The Alchemist

The sufficiently advanced magic of Seth Raphael

Seth RaphaelPhotograph courtesy of Seth Raphael

Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” TEDGlobal Fellow Seth Raphael believes the converse is true as well. “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology,” he says. By combining both these dictums, Raphael has carved out a niche for himself as unique as his green suits and yellow ties. As co-founder of X-Pollinate, Raphael helps businesses solve the problems that others write off as impossible, and he does it by doing what he loves best: blowing people’s minds. As he says: “After a performance, if the audience members are saying, ‘He must be using voice recognition, wireless cameras, and an RFID reader implanted in his head!’ then I’ve been successful.”

Why do you think magic and technology are a good mix?

Magic allows someone to have complete mastery over the environment around them and the ability to do things that aren’t possible. In many ways, technology has the same goal. When I perform a magic trick with Google or Facebook, not only am I using something that is relevant to my audience, but I am pushing the envelope of what we think is possible.

What was the first magic trick you ever wanted to perform?

It’s hard to remember, but as a kid I really liked the magic tricks that had cool secrets behind them. I didn’t really care whether or not the audience liked them.

When did you start using magic and technology to help businesses work through problems?

After a show one day, a VP of Disney came up to me and said, “Don’t just show us, teach us.” So I learned that my techniques for imagining the future and developing technology are really useful. I can teach companies how to think creatively.

What are the goals of your workshops?

I want teams to imagine their products doing things they would have never dreamed of and then make it a reality. Our participants uncover their daily assumptions and learn to exploit them like a magician in order to do the impossible.

How do the workshops work? What’s the process?

We put a huge emphasis on inter-disciplinary collaboration. Our team of facilitators includes hardcore programmers, analog circuit designers, and yoga instructors. We bring together all of our skills over three days and share them with a cross-section of our clients, usually about 15 people.

Why do you think people are so delighted by magic?

Everyone loves the unknown. There is a thrill in discovering something new and mysterious. Watching good magic elicits that emotion of wonder that reminds you of being a kid.

Will you reveal any of your magic secrets for us?

Instead of ruining your wonder, I’ll tell you a few of the techniques I use to design new magic tricks. Start by imagining what you would do if you could do anything. Then work backward from the desired effect or outcome, step by step. Brainstorm with people in a completely different domain and study the minutiae of everything involved: the tiniest detail may lead to a breakthrough. And lastly, just wait. The best tricks take years to germinate, until one day they materialize, as if by magic.

Seth Raphael is a tech-savvy magician and founder of X-Pollinate, an interdisciplinary team of innovators. He was in Oxford as a TEDGlobal Fellow.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

Issue 11

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