Introduction to Magic in The Middle – Part One

By Finn Voldtofte, 2005

The magic in the middle begins with a shift in awareness, from parts to relations between parts.

Imagine a circle of people in conversation. When we are interested in understanding the processes that take place in the conversation, we can pay attention to the individual in the circle, to the circle as a whole (group or team), or to the relations between the participants. All three realities coexist at once, but we can choose to let one of them come in the foreground.

To pay attention to the field of relations is not the same as paying attention to the whole. The parts are still important. The whole is still important. But we are particularly interested in what goes on in the interaction between the parts, and let that reality come in the foreground.

“Magic in the middle” may be found everywhere, where we choose to pay attention to the relations between the parts.

Example: Ants are the parts. The anthill is the whole. The ability of the anthill to maintain itself emerges as a magic in the middle of the ants, when they relate to each other. For instance, ants interact by leaving scent trails of their activity while they search for food.

Magic in the middle is an emerging or arising phenomenon. “Emergence” is used when hitherto isolated elements begin to interact, and lead to qualitative new properties, that could not be predicted from the knowledge of the elements seen by themselves.

Example: Oxygen and hydrogen together form water. The wetness of water is a new property that cannot be predicted by knowledge of oxygen and hydrogen. Anthill-ness, ability to think, consciousness and traffic jams are other examples of emergent entities.

Magic in the middle is in a way just a “code word” for emergence. The word “magic” indicates that we are not necessarily able to explain how the emergent emerges, but that we can ascertain that it happens.

Magic in the middle is thus a more general term that we can make use of in the situations where it makes sense to distinguish between whether we pay attention to the parts, to the whole, or to the relations between the parts.

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This is the first of six weekly posts taken from an Introduction to Magic in the Middle written by the late Finn Voldtofte in March of 2005 (click the following links to go directly to Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, or Part 6)

Finn was one of the original co-founders of the World Café. He worked tirelessly with Juanita Brown to distill and articulate the World Café Design Principles that underlie all World Café practice. Finn was an amazing human being who inspired and touched many, many people on a profound level. His articulation of the “Magic in the Middle” is still one of the most evocative descriptions of what makes World Café “work” and we are honored to publish his words here in this crucial time, when they ring as truly & eloquently as ever.


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