Indistinguishable from Magic
Magical Technology: iPod, Spotify, Figma, AI Art, Arc, web3, and beyond
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It’s been in private beta for just over a year, but this week it publicly launched for everyone, was #1 on Product Hunt, and announced its Series B funding. So what’s its magic?
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Hi friends 👋,
Happy Monday! Last week, I asked people on Twitter for the best essays and blog posts they’ve ever read. They delivered. You should check out the replies. There’s so much gold in there.
I think as a result of reading so much great stuff, I had more fun writing this week’s piece than I’ve had writing in a long time. It just flowed, like some of those other authors’ je ne sais quoi rubbed off on me.
I hope you like this one, and if you do, that you’ll share it and spread the magic.
Let’s get to it.
Indistinguishable from Magic
There’s a famous quote from “English science-fiction writer, science writer, futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host” Arthur C. Clarke. You probably already know the one I’m talking about:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
That’s been quoted so many times that it’s lost its meaning. “Yeah, yeah, technology can be really cool. I get it.” Personally, when I read it, I think about the technology itself, but that’s not the important part. The important part is the magical experience a sufficiently advanced technology makes people feel.
Here’s what I mean in an example. Sending a rocket into space with people on it and bringing them back to Earth safely, is, at least to my non-rocket scientist brain, indistinguishable from magic. But the technology itself wasn’t nearly as magical as watching, two months into COVID lockdowns, SpaceX and NASA send humans to space from American soil for the first time in nearly a decade.
While the launch itself was a feat of engineering, the fact that watching it could transport me from the tiny apartment we’d been locked in for two months and into orbit might as well have been a feat of real, honest-to-Merlin magic.
I’ve been writing a lot about technology’s role in making the future better, about how it can improve metrics like lifespan and economic output and lift people out of poverty. As Balaji wrote, “If the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality.” That’s all incredibly important and I’m going to keep writing about it. But I also think that, technology can play another, equally important role: help people experience magic.
Rocket launches are big, once-in-a-while events, but technology can create more quotidian magic, too. Jumping into a chat room with my friends on AIM when I was younger was magical. Meeting someone at a party in college and coming home to the Friend Request on Facebook was magical. Pulling up all of the world’s music on Spotify from my phone for the first time was magical. Today, getting the prompt right and watching what DALL•E and Stable Diffusion come back with is magical. Jumping into a well-curated space in OnCyber is magical. Even using the browser I’m using right now – Arc by The Browser Company – feels magical.
Magic can, even must, be a strategy for startups. It’s something they can uniquely create, that incumbents often can’t.
Last week, Figma announced that Adobe was acquiring the company for $20 billion (plus an extra $2 billion in potential options).
Figma is just a decade old. It came into a space that Adobe completely dominated. If you had evaluated Figma vs. Adobe at the time, you would have pointed to Adobe’s network effects, the high switching costs for designers, and its more richly developed product suite. What you might have underestimated was Figma’s magic.
I’m not a designer. I tried using Photoshop once (evidence below) and gave up. It was too complicated. There were too many features. I never knew what layer to use. Then, when I started writing this newsletter, I tried Figma. It was magic. I could actually do things – not well, but I could do them – and all of a sudden, visuals became part of Not Boring’s identity. All of it, right there in the browser. I, never before a target customer for a design tool, became part of the TAM. I created more myself, and told other people about Figma, too.
There are a lot of reasons that Figma succeeded in the face of a much bigger competitor to the point that that competitor was forced to pay 50x ARR to stop the advance. Practically everyone in tech has shared their opinion in the past few days. Kevin Kwok broke many of those reasons down in his classic Why Figma Wins and I agree with all of it. But what the piece doesn’t address – even though the mechanics Kevin covers are inputs to it – is the magic powers that Figma gives its users. Just look at all of the results for “Figma magic” on Twitter. As if on cue, Adobe’s Chief Product Officer, Scott Belsky, tweeted: “Figma will continue to operate w/ autonomy, continuing to work their magic.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The sufficiently advanced part of that gets less credit than it deserves, too, and I think it holds the key to why startups have a magic advantage over incumbents. Kwok wrote that Figma’s network effects were “made possible by Figma’s key early choices like:
Architecting Figma to be truly browser-first, instead of just having storage be in the cloud
Their head start in new technologies like WebGL and CRDTs that made this browser-first approach possible”
Starting with a blank canvas, Figma was able to choose the (right) sufficiently advanced technologies at that moment in time without worrying about two decades’ worth of technical debt. As a young startup, it could focus on creating magic and ride that magic until, one day, it, too, had too much technical debt, until we were all too used to its technology to be awed, and until the demands of the public markets forced it to make the kinds of practical business-driven decisions that kill the magic.
