Magic and Intelligence: The Uses of Technology

“It's all magic. It's all technology"

Living in a mediated world

The network increasingly runs through everything. Our real world is becoming a mediated world. We are increasingly experiencing it via devices and digital layers.

So to Reality and Virtual Reality (a closed off world we must visit) we can now add a third reality - what’s been called ‘Mediality’. We experience reality through a layer of technology.

It gets an unfairly bad rap. But if we want to know where we’re headed, we could do worse than read science fiction. Most of it is undoubtedly cliched, genre-dredging drivel. But there are a few genuinely bright lights.

Ian McDonald, for example. Here’s an excerpt from the early pages of Brasyl:

“... ten kilometers over São Paulo an Angel of Perpetual Surveillance turns on the back-loop of its eternal holding pattern and logs a stolen handbag. From the snow of ever-moving arfid signatures it identifies and locates the radio frequency identification chips that uniquely tagged the Anton Giorelli Habajabba handbag recently registered to Senhora Ana Luisa Montenegro de Coelho....”

Or there’s Alastair Reynolds, a practising scientist. From his short story A Spy In Europa:

“As the slitherwalk advanced he was joined by other arrivals: business people like himself, and a sugaring of the merely wealthy. Most of them had dispensed with holographics, instead projecting entoptics beyond their personal space; machine-generated hallucinations decoded by the implant hugging Vargovic's optic nerve. Hummingbirds and seraphim were in sickly vogue."

Objects that talk to other objects? Available right now.

Augmented reality? Available right now.

Science fiction? Absolutely not.

When you listen to many technologists there’s a lot of talk about utility, sharing, connecting, communicating. Which is all fine. Except it’s not very exciting. It’s already beginning to feel a bit well, pedestrian.

But looking at what’s available and possible right now let alone what’s just around the corner, I believe there are two experiences that technology can create for us. And that if we looked at technological possibilities through these lenses, we might be stimulated to create not just more remarkable stuff, but things and experiences that are genuinely valuable to people.

I want to talk about magic and intelligence.

The nature of magic

In defining the nature of magic, the anthropologist Dr. Phillips Stevens Jr., identifies the belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend both physical and spiritual connections.

George Lucas clearly knew his magic. Obi Wan Kenobi for example, can change the thoughts of an Imperial stormtrooper simply through the wave of a hand. When everything is connected, anything can affect anything.

For Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, magical thinking is the belief that one's thought, words, or actions can achieve physical effects in a manner not governed by the usual laws and principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information. Blowing for luck on a pair of dice can help you win at roulette. Or wearing your lucky underpants to the match can help your team win.

Creating more magical environments

We are - thanks to technology - building for ourselves a more magical environment. One in which everything is connected to everything. And where the usual laws of energy and information transmission don't apply.

Chalkbot built on the Tour de France tradition of writing messages to the competitors on the road. Via SMS, Twitter, Web Banners and the Nike Livestrong website, people could send a message to the Chalkbot - a purpose-built machine that then sprayed them in yellow chalk on the course. A message of hope written on a screen becomes a message of hope in the real, physical world.

Smile broadly enough, and a vending machine will dispense you free ice-cream:

Today we leaf through the world's accumulated knowledge simply by touching it with one finger. We can make things happen on the other side of the world simply by typing on our keyboards. We can command objects to do our will simply through our voice. We can manipulate objects simply through the exercise of thought. We can create and encounter objects that recognise us. We can create objects that talk to one another. We can create physical objects in the real world that are connected to virtual realities.

We're creating environments and experiences that create in us a sense of joy and delight, of child-like awe and wonder.

(It’s interesting to note that in an analysis of the characteristics of the New York Times’ most forwarded articles, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman identify the ability to evoke awe as one of the defining attributes of what we choose to send on to others).

Creating more intelligent environments

Not only are we making our environments more magical, but we are also using technology to make them more intelligent.

When you hold certain Lego boxes up to the camera at the Downtown Disney store in Orlando it'll show you an animated 3D model of the completed set right on top of the box you're holding.

Ikea’s interior planner app for the iPhone gives customers the ability to see exactly how the new designs will look in their home. Select the product you’re interested in. Select “Take a Picture”. Aim the camera of the phone at wherever in the room you want to locate the item. The image of the room appears on the phone screen, along with the IKEA furniture. Take a photo. Voila.

The internet is now something that doesn’t simply live on a screen, but is becoming embedded in everyday objects. Objects are transformed into intelligent entities. We can create objects that are hyperlinked to intangible information. Devices now don’t just recognize other devices. Objects and environments are recognizing and responding to us.

The common trait

What magic and intelligence both do for us is that they offer us the possibility of transformation.

The author and adventurer Jay Griffiths in her book Wild: An Elemental Journey recounts the story of the anthropologist Hugh Brody visiting Harold Wright, an elder of the Nisga in West Columbia. What is power? Brody asked. “Transformation” the elder replied, "Transformation is power.”

Magic and Intelligence make us something More - more entranced, more joyful, more child-like, more marveling, more knowledgeable, more discerning, more informed. If only for a fleeting moment.

Questions for brands

We need, I feel, some fresh, new, enlivening language around what we can do with technology and what it can do for us.

And we could do with language that's altogether more human, more visceral, more emotive.

When it comes to thinking about we can leverage all that technology opens up to us, what if we thought of ourselves as being in the business of making people’s environments, lives, interactions and experiences more magical, or more intelligent?

How can you enhance people’s environments?
How can your products become more intelligent or magical?
How can you enhance people’s reality?
How can you enhance people’s powers?
How can you enhance people’s intelligence?

Those to me, seem much more interesting and infinitely more powerful and generative questions to ask than ones such as “what app shall we create?” or “what’s our mobile strategy?”


Technology opens up for us a treasure chest of ways in which we can create magic and intelligence.

On reflection, this is merely an extension of what brands have always done for us.

They’ve long worked to enhance our product experiences, making them more ‘magical’ and rewarding, and they’ve always worked to facilitate and streamline our decision-making.

Plus ça change.


"It's all magic" quotation cited in Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia : Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace

Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, 'Social Transmission and Viral Culture'

Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking

Steve Mann, ‘Mediated Reality With Implementations For Everyday Life’, in, August 6 2002

And the brain of Joakim Borgstrom