Wikileaks and the Masked Magician

By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Espen Moe (Julian AssangeUploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The WikiLeaks website has created a media storm around the world. The website facilitates whistle blowers from all over the world to anonymously publish material that otherwise would never see the light of day.

Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.

On his motivation, the WikiLeaks website states that:

Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. … the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”.

WikiLeak’s philosophy is based on Bergson’s concept of the Open Society, later popularised by Karl Popper. In an open society, the government has no secrets and people enjoy freedom. The open society is an Enlightenment ideal where people have to make their own decisions based on the information available to them.

The idea of the open society is contrasted with the closed, authoritarian, society. Knowledge is closely guarded and people’s freedom is limited by what they are allow to know. In closed society, decisions people make is based on the collective ideal rather than individual choices.

Most traditional societies are closed and do not share knowledge as freely as in the Western world. In traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures knowledge was only passed on to those initiated in certain traditions. Aboriginal culture is traditionally secretive and knowledge is passed on along generational and gender lines.

The reason for secrecy is because knowledge is considered dangerous to those not prepared to wield it. Australian Kevin Solway has compiled a great collection of wisdom from traditional sources called Venom Crystals. The words contained therein are beautiful crystals, but they can also be a venom to the spirit to those not ready for it.


How does Val Valentino, the Masked Magician compare to Wikileaks?

Val Valentino, the Masked Magician.

The material published by WikiLeaks can, however, in no way be called wisdom. The information preciously guarded by governments and organisations around the world is banal and barely goes beyond what can be deduced from public sources anyway. WikiLeaks does not publish venom crystals of information that need to be guarded from feeble minds. WikiLeaks defends the open society in a way that is only possible since the advent of the Internet.

Just like magicians around the world are vexed by the Masked Magician, politicians, business leaders, church officials and military are vexed by WikiLeaks. But just like the Masked Magician has not damaged magic as a performance art, the revelations of WikiLeaks will not bring down our society.

The secrets of politics, religion, war, business and magic are banal. It is only when they are exposed that we can take their keepers seriously and are able to fully appreciate what they do. The words of magician Jim Steinmeyer can be applied to magic and politics:

”… to appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician” (Hiding the Elephant)

Deception in the Arts

Canadian magician Jay Sankey recently asked himself why there is such an obsession with the method of magic tricks. This obsession comes from both sides of the stage curtain. Magicians spend most of their time perfecting new ways to achieve the same old effects. Spectators are obsessed with the method because they are presented with a mystery that the magician is unwilling to explain.

Sankey is correct that almost every art form uses a kind of deception. Realistic art aims to make us believe we see something that is not there. Actors pretend to be somebody they are not, dancers hide the enormous physical strain they are under and magicians hide the real cause of the effects they create. I think that it is this focus on the method that is preventing magic from becoming an important form of performance art.

There are two reasons for this obsession: firstly, secrecy is inherent to magic because we present occurrences where the actual causal relationships are obfuscated from the spectator. This secrecy is not the case in any other form of arts where deception is used to support a story. In practical terms, the magician deceives to make something happen without physical cause while a dancer or actor deceives to tell a story or communicate an emotion.

A good example is the movie Avatar — a feast of visual deception. But because there was a story (albeit a one-dimension one), attention was moved away from the method. And the most interesting part is that movie makers even expose their methods on the obligatory “making of …” DVD so that everybody who is interested can find out how they were deceived in believing in a three-dimensional world.

Jim Steinmeyer writes in Hiding the Elephant that one can only truly understand the art of magic if you understand the magician’s secrets:

To appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician.

This idea has recently been confirmed through scientific enquiry. A group of people were subjected to an fMRI brain scan while watching a video of a magic trick. The research showed that looking at a trick triggers specific parts of the brain- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — that are associated with the detection of conflict and cognitive control. This finding means that people watching magic tricks are placed in a position where they will focus on method because as their brain seeks cognitive control.