Design Twitter melted down upon hearing the news of the Adobe acquisition, fearing that Adobe would kill everything that made the product beautiful. But whether Adobe accelerates the downfall or not (and I think both Scott Belsky and Figma CEO Dylan Field are good enough that it won’t), the magic would have, eventually, degraded anyway.
It’s the Magical Startup Circle of Life. A startup, if it’s lucky, creates magic, turns that magic into dollars, and transitions to life as a successful Big Muggle Company, capable of enormous profits and power but no longer able to conjure magic. Then a new Magician comes along, using sufficiently advanced technology to build something indistinguishable from magic, and uses that magic as a wedge to challenge the Big Muggle Company.
My friend Nathan Baschez’s conspiracy theory captures the idea well:
When I decided to write a piece on magical tech a few weeks ago, it was more negative. The draft I started was titled “Where Did the Magical Tech Go?” It was inspired by personal frustration and a wave of tweets that proved I wasn’t alone.
I was planning to bemoan the loss of magic in the products I once loved and try to figure out why the technology I use isn’t as magical as it once was. But that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is more fascinating. The last generation of magical products has matured, turned into Muggles, and in so doing, has cleared space for a new cohort of Magicians.
So let’s take a trip down Memory Lane to remember and celebrate those once-magical products, before getting excited all over again about the new magic being created today.
The Last Era’s Magic
Exactly one decade ago, in the summer of 2012, I taught myself to “code” and spun up a website for the party bus “startup” I ran, ThrowGo.
Each weekend in the summer, I’d rent party buses to take other young New Yorkers from the city to Avalon, NJ and the Hamptons. As you can see, the website was horrendous, but to me, it was magical. Instead of having to deal with a wave of texts while at my day job, people could just book directly online, and then pay on the bus via cash or a Square reader. Riders could #throwgo on Instagram and the photos (usually) automatically got pulled into the site, where they could relive half-drunk memories (or hit themselves with an extra dose of FOMO). And with a nifty little Spotify embed, anyone could add songs to the playlist that we’d listen to on the ride.
Spotify was particularly magical. I grew up in the era of dial-up and Napster and Limewire. I was used to having to wait minutes while a song downloaded, then doing the same thing 14-20 times (you could try to do them all at once, but then they all slowed down) before burning them onto a CD, which I could play in the car until it got so scratched that it didn’t work anymore or until I was sick of the songs. Sometimes, I’d download a song and it wasn’t what I wanted. Other times, I couldn’t download the song at all. When iTunes came out, it at least guaranteed that I’d get the song I wanted, even if it still took some time to download and cost a then-pricey $0.99 per track. It was definitely better, and the iPod, with its 1,000 songs in my pocket, was pretty damn magical.
I remember the first time I listened to an iPod. It wasn’t mine. It was also on a bus, on a school field trip to Killington, Vermont. I sat next to my friend Pat Wilkinson, because he was one of my best friends, and also because he’d just bought an iPod. He let me listen to it, and while our taste in music didn’t overlap perfectly (his was more refined, he had older siblings), I scrolled that scroll pad until I found something that we both liked:
I clicked, the wheel clicked back, and the song played. Magical. But I don’t think I’ve thought about that moment until I weaved my way there a couple paragraphs ago. Typing “iTunes” triggered “iPod” in my brain, and the memory came back.
Spotify was a different story. I’ve thought about my first Spotify experience a lot. I vividly remember the first time we used Spotify on the party bus. It was a Sunday. People were half-asleep, half-dead, just hoping to survive the trip back to the city. But as sometimes happened, a small group didn’t want to waste the last few party-able hours of the weekend before heading back to the office.
So I plugged in my phone to the audio jack and connected to the Spotify app.
I asked my friends Kirk and Nick what they wanted to listen to, we picked a crowd pleaser, searched it, and … there it was.
