Magic and tech: information technology

In our modern era, we are well and truly blessed when it comes to information. We have the Internet, of course, with its wealth of knowledge. In only a few seconds, any of us can call up even the most obscure facts. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but it’s more than people from just a hundred years ago could dream of. To someone from the Renaissance or earlier, it really would be magic.


Since the written record is often all we have of older cultures, it’s fairly easy to trace the development of information technology. The Internet is only a few decades old, as we know. Telephones, television, and telegraphs (notice a theme there?) preceded that. Radio transmission goes back only a hundred years or so; before its invention, your choices for communication were mostly limited to the written word.

Writing dates back millennia. It’s the oldest and most stable method of storing information that we have. From clay tablets and inscriptions, we can follow its trail through the ages. Papyrus and parchment have been replaced by paper, which is now giving way to LEDs and flash memory, but the idea remains the same. Although the form modern writing takes would astound anyone from earlier times, its function would be familiar in an instant.

In those older days, what options do you have for information and communication? If you’re literate—not everyone was—you can write, obviously, but there’s only so much that gets you. The Chinese invented a printing press about a thousand years ago, but they didn’t really find it useful; if you look at the Chinese script, you’ll probably see why. The Western, alphabetic, world loved it when they got it four centuries later. Copying by hand was your only option for most things before that. (Seals and stamps had limited use, and block printing didn’t show up in Europe until a couple of generations before Gutenberg.)

The form of a written text also changed through history. That’s mostly because of the conditions. Scrolls work better for some materials, but the codex (books like ours) is more compact, and it’s a more natural fit for paper. And letters can be written on anything handy, even bits of other works!

Add the magic

So, in the era we’re covering, the printing press hasn’t been invented. Woodblocks are a new innovation just now trickling in. Most work is done on parchment, some on paper, and it’s done almost exclusively by hand. Scribing and copying are important professions, and their services are always in high demand. And, thanks to the relative lack of supply, the written word is expensive. Can our magical society improve on this state of affairs? If so, how?

A general copying spell (like D&D’s Amanuensis) is too much to ask for, but that hasn’t stopped some mages from trying. But our magic kingdom does have a few information innovations that have become commonplace. One isn’t connected to writing at all, but to speaking: a spell that increases the volume and clarity of a speaker’s voice. In other words, it’s a PA system. In real life, before the invention of electrical amplification, you had to use natural means, mostly in the form of architecture; amphitheaters aren’t built that way just for looks. In this magical land, though, a good acoustic setting is no longer so vital. Anyone can make his voice heard, anywhere, no matter how large the crowd.

Long-distance communication also isn’t as big a problem. Historically, conversing with someone in another city was hard, involving a back-and-forth series of letters. With the upgraded travel abilities of this society, mail delivery gets a boost, too, but that’s not the only option. Through use of a hand-sized glass ball (essentially the same as a crystal ball or Tolkien’s palantír), direct communication can be achieved. It’s highly limited, however. For one, there’s the expense of creating and imbuing the spheres. Then, it’s only a one-to-one system, as speech is transmitted in something like telepathy. No conference calls or broadcasts, unfortunately.

But even this is a huge step up from couriers. Every town of more than a few hundred people has at least one dedicated connection, usually staffed by junior or washed-up mages. For a small fee, short messages can be sent over the spheres to loved ones, acquaintances, or tradesmen in nearby cities. Longer distances can be covered by a relay system, and the biggest cities are set up as centralized “hubs”, with dozens of connections to their neighbors and the most important places.

The overall effect is a society where people are more likely to be aware of what’s outside their locale. Like the telegraph systems of the 1800s (which directly influenced this idea), communication in this world has become more “real-time”. Unlike telegraphs, the magic spheres are wireless, so they can also be taken aboard ships and to foreign lands. No more waiting two years to hear from sailors at sea, not when they can give you daily updates. True, they may only be a few words in length, but Twitter only gives you 140 characters, and people love it.

More magic

So that’s communication improved by magic. What about the storage of information? We can’t do too much better than printed books without some serious technological improvement, and I’ve already said that these guys don’t even have printing. Can we do better than hand-copied manuscripts?

By using the same endurance spells as before, scribes can work longer and faster, increasing their output. Memory-aiding spells, which have near-infinite uses, can give a true photographic memory that would mean fewer books are necessary; high wizards are their own libraries. (That also cuts down on spell thievery and protects the secrets of the arcane from outsiders.)

A path recently explored involves an enchanted plate of glass. That’s already a hard sell, due to the higher cost of plate glass—magic helps this somewhat, as we’ll see later on—and the further expense of the enchantment. But this particular spell “freezes” an image in the glass for a time. The mage holds the pane between himself and the scene he wishes to capture, and he invokes the spell. Almost instantly, the image is frozen. It’s not permanent (it lasts a few years at most) but it does record in clear color. The downside is that one piece of this glass can only “hold” a single picture. The first use of this particular advance in magic has been in art, strangely enough, capturing images that painters can then use as models.

The wizards do have a few other minor aids to information technology. Invisible ink is known in our world, but they have a variant that really is invisible to anyone other than another mage. Short-distance voice transmission spells are easy enough that they’re mostly used by young adepts for pranks. Writing materials are not limited to parchment and paper; “burning” pens allow one to write on wood, metal, or just about anything else. But the more traditional materials are also easier to make, thanks to spells that speed the fabrication processes. And when printing does come, magical propulsion will quickly make it as fast as Industrial-era presses.

What do you know?

In the end, the magical society doesn’t have much that can top handwriting…yet. That doesn’t mean they’re stuck with medieval-era information tech, though. The magic-based telegraph and photograph are some 500 years ahead of their natural counterparts, and they both help to create a populace more aware of its surroundings, of its setting. On top of that, scribes can work harder and faster (and with better eyesight!) than their Earthly kin, meaning that they make more books. More books means more opportunity to read, which encourages a higher literacy rate. The final result: a well-read, well-informed people.

It’s far from modern, granted. It’s not even that close to Victorian, except for our magical answer to the telegraph. But the larger amount of information available is going to have a ripple effect, as we’ll see in coming posts. Everything from espionage to economics changes when people know what’s going on.

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