In an discussion I had with a friend recently, the topic of balancing magic vs technology came up, when it comes to worldbuilding as a whole. We could get more philosophical than is necessary here with questions like “should magic (or either, actually, but uuuuuuusually it’s the magic) even be balanced in the first place? “No” is a perfectly valid answer a lot of the time, but for this exercise, let’s just imagine that we do want them to be “balanced”.
Wait, wow, hold on. What does balance even mean in this context? Well, that’s just the thing, it depends on your interpretation. Normally, and for myself as well, it would mean that neither is strictly better than the other. Most people usually understand what that means very intuitively even without overthinking the subject, which is great.
But equally as many people have a hard time imagining how that could be the case in the first place. I’ve seen lines of thought like “well, magic is imbalanced anyway” and “it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s magic” unfortunately many times over the years. Which… I won’t call stupid per se, since it’s perfectly fine to have a magic system that is “bullshit” (I mean this in the nicest way possible). But while it’s not stupid or bad to think like that, I find it at the very least incredibly boring. Luckily, even though that type of thinking isn’t as rare as I think it should be, it’s also not the only one out there. Most people perfectly well realise that you can have more tame and grounded magic. Just like you can have absolutely bullshit and overpowered technology.
Point is, it’s all a matter of preference, and as the worldbuilder you can set each of the two exactly where you them on the power level axis. So, the two can be balanced in that regard. In my world, technology and magic are methods for achieving effects, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This article isn’t about my world though, so I’ll leave it at that, but maybe this is a good opportunity for a follow up piece. Anyway, when we realise that nothing is truly inherent to either of the two when it comes to power level, we go back to the original question. They can be balanced. But should they?
Most interesting stories arise from inherent imbalances. So there absolutely is validity in having them imbalanced. Which is where Star Wars comes into play. Well, many many media and IPs, really, but Star Wars is a very popular example deeply ingrained in popular culture. Force users are strictly more powerful than non-force users. Magic beats technology. The two aren’t just imbalanced, it’s not even close.
Now, if you’re into the extended universe, you know that’s not always necessarily true. There is stuff that dampens force powers… hell, just look at Attack of the Clones where Obi-Wan was held in a forcefield completely unable to do anything force-related to help his situation. All in all, magic (The Force) is superior to technology in the Star Wars universe. So why would anyone bother with anything else? How is there any narrative balance when the two aren’t on the same spot on the power level axis?
Force-sensitive beings are extremely rare. Even rarer than most people think. Of course, as spectators we get exposed to them a lot so it can make us biased, but it’s natural for a story to follow along the exceptional individuals, which force users generally are in contrast to most everyone else. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other exceptional people we follow, but force users are exceptional by default. Point being that rarity is a very valid and very commonly used type of valancing when it comes to power level. Usually in relation to magic, but not exclusively, not by a large margin. Is the railgun in Quake balanced in the hands of a skilled player after they managed to obtain it? (No.)
There are many types of balance, of which the Star Wars method of counteracting the superiority of force users with their scarcity on a galactic scale is one. Very easy to use and convenient for many types of stories. I’ve used it in my own worldbuilding as well. Even with magic in the setting, not all ways to use it are equal. Arcane magic, the setting’s soft magic and Force equivalent, is far more open-ended and of higher raw power level than elemental magic… and equally more scarce. At the same time, magic remains no more than a method to achieve an effect. It will be better suited for some effects than technology, but the reverse is also true.
It’s fine if you want to set one as strictly better than the other, or balance them in any of the many ways possible, but always remember that there’s nothing inherent to the relationship between magic and technology. Either could be superior to the other, or they can be balanced fairly easily with minimum thought and effort.