No download. No $0.99. It was just there, waiting to be played. We were blown away. We talked about tracking down Daniel Ek and investing (even at today’s depressed prices, that would have been a 19.6x from the $1 billion valuation the company had hit in its latest round in 2011). The internet was so fucking cool.
I have similar memories of the first times I used Google, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Uber, SeamlessWeb, Twitter, the iPhone, Venmo, and Airbnb. Each one was a HOLY SHIT experience. Each one was magic.
Airbnb specifically borrowed processes and people from the Magic Kingdom in order to create magical experiences for its guests and hosts. It used storyboards inspired by Disney’s Snow White to map out guests’ and hosts’ journeys. It recently hired Brian Vaughn, the former Chief Creative Executive at Disney Imagineering, to lead its Experiential Creative Product team.
For a while, it worked. Airbnb created magic. Recently, though, as people have gotten used to the power to book a room or house anywhere in the world, and as the company and its hosts have professionalized, most of the Airbnb commentary I see is around its high cleaning and service fees, inconsistent accommodations, and recent decision to ban parties. Hotels – “At least they’re consistent!” – are back in vogue.
Sorcerers can’t hold spells forever. Magic fades. I still use most of those products – I’m listening to Spotify as I write this – but they feel mundane.
Blame familiarity. Blame business models. Blame technical debt. Blame multivariate testing and optimization. Blame the cruel coldness of the market. Blame the hedonic treadmill. Blame our unending pursuit of shiny new things. Blame human nature.
In the 1888 book, Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887, Edward Bellamy sends his narrator forward in time to the year 2000, to feast upon the technological delights of the future. As Brad DeLong describes in Slouching Towards Utopia, the narrator is gobsmacked when he’s asked if he wants to hear some music, and his hostess simply dials up one of four local orchestras on the landline phone and fills the apartment with music. The narrator observes:
If we [in the 1800s] could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity attained.
I fear Bellamy’s narrator would have fainted if, just twelve years further in the future, he could have pressed the glass screen of a mobile telephone and dialed up any song from a near-infinite catalog, perfect in quality, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will… on a moving vehicle.
We all have that capability today, and yet no one reading this would argue that we’ve reached “the limit of human felicity.” Instead, we complain when things aren’t perfect, when the new thing doesn’t come fast enough, when the pretty new thing works a little less well than usual. I’m guilty of griping about the degradation in the Spotify app’s performance after they added video to podcasts:
Louis CK captured this sentiment perfectly in a 2015 appearance on Conan O’Brien:
Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a BIRD? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing ZERO? Everyone on every plane should just constantly be going OH MY GOD! WOW! You’re flying. You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky.
One solution to this ever present human dilemma might be to encourage everyone in the world to spend hours each day meditating, learning not to want, or at least to be happy with what we have. Certainly it’s worth pausing right now to appreciate that we are living in a future that 99% of people in human history couldn’t have even begun to imagine.
Okay, assuming that we can’t change human nature and believing that progress is a good thing, another, more practical solution is to keep creating magical technology.
I had a whole section in that earlier draft of this piece going through each of the products I once found magical and explaining why the magic is gone: Google searches are a messy mess, Facebook has optimized its core product to death, Instagram is Reeling, etc…
But I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s just the way of things. Initially magical products become less magical with time.
That graph looks depressing on the individual product level. On the ecosystem level, however, it’s beautiful in a way that I’m not good enough at Figma to illustrate. Like a brush fire clearing ground for new trees, or better yet, like water rushing from one part of a water balloon to another when you squeeze it, the magic that disappears in one place reappears in another.
The next generation of entrepreneurs gets to build with an understanding, if only subconscious, that they need to create experiences more magical than the ones that came before, and with new, sufficiently advanced technology to help them do it. I see your Walkman, and I raise you an iPod. I see your iPod, and I raise you a Spotify app!
The hedonic treadmill is more like a hedonic trail, winding upwards towards experiences that are ever-more indistinguishable from magic. The stream of novel technologies is part of the act, meta-entertainment that shocks and inspires before we understand the trick.
The death of magic in the products that once awed us isn’t the death of technology’s magic, at least if you’re curious and nimble enough to jump on the Next Big Thing’s learning curve.
So what’s next?
Old magic fades and clears room for new magic. Abracadabra.
I asked Twitter for their most magical recent tech experiences a few weeks ago, kind of expecting that people were going to say the magic was gone. They did not say that.
