The Third Magic

The 3 “magics” discussed here are writing, science and the capacity to control and predict events now emerging from the confluence of computation, big data and AI.

Usually we think of innovations as specific technologies — agriculture, writing, the wheel, the steam engine, the computer. The most important of these are the things we call “general purpose technologies”. But I think that at a deeper level, there are more profound and fundamental meta-innovations that underlie even those things, and these are ways of learning about the world.

Humans’ first big meta-innovation, roughly speaking — the first thing that lifted us above an animal existence — was history. By this, I don’t just mean the chronicling of political events and social trends that we now call “history”, but basically any knowledge that’s recorded in language — instructions on how to farm, family genealogies, techniques for building a house or making bronze, etc. Originally these were recorded in oral traditions, but these are a very lossy medium; eventually, we started writing knowledge down, and then we got agricultural manuals, almanacs, math books, and so on. That’s when we really got going.

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