Friday, August 22, 2008

Miracles of modern technology?

Miracles of Modern Technology?
A short essay in modern magical ethics.

Many, many years ago, the art of magic faced a fundamental threat. That threat was the birth of Television. Magic as an art exists to do one thing-- to help people believe the impossible is possible. That awe and wonder is the joy which we as magicians delight in bringing to our audience's lives. While we are on stage performing, the audience gets to take their minds back a more innocent place and time in their lives when magic was all around them and anything was possible-- at least in their heads.

Television was a real and credible threat to that because Television innately made people believe the impossible. As soon as they turned on their set, in fact, their minds started telling they were watching people that didn't exist do things in places that didn't exist. About two minutes after the first TV show was broadcast, the first “camera trick” was discovered, though in point of fact the principles were already known from the film industry. How then could a magician preserve a sense of wonder when the wonderful had become easy and common place with the flick of a switch??

This conundrum was solved by a brilliant magician by the name of Mark Wilson. Wilson made many contributions to our art but I would argue that the most important one was devising the cardinal ethics of TV magic:
1.TV magic must be performed live, without editing and in front of uncoached cameramen. This is summed up in the phrase “No camera tricks.”
2.TV magic must be performed before a live studio audience. This is a “proover” that it is really happening.

These two rules saved Magic from the threat of television and turned TV into a valuable allay instead of an adversary to the art. (Recently, some very big name magicians have broken these rules and IMHO have caused the sub-art of televised magic serious damage in the process.)

Putting aside the idea of TV magic now, I'd like you to entertain a hypothetical situation with me. Something I had to consider not long ago in some fiction I was writing. Imagine, for a moment, that your are a stage magician in the world of the comic books. This is a world where it is clearly and obviously possible for certain special people to do seemingly impossible things like fly or read minds. The average person sees demonstrations of such abilities on the news every-day. How do you preserve the wonder of an art that is based in making the impossible seem possible when anything already IS possible?

The conclusion I came to was that the fraternity of magicians would have to agree to rules similar to those that Mark Wilson created. To whit, that any magical performance may not call itself a magical performance unless it uses no super-powers. That a magician, by definition, is going to show you apparent miracles done by someone just like you. Much like the answer to TV, this returns the wonder and maybe even magnifies it as it allows the audience to imagine that they could do the things the super heroes do.

Now not all super-heroes fly because they are from Krypton or read minds because they are a mutant. As seen in the recent movie Iron Man, thre are super-heroes who employ nothing more then “super-technology.” Geniuses capable of building devices based on scientific principles unknown to, and much more powerful then, those available to the every day man. Such technology is called “super-tech” or “weird science” in the parlance of comic book lovers and has the same problem in the end as a bases for magic that direct super-powers do. Super-tech, I would argue, would need to be excluded as effectively a “super-power” from any magical performance.

As much fun as it may be to play with the ideas of what would happen if the world of comic books was real, you're probably wondering what this has to do with magic ethics. And here I come to my final point.

Today we DO live in a world of super-technology. Not as flashy or impressive as iron man's repulsors perhaps, but we live with things that were miraculous a generation before. Imagine I was a magician in the 1800s. I sent my assistant 200 miles away to talk to your best friend. You tell me a question that only he and you would know. I turn my back, concentrate for 2 minutes “mentally communing” with my assistant and tell you the answer. That would be extraordinary magic. Today though, thats called a cell phone and its hardly mystifying at all.

We live in a world of technological miracles that most common people don't understand. I've recently seen a number of illusions pop up that are based completely and solely in that fact. I'm not going to name names or give away methods, but I'm sure some of you can think of some. I will use an example I just came up with to illustrate.

I recently read about an illusion someone is producing that allows a magician to get whatever someone writes on a piece of unprepared paper instantly as soon as they write it and without touching the paper or clip board it is on. Being a computer software engineer and curious, I did a bit of googgle searching and, on paper, designed my own version where, for about $300 worth of off th shelf components, a small bit of code and a computer, I could get anything a spectator wrote SMS messaged to me without my ever having to touch anything the spectator used to write it.

I thought about building this system but it occurs to me that this might cheapen mentalism to the point of being truly uninteresting. Where is the art in the magic if it is just based on the fact that you don't know that there is a pen sold by Iomega that tracks handwriting and sends it to the computer? One might say “in the presentation” but if all magic is about is presentation then all we are is actors. Its about more, I think. Its about the cleverness of the technique. Its about making use of the psychology of the audience to help them convince themselves that they are seeing the impossible. Its about misdirection, suggestion, and what the mind does with fragmentary information. Its about how the sense works and that common people don't ever think to question them.

But my pen? Its just a gadget. It may be a “super-gadget' at the moment because its technology most people don't realize exists, but is it magic? I don't really think so.

And this then comes to my point. In a world of technological everyday miracles we face the same threat that our forefathers did in Televsion. That we can cheapen the performance to the point where it is no longer interesting.

I think we need to think long and hard about a set of rules for computer and electronic technology like Mark Wilson came up for Television to prevent these modern miracles of technology from destroying the wonder of the art we magicians love.

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