"Write down a word on the back of your business card," Seth Raphael instructs me. "Don't let me see it." We're sitting at a coffee shop on East Burnside, a laptop on the table in front of us. He has a beard; I have a hangover. We're about to see if Google can read my mind.
"What is it that Alison is thinking of?" he types into a Google image-search window. Google thinks for a second, presumably peering through a shroud of last night's gin and into my mind's very eye, then proudly displays its results: 20 pictures of kittens fill the laptop screen.
I am amazed.
To be fair, as every single person to whom I've told this story has pointed out, I am a well-documented feline enthusiast. Any hack with a magician's hat and some rudimentary research skills could've safely predicted that when in doubt, I'd close my eyes and think of kittens. We'd only just begun to scratch the surface of Raphael's repertoire, however: During the course of our interview, he will out-search Google, perform an SMS-based feat of mind reading, and present a card trick that requires me to sing "I'm a Little Teapot" into his computer's microphone.
Raphael is a self-described "high-tech magician," and his work is a logical expression of Arthur C. Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." While at MIT, Raphael studied how humans experience wonder, and his show is an effort to reinstate wonder into a condition we've come to take for granted: that of being surrounded by technologies most of us barely understand.
While his current day job is as web editor for a Competing-Alt-Weekly-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Raphael has done corporate presentations for companies like Disney and Google—he notes that his act "generally tends to unsettle the tech people"—and he recently received a global fellowship from TED, a prestigious nonprofit. This weekend marks his first public show—audiences can expect familiar magicians' trappings harnessed to cutting-edge tricks. Raphael notes that magicians have long pushed the boundaries of technology in order to dazzle their audiences, and references his historical antecedents in his act, with card tricks, "mind reading," even a magician's hat. There's no rabbit, but Raphael hints at a contemporary twist on that trope as well: "Sometimes a robot comes out of the hat."