Deception study: fMRI of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

fMRI study of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

The cognitive control prevents spectators from truly experiencing magic as a form of art — suspension of disbelief is made impossible. Most people are well educated and do not believe in real magic, leaving little room for actual suspension of disbelief. There is also a social contract between conjurers and their spectators that although an admission of deception is made, the method will not be revealed.

Deception in the Arts

One form of magic where this is still possible is mentalism. The main reason for this is that the science of the brain is not as advanced as the science of physical objects and thus, following Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, there is still a lot of room for people to believe in magic. Clarke’s law states that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Because technology about how or mind works is still in its infancy, many people are prepared to believe that Uri Geller can bend metal with his mind and John Edward can communicate with deceased people. Some people believe so firmly in paranormal powers that some proclaim that English mentalist Derren Brown possesses supernatural powers, even though he clearly admits being a magician. These people believe that Brown wishes to keep his special powers a secret!

This week the controversial television show Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed is aired on Australian television. Too many magicians, this seems like the end of the world. Their cherished secrets are being squandered for the sake of ratings. I agree with them that these shows are not of high quality, but not because of their content.

Exposure in magic is a double edge sword. It would, of course, be self-defeating to explain tricks while performing magic, just as it would be very annoying to have the special effects in a movie explained to yo while watching the story. In the early days of filmmaking, exposure of the secret techniques to create special effects was very controversial. This knowledge is nowadays freely available, and people still watch movies!

In some way, exposure can be good for magic. The only people I ever here speaking of magic as a form of art are magicians themselves. They do so because magicians know what it takes to do good magic. Magicians do not focus on the secret but on presentation. They can switch off their cognitive control as they know the methods. This knowledge gives yo a freedom to enjoy magic at a whole different level. And lastly, the fact that magicians can quite easily be deceived supports this view.

Magic Blueprinting: Using MML for scripting routines

The history of magic and the history of language go hand in hand. Language started with verbal communication, supported by dance, painting and rituals. Ancient shamans passed their craft on to the next generation in this very same way, initiating their apprentices step by step through one-on-one instruction via words, dance, painting and ritual.

Writing as we know it first developed about 6,000 years ago in present day Iraq. From then on, people wrote about every aspect of their lives, including magic. But, no writing about how to perform magic has ever been found in ancient documents. It seems that the pact of secrecy between magicians prevented them from committing their knowledge in permanent form. It is interesting to note in this respect that magicians have always been at the forefront of technology when it comes to creating the illusion of magic. When it comes to explaining secrets, however, magicians are a lot more conservative. The first magic book was published more than five millennia after the invention of writing! Since then, writing has been used prolifically by magicians to teach each other about their secrets and  initiate new magicians.

The twentieth century brought new technologies and with new means of communication came new ways of teaching magic. In a span of only a few decades, magicians moved from books to video and now to DVD and on-line technologies to share their secret knowledge. This proliferation of technology in magic teaching has made it much easier to pass on knowledge, but also raises problems for the craft, as there is a fine line between teaching magic and blatant exposure of magic secrets.

Magic Blueprinting

The evolution of language is still ongoing and as our world becomes more complicated, people seek new ways to present knowledge beyond verbal communication and text. One of the most popular tools to communicate a series of actions over a period of time is ‘flowcharting’, a technique that was first used in 1921. This time, however, it took magicians only 87 years to adopt this new form of knowledge presentation, when Alvo Stockman developed the Magic Modelling Language, magic blueprinting.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Presenting a series of activities in a graphical way is used in many different disciplines and is known under many names. Some call it a flowchart, others an activity map or a process map, while marketers prefer the term service blueprinting. I use these maps in my non-magical professional work to outline processes and illustrate where improvements can be made. Some of the questions that can be asked when looking at a process map are: Are there too many steps? Are all steps necessary to reach the end goal? Is the right person taking this step? Where can this process go wrong? These are also relevant questions for a performer when developing a magical routine.

