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.

Marco Tempest, Cyber Illusionist @ LeWeb 11
Cyber-illusionist Marco Tempest speaks at LeWeb'11.

Photo by Vincent "Kmeron" Philbert/LeWeb13/Flickr Creative Commons

A magician, it is said, never reveals his (or, in very rare cases, her) secrets.

Unless he’s involved with open-source magic—in which case he will happily risk running afoul of the Alliance of Magicians.

Open-source magic is not about slapping magical secrets up on YouTube; there are more than enough eager teenagers and fun-ruiners willing to do that. Instead, it takes a lesson from the open-source technology activists who believe that better innovation comes through collaboration. The idea here is that magicians should be working with technologists, artists, programmers, scientists—everyone—both to create new illusions and to bring magical thinking to other disciplines. Furthermore, the technology behind those illusions should be, at least in part, freely available.

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Intellectual property is a bit of a thorny issue in magic. Magicians’ illusions can be copyright-protected, but many—including Teller of Penn & Teller fame, who is suing a Dutch magician for stealing and trying to sell his “Shadows” illusion—have seen their effects ripped off, and litigating those cases is difficult. So magicians are a little touchy about anything that implies opening up the secrets of illusions, their livelihoods, to potential theft. However, say open-sorcerers, magic’s traditional emphasis on secrecy and jealously guarding IP means that too little collaboration happens at all and that when it does happen, it tends to be shrouded in nondisclosure agreements and secrecy. In order to revitalize magic, to keep it fresh, they say, it needs to open up.

Two of the magicians talking the most about open-source magic are popular techno-illusionist Marco Tempest, who is a director’s fellow at MIT’s creative tech incubator, the Media Lab and has given TED talks, and Kieron Kirkland, “magician in residence” at Watershed, a digital creativity development studio in Bristol, England. Tempest, who is originally from Switzerland, is, in many ways, the father of the movement. He became interested in magic at about age 8 and joined the circus, a state-funded production that toured during the summers, at 12; at 22, he won the New York World Cup of Magic. His interest in technology is relatively recent, only about six or seven years old, but he describes it as his passion. In his magic shows, he uses augmented reality and interactive projections, and he’ll soon be employing a magic robot “assistant” called Baxter, which was developed with the Media Lab. When I spoke to Tempest in his “magic lab” in New York City via Skype, his lovely assistant, all long arms and blank screen face, was hulking in the corner behind him.

“Magic is a super-introverted field,” he said. “There is a lot of knowledge that has never been liberally shared with other fields of research. … What if, as part of our creative practice, we could share the stuff we come up with and make it available to other people, not only to magicians?”

In particular Tempest means technology and science. Magicians, he says, have long been skilled at understanding audiences on a psychological level and creating interactive experiences. At the same time, he adds, “You could say that the whole world of interactive computing is an engineered illusion.” So there’s a lot of overlap, or at least room for partnership—if Siri had been designed by a magician, Tempest says, she probably wouldn’t fail. “It wouldn’t be either she knows or doesn’t know; there would always be another question. … We would use cold-reading skills.”

Collaboration also means, he says, allowing those who’ve had a hand in creating new tech or a new illusion to share in its ownership. According to Tempest, big-name magicians typically contract illusion engineers, technologists, or other magicians to help them design new effects; those contracted are expected to sign secrecy agreements and have no ownership over what they may create. “What good comes from that?” he asks. The process makes it impossible for co-creators to refine and improve their work over time. By contrast, when Tempest and his collaborators create new technologies or effects, they share in the ownership, or he makes the work freely available to other developers.Sometimes things take a life of their own and go completely somewhere else, and that’s very cool.”

They just have to convince the other magicians why that’s cool.

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