|Topic: On consumerism, originality, and ethics|
There has been quite a bit of discussion here recently about the ethics of this or that, which then gets into the question of what's original, and then gets into the whole issue of how much crap is being published and sold today. So I wanted to make a few observations.
My first observation is that I'm seeing a classic, textbook-example, vicious circle.
I think we can all agree that interest in magic has increased exponentially over the past ten or fifteen years. In fact, it has exploded. The Web has made magic freely accessible to millions and created an inexpensive venue for selling books, lecture notes, DVDs, tricks, props, and everything else.
And, now that digital cameras are inexpensive, and a lot of computers come with a built-in DVD burner and the software for it, the ability to create a DVD is in everyone's hands. Years ago, when desktop publishing programs first came out, people were creating brochures, flyers, ads, and everything else without any training in graphic design or any idea of what constitutes good design. Today, anyone can make a digital movie and burn a DVD without the foggiest idea (and, sometimes it seems, without the slightest concern) about the quality of the content or the production quality of the DVD.
Then there's another issue in that magic has become a consumer-oriented hobby.
And on that note I'm going to say that we might as well admit, for the record, that the vast majority of people interested in magic today – those we call magicians – are in it as a hobby. And there's nothing wrong with that. Some hobbyists or part-timers, in any field, are far more serious, or more talented, at what they do than some people who do it for a living, and that's always been the case. So let's get down to brass tacks and just admit that most of us, me included, are hobbyists.
Notice I didn't use the term “amateur,” which, for some reason, seems to rankle a lot of magic hobbyists. I first noticed this as a teenager many years ago, and I'm still seeing it. So, I won't use the term in this article. Maybe I can save it for a future one.
Anyway, when you have probably [i]millions[/i] of people interested in magic and doing tricks for each other, of course they're going to be constantly looking for new material. Having new material is a necessity here, since they're working for the same audience. Nothing wrong with that either.
But, and here's my point, if you have a hugely popular field where:
a) Most practitioners are hobbyists, and
b) They're always looking for new material, and
c) It has become very easy to create and publish material, and
d) Some people are always going to want a quick way to make a buck,
Then it follows that there's going to be an explosion of material (the good old law of supply and demand), and that a good part of this material will be old stuff repackaged as ”new,” or that it will be crap.
I remember an article in an old magic magazine (and I seem to remember it was written by Dave Bamberg, aka Fu Manchu) discussing this, and the author's comment about not blaming the dealers, [i]because their job is to sell what people buy[/i]. Nowadays, with the Web, it's far easier to sell stuff than in the old days when you needed a storefront or ads in magazines.
The interesting thing, for me, is the repackaging. Have you bought a tube of toothpaste, mouthwash, laundry detergent, or a similar product recently? Have you noticed how often the phrase “New and Improved!” shows up on the package? What does that mean? Did they really do something revolutionary to it, or did they increase the proportion of one ingredient by one tenth of one percent so they could say it's improved?
Have you ever seen a package that says, “The same old stuff you were buying five years ago!”?
I haven't. And I don't believe you have either.
Now let's go back to the issue of wanting new material all the time. Why [i]do[/i] we need new material all the time? I think it's simply because we have become a consumer-oriented society, meaning that we like to buy stuff because we are constantly inundated with new stuff to buy. So, if magic is a hobby, and part of the appeal of the hobby is the tricks, then of course we're going to be constantly looking for the newest tricks... which of course means “original material.” So to speak.
Then we get into ethics and all the discussions about copying or not copying, and improving or not improving existing material. I think if people involved in magic were more focused on the presentation to the audience, and not on the originality of the tricks themselves – and certainly not on making a quick buck or becoming an instant celebrity – then there wouldn't be so much blatant copying and “improvement,” since there wouldn't be a need for it.
See what I mean about a vicious circle? The market is there, so of course the material will be there to support the market. And given how much material there is, then of course a good chunk of it will be junk.
What can be done about it?
I don't know that anything can be done about it. It's just the way magic is nowadays. Maybe some day something else will come along to replace magic as a hobby for the masses, and then the market for original magic material will become more selective. Until then, we can just do as the Romans used to say: