NSFW: Two magicians, three cups and one lesson your boring product must learn from Penn and Teller

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pennteller1“Are Penn and Teller really launching a product at TechCrunch 50?”

As I typed the message to Arrington, I could barely contain my glee. For a few strange years, starting towards the end of my teens, I worked as a magician – making good money and impressing girls by turning card tricks at corporate dinners and in fancy restaurants.

It’s a long story, but one strangely common among people who ended up working on or around the web. For some reason a youthful interest in magic often comes hand-in-hand with a career in technology. It’s probably something to do with being a geek.

Arrington’s reply was both a confirmation and a warning: “Yes they are. And if you write anything that stops them coming, you’re fired.”

So, it’s official: Penn and Teller – the magicians’ magicians – are coming to TechCrunch 50 next month. Your response to this news will probably depend on which part of the technology barrel you inhabit. For those scraping along at the bottom – the self-described ‘social media consultants’, the me-too-rip-off app builders, the spammers, the search engine optimisation goons, the MySpace child groomers – it might be one of confusion. I mean, what could a couple of Las Vegas magicians possibly know about launching a technology product?

But for anyone else: anyone who understands that technology can actually be an art form rather than just a way to fleece gullible punters, the pairing of tech and magic makes perfect sense. I mean, Penn and Teller at TechCrunch 50 is basically the physical manifestation of Arthur C Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Clarke’s law, of course, was little more than a useful crutch; a maxim that – by his own admission – he bolted on to his previous two (“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.” / “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible”) because he decided three was a better number.

Also, by likening the kind of super-advanced technologies he wrote about to ‘real’ magic Clarke could avoid Jules Verne’s problem of having to explain how his wonderful inventions worked, only for actual innovation to prove him wrong a few years later. Clarke’s point was that contemporary readers couldn’t possibly understand how his future technologies worked, they just did. Like magic. No further explanation required.

But in fact Clarke’s basic premise – that, at a certain level, the line between magic and technology becomes invisible – is absolutely right, just maybe for different reasons than he described. Speak to any decent magician – one who has read his Professor Hoffman or at least his Mark Wilson – and he will tell you about the time he saw a trick (or ‘effect’) that absolutely blew his mind, despite knowing every one of the technical principles behind it.

The one that stands out for me was the time – I was maybe 14 years old – that I watched an American magician called David Williamson instantly restore a piece of rope that he had previously cut in half, using his fingers as a pair of scissors. The cut and restored rope is an ancient classic of magic, and there’s really only one way to do it. And yet the way Williamson employed that method was so good – so mind-blowingly, knee-shakingly good – that it (literally) made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

And so it should be with technology. I remember – just as vividly as I remember David Williamson’s rope trick – the first time I bought a laptop with WiFi. For ten minutes or more I carried that laptop around my house, up and down stairs; into different rooms; even into my back yard, streaming full-screen video from the BBC website as I went. Again, I knew exactly what was going on: there was the WiFi card jutting from the PCMCIA port and I’d just spent ten minutes configuring the wireless hub. And yet… the experience of watching full-screen video on my laptop, without wires, was as near to pure magic as watching that piece of rope mend itself two feet from my eyes.

The comparisons between really good uses of the principles of magic and really good uses of technology are so numerous that they could fill a book. In the 1930′s, Charles Hoffman caused a sensation with a small brass tea-kettle that could – on command – pour any drink or cocktail that the audience requested. Today my iPhone, with its 3G connection and iTunes, can do the same for any piece of music ever recorded. Which one is more magical to watch, really?

Or consider Criss Angel who, using some invisible – but quite basic – method is able to tell a woman on Las Vegas Boulevard the precise date she was born, or what she does for a living. With Google I can summon any fact ever recorded, from wherever I happen to be in the world. Again, which is more impressive? Certainly neither is made less magical by knowing, broadly, how it works. The brilliance lies in how well the method is hidden, and how powerful the effect is.

And so it is with every single brilliant piece of technology, or web app that has ever been created. From the cellphone, to the iPod; from webcams to the web to WiFi. From email to eBay to Twitter to Hotmail to Shazzam to GPS to Google Maps to the Kindle. Pick your favourite, and remember how you felt when you first used it. Now remember the best magic trick you ever saw. The feeling is exactly the same.

Like all good rules, this one works the other way around as well. Remember the exact opposite of the best magic trick you ever saw. Your boring uncle’s card trick – the one where, through the most convoluted of methods, probably involving dividing the pack into piles and counting slowly through them – he triumphantly, and boringly, turned over the card you chose. Remember how he made you feel: you probably didn’t know what bizzare mathematics or slight of hand genius lead him to your card, but neither did you care. If he were a real magician, he’d have found the card straight away. The only person he impressed was himself.

The same is true of the worst technology. I don’t care how technically sophisticated Wolfram Alpha is, or how many genius hours it took to build it – all I know is that it forced me to think too hard, and returned results that were of no use to man nor beast. The technological equivalent of a boring uncle; the method was more impressive than the effect, and so the hairs on the back of my neck remain unstood.

Which brings me to Penn and Teller.

Of all of the magicians working today, none more perfectly illustrates the rule that a magical effect must take precedence over technical brilliance. Their stage show is a spectacular of blood and gore and guns and showgirls and pyrotechnics – and yet for their signature piece, they clear all of that aside and perform the oldest and most widely-known effect in magic: the cups and balls.

You’ve seen it before, of course. Three cups, three little balls. One by one the balls vanish and, one by one, they reappear under the cups. Then, by way of a kicker, the cups are lifted to reveal three limes, one under each. But there’s more! The cups are stacked and lifted one last time to reveal – a huge lemon. Four large pieces of fruit from under three cups: cue the applause.

But while every magician since the ancient Egyptians has finished there, Penn and Teller announce that they are going to do the trick one more time: this time using transparent cups. It’s amazing to watch: every single load, every single sleight and steal is laid bare. You see the moment they put the limes under the cups. You even see the lemon go in. But such is the brilliance of their execution, that you’re still left both baffled and blown away. The method becomes irrelevant, the effect is everything. The audience is on their feet.

And it’s for that reason that I’m so delighted that Penn and Teller will be at Techcrunch 50. Not for what they’re launching – although from what I’ve heard, it’s going be pretty damn cool – but rather for what their appearance will hopefully remind anyone getting ready to launch a product, either at the event or at any time in the future…

It doesn’t matter how clever your technology – if the effect doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your audience’s neck stand up, you need to keep working until it does. But if you do manage to build something even half as impressive as that lemon appearing under that plastic cup, then fame, fortune and a well-deserved standing ovation will be yours for the taking.


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