Thinking Physically


I knew a guy called Ian at Cambridge who had the world’s best party trick. One night, at his insistence, we wandered drunkenly out to find an intersection. He watched the traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, for a moment and then shut his eyes and turned his back. Fifteen seconds later, he began to recite what was happening behind him.

The blue car approaching from the west is now at the intersection. The woman in the bonnet should be just behind you. The large van traveling north is just disappearing from view.

What about the kid on the bike?

It’s an adult. He is just passing through the intersection.

Ian was tracking the moving objects in my field of vision by watching them in his head. And, yes, good guess, he was a physicist.

Wayne Gretzky was not the greatest hockey player of all time because he was particularly big, strong, or fast, but because he was playing a “motion” picture of the rink in his head. Basketball players wow us with the “no look” pass. Joe Montana could throw to receivers moving at speed and obscured from view. The most interesting sports may be the ones in which players “watch” the playing field in their heads. They are playing a virtual game as well as an actual one. Physicist or physical, it all happens in your head.

When is this gift going to find its way into the larger world? We know we live in a dynamic society. The economics and management literature tells us so. Schumpeter warned us of “creative destruction.” Charles Handy noted the rise of “discontinuous change.” Hammer and Champy call this change ‘the new normality.” Peter Drucker, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Virginia Postrel…it’s not like we haven’t been warned.

Cultural innovation is breathtaking. It was once possible to stay abreast of most everything that was happening in the world of music or film. Now we have to specialize evermore narrowly. Technical innovation is equally, perhaps more, impressive and now Christiansen counsels corporations on how to prepare for “discontinuous” technology. And we’ve just started. “The number of […] international copyright applications received from developing countries rose from 680 in 1997 to 5,359 in 2002, representing an increase of nearly 700%. In 2002, the highest % increase recorded by India (51.9%)…” Wait till India has cultivated all the talent that exists in a population of 1.1 billion people. Wait till China, with 1.4 billion, does the same. It won’t be long before the world goes ‘time lapse.” It won’t be long before Gladwell’s ‘tipping point” is perpetual.

But we still see photographically, instead of filmicly. We still take “stills.” Surely, a dynamic world demands a new way of seeing, the physicist’s intersection, Gretzky’s game, the ability to see things not where they are but where they are going.

The first rule is to stop panicking. Nothing gets in the way of mental “motion” pictures more completely than an alarm and refusal. Gay marriage? Just get over it. The world is too dynamic and transformational to be dimmed even by a constitutional amendment. You may not like what comes from the great fount of innovation. But you do yourself no favors by resisting it. Besides which, you are wrong. How many times have we heard, “suffer this (women’s right to vote, say, or civil rights for African Americans) and the end is nigh.” Your nigh is my neighborhood.

The second rule is to have some deeper sense of the forces that shape the world. If we know the fundamental trends, we can establish vectors and trajectories. We don’t have a a sophisticated sense of the tectonics at work here. This is partly because academics work, mostly, the still waters of the university world, and some of them have not yet got the news. But these will come. (I have a book before Indiana University Press that I hope will help.) Complexity theory feels like the right place to look here, as Clippinger demonstrates so well.

The third rule is to dislodge our processes of “pattern recognition.” We want to supplant the process of looking for patterns (the things for which we have prior acquaintance) with the new ability to begin to look for shapes. We might, for instance, want to rethink the symphony. As it is, symphonic works are always fully formed. They don’t get produced or heard unless they are finished pieces of work. A visit to the symphony is sometimes the pleasure of encountering something new, but here we do not “encounter” what we do not at some level re-cognize. And more often the pleasure of the visit is reacquaintance. “Ah,” we say, “this is the part where Bach…”.

Could we not have a symphonic work that begins with all those odd sounds the orchestra makes while tuning up? The players are supplied with a couple of “subroutines,” and some vectors and trajectories (sorry, I don’t know the musical lingo here), but otherwise, they are on their own. The piece emerges then as the players listen and respond to the sounds of others, and it continues to unfold as shapes are proposed, seconded, agreed upon and then given up in favor of the work of a dissident. It would not surprise me to learn that John Cage or Phillip Glass has proposed something of just this kind, but you get the idea.

Naturally, this would be difficult and, for some, intolerable. But it would also be an excellent way to begin the transition from pattern recognition to shape detection. We know from the remarkable work of Svetlana Alpers and Martin Jay that the “scopic regimes” (roughly: characteristic ways of seeing) of Western culture have changed in response to cultural, social and economic changes. And if I knew contemporary art and music better, I could not doubt supply lots of examples of a change in the works. (Certainly, Hollywood has gone after this theme in a big way. More on that later, possibily.)

But it does not seem we are collectively responding to the challenge and learning to think physically. The price is clear. We end up living in a state of what Schwartz calls “perpetual surprise.”


Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The art of describing Dutch art in the seventeenth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christensen, Clayton M. 1997? The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Clippinger, John. 1999. The Biology of Business. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Drucker, Peter Ferdinand. 1995. Managing in a time of great change. New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hammer, Michael, and James Champy. 1993. Reengineering the Corporation. New York: HarperBusiness.

