Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Rath of the Magi

Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

It may not seem like a big deal.  We all have cameras on our phones and tablets and computers and pens and clock radios.  It seems like you can't go anywhere without being observed and recorded, so the idea of capturing memories, the "times of your life" doesn't seem nearly as novel as it did when our parents put away their bulky, smelly Polaroid and brought out the Instamatic.  That was progress, we were suddenly living in the future where the family could pose around the fireplace at Christmas and, somewhere between two weeks and two years--depending on how quickly the roll of film was used up--the image would come back.

Instead of the black and white Polaroid pictures that you had to apply a fixative to and which always seemed to curl up, you got back square color prints that laid flat and seemed to multiply all by themselves. 

All through the business press there has been hand wringing about the death throes of a 131 year-old company that virtually invented the personal photography category.  Why didn't they recognize that the market was moving?  Why were they not more aggressive in embracing digital photography?  Why did they always seem to be following and never leading?  Since August there have been stories in the press about the possible sale of a portion of Kodak's vast patent portfolio as a way for them to return to profitability.  This is the corporate equivalent of the ancient WASP dictum to never spend principal and not unlike closing the barn door after the horses are gone.

All of this  brought to mind the continuing debate in the magic community about the effect of YouTube and other video sharing sites are having on the art.

The concern is that the ready availability of these sites has made it a simple matter for amateurs to traffic in the secrets of the craft.  No good trick goes unrevealed.  These are the secrets that are the bread and butter of their inventors and people should have to pay for access to them.

I understand the argument in so far as the livelihood of the invetors is concerned, but I also think that services like YouTube provide a valuable research tool for people who are serious about magic.

When I first became interested in magic, in the dark days before the Internet, I would read the magazines and come across references to performers and to moves that were presented in such a way as to assume that all the readers would know to whom, or what, was being referred.  Like the old line "if you have to ask about the price then you can't afford it" not following the references suggested that you were not sufficiently inside to be accessing this material.

Video sharing has brought the modern masters of the craft within reach of enthusiastic amateurs like me.  I can call up Dai Vernon and see his performance of the Cups and Balls.  I can see Cardini's famous act.  I can see Fred Kaps' famous salt pour.

And if I'm reading the description of a particular effect, I can often find a performance of it online or of some of its component moves.  I can only speak for myself, but this is a huge advantage in understanding.

There is no doubt that secrets are disclosed, but, finally, I don't think this is a bad thing. 

I don't say that as an open invitation for the rath of the magi, but because I think that secrets are only a small part of a magician's real power as a performer.  As noted elsewhere, it is one thing to know the secret of the Cups and Balls and quite another to be able to present them as artfully as Dai Vernon.  You can look up the secret of the Miser's Dream and never touch the presentation given by Penn and Teller.

I mention Kodak because I think the horses have left the barn with respect to protecting magic's secrets on the Internet.  The choice now becomes whether to engage in a draconian style market-following response such as SOPA and PIPA or to lead the conversation.

If inventors don't want to see poor quality web cam productions of their latest creations then they should put out material themselves.

I'm not suggesting that they don't post the $29.95 miracle deck and DVD with special bonus features, but to post a lesser trick with household items and use a tool like iTunes, or similar.  Imagine learning a new card trick for ninety-nine cents. 

Wouldn't the world be a slightly better place if beginners learned how to do the Twenty-One Card Trick from a pro?

There is magic available for download through a variety of sites but at price points around ten dollars and above, it limits access and promotes piracy.  I am suggesting a lower threshold for less revolutionary material so that would-be students can learn a simple bill switch or color change from a good teacher that is well-produced.  These were the gateway tricks for us when we started with magic and, judging from the number of posted videos, there is no reason to believe that this will not continue to be the case.  By feigning outrage and looking down their noses, Magic will force more bedroom productions and take a leadership role in its own debasement.

The public doesn't hate magic; they want to be amazed.  They have a low regard for bad performers.  Addressing that is where Magic should focus its ire.  Magic's body of knowledge is primarily focused on its secrets and its past while the future is at the gates and clamoring to get in.  They are talking among themselves and trading in secrets because that's what they see the insiders doing. 

Were Magic to open its doors a little wider it would not only grow the community it would also grow its marketplace for more and better secrets.

The learning model for magic is as outdated as chemical-based photography.  And until Magic accepts this, it will forever be playing defense and closing the doors on the empty barns. 

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