TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Seth Raphael

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Seth Raphael believes in blending technology and magic. That’s right, magic. As a magician and tech-guru, he combines his passions to help people realize the impossible. In this interview, learn about Seth’s unique approach to fostering wonder, his results-oriented workshops, and his love of libraries.

Your work is rather unusual, even for TED. Can you explain what you do?

I do a number of different things — for companies, generally. I’m a high-tech magician, which means I do magic with technology. There’s both the literal and the figurative way to take that. I perform magic tricks with technology, and then I also help people do impossible things — things they didn’t think were possible — using technology that is new, or using existing technology in new ways. And also just helping them think about magic as a metaphor of how you amuse your audiences. How do you provide them with things that they wish they could do, but didn’t know they could do. And using that to help create new technologies.

There’s that which is the workshop aspect of my work, and then there is also a performance aspect. A company will have me provide a presentation for an hour or however long just to perform and inspire people to think differently about whatever technology they are using. So those are the two aspects of what I do.

I’ll be speaking at the Grid conference, put on by Bonnier, in Stockholm, in a couple months. I’m working on some new interactive effects to do there. The iPad has created some new opportunities for high-tech magic; I have some new iPhone magic which I’ve been working on. And I am working on a top-secret method for predicting the stock market, and hopefully I will have an opportunity to demonstrate my ability to predict the stock market by predicting the actual end of the recession.

You have studied the subject of “wonder” quite seriously. What do we need to know about wonder?

If you go to magicseth.com and click on the bunny in the lower left-hand corner of the page, that leads you to slides that talk about the chain of wonder, where wonder comes from.

ABOVE: The Chain of Wonder.

Magic as well as other things start with expectation violation — when something happens that you weren’t expecting. But expectation violation doesn’t always lead to wonder. If a bear jumps out and surprises you, you are not going to experience wonder, right? So there’s this kind of range of reactions you can have to something unexpected. If something appears out of thin air and you’re interested or excited — if it’s a gold coin or something like that — you can have a more wonder-filled reaction.

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Once you have an initial gut response, you move on to the next stage. And how relevant that thing is to you impacts what your next action is. So if a particle physicist sees me add some salt to a glass of water and the pH changes in a totally unexpected way, to you that may have no impact, but to somebody who studies chemistry, maybe they become obsessed, because it’s more relevant to them. So that’s the extreme reaction. And the other extreme is complete apathy: you don’t care what the salinity of this liquid is. That in turn impacts the amount of effort you’re willing to put in to resolve this expectation violation. So if you then make it your life’s effort to understand what was going on when I added the salt, you could end up with some sort of huge paradigm shift in the way science thinks about things.

So as a magician I have a particular path to this chain of wonder that I’m trying to elicit. I want to create wonder first of all. If I create apathy I probably failed as a magician. But I don’t want people to become obsessed — I don’t want them to focus on the “how.” I want them to put little-to-no effort and just sort of end up in this space where they’ve opened up their mind to new possibilities.

What do you teach in your workshops?

We started a company to help companies think about technology in different ways. So it’s me and several other colleagues from the MIT Media Lab, and we have designed a curriculum — it’s called the xPollinate [“cross-pollinate”] curriculum. It’s an interdisciplinary method of getting ideas from different people in different parts of the organization, cross-pollinating with different ideas that we have as technology innovators.

So it’s usually a three-day workshop where we come in and work with a team of people from an organization — it could be a non-profit, a school, or a corporation — we take them and we go through different stages. One stage is us giving them our seeds of knowledge. We teach them the technological tools that we have: programming languages that we’ve developed, media labs, hardware tools, prototyping, designing new technologies. Then we also give them some other tools: laughter meditation, yoga, musical improvisation, and I teach people how to perform magic.

ABOVE: Workshop participants in a laughter meditation session.

These are things that we have found that help us maintain whatever we call it: our sense of wonder, our sense of levity, our ability to think outside the box — and each of these exercises is designed to get people thinking differently about what it means to produce, what it means to consume, what it means to work in a particular work environment. So as we’re doing this they’re getting technical skills, but they’re also getting non-technical skills that will hopefully help them be more creative and achieve the things they want to do.

