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Rage Against the Gizmo

Rage Against the Gizmo

[Originally published in M-U-M, August, 2012]

I am a big fan of contemporary physics and cosmology. I have read and studied the general public books of authors like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Lawrence Krauss. I don’t mean that I have skimmed through the books by these learned gentlemen; I have read and reread them, trying to wrap my head around the concepts they introduce. And I’m gaining some headway. I’m beginning to understand the Big Bang, inflation, dark matter, dark energy, string theory, and the importance of finding the Higgs boson.

But no matter how many of these general public books I read, or how many of the wonderful science programs I watch on television, my knowledge of this subject would not cause any working physicist to worry about his or her job security. There is simply so much more to physics than the surface concepts explained in these books. If you doubt this, just open up a physics textbook and see how far you get through it. (The collected Feynman Lectures on Physics are fun, if you’re brave.) I have been exposed to the concepts and ideas of contemporary physics, but in no way does this information diminish my respect and admiration for the people who devote their lives to science. Even a casual reader of these books (or viewer of the television shows) must realize that there is a lot more to physics than is presented in shows or books for the general public.

So what’s the point of this little essay? I’ll get to it in a moment (and I know many of you are way ahead of me), but before I do, I want to define a term I’ll use in the rest of this article. The term is “gizmo.” For our purposes, the “gizmo” is the one-sentence explanation of how a magic trick works; the kind of explanation that a lowlife masked magician or a kid on YouTube might divulge. “The coin is copper on one side and silver on the other.” “The magician wears a plastic thumb.” “There’s a trapdoor in the stage.” “The playing cards are marked.” “The box has a secret compartment hidden by mirrors.” For a generally disinterested layman, the one- or two-sentence explanation of the gizmo is all that’s necessary to give the impression the entire workings of the trick have been revealed. (If I want to expose the McDonald’s Aces trick to a layman, I don’t have to explain how I accomplish the switches, the laydown, or the various vanishes; all I need to do is show three of the Aces are double-faced.)

Magicians get upset when someone indiscriminately exposes the various gizmos of magic tricks. I get upset, too, but not for the reason you might think. I’ll explain why I get upset in a moment, but before I do, let’s take a look at various types of magicians and how exposure affects them.

There are magicians whose only knowledge of magic consists of knowing the gizmo. In other words, the only difference between the magician and the spectator is the magician got to the magic shop first. Such magicians aren’t magicians at all; they are magic trick owners. Many neophytes start out this way, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as their audiences consist only of family and very close friends. Such magicians hate exposure because exposure makes a layman exactly as knowledgeable as they are.

Then there are the magicians whose presentations are such that the only message offered is that the magician is superior because he knows the gizmo and the spectator doesn’t. Such magicians aren’t magicians; they are jerks, and they are the reason many people hate watching magic. Such magicians hate exposure because they can no longer use knowledge of the gizmo as the justification for their assumed superiority.

Then there are the magicians who are more advanced than the neophyte and who structure their presentations to avoid looking like jerks, but who are still knocked off their pegs when a trick in their repertoires is exposed. What can they do? What can any of us do? The answer is simple: we have to be better magicians. We must have a deeper knowledge of effects and methods. We have to know how to psychologically manipulate our spectators, to control what they observe and what they remember, to dispel possible methods, and especially to cancel the thought of any gizmos they may be aware of. And most important, we must offer content that goes beyond the mere presentation of puzzles – puzzles whose gizmos a spectator needs to deduce in order to be satisfied by the experience.

Sometimes you can get blindsided by an unexpected exposure. In 2000, the country was made aware of the existence of “hanging chads,” which just happens to be a part of the method of a trick I am well known for. What did I do? I retired the trick for several years. I have a large enough repertoire I could do that. I missed performing the trick, but I was able to put it back in rotation after the knowledge of chads faded into the clutter of informational noise normal people are bombarded with every day. I know stage magicians suffer when the methods of certain illusions are indiscriminately exposed. But illusionists have always had a major challenge, that of transcending the “box.” How do you justify the prop? How do you make it less of an object of intellectual interest? There’s the challenge. After all, I’m not sure how much of a difference there is in a spectator thinking, “There must be something funny about that box,” and that same spectator knowing exactly what the gizmo is. Either way, mystery disappears.

Why do I hate exposure? I hate it because it reinforces the stereotype that conjuring is simple and trivial; that if you know the gizmo, you have the right to call yourself a magician. Nothing could be further from the truth. Providing a disinterested, skeptical spectator with the experience of astonishment cloaked in an evocative presentation is one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to do. The information on how to achieve this is available, safely hidden away in books – books that must be read, absorbed, studied, reread, and internalized, just like a physics textbook.

If you’re angry about exposure, fight back by being a living example of the fact that there is more to magic than the gizmo. Let your performances show that magic can be a deep, meaningful, and relevant art form.

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David Mitchell - January 5, 2021

Well said. When I worked in restaurants and it was slow I would often sit with the guests who were interested in discussing magic and show them a method or two. Often they would mention exposing a method means that the trick is ruined. I likened it to driving, there’s more than one way to reach a destination, just because one way is known doesn’t mean there aren’t other routes you can take. Being a better magician to me is all about options, and being able to use them when needed and sometimes let someone in, to help them appreciate the complexity of our art.

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