Handy, Charles B. 1996. Beyond certaint: the changing worlds of organizations. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Jay, Martin. 1988. Scopic Regimes of Modernity. Vision and Visuality. Edited by Hal FosterSeattle: Bay Press.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1983. The change masters: innovations for productivity in the American corporation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and It’s Enemies. New York: The Free Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. 1982. Business cycles a theoretical, historical, and statistical analysis of the capitalist process. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press.

Schwartz, Peter. 1991. The art of the long view. New York: Doubleday/Currency.


With thanks to Richard and Pam Shear and Pamela DeCesare for a recent dinner that got me thinking about symphonies. Thanks, too, to Tyler Cowen for his remarks in Santa Fe a couple of months ago on the topic of “repetition” in modern music.

5 thoughts on “Thinking Physically

  1. Steve Portigal

    For an unrewarding experience, listen to – no wait, have in acoustic adajaceny Neil Young’s “Arc” CD – a mashup of feedback and audience bits etc. culled from live recordings. Sorta lo-fi example of what you are describing. I love much of what Neil does, but I don’t think too much of this – but hell it was a bonus CD with a great live album so it doesn’t matter too much.

  2. fouroboros

    Supplant looking for pattern with looking for shapes.

    Couldn’t agree more. Harmonics. It always struck me that trendwatching and innovation seem to have the arythmic quality about them to many of us because they require us to engage a divergent view rather than our standard urge for classification.

    Ex: Sit a nurse, a waiter, and a CSR down together and in 15 minutes they’re finishing each others sentences and sharing wisdom and jokes. Hmm. Somebody from HR or the Dept of Labor would have an embolism over the suggestion, though.

    Struggle for, and insist on, immediate order and you get prima facie comfort, and soul crushing ennui. And, maybe, just maybe, people jonesing for some external other to beat up on or denigrate to make their own lot seem less inconsequential.

    Maybe “shape” equates to feeling and the potential intrinsic in things and opportinities? Sure would explain the force multiplying power of great design. Order from “chaos,” the latter defined in antiseptic boardrooms.

    If you look deep enough, there is a sanity clause, right, Virginia?

  3. Grant

    Steve, good point, all of Brian Eno’s descendants might be taken as examples of what music will look like when it is more fully responsive to the new “scopic regime.” Thanks, Grant

    Fouroboros: Very well said. You do get the feeling that it doesn’t much matter which “external other” is demonized just so long as someone is. This is a way of creating the illusion that they are “taking a stand.” Taking a stand? Even their metaphors are immobile!

    And your “arhythmic” remarks reminds me of a work of art owned by a friend of mine. You can not see it whole. You are obliged to engage with one part, and then shift your interpretive frame to engage with another. Then, of course, you end up with several, discordant readings which do and don’t intersect in the most interesting ways. Between you and me, it’s not good art, but it is good exercise. (Golly, I hope he’s not a blog reader.)

    Thanks, Grant

  4. Liz

    Grant, something is amiss here. Your comment robot does not accept certain questionable content, the letters

    ess gee being contigious.

  5. Grant


    Thanks for the head’s up on the “sg” push back. I think I’ve got it fixed.

    1) Surfing right off the data wave sounds painful, but I do like the image of surfing the data wave sans “wipe out.” It’s a good way to characterize the new, newly responsive, mode of reacting to a dynamic culture.

    2) As to normalizing the exceptional, it depends entirely, I think, whether we are talking about the vertical or the horizontal. The vertically exceptional are the ones you refer to: best in class/show. And this is painful, to encourage people to think that they have failed unless they have done as well as the best athletes, CEOs, etc. But we are also engaged in normalizing the horizontally exceptional, those on the margin, those who depart from the norm. And surely this is a good thing. Well, it doesnt actually matter whether it’s a good thing, it is simply an inevitable thing, and has been Rousseau decided to enter an essay competition.

    3) As to gay marriage, I respect the position of those who object for reasons of religious belief. But it does seem to me that contemporary culture represents a new order of challenge for many kinds of orthodoxy. It leaves the faithful persuaded that the world is going to hell in a hand basket when what they are looking at is the new dynamism of our culture.

    And this latter will not go away. It is time for doctrinal adjustment! And this is, perhaps, not so very difficult. It would be simple enough to cease insisting on social and cultural “form” (for these will surely be washed away by our new restless powers of invention) and insisting instead on “content.” What matters is not that people are married according to some particular form, but that, whatever the form, they embrace Christian (or some other) set of values that encourage them to be, in the Christian case, generous, caring, respectful…

    And this would not be the first time that religious doctrine has responded to the culture in which it finds itself. In the Christian case, the accomodation has been continual. What cannot be formalized by the existing church, creates new ones. This might be one way to think about the unfolding of the Protestant church. Start with Anglicans and end up with Quakers. The religious impulse ends up with many variations, many responses, all of which evoke and exercise the authority of doctrine.

    As a last point, I would feel a whole lot better about the anti-gay position, if it was not sometimes accompanied by the tell-tale signs of intolerance and simple peevishness. These suggest that there is something more than orthodoxy at work, specifically a wish to block something that disturbs and affronts. For me, the best thing about Christianity, in some forms, and especially the original ones, is it’s perfect generosity. This is “content” that allows for many “forms,” that begets many “forms,” and that can form many “forms.”

    Geez, here it is Sunday morning and it sounds like I think I’m working on a sermon. May I now ask you to open your hymn books?

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