“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” wrote the legendary sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, “is indistinguishable from magic.”
Over the eras of tech revolution we have seen exactly that. When new tech emerges, it is all clunky, heavy and inelegant. Think the shoe phone of the 1990s. Usually, new tech appears as hardware, a new kind of device that can do one remarkable thing well. Think today's CAT scanners.
But, as the tech gets better understood, the hardware shrinks and shrinks, grows more and more flexible, until, eventually, it disappears entirely into software. The clunky machine becomes a program that can produce its powerful effects on many devices.
And then, as the fundaments grow more deeply engrained in our awareness, software becomes algorithms. The powerful program devolves simply into a set of rules that can be implemented by many programs. Think of the many API-driven mobile mashups today.
In the PC era, that initial clunky generation of hardware required an operating system to tie together all of the many circuit boards and subsystems that comprised the device, ergo the name. That software system was specific, tangible and tied down to a single set of hardware and devices.
In the Internet era, much of the function of that once-internal operating system has migrated to the net. In fact, increasingly, the entire worldwide network operates like a gigantic global computer with TCP/IP and cellular network protocols linking our devices to services, programs, routines, data, hardware and one another across the span of the globe. In fact, the speeds of today's networks rival the internal speeds of early computers; we are literally in the early days of the emergence of a giant, worldwide, net-intermediated computer. The biggest and strongest ever seen.
That powerful worldwide computer is now exerting the force of Clarke's third law and drawing in ever more hardware. Almost everything can now be virtualized over the world network/computer. What once were enormous power sucking server farms, are now APIs and algorithms that drive services in the cloud.
But that is not the end of it, not nearly. Because we haven't yet reached the state of pure magic. But we will.
Rumors, for instance, abound about the next iPhone. They say it is a simple, thin, clear piece of glass. All of the computing power is in a nearly invisible strip along the bottom. A piece of glass with access to the most powerful, worldwide computer ever devised. Now we are getting into magic territory!
But wait, there's more. At some point, we ourselves will become nodes on the worldwide network, and therefore components in the emerging worldwide computer. That is already happening today via wearables like FitBit and experiences like Snap, Inc’s Spectacles. Eventually, we will have ingestible nano-networks that will let our bodies interact with the net without the presence of any apparent device. And not long after that, we will, quite possibly, see direct laser interactions with our neurons, so our minds become, literally, extensions of the worldwide hive mind.
Clarke, who in his prescience saw all this with remarkable clarity from his secure refuge in Sri Lanka. In addition to his famous laws, Clarke wrote a book called Childhood's End. In it, all the youth of the world link in a vast link, forming a single entity, the Overmind: powerful, inscrutable, ineffable. Those children become something beyond mere human, and reality itself is distorted.
As technologists, we have known for years that technology will melt into magic. It seems to me that Clarke, who was right about so much, may have been right about this as well. The ultimate impact of the net flowing into us -- and us into it -- defies rational explanation. It will create a new reality. If, as quantum physics implies, the universe is only here in this form because we are here to observe it, what will the universe conjured by the universal mind be?
Mike Edelhart is the managing partner of Social Starts, one of the most active moment-of-inception venture funds in the US. A pioneering media and Internet startup executive, Mike became widely known in tech circles as the original Executive Editor of PC Magazine. Find Mike on Twitter @MikeEdelhart.