I knew a guy called Ian at Cambridge who had the worlds 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?
Its 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…its not like we havent 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 weve 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 wont be long before the world goes ‘time lapse. It wont be long before Gladwells ‘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 physicists intersection, Gretzkys 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 (womens 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 dont 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 dont 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 dont 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.