Magic and tech: safety and security

Despite what you may hear from TV and other sources of news, the world we live in today is the safest there’s ever been. Those of us living in the modern, industrialized West enjoy a level of personal, private, and public safety that would make earlier ages green with envy. Some of that comes from philosophy, from political science and enlightened ideas about the responsibilities of good government. With the representative democracies that make up most of Europe and North America, we’re all invested in the safety of everyone. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.

But technology also plays an important role in keeping us protected, on allowing us to live our lives free of the fears of random violence or other threats. Say what you will about them, but guns are a sufficient deterrent in many instances. But this isn’t the only form of technological security. Look at crash helmets, airbags, or even knee pads—all inventions created to keep us safe from incidental harm.

Science of safety

Today, we’re seeing a lot of talk about safety and security. Before we can look at them, though, we need to distinguish these two terms. Security, as I see it, is active protection from external threats, looking out for the things that might hurt you and dealing with them. Safety is more like not having those threats in the first place, or mitigating their causes in such a way that they never have the chance to harm you in the first place. Both of these aspects are intertwined, however.

Most technology deals with both ends of this spectrum at the same time. Take, for instance, collision avoidance. It’s a safety feature, in that its whole point is to steer you away from the possibility of a crash. But it can also be an active security system: if another car cuts you off, it can avoid that potential crash, too. Some of the more advanced systems can also stop you from causing an accident, by creating a negative feedback in steering or simply ignoring your movements of the wheel completely.

Safety and security aren’t limited to electronic assistance. They go back to the beginning of time. Any non-hunting weapon (or hunting weapon used for self-defense) is an implement of security. So are bodyguards and even standing armies. Public policies dating back to the age of Rome and before instituted measures of safety, from sanitation standards to traffic ordinances to weapons bans. (Whether these worked, of course, is a matter of debate.)

Socially speaking, there are also two ways we can look at safety. First, we can take it into our own hands. Anyone who owns a gun, has an alarm system, or even wears a seatbelt is doing exactly this. By following what we perceive to be “best practices”, we can make ourselves as safe as we wish. If X will harm you, then you try to put yourself in a position where X can’t get to you.

The alternative (not that they are mutually exclusive) is to put your trust in another. We also do that all the time. The whole point of a society based on the rule of law is that someone, somewhere, is responsible for the safety of the public. Whether that’s a king, president, or whatever you like, it doesn’t matter. Someone is looking out for you. We can’t protect against every threat, so we delegate to them.

Safety in magic

Most of our best safety and security comes from technology, whether that’s guns, cameras, anti-virus programs, or just a combination lock. Since we’ve established that magic can replace an awful lot of tech, we have to wonder: can magic make people safer?

Well, we’ve already seen a couple of realms where it does: medicine and self-defense. That’s proof enough of the merit of magical security. But how much further can we take this?

If your magic system allows shields of force (for this series, ours doesn’t, but bear with me), then that right there is a great example. Something like that would become extremely popular, especially if it’s not that hard to make. A single charm or enchantment that makes you all but immune to weapons, blunt trauma, falling, and the elements? You’d be crazy not to get one. But let’s say you’re working with something a little more low-key, like we are. We don’t have the luxury of an easy illustration of the power of magical security, so we’ll have to look at a few other possibilities.

We have an amplifying spell. A crafty mage can take this and turn it around. Instead of a speaker making his voice louder, a wary person can make ambient sounds louder. Sounds like, say, someone creeping through the bushes. It’s a primitive, but useful, security microphone. From the same earlier entry in this series, we also see a ventriloquist effect that can serve as a helpful bit of misdirection. If they think you’re over there, but you’re really here, those dangerous enemies will be out of position, giving you time to strike or run away.

Magical power, whether electrical or motive, gives us the opportunity to create such things as self-locking doors and electrified fences. Metallurgy, improved by the arcane arts, makes it easier to forge heavy, secure locks, but also the delicate keys needed to open them. A mage’s invisible markings can be used as fingerprinting or watermarking: a secure method of verifying the identity of a message’s sender. On the safety side, we have, of course, medicine and sanitation as the big winners, but they’re not the only ones.

Magic, and the scientific, empirical mindset it’s bringing to our fictional realm, will make many areas safer. From the grand (weather forecasting) to the mundane (washing hands), as our magical society becomes more advanced, it will seek out ways to keep its populace safe and secure. Sometimes, this may go too far—the seemingly inexorable slide of our own world into a surveillance state is an example—but one can hope the mages are smarter.

Safe and sound

If you’ll recall, our magical kingdom is, technologically speaking, still in the late medieval era. The added magic, however, is bringing it up to near-modern levels. Part of that advancement is in making people safer. If you do that, they live longer, healthier, better lives. They become more productive, and you eventually get that positive reinforcement that can explode into modernity. All you have to do is take some of the danger out of the world. Once the existential threats are no longer, people can begin to make themselves better.

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