The digital world is opening up new possibilities for magicians

Submitted on Fri, 12/22/2017 - 12:52
Olli Rissanen/ Kuva: Pasi Niiranen
Olli Rissanen started doing magic tricks at a young age. He is now writing his doctoral dissertation on the magician’s profession and learning the trade secrets. Photograph: Pasi Niiranen

New magicians must first earn the respect of their senior colleagues before they are initiated to trade secrets

The world of magic has traditionally been very secretive. Magic tricks are not disclosed to the public; they are rarely revealed even to colleagues.

However, over the years, the magician’s skills have somehow transferred from one generation to the next. According to a study conducted by Goldsmiths, University of London, and the universities of Tampere, Eastern Finland and Helsinki in Finland, more senior magicians previously used to have a central gatekeeper role and decided who were initiated into the secrets of magic.

However, the digital world has changed the gatekeeper position. An increasing number of professional secrets are available online, and learning new tricks is easier with the help of video tutorials.

The study included a large sample
of Finnish magicians

Senior lecturer Pekka Räihä from the Faculty of Education conducted the study at the University of Tampere.

“I was professor of teacher training on the Savonlinna Campus in 2013–2014. The Savonlinna Campus’s School of Applied Educational Science and Teacher Education is arts and crafts-oriented. I met Rissanen who works there as a teacher and researcher. He is also a professional magician,” Räihä says.

In the first phase of the study, more than a hundred Finnish magicians answered a survey. The ages of the respondents ranged between 17 and 86 years. Most of the magicians who participated in the study were men. In the second phase of the study, sixteen professional magicians were selected for deeper interviews.

“The second phase included both experienced magicians and newcomers,” Räihä says.

Both technical and motor skills are a part of the magician’s trade. The magician must also understand human cognition and especially human attention. Many tricks are based on the deliberate deluding of the audience. A good magician is also a charismatic performer.

Magicians have no formal education. However, the skills required for doing magic tricks must still be learned somehow.


Pekka Räihä/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
The digital world has brought many new things, but the magicians’ network is still a major source of professional expertise, says Pekka Räihä from the University of Tampere who was a member of the research group. Photograph: Jonne Renvall


Videos help to
learn the tricks

Magicians have always carefully guarded their professional secrets. According to the old adage, magicians never reveal their secrets.

However, knowledge and know-how have still transferred from one magician to another. Before the digital age, the printed word was the most important source of information also in the world of magic.

“Books have been an important form of communication. The illustrations contained in books have allowed magicians to practice their tricks,” Räihä explains.

One of the advantages of books is that they do not give the reader a fully-fledged model of how the tricks should be learned. Each magician has had to customise his or her own version of the tricks.

Today, many of the tricks can be watched on Youtube, for example. Seeing whole tricks as moving images does not leave much to the imagination.

“On the internet, the tricks can be watched over and over again. This entails the apparent risk that the magician copies the tricks too closely. Videos can be of much help, but they can decrease originality,” Räihä points out.

On the other hand, the internet makes it easier for magicians to market their performances. Without much effort, anyone can present their work online and form new customer contacts. The magicians in the study saw the digital world mainly as a source of positive opportunities. Younger magicians experienced the online world as more familiar to themselves than their more experienced counterparts did.

Mentoring helps
professional growth

Olli Rissanen at the University of Eastern Finland is completing his doctoral dissertation on the magician’s profession and how it can be learned. For the study, Rissanen contacted magicians he had known during his own career.

“I must say that I received on inordinate amount of help from fellow magicians. They were very happy to be included in the study,” Rissanen says.

Rissanen himself started to practice magic at a young age. There was a temporary interruption in adulthood, but since the late 1990s he has performed actively again. According to Rissanen, the Finnish community of magicians is close-knit; colleagues help each other and teach tricks to beginners.

“The internet has created numerous opportunities.  However, I still believe that in order to become a professional, a magician will need a mentor. It is hard to believe that anyone could develop into a professional completely without support,” Rissanen says.

However, the secrets are not shared with just anybody.  According to the study, newcomers first need to earn the trust of the more senior magicians before they are introduced to trade secrets. Neither is all the information provided simultaneously but by one piece at a time.  

“The digital world has brought many new aspects, but the network of magicians is still highly important,” Räihä says.

Text: Jaakko Kinnunen

Rissanen Olli How Has the Emergence of Digital Culture Affected Professional Magic? Professions & Professionalism, Volume 7, No 3 (2017) e 1957