With the caveat that my reach on Twitter isn’t representative of the whole world, here are the products the people who replied think are most magical:
The thing that struck me making that graphic (in Figma, of course) was that you might not recognize a lot of those logos. I was going to label them, but the lack of familiarity proves the point: new tech has a magic advantage.
Here’s the list, with names and categories:
We’ve entered a new era of magic, led by, but certainly not limited to, AI.
That makes sense, because AI may be the most magical tech ever built in that, often, even the people who write the code don’t understand how or why the programs do what they do. Still, it’s striking. After decades of AI failing to live up to the hype, seven of the sixteen most popular responses, including three of the top five, are AI-based products.
If you combine the results for DALL•E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney, AI Image Generation is the most magical category of products by nearly 4x the next closest contender. A lot of ink has been spilled in the past few weeks on what’s happening and why and what it means – I like these from Nathan Baschez, Kevin Roose, Roon, and Ben Thompson, but there are many more – so I won’t go into all of that in this essay. What I think is most interesting as it relates to today’s topic is how much closer AI gets us to what we traditionally think about as magic.
Text interfaces let people type in a few words and get back exactly what they want. Not because the AI is super good at searching through a catalog of existing things, but because the words brought exactly that thing to life for the first time ever.
“Make any idea real. Just write it.”
We’re one small leap – some enterprising young coder hooking Stable Diffusion up to a voice input – from being able to speak words to conjure magic, incantation brought to reality.
Incidentally, this is why the argument over whether or not AI generated art is really art is silly, and why artists (or people who hone their spellcasting skills) are still going to get better results than the untrained. We still need to use the right words. Hermione and Ron both have magic at their disposal; Hermione is much better at it.
Jason Allen won the digital art category at the Colorado State Fair with this magnificent piece:
I asked Stable Diffusion to make me a “French Toaster” after Dev expected that that’s what we need to use to make French Toast, and I got this:
While there will be challenges, it seems a foregone conclusion that building new products that harness the power of our new AI capabilities will be a new vector that Magicians can use to attack Muggles. Any incumbent that can be challenged by a startup that seamlessly integrates AI into its product from the beginning, will be.
The rush to invest in AI startups will kick off a new Hype Cycle, but if some of those startups can create enough magic, channel it into a viable business model, and become so ingrained that they, too, feel mundane, the hype will be justified, the Plateau of Productivity reached, and room cleared for the next Magicians to come in and awe us once again, with bigger, bolder, even more magical products.
AI isn’t the only channel for magic, though, as the list shows. Magicians can enchant everyday products – products that we use every day – too.
The second most magical product on the list, Arc from The Browser Company, reimagines the browser.
That is a crazy category in which to compete. If Adobe seemed a daunting foe, the competition in the browser game is downright prohibitive.
Google’s Chrome has a 65.5% global market share. To get to second or third, you need to knock off Apple and Microsoft. Those are the three most valuable tech companies in the world, and all have deeply entrenched distribution advantages.
How do you even begin to compete against that three-headed monster?
The same way Harry did, of course: magic.
I’ve been using Arc for a couple of months, and I don’t have a better way to describe it than “magical.” It’s lighter and faster than Chrome. Ctrl+T feels like a superpower. Screenshots are built in natively and just work without eating all of my data. Downloads appear where they should, and images automagically get saved to an easy-to-find Library. Pinned tabs don’t stare you in the face. Old tabs disappear overnight, clearing space for fresh adventures.
I could go on, but magic isn’t about feature lists, it’s about how those features combine to create a feeling in the user. And two weeks in, I’m still delighted every time I open up Arc.
It’s still very early, and it’s going to be a long time before Arc makes even a small dent in those market share numbers, but I think the company is going to be successful in a way I didn’t previously believe that a browser startup could.
I have a thesis I’m workshopping that there’s a wave of “Small Apps” coming as a result of tools like Replit, Urbit, Ceramic, and web3 more broadly. I think that Arc might be building towards a world in which our online experience is more bespoke, and building an interface that helps its users navigate that world.
Different people find different things magical, and Small Apps allow Magicians to focus on creating magical products tailored to small niches.
I wrote that screenshot essay and shared it on Farcaster, a web3 social app, which is magical in its own right, in part because the community there is so small and aligned. It’s invite-only for now, and limited to people with an Ethereum wallet, so I felt comfortable sharing a half-baked essay there in a way that I’m no longer comfortable doing on Twitter, where trolls lurk among my 167k followers.
