ON DRONES by the Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published in Arthur No. 35 (August 2013)…

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Column: Applied Magic(k)
Author: The Center for Tactical Magic
Title: “The Deception of Robot Demons”
Illustration: Aaron Gach

Seldom used in stage magic today, automata (self-operating mechanical figures) featured prominently among conjuror’s acts before the 1900’s. Skillful craftsmen offered public demonstrations of elaborate clockwork characters that could perform entertaining miracles. Perhaps the most famous automaton of all time was the chess-playing spectacle known as The Turk. From the late 1700’s through the mid-1800’s, the turban-topped, robe-wearing, moustachioed machine amazed audiences in Europe and the Americas as he defeated the majority of his opponents, including Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Despite an intense amount of public speculation and scrutiny, the mystery of its inner workings remained a closely guarded secret for many years. Although some correctly suspected that The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that concealed a human chess master, these theories were particularly difficult to prove since The Turk was opened up at the beginning of performances to provide the audience with a view of its interior.

In crafting illusions, it is essential for magicians to deflect suspicion by guiding audience perception. This may occur through misdirection, camouflage, patter—or, in the case of The Turk—a combination of all three presented through a carefully orchestrated sequence of events that gives a false appearance of reality. The final effect in this case was an amusing battle of wits apparently between man and machine that was way ahead of its time. Resonating with some of the earliest fears and hopes of the posthuman condition, it predated Mary Shelley’s techno-angst classic, Frankenstein, by nearly 50 years, and IBM’s Deep Thought chess computer (which lost to chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1989) by more than 200 years.

Somewhere between the horror of Frankenstein and the hubris of Deep Thought a melange of other mechanistic mayhem has emerged with far less entertaining implications. Although Nikola Tesla first conjured the notion of a squadron of remotely piloted warplanes in 1915, it has only been in the past decade that drone warfare has moved from from the shadows into the spotlight. In this “theater of conflict,” we find ourselves once again presented with the illusion of intelligent machinations. As with The Turk, we are often presented with a well-choreographed display intended to subvert our logic through partial truths and deceptive patter.

Drone strikes (particularly when they run afoul) are frequently discussed by government spokespersons as if the machines were making their own decisions, with zero accountability for their human operators, strike teams, or the officers and officials who authorize and oversee these missions from an air farce base outside of Las Vegas. When US missiles kill people in countries that we’re not even at war with, should it even matter if the aircraft had a human being sitting in the cockpit?

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MAGIC(K) CALLS: Applied Magic(K) column by Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2006)

Psychic Surveillance: Hi-tech wizardry and ESP come together at this mystic parlor in Stockton, CA. How can you augment your powers of perception?

Applied Magic(k): Magic(k) Calls
by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006).

The ancient oracles of Greece, which served as messaging centers between the gods and the mortals, did not shy away from associating metaphysical affairs with technological wizardry. Visitors to the oracles marveled as doors opened, fountains poured forth, and lights flickered all of the their own accord, thanks to an innovative use of hydraulics, pneumatics, levers, weights and balances. Such high-tech engineering (for the times, anyway) not only served to set an appropriate magical tone, but also held the potential to assist in conveying messages from the gods. Although more than 2,000 years old, this blend of magic(k) and tech stands in stark contrast to many of today’s expressions of magic(k). What is it about technology and magic(k) that leaves so many magic(k) practitioners hiding in the folds of their anachronistic robes and tuxedos?

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the inventor credited with the notion of global satellite communications, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the surface, such an assertion may seem simple enough; however, there are a few layers to excavate here. Some interpret this to mean we have reached an age where we are quite impressed by our own inventions. The workings of our gadgets have become increasingly imperceptible, if not due to sheer miniaturized size of the parts, then surely due to the veils of specialized knowledge. In the end, we don’t know how a given technology, a cell phone for instance, even works nor do we particularly care so long as we can talk on it when we need to. We take it for granted that there is a technical logic behind the engineering of a cell phone.

For some, that brief insignificant moment of faith in technology is comparable to magic(k)—after all, many (if not most) magic tricks are successfully performed along these very lines. Any enchantment whatsoever is overpowered by the puzzle that remains to be solved. The audience does not wonder if it is “real” magic(k); they wonder at how it is accomplished. While the overall effect may still be enough to satisfy and entertain, the method remains cloaked in secrecy and illusion. Likewise, when a technology performs its prescribed function, we tend not to ask any questions, and thus the mysteries of its inner workings are obscured to all but those with specialized knowledge. This certainly has some parallels with the way some view magic(k), equally in the realms of the occult, entertainment, and perhaps politics as well.

However, the magic(k) of a “sufficiently advanced technology” is not simply manifested solely by its ability to perform its prescribed function without one’s understanding of how it works. Magic(k) teases questions of “what?” and “why” just as much as “how?” Aside from the general mystery of its inner workings, a cell phone appears to be no more magical than a wristwatch or a solar-powered calculator largely because of our familiarity with it and the banal circumstances under which it is used. But when we take a moment to really consider what a cell phone does, we begin to scrape away at another layer of meaning. We act like it’s nothing, but when we use cell phones, our disembodied voices are transmitted invisibly via remote towers networked to celestial satellites (invented by Arthur C. Clarke, remember) floating somewhere in the heavens, before bouncing back to earth to be received by another living person located perhaps thousands of miles away. And this all happens in “real-time.” Is it becoming more difficult to distinguish between technology and magic(k) yet? Well, let’s keep going…

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