"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is a maxim put forth by Arthur C. Clarke, and it’s an idea that resonates with me now more than ever. When so many workings behind everyday technology are beyond the average user’s understanding, how can we make the digital experience more navigable? When I write content for an online course or gamified learning, I’m always trying to help learners connect onscreen interactions to physical realities. E-learning uses the virtual to affect the actual. At NogginLabs, writers, designers and programmers embrace a common mindset of material design principles. We work together to elegantly engage learners with every aspect of the e-learning experience.
Material design codifies a new visual language based on an ancient and perhaps magical notion: metaphor. This interaction between substance and concept is one of mankind’s oldest and strongest learning tools, present in both the earliest folktales and in the latest e-learning. Now, before you dismiss me as some crystal-polishing New Ager, consider this: Steve Jobs described the iPad, upon its release, as “magical.” Sure, that term was met with some derision at the time. But writer Warren Ellis observes that magical methods, such as alchemy, are the foundations of what became the scientific method—they were fundamentally the same thing until Newtonian thought began to divide the two.
Ellis says, “Technology is the aspiration to replicate the condition of magic.” This elaborates on Clarke’s statement. Ellis doesn’t see advanced technology as magical merely because it inspires awe and wonder. Advanced technology is also magical because it affects change in accordance with our wishes. E-learning creates simulations and coveys representations through which learners gain understanding by interaction. By engaging with one thing (a pharmaceutical product-knowledge quiz, a retail simulation for clothing, or a lifeguarding module) they learn to succeed at another (a sales call with a health care professional, an in-store encounter with a customer, or the rescue of a drowning swimmer).
All of this broadly connects to the first principle of material design: Material is the metaphor. Our understanding of the representational is rooted in our comprehension of the physical. As Google explains it:
A material metaphor is the unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion. The material is grounded in tactile reality, inspired by the study of paper and ink, yet technologically advanced and open to imagination and magic.
Again we see the emergence of the magical intertwined with the technological, this time with another element: imagination. Imagination is what innovates. It’s what inspires the best e-learning, and it is what brings it to life in a learner’s mind. It helps people connect with customers, travel the world, win marathons, and save lives. And it all comes from a light-emitting rectangle on top of a desk or the palm of your hand. Everyone from Arthur C. Clark to Steve Jobs, from Warren Ellis to Google agrees—it’s a magical thing.