Mikal Built a Magical Box

Mikal Hart built a magical box.  

This box.

It’s a box that knows where it is.

It remains closed and locked until it is transported to exactly the right place on the planet.  Then it springs open

If we push that button anywhere else on the planet, the book stays locked.  And a figure appears in the window.  It’s up to us to surmise that this is a measure in miles and that the box wants to go home.  We are allowed to push the button 50 times.  After that the box locks forever.  

Mikal can’t quite figure out why the box is so interesting.  (See the Youtube video below.) He built the first one as a wedding gift for friends.

When word leaked out about Mikal’s box, the world went a little crazy.  He got calls from journalists all over the place.  The journalists can’t quite figure out why the box is so interesting either.  

In short, Mikal isn’t quite sure why he made the box.  And those journalists aren’t quite sure why they called him about it.  And, yes, sure, ok, I’m not sure why I’m writing about it. 

We’re all in the thrall of the box.

The magic of the box is not so much in the "what" and the "how" of the box.  it works on a principle that Mikal calls "reverse geocache."   Geocaching gives us coordinates so that we can find a box.  Mikal’s geocache gives us a box so we can find coordinates.  Lovely and clever, but not quite magical.

The magic of the box is in the "why" of the box.  Specifically why it is we all find it so very arresting.  

We know some of the the explanatory bits and pieces here.  Mikal’s box is a good demonstration of how we now use technology to reverse what Weber called the "disenchantment of the world." There is also something mythic and medieval about the box. It’s as if this box can detect hidden correspondences and a secret order to the world.  We like the "new age" sound of this completely.  That the box conceals a secret, check.  That the box will only reveal the secret according to its agenda, double check.  And much more besides.

What I like particularly is the sensation we get when we first hear about the box.  It’s as if something has operated on the tumblers of consciousness.  Something seems to click.  We hear about the box and snap to.  We awaken.  We smile.  We are charmed.  

This box has remote control.  We don’t have to have the box to feel its effect.  It makes journalists pick up the phone.  It makes bloggers fire up WordPress.  It makes the rest of us snap to.  This is the magic of the box.  


Listen to this YouTube treatment of Mikal here bit.ly/akdZRX

Johnson, Steven. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Hardcover.  

Hart, Mikal. n.d. “The Reverse Geocache™ Puzzle Box.” Arduiniana. http://arduiniana.org/projects/the-reverse-geo-cache-puzzle/ (Accessed October 4, 2010).

11 thoughts on “Mikal Built a Magical Box

  1. CarlenLea

    My only response is, “that is freaking awesome.” Have you read “Makers” by Cory Doctorow? It’s the kind of thing the characters in that book would have built. Why build it? Because. It’s interesting.

    It’s really a piece of modern, experiential art!

  2. Patrick

    The box is a hit for the same reasons that horoscopes are still hits and Paulo Coelho’s books are often hits: any chance that star influences, alchemy and valkyries are (or still are) operational concepts just rocks people’s otherwise mass-manufactured worlds. Like the song goes, do you believe in magic? To ask the question is to already open up a whole realm of possibilities, all more interesting than the banality of all that is known.

  3. Grant Post author

    Patrick, yes, its both old-age and new-age magic. it is weird that at the very moment science is uncovering some of the mysteries of the universe we think of this as banal knowledge. But we do. Or to put this another way, when latitude and longitude come to us in the form of GPS coordinates, we are merely interested. But when someone turns them into secret correspondences, only then are we wowed. Humans!

  4. Alex

    Very interesting. I agree that there’s definitely something about the limited number of times the box can be opened that grabs at my attention. Aren’t humans drawn to limitations? I always thought we were, either our own or that of another.

    In that same vein about limitations, in our world that seems to have heartily endorsed the “all access all the time” attitude that comes with technology, this artifact boldly goes the other way. You can’t access this thing just anywhere. It does not come to you (or if it does it doesn’t just *do* what you want it to. You are not in control.

    That’s kinda cool.

    1. Grant Post author

      Alex, well said, this box also has managed and artificial scarcity going for it. And in an all access all the time world this is a real value ad. And this proves that value ads are not about absolute but relative utility, I think. Thanks, Grant

  5. Mikal Hart

    I had the great pleasure a couple of weekends ago of standing at a table full of Reverse Geocache boxes at the “World Maker Faire” in New York, trying to explain to people what it was all about. The social experience was electrifying.

    A small number dismissed the whole idea: “Why would you do such a thing?” “I’d use a hammer to open it.”

    About a third murmured a polite approval (“cool!”) or suggested practical variants: “Hey, you could use this to make sure the secret documents you sent to the Tokyo office don’t get opened anywhere else!”

    The rest got it. And the experience, *my* experience, of witnessing these people at the exact moment when the “tumblers of consciousness” shifted was unbelievable. What a rich and rare social treat it was to see this happen over and over in the course of two days. At the instant these people began to grasp the human richness and complexity of what they were seeing, their eyes became radiant. A couple of women teared up. One young man looked at me and said “I’m getting chill bumps up and down my arms.”

    As you observe, while I did invent the original box, I didn’t so much anticipate the “richness and complexity” component as *discover* it. A year later I’m still discovering it. And as I mentioned in the video, I sure am enjoying being invited along for the ride.

    Grant, I’m impressed how well you were able to capture these subtleties, never having even seen a box. That’s pretty cool.

    Thanks for a great essay.

    Mikal Hart

  6. Pingback: Grant McCracken: Mikal Built A Magical Box - PSFK

  7. Hiten

    You must read this SEED article on the ‘enchanter of objects’, David Rose, a serial entrepreneur and instructor at MIT’s Media Lab.

    Here’s a nibble:

    “The functionality of computation and the representation of information and communication will be embedded in many everyday objects. They will seem to be a little bit magical—delightfully easy to use and adding value to our lives a little bit at a time.”


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