravity.
So, I don’t doubt Clarke’s third law is true. Sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. What I wonder about is if all, or even any, civilizations have technologies that we won’t be able to recognize in the broadest sense of the word. Maybe technology stalls because the laws of physics really do only allow certain kinds of behavior. That may not be a story that any of us want to hear (me most of all). But, then again, the universe is not in the business of caring about what we want.