Some of the best responses that we get are from people months after the workshop, writing us thanking us for helping them get things done, not just at work but at home. They found that they can complete projects because they realized that anything is possible, that they don’t have to wait for anything. We empower them.

So the first two days of the workshop are us giving them the tools. And the third day is about them executing the ideas. They create real projects that they are driven to complete, and we conclude by having a showcase for the rest of the company to see their projects. So the rest of the company gets to come and see what they created and say “Wait, you created this in 3 days?” And everybody else inevitably says, “Can you teach us how?” and we have to say, “Look, these people who were in our workshop are the new seeds, they’re the new germinators, the cross-pollinators, they’re the experts in thinking differently and being creative.” So we try and transfer that and empower them to become the next facilitators for running workshops or just answering questions.

What’s the “craziest” thing you think is possible?

Well, you’d be hard-pressed to have me say something is impossible. I would say it is possible for us to clean up that icky oil spill, but it is going to take some serious magic from a lot of people. And I hope that we have it in us to do it.

What do you do to relax?

When I’m putting magic aside completely, I really enjoy finding things to do in the community. Things like dancing. My wife and I went to a free contra dance lesson in the park recently (contra is a cross between old English dancing, where everyone is sort of going around in circles, and country line dancing).

I’m a big fan of libraries — getting books from the library, getting movies from the library, just hanging out at the library. We don’t have Internet at home, so when we want Internet, we go to the library.

How has the TED Fellowship impacted you?

In a bunch of different ways. There’s the physical act of the TED Fellowship which was going to TEDGlobal and getting to meet those wonderful people, and networking and just having a wonderful mind-opening experience.

Everybody sees TED online and you get a good feeling for what the talks are like, but you have no clue what the actual experience at TED is like. And I think it is a tremendous opportunity.

Even just for doing performances and organizing performances that involve a three-day workshop, the amount of information that TED imparts over three days is a nice model to keep in mind when doing workshops for companies. So that’s the part of having been to TED.

The other part is the awe it inspires when people find out that you’re a TED Fellow. They don’t quite know what it means, generally, because it is not the most publicized of TED’s endeavors. But when they find out you have been to TED and that TED values you, it’s kind of like the MIT-bomb. Where if you’re talking to someone and it comes out that you went to MIT, they’re like, “you must be a brain surgeon, or you must be just incredible” — they sort of freeze up a little bit. It’s sort of the same when they find out you’re a TED fellow. When I want to contact someone I haven’t ever met, it’s not just coming out and saying “Hi, I’m a TED fellow” but putting it in there, it adds a bit of credibility and a little bit of context to the work I do.

What is your proudest achievement?

Continuing to do the things I love to do, and not letting other people tell me to be practical.

Do you have a role model?

There was a magician in my town named John Swomley who I looked up to tremendously. But my dad is definitely my biggest role model. I find myself more and more like him every day. It’s sort of inevitable that I will end up something like him. And I’m quite pleased about that. He was my life role model, he lived well.

Anything else?

It’s really fascinating being in my position, which is getting to witness technological advancement, and be a part of it, and also trying to think about where it’s going to go next. I design magic for the iPhone and I have a lot of really amazing tricks that I can do with an iPhone and I perform them regularly. Magic is at a place where usually once you’ve performed stuff for awhile, you sell your effects and teach other people how to do them.

In my case it’s a little different. In one part because the things I’m doing are not kosher in the terms of Apple, who owns the iPhone and the iPhone platform. So for me to distribute my magic tricks and secrets I would have to get their permission, and they have rejected me for being a little too creative with their software.

That’s one aspect of it. That actually has put me in a position to be a consultant for people. I’m actually the official iPhone magician for a company called Bump Technologies. And they design software for your cell phones that is very much like magic, it allows you to just bump your phone into someone else’s and share contact information or photos or. So I’m in a position to help them think about what the next generation of interactions are like, how to make their technology and software work more like magic.

ABOVE: Seth Raphael, the Bump Magician, courtesy of Bump Technologies

And I don’t really know quite what’s next. I hopefully will continue to perform and to do workshops with people, and help technology become more magical, and help people find the magic around them.