Harry Potter and the Curse of Technology

More foreigners. Here! In fairest San Francisco. They’re nothing like us. They dress funny. They talk funny. They are, these fresh invaders, thoroughly technophobic. They are the witches and wizards of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, now playing at the Curran Theatre off Union Square. Picture black capes everywhere, billowing.

Do they love us? Help us? Assimilate to our ways? Heavens to Weasley, no. They are the outsiders, yet we are the ones judged. Wizardkind pities us, merest muggles, our modernities and our dependencies. Always has—as its best-known chronicler, J. K. Rowling, unambiguously documents: “To fill one’s house with tumble dryers and telephones,” she writes, “would be seen as an admission of magical inadequacy.” When a witch searches the web, she does so only “out of slightly condescending curiosity.” (Slightly: as if that softens the blow.) As for Hogwarts, don’t even bother. There, electronics crap out, explode.

Strong magic, you see, interferes with technology—an anti-luminiferous aether. Fritzes it, short-circuits it, skunks it dead. It has its odd enthusiast, an Arthur Weasley type who’s charmed by the uncharmed, but by and large the wizarding world eschews e-anything, preferring to send endangered owls over terrific distances than emails at the speed of light. Wands only, the signage might as well say. No widgets.

Technophobia made more sense in the calmer, carefreer ’90s, perhaps, when the events of the books took place. Harry Potter was born on July 31, 1980, too soon to be a digital native and therefore more plausibly, as a beleaguered tween, offline. (Not that his broom cupboard would’ve ever gotten good reception.) By the time the internet went wide, he had, you know, the soul-shards of a genocidal serpent-man to hunt down. @boywholived hasn’t tweeted yet. Fair enough.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is quite another story. Picking up where the epilogue left off 19 years hence, and then leapfrogging forward three Hogwarts terms, it’s set in our present. Slightly ahead of it, to be precise: the year 2020. Surely, in this time of peak technology, even the purest-blooded of magical teens would suffer a spark of FOMO vis-à-vis the innovations of their nonmagical brethren? Seek the curated fraternity of a finsta? Crave the nanofame of TikTok? Nope, no, definitely not. When two of them, BFFs Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, get lost in the Forbidden Forest, they don’t even have phones their worried parents can text or track. Instead, Potter senior has to importune a surly centaur. Who speaks in riddles.

Maybe magic is so satisfying that even the most tempting technologies pale pitifully in comparison. As Rowling puts it, “When your newspaper has moving pictures and everyday objects sometimes talk to you, then the internet does not seem a particularly exciting place.” Over and above that false equivalence, the particulars of her claim, made in 2015, show their age. Pictures do move now, from Live Photos to autoplaying title cards on Netflix. Everyday objects do talk to us, from phones to speakers. (Also, invisibility cloaks are theoretically possible.) Magicfolk, we’re catching up.

More likely, the resistance, this mass non-adoption of technology, has to do with the interference thing. Remember, wands waylay widgets. Even if young Albus wanted to watch Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, his angsty ethereal energies would flare up at the worst moments and blip out the TV set. It’s possible, then, that wizards have been disguising their tech envy all this time as superiority. Upset by their innate inability to operate machinery, they have dismissed technology in toto as a crutch of the weak.

True though this may be, some funkiness remains. A sense or suspicion of illusion, of delusion. An error at the heart of things. Rowling’s explanation, that magic breaks tech—it’s unsatisfying. In her view, magic is the opposite of technology, metaphysical. But what property of such an otherworldly force could possibly interfere with electronics, which are decidedly this-worldly? Wouldn’t magic have to, itself, be this-worldly in some way? Likely electromagnetic, signal-jamming? Wouldn’t it have to be—as Arthur C. Clarke ruled long ago—technology itself, just supremely advanced?

Recall his old apothegm: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Over-invoked in the annals of tech writing, Clarke’s Third Law is often subjected to a kind of literalism that is rarely, if ever, enlightening. Accessible to all, technology can never be magic, his critics say, because magic is manipulable only by a blessed few. Anyone can snap Live Photos, in other words, but only wizards can paint moving portraits. This is probably inarguable. It’s also irrelevant, a conceit of fantasy writers working metaphorically. What Clarke, working prophetically, is saying is that magic is never real. Anything that looks like it is not. It’s simply beyond our immediate scientific capacity to comprehend.

So they are us; the wizards are we (and Rowling merely a faulty interpreter). This, it must be stated, helps conquer mutual prejudices. Wizards don’t hate muggles so much as they hate themselves. In their obsession with and reliance on “magic,” they’re no freer than we are, in thrall to a power beyond control. They don’t send owls for the convenience of it. They’re manifesting their own version of retromania. Just as tech-addled and -addicted muggles revert to the tactility of analog devices to preserve their sanity, so too do magic-weary wizards prefer lighting candles and living in castles. Survival tactics in a scary world. Reminders of their humanity.

Muggles of San Francisco and beyond: Let’s take the lesson. They’ve arrived, these foreigners, not to boast or brag but to expose our weaknesses and illuminate our lives. We’re spell-casters, same as them. We summon Ubers, conjure food at our door. What’s “Google” but an incantation, a funny word that signifies a shift in perception, a change in reality? At the center of everything is our phone, our wand. The wand is the widget. Highly personalized. An extension (less spindly) of ourselves. Clutched with the same Gollum grip. Capable of both blessings and curses. Even unforgivable ones. With their wands, dark wizards can cause extreme pain, control minds, and kill. With our phones—here’s where the mirror shivers and cracks—so can we.

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