The Wisdom of Crowds Word Reveal

In the first few weeks of this site, I wrote this:

My hobby is coming up with ways to reveal a thought of word. I used to have a long subway commute and whenever my phone would die and I didn't have a book on me, I would fill my time by trying to come up with one interesting way to reveal a word before I got to my stop. 

I know what you're thinking:

Andy, I have a few different ways I like to reveal a thought of word. One is, I write it on a clipboard. But occasionally, for an older audience, I'll bust out a chalkboard. But when I'm performing at a bar, I write that shit straight-up on a whiteboard, my man! [hold for high-five]

Believe it or not, I'm not just talking about what surface you write the thought of word on. Or if you say it out loud. Or if you reveal it letter by letter. I'm talking more about the context in which the word is revealed

There was a time when I considered writing a book of just different ways to reveal a peeked or forced word. 202 Word Reveals, or something like that. But one thing I've learned is that the mass magic audience wants a book with 200 ways to peek a word, not 200 ways to reveal one. I would argue that's the problem with magic, but I'm done arguing that point.

Here's something I will argue. Let's say you know what word a spectator wrote down. I believe, for the amateur magician, the least interesting thing you can do with that information is to say, "And now I'll read your mind.... You're thinking of Clementine." Or any other variation where you claim to read their mind. 

For the professional it's a bit different. If the audience doesn't know the performer, then they can consider the idea that this person has some strange power of perception or of the mind that allows him/her to divine what someone is thinking.

But, when the spectator knows the performer, they know that's not the case. So to say "I'm going to read your mind," leads to one of two outcomes:

1. The effect is interesting to them, but it can only ever be an interesting puzzle. They know you didn't read their mind. So the trick becomes an unraveling of how you knew what was written on the paper. This ends up bringing a ton of heat onto the procedure. Why did he put it in the wallet? Why did he tear the paper?

2. They know it wasn't real mind-reading. And they're not interested. And they don't give it a second thought.

Obviously there are ways to make, "I'm reading your mind," more interesting and more resonant to a spectator, I won't deny that. But in a general sense, I still think it's fair to say that if you know a word someone is thinking, the least interesting thing you can do is then "read their mind" and reveal it. I don't even think that's a particularly controversial thing to say. And yet so much of magic/mentalism is that exact thing.

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Originally, the idea was this... I'd be at the library with someone and I'd ask her to think of a random word. When she settled on something I would say, "Is the word you're thinking of related to your life in any significant way, because we don't want it to be. So, if you were thinking of swimming that wouldn't be a good option because you were a swimmer in high school. Of course you can relate to almost any word in some way, but I just don't want it to be a strong correlation. So if it's something connected to you in some big way, switch to a different word." Once she's settled on something that seems truly random she would write it down (and I would figure out what it was). 

Then I'd bring her over to the reference section and pull out a large book called The Wisdom of Crowds 2017. It would be the size of one of the big phone books with the tissue-thin pages. I'd explain to her the publishers of this book have this huge database of information that pulls from all sorts of publicly available records and they claim that, with this information, they can make extremely educated guesses about the way people's minds work and the choices they make. All they need are three data points: your sex, where you were born, and when you were born. And then that gets cross-referenced with a bunch of different information: #1 songs and highest grossing movies from your teenage years, what books were the most popular at the public libraries in your city, keyword searches in your local newspaper, tv ratings, magazine circulation, local school curriculum—just an endless amount of data. 

The publisher's claim with just those three personal data points, and then the massive amount of local and national statistics, they can predict all sorts of things about you: the career you're likely to go into, how you'll vote, the number of kids you'll choose to have, the values that will matter to you, and so on. Of course, this is all expressed in percentages and probabilities—not every male born in Columbus, OH in 1972 went into the same career, for example—but they still claim an extremely high degree of insight based just on those bits of personal information.

They published this book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," as proof of the strength of their algorithm. In this book they suggest they can predict what "random" word a person is likely to think of.

So I would confirm with my friend that she was born in San Diego, in 1990. Then we'd flip to the San Diego section, then go to 1990, and look in the female column. It would list five likely words a person with those demographics might think of. And there, at the top of the list, would be her word: buttermilk.

I thought that would make for an interesting way to reveal a word. There was only one small issue, which was that I had no clue how you'd actually do it. Well, I could come up with a method if I was working on a tv special and had a crew with which to do it, but not really as a workable, reliable trick for a normal setting.

So I changed the premise slightly. 

My friend Sophie is visiting and I ask her if she wants to try something interesting. I have her write down a random word, fold up the paper and put it in her pocket. 

Then I tell her about a friend of mine who works for this gigantic data mining company. And I tell her how they examine all sorts of information (all the same stuff mentioned in the presentation above) and are able to make shockingly accurate predictions based on very little personal information. 

"We assume our personality and the decisions we make in life are a function of our DNA or something, but it turns out a lot of these external factors influence us in profound ways. You think you went into the health field because you have an innate desire to help people. But it might be because George Clooney was on the cover of People magazine with a high frequency during critical moments of your adolescent development."

So we call my other friend who works for this data mining company and give her Sophie's basic information. Then we ask what random word she is likely to have thought of. 

After 30 seconds of time for computation, my friend on the phone says:;

"Okay, here's what we've got. There are five 'highly likely' options for words she may have thought of. I'll go from least likely to most likely. #5 - train #4 - carton #3 - desire #2 - coupon #1... buttermilk."

Sophie freaks. 

"Seriously? Is that what you were thinking of?" I ask. Always play dumb.

When things settle down I say, "The fucked up thing is no one knows what this company is using this data for. It's actually kind of spooky to think of how they might be utilizing.... Oh well, let's go get something to eat."

Now, obviously you'd need a friend to help you out in this version, but it's a relatively easy thing for them. They don't have to remember some intricate code or something, like in some effects that require a partner. All you need to do is text them the word before you call. If you text with one thumb it will look like you're just navigating to where you need to be on your phone. 

No friends? Well, don't worry, you can do pretty much the same thing without a helper. You just fake a phone conversation. In this scenario you would just act as if you're relaying information you're hearing from someone else back to your spectator. I prefer involving another real human, but I've done it both ways and it goes over well regardless. 

The idea is not to try and convince your spectator that there really is this massive database that can predict what random word you're thinking of by aggregating all sorts of information like which Sega Genesis games were most rented in Blockbusters in your city when you were 13-15. It's just to give them a more interesting premise to think about, that can't be as easily dismissed as, "I'm a mindreader."

You might say, "Well, what difference does it make then? If in the end they know it's a trick, and they know it's not real, then that's no different than them knowing you can't really read minds. Right?"

No. That's not my experience. 

I've said it before: The world wants to be charmed.

People want to be seduced.

When you say: "Write down any word. I'm going to read your mind. It's apple."  You've given them nothing else to think about other than how you saw the word on the paper. There's no diversion there. "I'm going to read your mind" is immediately discarded because they know you and they know you're not psychic. People recognize "I'm going to read your mind" as the least you can do in that situation to justify things. There's no romance in saying, essentially: "Let's pretend I have super powers." 

But when you weave a story, or draw them into an interesting process, or create a unique visual image for them, then you give them other elements to think about. Combine that with other presentational tactics that I talk about here and you can create an experience that is, in many ways, diminished by asking too many questions about the reality of it all. 

Tomorrow! I'll describe how we built a variation of this idea into the upcoming release of the Jerx App. In that version you'll be consulting a secret data aggregating tool on the "dark web" to find out what word your spectator likely selected. It's some fun shit. The new release of the Jerx App is coming next week.