The Roaring Current of Change   Leave a comment

The Roaring Current Of Change

August 1, 2016

Working with successful musicians for three decades, I learned a great deal about the changing nature of music and technology. For instance, when I began marketing music, I entered a record  industry that was dominated by the LP vinyl record.  By the time I began teaching grad students in 1998, the music industry was in another transition: CDs to digital downloads.

One of my lectures to those students at New York University focused on technological change, and how to recognize change,and then adapt, adopt, or ignore it. Between the start of the recording industry (1889) and 1950, consumers had two choices: cylinders (through the 1920s) and discs; the latter became those heavy 78-rpm records our parents or grandparents owned. In post WWII America, the pace of change began to accelerate. During the next 50 years the recording industry went from mono to stereo to multi-track, and consumers had more than 20 choices including vinyl singles and albums, a variety of tape formats, then DATs, compact discs, DVDs, and MP3s.

As I began writing my first book* I recalled attending a lecture some twenty years earlier where I first heard of Alvin Toffler. (The author died June 27th). Toffler, in his 1970 book future_shockFuture Shock picked up a cue from economist and futurist Kenneth Boulding, and put forth the idea of the accelerated rate of change in society, and its impact on the human race. Although written half a century ago (and mindful of we who travel at a slower intellectual speed than Toffler or Boulding,) I present his illustration. Toffler wrote that the Twentieth Century

“‘. . . represents The Great Median Strip running down the center of human history. Thus [Boulding] asserts, ‘The world of today . . . is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar’s. I was born in the middle of human history. To date, roughly, almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before.’

This startling statement can be illustrated in a number of ways. It has been observed, for example, that if the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. ZOMBIE 54d1c448004ee_-_esq-ape-man-dwiqis-zombiesOnly during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another—as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.”

In the 1970s Gordon E. Moore put forth a theory that became an accepted axiom in the tech industry: Moore’s Law. The shorthand version is this: “Computer processor speeds or overall processing power will double every two years.” When we use a computer to search the internet, or to save a document, or to copy a data file, or to connect to a network, speed is almost everything. For those who remember the days of dialing up Prodigy, CompuServe, or AOL while using a 1200 baud modem, we learned to be patient. Then we upgraded to a 2400 baud modem and thought, “Holy shit, this is soooo fast.” It really wasn’t but in relation to that 1200 baud modem it was almost Star Trekian. Now consider the 2400 baud modem compared with today’s basic DSL broadband connection. Using DSL, a 20mb (megabyte) data file will download in about 9 minutes. With a 2400 Baud modem the file would download in 18 HOURS. Moore was proven correct, at least for the next thirty years.

News media, social media and online discussions have not been immune to the impact of speed. More and more people can find information, and find discussions in which to participate. In 1990 Michael Godwin developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” He makes the point that the Nazi/Hitler reference occurs regardless of the discussion’s topic or scope. And ultimately the comparison shifts from an online discussion and goes mainstream. On December 8, 2015, the New York Daily News, not a fan of Donald Trump, ran a story by Shaun King titled “Donald Trump Has Gone Full Blown Nazi On Us”.  King’s opening paragraph got right to the point: “As Donald Trump’s lead in the polls continues to grow, so does his bigotry, sexism, xenophobia—so bad, in fact, that major media outlets have taken to comparing the billionaire blowhard to Adolf Hitler, another narcissist who managed to make millions of people feel increasingly unsafe.” Clearly, more people having access to a discussion does not necessarily assure an elevated level of discourse.

In the 1960s, anti-drug efforts included the phrase “Speed Kills”. It was used to warn people about the abuse of methamphetamine hydrochloride, best known by one of its trade names, Methedrine, aka “Speed”. Decades later safe driving advocates adopted the same phrase to encourage drivers to slow down: “Speed Kills”. The message today is not as literal or as oblique as some might think. In theory, a fast internet requires less time for us to sit on our hands and wonder what we’ll be reading when the page finally finishes loading. Today the pages load quickly, if not instantly. All of that increased internet speed provides the time to help reinforce one’s core beliefs, since it’s easier to quickly find people with whom one agrees. Far too many people enter an informed myopia. For example, observing the crowds adoring a self-aggrandizing ass like Donald Trump speaks volumes about how all of that increased internet speed helps many buy-into the snake-oil Trump is selling: xenophobia, religious bigotry, sexism, race-baiting, misogyny, birtherism, racial profiling, jingoism, and more. Google, Facebook, and other social nets develop algorithms in an attempt to “please” their users by giving them primarily (or only) information that the computer determines is “what they want to know”.

Social media strategist John McElhenney put the echo-chamber like this: “We’ve heard it called many things: Confirmation bias. Influence bubble. Like-minded people flock together. Some interesting data is being pulled from the clouds to determine the linkage between us and our political views. And even more data is being organized and sold to allow businesses to sell you more products and services. Ad infinitum.” Make no mistake. Politicians and political organizations are selling something and they hope you’re buying.

Senator Ransom Stoddard, in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, comes clean to the local newspaper editor about the shooting of the outlaw Valance but the editor decides to not print the true story. The senator asks him, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” to which the editor replies “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Many people in this information age may get more information from more sources, but they tend to select or are guided to like-minded sources. Inevitably, rumors and lies become fact and truth, reinforced within a noisy echo chamber. It’s all part of what Toffler called the roaring current of change. And it’s up to each of us to stop look and listen. We must get outside of our bubble, outside of our comfort zone, and engage.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

*From Edison To Marconi: The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music



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