Reading a bit of trashy sci fi over the past weekend — good "hardboiled cyberpunk" about the encoding of consciousness into data and transferring between physical bodies as a way of managing interstellar exploration — while traveling in Mexico got me thinking about the old "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" argument. I think I came up with some good riffs, and even some navel-gazing about me and my weird mercurial career, so here goes.
It's easy to dismiss outlandish ideas about interstellar travel as flights of fancy, and indeed there are good physics reasons to be skeptical we'll make it beyond the Solar System in any real way in the next few generations. But that also kind of misses the point. The original quote by Arthur C Clark is meant to position us as "people of the past", encountering some awesome technologogy of the future, possibly alien. How can we not react with awe? But what about all that we've learned to take for granted already? There's another threshold which we pass over when fantastically complecated and difficult processes become six or seven-sigma reliable and ubiquitous, things like Big Macs or indoor plumbing. You go from magic to assumed fact of life.
Take for instance the MP3 player going poolside on a carribean beach resort, playing Elvis. Here you have a device manufactured from raw materials that might come from three continents (rare earths, etc), forged into components in a number facilities about 8,000 to 10,000 miles away, assembled and delivered via an international shipping and retail process that is literally hundreds of thousands of people's jobs to operate.