For that reason, Farcaster could be a victim of its own success as it grows. There’s a special magic in small communities.
But Farcaster itself could remain a Small App, with a smallish community; what the company behind it is building is a protocol on top of which any number of social apps can be built. By stoking the magic of small communities, and allowing founders to decide who’s allowed in their community based on what’s in their wallet, those Small Social Apps, taken together, might steal time and attention from Twitter, a once-magical product that seems so entrenched that it would be hard to defeat alone.
If that happens, it will come to pass in part because of the third most magical product on the list: web3 wallets.
While web3 isn’t magical to everyone, there’s a large group for whom the ability to use a wallet as a key to forbidden lands feels like a superpower. I’ve written before that I think the next bull cycle will have to be fueled by consumer apps that people actually enjoy using, and web3 entrepreneurs who win will have to harness the sufficiently advanced technology at their disposal to lean into the magic. I love, as a handful of examples, what Arkive, Tally Labs, StoryDAO, Aku, OnCyber, and Startupy (all portfolio companies, for this reason) are doing to create magic with their communities.
Personally, my most magical tech experience of the past year was taking part in ConstitutionDAO and watching comments roll in alongside contributions. That was a more fleeting kind of magic, an event instead of a company, but the emotion it created hints at why I think it’s so important that startups focus on more than just efficiency and productivity and progress. Magic is valuable in its own right.
Magical Technology is Important
Building a magical product doesn’t guarantee a big exit like Figma’s. I don’t need to name the countless startups that found a fleeting magic spark only to fade away. You’ve used them, briefly. In categories with entrenched incumbents, magic is the best weapon, but it’s not a Avada Kedavra.
But whether or not the company is ultimately successful, it’s worth building magical products in the same way it’s worth creating art, playing sports, or doing standup comedy.
I hope that technology gives everyone cheap, abundant power, flying cars, and longer, healthier lives. But even the most spectacular of those becomes normal, even boring over time. In Slouching Towards Utopia, DeLong quotes Leon Trotsky (that Leon Trotsky) on his observations from his years living in America:
They—particularly the children—were overwhelmed by the prosperity of the United States and by the technological marvels that they saw in everyday use: The children had new friends. The closest was the chauffeur of Dr. M. The doctor’s wife took my wife and the boys out driving[;]… the chauffeur was a magician, a titan, a superman! With a wave of his hand, he made the machine obey his slightest command. To sit beside him was the supreme delight.
Today, nobody would describe a ride in a car as magical. Uber was magical the first handful of times; now, it feels too expensive, its ETAs too inaccurate. Tesla’s Full Self-Driving feels magical to those lucky enough to have tried it, and autonomous vehicles will feel magical for a while, too, before they don’t. We’ll use the time in the self-driven car to send emails and argue and drink and read and do all of the things we do anyway. We’ll still complain about traffic jams.
But the ever-moving goalpost of sufficiently advanced technology will continue to pull new magical experiences out of Magicians, in the same way that sports or entertainment do. On its face, taking hours to watch a game or a movie feels like a waste of time, but billions of people spend trillions of hours doing both in large part for the chance that they might feel a little magic for a little while.
At its best, technology can do the same. We need new apps and products and experiences not just to feed Moloch and grease the wheels of capitalism, but to feel like we’re living a life in which surprise and delight and mystery are possible.
Those who can create magic will win. Those who lose the magic will, eventually, die out. New and different are better in their own right.
Apple is a company known for creating magic. Steve Jobs’ keynotes are Magicians’ canon, and even after his passing, Apple Events were where the tech industry turned three or four times a year to see the cutting edge. Since hardware upgrades unveiled at the most recent event were ho-hum, Apple made it a point to roll out a magical new feature – Dynamic Island – to keep the spark alive.
But even Apple might be vulnerable to new magic. In July, to less fanfare, Humane, founded by former Apple execs, released a trailer hinting ever so slightly at its upcoming top-secret product:
It’s too early to claim Humane will even make a dent in Apple. It still needs to launch a product, for one thing.
But the trailer made me feel something, and the tagline nails how this works. Once again, as always:
“It’s time for a change, not more of the same.”
That’s all for today. We’ll be back with Weekly Dose of Optimism lucky number 13 on Friday. Have a great week!
Thanks for reading,