You want to know how magic works? 


Firstly, it breaks the rules.

Secondly, it does so by using some supernatural force.

The trick (ha!) is that the supernatural force changes depending on when and where you live.  It could be spirits, psychic powers, or ‘woofledust’ (though if it’s the last, you are destined for your own special corner of hell).


But magic can only break the rules if the thing you’re doing magic with has rules to break.  So there’s a reason why magicians do magic with objects that people know well.  Cards are meant to be random, so a magician breaks the rules by finding some way bring order them and find your card. And coins definitely shouldn’t fit in people’s ears, so pulling one out breaks the rules, both of the coin and of your ear.  (Incidentally, if any ever does that trick to you, feel free to poke them in the eye, you’ll be doing magicians a favour).

Part of my research for this residency is whether technology can be that ‘supernatural’ force.  The problem with this is that most people don’t know how technology works, so frankly, it’s already like magic.  Not only that, but we are so bombarded with stories about how quickly technology develops, that even if we don’t believe it now, we think it could happen very soon.  I could say, I’ve got a mind reading robot I built and you might think I was fibbing.  But if I tell you it’s a prototype developed in a collaboration with Google, MIT and the NSA you might start to find it believable.  

So in terms of the 2 important parts of a magic trick, using technology as a narrative leaves me in a bit of sticky situation.  On the plus side, I have a believable narrative. But on the negative, technology is so amazing these days, it’s got very few rules to break and it’s difficult to do anything unbelievable with it!  

There’s something further. We like to see rules broken because it can help us to think about what’s possible.  After seeing a trick, “How did you do you do that?” can sometimes mean “Can I do that?”.  So magic has a role to tell us about the possibilities. If it’s just a machine doing a trick, that doesn't help us with discovering new possibilities for humanity, whereas watching a psychic might make us think about the unused capacity in the human mind or life after death.

How do we resolve this?

Either the technological marvels are more like a sideshow spectacular, like the automata of old.  A “Roll up roll up and marvel at the technological wonders”.  That could work.  I’ll try it and let you know how I get on (especially if I get to wear a top hat).

But a second, more interesting, idea is that technology helps us break the barriers of being human. There’s a lot of interesting developments at the moment where you start to wonder where the human stops and the technology begins, things like ‘bio tech’ and ‘bio hacking’ are very interesting and emerging fields. What if I can use technology to augment existing human characteristics?  To amplify our own abilities to the point of appearing supernatural?  For example, we all generate an electrical charge as part of the normal chemical reactions in our body.  What if I could use technology to amplify them?

This could use technology to break the rules of what it means to be human.  And technology becomes that supernatural, enabling force.

Thanks to Tom Melamed and Stuart Nolan, for the conversations that led to this idea.