After reading Alvo’s pamphlet I immediately developed flowcharts for some of my favourite magic routines, such as A Card in Hand by Theodore Annemann (Annemann’s Card Magic, 1977). The magic blueprint for this routine does not strictly follow the specifications of MML 1.0. Firstly, the flow of the action is illustrated with lines between boxes, rather than the grid like appearance of MML, making it easier to follow the flow of action. Secondly, to distinguish between the actions of the performer and the spectator, so called ‘swimlines’ are used. These are the vertical lines across the diagram. Thirdly, the actions of the performer are separated in frontstage and backstage. Frontstage is that which the spectator is supposed to see, while backstage refers to any action, the ‘moves’ spectators are not supposed to see. Last, but not least, a fourth swimline is used for the monologue, forming a comprehensive blueprint of a magic routine.

The map shows that there are six steps in this routine from the frontstage magician point of view, while there are five steps where the spectator gets involved. The routine has one climax, which happens in the spectator’s hand. Last but not least, there are three backstage moments that require attention management.

The front-stage actions of the performer are what the spectator is supposed to see. In this particular routine, the performer needs six steps, including an introduction, to reach the end. A Climax Quotient of 1/6 seems very low, but the scripting and high involvement of the spectator help to increase tension towards the end. Other routines, such as the Chinese Linking Rings, have a very high Climax Quotient, as many magical effects happen in quick succession, but it is very hard in these type of routines to build up tension and they thus rely on rhythm, rather than scripting.

The spectator swim-line shows that he or she is heavily involved in the routine with an Interactivity factor of five. This routine is almost in perfect balance in that out of a total of eleven front stage actions, the spectator undertakes five, giving an Interactivity Ratio of 11/5 (45%).

The script has been added to the actual process map to show the relationship between words and actions. The words are like the audio track to the actions and serve a threefold purpose. The words are explanatory and support the actions. The words also aid in managing the spectator’s attention away from the backstage actions. Most importantly, the words build tension towards the unveiling of the card. I have borrowed this technique from Fred Kaps’ rendition of Homing Card, where with every failure the inner conflict of the performer becomes more intense, moving from surprise to confusion to embarrassment.

This routine has three backstage moments, which need to be kept outside the attention of the spectator. Using a magic blueprint helps to construct a routine to appropriately direct the spectator’s attention away from the backstage. In this example, the scripting is constructed in order to manage the spectator’s attention away from the backstage action.

Not every little movement is captured in this map. For example, as I say the words: “… use the top card”, I gesture with the top card to direct the spectator’s attention. This action does, however not show on the blueprint because it is a detail the spectator is not aware of. Small backstage actions are indicated in the script between straight brackets. This raised the question what the appropriate level of granularity in magic blueprints is.

As Dai Vernon once said, a routine needs to be simple and a spectator has to be able to remember the steps. Following this advice, looking at A Card in Hand from the spectator’s perspective, can be summarised as such:

I selected a card, it was mixed back in the deck, the magician gave me another card and it turned into the one I chose.

This sentence describes five of the eleven steps indicated on the blueprint. The granularity of the map, i.e. the size of the steps, needs to match the spectator’s experience of the routine. There might be more steps, but people usually forget the details of what happened in a magic routine. There is no need to have a box for each change of finger position, because the spectator will not be aware of such detail. When developing a magic blueprint, always keep the spectator’s perspective in mind.

I use process maps almost daily in my non magical professional work because they are a great way to display and analyse a process. For some reason, however, it never occurred to me to use this technique for scripting magic routines, until I stumbled across Alvo’s pamphlet on the Magic Modelling Language.

Magic blueprinting, as I prefer to call it, is a useful technique to work out the details of a routine. The maps help to visualise the logistics of the routine and can assist in designing the appropriate theatrical devices required to keep the backstage hidden from the spectators. Magic blueprints also help to see a routine from the spectator’s perspective, which really is the only perspective that matters.