Sunday, March 21, 2010

On Magic and Technology: The Elephant in the Room

Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.
-Cory Doctorow, author and digital rights activist

Question: Your friend and fellow magician offers you a hard drive containing digital versions of virtually every major magic book, magazine and video produced over the last century. Do you accept it?

1. No thanks. Those are all copyrighted works and taking them would be tantamount to theft on a large scale, which could destroy the magic world and all its creators.
2. Hmmm…Those are all copyrighted works but I probably won’t ever buy most of them anyway, and it sure would be nice to be able to peruse this giant library.
3. Hell to the yeah! Information wants to be free, intellectual “property” is not property, sharing is not a crime, and making this available to every magician who wants it will have a revolutionary impact on the art.


This post is long overdue. I have worked on this essay in one form or another for several years (one day, I'll bust out the Keynote version), but I have never been entirely comfortable with the way I managed to express my central point. So I’ll just come out and say it: The issue of digital file-sharing is a growing elephant in the room for the magic community and it’s about to become a huge, huge deal.

My previous post outlined my magical biography in depth for one very important reason-- to illuminate just how thoroughly my personal story is inseparable from that of the various communities in which I have pursued my art. Art and culture progress through the sharing of ideas and the creative building on what came previously. Magic in particular, as an occult (hidden) art, has always depended on the oral traditions, on the passing on of information through one-on-one exchanges. With the advent of technology, the sharing of magical information is taking an exponential leap forward.

Until about a decade ago, if you invented a new trick or move you could put it in print in a book or magazine, or you could just show it to your friends. If it spread more broadly, you might get credit for it and a bit of cachet at your local magic club. Only recently, with the democratization of technology, has the average magician gotten the wherewithal to actually produce and distribute his or her own ebooks and videos. The last decade has seen a concurrent explosion in new material, released through this relatively new distribution channel. Everyone can now try to monetize his or her creative output. Technology giveth.

But the very explosion in technology that facilitated this extraordinary new distribution paradigm also contains the seeds of its demise. The field of magic is about to be transformed by the same forces that transformed the music industry. These forces emerge from the explosive growth of peer to peer (P2P) and other file sharing technologies, which allow anyone to share any digital file with anyone else, anywhere in the world. Because of these technologies, and the fact that people by the hundreds of millions have adopted them, many culture watchers have seen the writing on the wall and declared the (historically brief) era in which music was bought and sold as a commodity to be effectively over. Something similar is about to happen to the world of magic books and videos. Technology taketh away.

Contrary to the blatant lies spouted by the recording industry, this state of affairs has largely benefited musicians. Most musicians never made much money on CD sales in any case (which partly explains why no artists have ever benefited from the recording industry's lawsuits against file sharers). Musicians have traditionally made most of their money from touring and merchandise. For the majority of bands, file-sharing has been a gift that extends their reach and fan base. If there’s one thing worse than having fans who don’t pay for your music, it’s having no one listen to your music in the first place. And, of course, the same digital progress that begat file sharing also yielded the social networking sites like MySpace, which have empowered musicians to control their own destinies beyond all previous imagining.

What has demolished the industry has helped its artists.

Technology giveth right back.

The End of Scarcity

Like music before the late 1990s, magic has always been a relatively scarce resource. If you are a beginner, your options for learning magic have historically been pretty limited. You can visit one of the few remaining brick and mortar magic shops or you can join one of the local magic clubs in your area. With the rise of the Internet, you can also buy magic online. If you don’t want to have to buy everything, you can peruse YouTube and try to extract meaningful magic lessons from the unorganized clips of varying quality others have posted.

To really gain deep knowledge of the art, however, you need access to a good magic library. Traditionally, such access only comes with a whole lot of cash, a job in a magic shop, or a visit to one of the few private magic libraries--the Magic Castle Library in Hollywood, for instance. If you don’t happen to be wealthy, live near a good magic library, or work at one of the handful of magic shops still in business, you have traditionally been pretty much out of luck. The unfortunate result of this sad state of affairs is that the art of magic has mostly been practiced by artists who—through no fault of their own—are not well read in the art.

That’s about to change. The magic world doesn’t know it yet, but it is on the verge of the most cataclysmic transformation since the rise of the Internet itself. The scarce resource of magic books and videos is about to become about as scarce as digital music files on a college campus, which is to say not scarce at all. The days in which young magicians had to painstakingly consider every book and video purchase are over. Welcome to the Universal Library, magic style.

The Universal Library, a decentralized digital library containing all the music, books, movies and other products of human creation is being created even as we speak, and the magic world is not immune from this game-changing revolution. A worldwide army of anonymous volunteers is discreetly digitizing magic books and videos and putting them up on the web. Vast swaths of the great works in the history of magic – books, magazines, videos – are already available on file-sharing networks, and this trend towards broad general availability will only increase in the coming years. The new democratization of magic information is an unprecedented boon to all the world’s magicians; imagine having your own 24/7 access to the greatest magical library ever created! But it also brings tremendous challenges as old business models cease to be valid in the new, networked world. Technology giveth and technology taketh away.

