Should Magicians Go Open-Source?

What's to come?
Dec. 15 2013 11:45 PM

The Open-Sorcerers

Some magicians are embracing the open-source ethos—but that doesn’t mean spilling every secret.

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On Nov. 12 and 13, Kirkland and Watershed hosted what he billed as the world’s first “Magic Hack.” They invited about 25 magicians and technologists to sit down in a room and get to making. By the end of the weekend, they’d come up with a number of really cool new illusions and ideas, like a voodoo doll that, when pinched or pulled, caused the magician—blindfolded, of course—the same pain.

But Kirkland felt like it was a bit of a struggle to get other magicians involved: “The magicians didn’t get it at all. They were massively suspicious, [thinking] ‘They’re going to steal my ideas,’ ” recalled Kirkland. (In effort to make those who did join more comfortable, the hack began with an invocation of a kind of magic circle, a promise not to reveal the secrets of what they’d created with anyone outside the hack. Which is a little beside the point, but baby steps, baby steps.)

The thing is, some magicians don’t believe that Kirkland and Tempest are really onto anything new. “Magicians have always used the latest technology,” whether that’s in how they create illusions or how they present illusions to their audiences, said Will Houstoun. Houstoun is a magician who’s working on his Ph.D. in Victorian magic and is the editor of the Magic Circular, magazine of Britain’s venerable Magic Circle society. (Prince Charles is a member, having gained entry with his cup-and-ball trick in 1975.) Magicians have long collaborated with technologists and experts from other disciplines to achieve illusions, he said—they just don’t talk about it too much. Moreover, magicians have also always taken advantage of the latest tech to frame their magic, to set up the illusion. For example, 19th-century French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin used ether and its recently discovered medical applications to dress up his levitation illusion—he told audiences that if consumed in sufficiently concentrated doses, ether would literally make the user lighter than air; then he’d make his dosed-up assistant appear to float. That’s not terribly different, Houstoun says, from modern magicians pulling a live butterfly off a picture of a butterfly on an iPhone: it’s all using new technology to frame old tricks.

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But more to the point, Houstoun continued, too much technology in magical illusions might not be a good thing. Technology itself is inherently magical—the fact that one can communicate with a person halfway across the world via a tiny, interactive box, is wondrous. But you don’t want the audience to simply explain away the illusion by saying, “Oh, well that’s just some clever technology.”

Plus, analog magic, to coin a phrase, still has the power to amaze. Houstoun said that he recently performed a card trick he’d found in a handwritten manuscript from the 1780s. “The world has completely changed, but a trick using a few pieces of paper that amazed people more than 200 years ago still amazes people today, despite all of the technology, all of the things that exist now,” he said.

Houstoun agrees that reverse collaboration—not using technology to make better magic, but using magic to make better technology—is valuable. But again, he says, magicians are already bringing magical thinking to the world outside their own discipline, and he’s one of them: Houstoun works with a U.K. nonprofit called Breathe Arts Health Research to teach magic illusions to children and teenagers dealing with hemiplegia, a partial paralysis of one side of the body, as part of their therapy.

So concerns about secrecy are probably not as much at the heart of resistance as the Alliance of Magicians might make it seem. Houstoun says that while the Magic Circle’s Latin motto, Indocilis Privata Loqui, roughly translates to “not apt to disclose secrets,” some secret-telling must happen in magic—otherwise, no one would ever become a magician. The rule of thumb around sharing magical secrets has to do with intent. If, for example, a magician writes an article for a newspaper or magazine, or, say, accidentally reveals the secret of the Aztec Tomb on TV, well, that’s not OK. But writing a book about magic to instruct other would-be illusionists is kosher, because anyone seeks out such a book already has an interest in magic that ought to be fostered. In that sense, Houstoun’s on the same page as open-source advocates Tempest and Kirkland, who see the movement as a means of sharing new technology or ideas with people whose interest should to be fostered.

In any case, magicians’ resistance seems to be more about not seeing the point of open-source magic. Which is itself a fair critique: Magic doesn’t appear to be in any real danger of decline, and simply adding a veneer of cool tech can seem a bit like just changing costumes.

Back in 1961, Arthur C. Clarke declared, accurately, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So where does that leave magic?

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is a writer based in London. Her first book, Princesses Behaving Badly, is out now.

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