Law in the Internet Society

Necessary Conditions

-- By TheoTamayo - 10 Jan 2024

Reality is where we live. Fantasy is where we escape. It lets us taste the impossible, experience things that do not—and maybe cannot—exist. And we love it, in large part, because by expanding our conception of things that can happen it challenges our perception of things that do. Our fantasies are where we can dream without limits. The word “magic” describes both an inherently inhuman phenomenon and a quintessentially human feeling.

This feeling is powerful. Ideas that trigger it can change the world. But it is also fragile. When Arthur C. Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he identified a necessary condition that underlies our ability to feel this feeling: ignorance. We must lack a complete understanding of how and why things happen as they do. When we understand why amazing things happen, we acclimate to them. Anticipate them. Plan them. Become used to and even bored by them. The magic disappears.

I think our reality is running low on magic.


Humanity has embraced understanding, marginalized ignorance, and created tools, systems, and societies to master our environment. That, in doing so, we have fashioned a world in which those who understand more rule over those who understand less seems to be the thesis of this course. We spent a semester learning not just how people with more knowledge of the tools and systems that became the Internet established a frightening grip over the modern world and those who live here, but also how we can use our own knowledge to resist, undermine, and protect ourselves and our loved ones from this hegemony. It often felt like battle training for a war that we had somehow failed to notice raging around us our entire lives. The first version of this piece leaned into this conflict metaphor, describing a fantastical arms race. The downtrodden masses sought to overthrow their powerful, sinister overlords. The dark magic of surveillance-capitalist technology threatened the world’s freedoms, and only through the light magic of storytelling could we find the strength to prevail.

But since that draft was written, I’ve decided that I misinterpreted the implications of my own argument. Technology empowering us to affect our world to greater and greater degrees has certainly shifted the power dynamics of our societies in favor of those who can wield these new tools. But I now see the status quo as less a simmering conflict than a tense stalemate and magic as a personal rather than social phenomenon.


My about-face comes mainly from another look at the nature of modern software. Though it has established itself as the world’s latest object of paramount importance and value, it draws that value from a different source than oil, bronze, and iron once did. Metals formed basic tools, which could defend against threats and secure prizes in simpler times, until we developed new tools, which tamed nature but made us greater threats to each other than nature had been. Petroleum fueled that next generation, the machines that allowed us to tame that environment and to connect and shrink our world. Software inhabits this new, shrunken world, in which the main source of value is extracted not from the environment, but from its inhabitants. It absorbs information about human behavior and uses it to enhance the quality of the human experience of dealing with this world, and it is valuable because people are willing to pay great prices for that improved experience. Depending on their outlooks and means, they may pay in time, money, or freedom.

But the fact that software’s value flows from its capacity to gather, organize, and monetize human behavior reveals its fundamental reliance on humanity. We, not nature, are now the mother lode, and software purveyors must balance tapping and preserving us to continue profiting.


We have thoroughly failed to recognize that though this dynamic may be novel, the problems it has augmented are classic. Software uses human experience both as fuel—the more powerful and widespread the experience, the farther it can go—and as a metric of value, measuring market power by degree of influence over human behavior. Because software purveyors exist within the systems of competition that structure modern human societies, each piece of software must compete with others to gather and control this critical resource that is simultaneously an input and an output. Human ideas and actions thus control the fate of software, and its evolution reflects our own attitudes.

The problem is not that we are losing the fight to protect our freedoms against malicious actors trying to ransom them. The problem is that we have come to value the versions of our experiences that they create and sell back to us more than the experiences we have without their contributions. Invasions of privacy, commercialization of daily life, and increasing alienation of individuals are the consequences of our loss of faith in the inherent value of our identities, experiences, and connections. They reflect the fact that we no longer believe in the magic of normal life, or at least don’t believe it is worth more than what we are being sold.

We cannot fight to protect our freedoms and futures until we believe they are worth fighting for.


8th grade science and literature teachers each hold one of two keys to the kingdom because it is easier to instill and preserve that belief than to rebuild it from its pieces. We must overcome our own ignorance and resignation, combined into nihilism. Those who will be adults when the point of no return comes must be sufficiently informed to make hard technical decisions and must believe that their lives, experiences, and freedoms have value beyond what profiteers can capture. Neither mastery of technology nor faith that the free, non-digitally-optimized human experience is worth protecting will be sufficient without the other. Both are necessary.

And I want to believe, and think we should all try believing, that both have some magic in them.

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r3 - 10 Jan 2024 - 20:41:59 - TheoTamayo
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