The End of Copyright?

The old paradigm for monetizing creative works involves putting them into a tangible form, such as a book, CD or DVD, and selling them. The digital revolution fundamentally subverts this model. Copies are freely made and easily distributed worldwide, so any business plan that depends on selling copies of information that exists digitally is in deep trouble.

The rise of the digital magic library brings with it a whole host of challenges, mostly centered around issues of copyright and ownership. To many people, including many content producers and owners, a world of free and unlimited copies of books, videos, and music boils down to one word: theft. Virtually all the files on the file-sharing sites are copyrighted, and many of them are currently in print.

The recording industry tried valiantly—some would say stupidly—to hold on to their dying paradigm, suing music fans for downloading music, and suing file-sharing sites like Napster for facilitating such activity. These lawsuits, while yielding the occasional Pyrrhic victory, did little to quell the explosion in file sharing. Music sharers simply moved to other sites using new, more protected technology and sharing has continued to grow exponentially. As an added insult, a generation of young music fans learned to loathe the music industry and its heavy-handed tactics.

The magic world is not an exact parallel to the music world, of course. The music industry was plagued by a predatory, top down hierarchy that exploited artists for years, and few people outside of EMI, Columbia, and RCA are lamenting its demise. Magic, on the other hand, is a largely decentralized, artist-centered industry. Individual magicians can and do put out their own books and videos, selling them from their personal websites to a small base of fans. Contrary to the music industry powerhouses, the recent growth of large magic industry players like Penguin, Ellusionist and Theory 11 has, by most accounts, been quite profitable for those creators lucky and talented enough to put out hit material.

What will happen when a critical mass of young magicians begins acquiring most of their magic for free through file-sharing sites? No one knows, of course, although early signs suggest we are about to find out. One result is that the next generation of magicians will likely be the most magically literate generation in history, with full access to a vast magical library. Another result is that certain creators, those who depend for their livelihood on selling magic books and videos, will have to adapt to this new reality and find a new business model. In an era in which digital copies are cheap and plentiful, a successful business model will be the one that finds other avenues to monetize.

More than one person has suggested to me that if everything is instantly available online for free, creators will simply stop releasing new material. If this were true, the music industry would have come to a stop over the last ten years. Yet musicians existed before there was a recording industry, and they will continue to exist after the recording industry in its present form has vanished.

In the case of magic, I feel confident that creators will continue to create, and they and their fans will find new ways to reward them for their creativity. This does not mean that every work that would have existed under the old model will necessarily also exist under the new one. Every business model has its pros and cons, and every creator must struggle to get paid under whatever model exists at the time. The restaurants in Hollywood are filled with actors who can’t get paid to act, the gas stations are packed with screenwriters who can’t get their movies made, schools are full of painters, law firms packed with musicians and novelists who gave up their dreams in order to pay the bills. Technology has opened up vast new opportunities, and closed a few, too.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Think back to the question that opened this essay. Which answer would you give to a friend who offered you that hypothetical vast digital library? I’m going to go out on a limb and say the younger you are, the higher the number you probably chose as an answer. In other words, if you are old enough to remember a time before there was an Internet, you are more likely to perceive of any unauthorized exchange of copyrighted material as theft. If you are in your thirties, you probably straddle both worlds, and if you are in your twenties or younger, you likely grew up downloading music, movies and TV shows and take it as a given that digital information flows freely on the Internet.

“When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”
-Gordy Thompson, New York Times (as quoted by Clay Shirkey)

I love the above quote because it so neatly encapsulates the dramatic divide between those who chose answer number 1 and those who chose number 3. A 2007 New York Times Magazine profile of Columbia Records head honcho Rick Rubin is instructive. The article cites an internal focus group conducted with a group of their college-aged summer interns. Among the findings: “[young people] mostly steal music, but they don’t consider it stealing.” In other words, young people are either morally bankrupt (the traditional industry view) or they have emerged within a fundamentally new paradigm with totally different rules. Copyright laws, which were originally intended to protect creators, are now widely seen as an onerous tool for a small cadre of large content owners to protect their business interests. Such laws may well be obsolete, replaced with the most democratic system of information exchange in history.

The reason this matters was recently elucidated by the great copyright lawyer Lawrence Lessig in a speech to the Italian parliament. Lessig points out that our cultural and legal battles are more and more turning out to be battles against young people. Besides being ill-advised on moral and spiritual grounds, a battle against the next generation is an obvious strategic blunder; young people have the insurmountable advantage of time on their side. They are going to emerge victorious.

Technology giveth. The Internet has facilitated an extraordinary explosion in creative talent over the last decade. Young sensations like the Buck Twins, Daniel Garcia, and Ponta the Smith are undoubtedly much more widely known than they could ever have been a decade ago, with huge fan bases spawned by the Internet’s global reach. How will their fans support them in the future?

