Monday, March 22, 2010

BBC Special on ESP feat. Richard Wiseman and...

I just YouTubed a fun BBC report on ESP and psi research from sometime around 1994. It features the now-famous psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman (still with hair) and other researchers.

The guy Wiseman tests for Macro PK looks oddly familiar...

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.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

My magic biography, and why it matters

As a magician, I have been extremely lucky throughout my life. I first got into magic while living overseas, when my dad bought me a magic set as a gift. Shortly thereafter, on a return visit to the U.S. he stopped into Tannen's and picked up a bunch of starter tricks on their recommendation, tricks which just happened to include two very good effects (Hot Rod & Svengali Deck) and one flat-out masterpiece (Invisible Deck). More trips back to the U.S., and more visits to Tannen's and some other magic shops, stocked my drawers with enough material that I was able to start doing kid shows at the ripe old age of 10 or so. The following year, I met Doug Henning backstage at The Magic Show and got a mention in the New York Times.

When I moved back to the Washington DC area in 1977, I was delighted to find a magical co-conspirator named Greg living right down the street from me. We began hanging around Al’s Magic Shop, which (lucky me!) turned out to be one of the greatest magic shops in the nation. We made ourselves enough of a pest that Al soon hired us as weekend demonstrators; throughout my junior high and high school years I attended the parallel school of Al’s Magic, where my teachers included not only Al and the other talented folks who worked there but also people like Tim Conover, Harvey Rosenthal, Larry Davidson, Jack Birnman, Scotty York, Bob Kohler, and David Williamson. In our spare time, Greg and I worked at Dream Wizards, a legendary D&D supply place (never my thing) with a separate magic section, right when they were releasing the brilliant John Kennedy’s first great effects – Floating Bill (which kick-started the IT craze), Impossible Matrix and his Card Stab routine. I still remember having throwing card battles in the parking lot with a 14-year-old Alain Nu.

My affiliation with Al's was fortuitous for another reason as well; my downtime was inevitably spent perusing the ample “library” Al called his stock, and working on new material with my colleagues and magical friends who stopped by the shop. I bought plenty of books in those days, too; my personal library contains some of the classic books of the day (Lorayne, Ammar, and a lot of Kaufman titles). But my great blessing was in the unusual combination of access to material, access to great minds and a place to hone my craft day in and day out.

In my high school years, Bob Sheets and Steve Spill opened up the Brook Farm Inn of Magic in my neighborhood, so naturally I used to hang out there and watch lots of great magic. Not only did I see their excellent regular dinner show on several occasions, I also caught Ricky Jay’s one-man show there long before Jay became a darling of the David Mamet/NY theater/film intelligentsia crowd. In short, the Washington, DC area was a mecca for great magicians in the late 70s and early 80s, and I was lucky enough to become plugged into the zeitgeist and to mine a particularly rich vein of talent.

These same years, my family would vacation in Sarasota, Florida where, (synchronicity, anyone?) there happened to be an excellent magic-themed restaurant called The Magic Moment (sadly, it closed in 1991). I showed up one day, auditioned for owner Chris Moore, and wound up with a regular Christmas season gig table-hopping alongside some excellent pros, including the very gentlemanly Paul Cummins.

By the time I graduated college and moved to L.A., I had put in my 10,000 hours. I promptly became a regular at the Magic Castle, performing in the close-up room at least once a year. I hung out there 2 or 3 times a week for 6 years, doing a ton of magic around the Castle for delighted overflow crowds, and also became a regular denizen of the extensive Castle library. During this time, the list of colleagues and mentors I hung out with is almost embarrassingly extravagant: Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Bruce Cervon, Larry Jennings, Billy McComb, Bob Jardine, Bill Goodwyn, Ray Cosby, Alfonso, T.A. Waters, Franz Harary, John Carney, Kevin James, Nicholas Knight, Tony Clark, Christopher Hart, Mickey O'Connor, Dan Sylvester, Joe Monte, Paul Harris, Jerry Andrus…

I left LA to wander Europe and ended up spending two and a half years in Prague, that most magical of cities. In that time, I became a mini-celebrity in the Praha magic scene, one of the only really top notch close-up performers in the area (another being my good friend Petr Kasnar). I hung out with the magic club (which consisted of a lot of drinking, except I don't drink), lectured at their conventions, and just generally enjoyed my status as the King of the Lilliputians.

Back in the U.S., I spent a couple years in the DC area largely out of magic (what with a wife and a new baby). I still checked in with Al's now and then, and I may have even filled in behind the counters once or twice. A move to Chicago put me in touch with a whole new group centered around the regular Saturday gathering at another legendary shop, Magic Inc., where the great Jay Marshall held forth in all his bawdy glory. I was never able to hang out there as often as I would have liked but I did nevertheless make one more talented magical friend and, all too briefly, another great friend, the husband and co-conspirator of a delightful puppeteer (R.I.P. Lon).

A move to Silicon Valley put me in touch with my latest, perhaps greatest magical community, one blessed with a disproportionate number of extremely talented young magicians (a post-David Blaine generation, you might say). I am honored to consider myself something of a mentor to one or two of them, and just as thrilled to consider every one of them my teachers as well. Examples of these rising young talents are Chris "Orbit" Brown, about whom I wrote this;, a hyper-talented contact juggler named Chris Bruner, who also happens to be one of the most naturally gifted close-up artists I've seen in a long time; Michael Feldman, who's now a semi-regular performer at Jamy Ian Swiss' Monday Night Magic; Theron Schaub; Josh Logan; the becoming-legendary Ricky Smith; Brian Hart; and my good friend John Bodine, whose reputation is beginning to precede him. This is also the community that, slightly before I got there, birthed the extraordinary Buck Twins.

Within this same amazing community, I have a bunch of magical friends roughly my own age and generation, including people like Kim Silverman, another magician of fast-growing reputation who I'm pretty certain does the best versions of Ninja Rings and Ring on Cord done by anyone, anywhere; Kent Gunn, who has done some truly pioneering work on the Cups and Balls; Scott Emo of Sacred fame; and Will Chandler, proprietor of our own Magic Castle North, The Magic Garage.

The point of this brief biography is that I have been extremely lucky to find myself immersed in such a diverse series of magical communities and have always been honored to be both the giver and receiver of magical wisdom. I have been the recipient and beneficiary of an extraordinary amount of generosity and knowledge, freely given by mentors and peers. Magic, like most arts, grows through this free exchange. The art of magic has evolved enormously in the past dozen or so years for reasons I will go into in my next post, but the upshot is that all the power in the art, all the potential and wonder, springs from the open sharing that governs this and any other art. Magic grows when creative people give freely of their time and energy.

Next: Why it matters, or The Elephant in the Room