The magic world needs to start thinking about such questions now. Radiohead’s famous “tip jar” model, in which their fans decided how much if anything to pay for their album In Rainbows, is one possible model. Along with the “pay what you like” download, Radiohead also offered an $80 collector’s package containing a CD, a vinyl disc, and other selected merchandise. Early reports estimate the average price paid for the download was $6, with many fans opting for the collector’s package as well. With 1.2 million downloads, Radiohead earned somewhere in the vicinity of $7 million on their new CD in its first week of release. Such a number is extraordinary for any artist, and all the more so because every penny of it was given voluntarily by their most passionate fans, who could have downloaded the music for free directly from Radiohead’s website.

Is there a magician with the status of Radiohead willing to take the plunge? Imagine if Paul Harris decided to release his True Astonishment videos in low-resolution digital format online using the tip jar model—pay what you like, or nothing at all—alongside an optional full resolution version for a nominal charge, the beautiful boxed version with props for the usual fee, and even a “limited collector’s edition,” perhaps with a different box, or a signed limited edition of the Art of Astonishment books to accompany the videos. Such a move would instantly jump-start the new magic economy, re-establish Harris as the most forward-thinking magician of his era (yet again!), and leapfrog over the impending showdown between the “magic establishment” and the new generation of magic fans, for whom freely exchanged digital media is a fact of life.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it would ensure that the information in the videos, one of the most extraordinary collections of magical thinking to come out in the last ten years, would be more widely seen. Assuming Paul Harris and co-conspirator Bro Gilbert really intended for these videos to have a transformative effect on the magic world (as they stated they did), wouldn’t making the material available through the broadest range of options be the most efficacious strategy?

It will be up to the next generation to figure out the business model of the future. The universal magic library is coming, and no amount of railing against the new generation of magic file sharers will change the fundamental essence of the new media paradigm. The magic world must not demonize people who build digital libraries of “pirated” works, but must instead embrace the democratization of technology and make a concerted effort to find a way forward.

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. The time to start thinking about these issues is now.


Kent said...


Speaking frankly, I've been a pirate. I don't mean the Carribean kind either. I'm older than any of the demographics you mentioned. I caught the first true wave of file sharing with 110 baud modem and an Apple computer. I watched the the baud rates of modems increase dramatically over the years. My pals and I swapped disks, mostly games.
It never occurred to me what we were doing was wrong. It seemed cool to be able to get the games for the price of some space on a blank 5 1/4 inch floppy.
I had little interaction over the phone lines with swapping files. I saw a pal doing it and he was my source. I guess I was one of many end users/abusers. I did get a heck of a large collection of games for my Apple II. I rarely played any of them. I bought a large number of games as well.

Modem speeds kept going up. I discovered music sites. I had an enormous collection of vinyl records. I spent far more time with a home-made rig ripping my vinyl into mp3s. Those files . . . well, other people have them. Lots of people.

As I've aged, and heaven knows I have aged, I grow more financially secure. I can actually afford to buy computer games now. I actually do this with for my PS3 habit. I tend to play the games a lot more when I've paid for them.

I think I still have the technical know-how to de-protect games. The internet makes that process childishly simple. I simply can't be bothered.

Any creator of magic, computer games or music has to know their shit is going to be ripped off. If you can't accept that, don't enter those businesses. I've produced a single magic product. It is so lousy it hasn't made it to any torrent sites. I'm almost hurt! (not really) I was smart enough not to make a video explanation of the product. That is the sort of silliness most folks that pirate magic would want. Hmmm . . . maybe the old guy ain't that dumb. (too lazy to sit in front of a camera is the truth)

As for scanning and OCRing magic books that have valid copyrights, I don't think it's cool. But who cares what I think. Folks are doing it whether I like it or not. I'm an old fat white guy with a job that pays me enough to buy any magic book I want. I now have a freaking room of my house, up to the rafters with magic books.

If you scanned and downloaded all the books in my library it wouldn't make you a better magician. They haven't helped me all that much. Ah . . . but the ones I've read did help. Having a huge reference library of magic makes you a geek with a bunch of books. If you stole them it makes you a thief with a bunch of magic books. If you choose to use the information in those books and become a great magician, that's cool with me, no matter which path you chose.

You cannot count every pirated copy as a lost sale. That is a huge, stupid, backwoods-country-fuck lie. It has been perpetuated by software makers, music dudes and the magic world.

Some people will steal stuff. That crew wasn't going to buy your shit anyway. Get over it. Make good magic stuff. Sell what you can and if someone is distributing it for free, that may be what it is really worth.

ramblin' man . . .
Kent Gunn

PeaceLove said...


Thanks so much for adding your voice! I won't respond to your specific points since I'm sure I'll be posting further on this topic very soon. But your overall view is correct; people will share digital files whether we like it or not because the benefits -- access to vast amounts of information in a way previously unimaginable -- so far outweigh the downside that filesharers nowadays just accept it as a given. You just happen to have been a geek as a kid (in the good sense), the kind of guy who knew how to use computers early and found "file sharing" sites before such a thing had a name.

Pretty hip for an old fat white guy!