Blind Spots

beatlesThe other night at dinner, I was asked whether, when the Beatles came to the US in 1963, I had had any sense that something really big had happened.

Well, I was pretty young in 1963, probably too young to think about such matters. I remember having little interest in the Beatles, but being being very aware that they were something very big. Everyone was aware of that. But unless I am mistaken, pretty much nobody realized that we were witnessing something really big and lasting. More generally, I doubt that anyone at the time had any inkling of the long-term significance of rock ‘n’ roll. We knew it was popular, but we had no idea it would change the world. I’m not sure that in 1963 anyone knew that it was possible for music to change the world.

This led to the more general question: How quickly are great cultural watersheds recognized for what they are? In the few areas I know something about, I think the answer is “usually pretty quickly”. I remember 1910 even less vividly than I remember 1963, but I am pretty sure that it wasn’t long between the appearance of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the realization (at least among people who care about this sort of thing) that poetry had changed forever. In mathematics, at least in the past century (and I’m pretty sure for several centuries, or even millenia, before that), major paradigm shifts have generally been recognized very quickly. When a Serre or a Grothendieck upends the mathematical world, the mathematical world quickly knows it’s been upended.

On the other hand, it took people remarakably long to catch on to the significance of the Internet. I remember trying to tell people in 1992 that this Internet thing was going to be very big someday, and meeting a lot of blank stares. And even I, who was a very early adopter of email, Usenet, FTP and IRC, initially dismissed the World Wide Web as a passing fad.

So here’s the (extremely vague) question of the day: How often are cultural watersheds widely and quickly recognized, and what characterizes those that are and those that aren not? I’m not talking about fads here (so LOLcats don’t count); I’m talking about real lasting world-shaking changes. Feel free to interpret the question in any way you please, and have at it.


28 Responses to “Blind Spots”

  1. 1 1 Steve Reilly

    The people who realized that Prufrock changed poetry forever was a small subset of the population, and for that matter a small subset of poetry readers. Most poetry readers no doubt preferred Housman and Bridges and other more traditional poets.

    Same, of course, with the people who notice paradigm shifts in math. Even a person who’s decent at calculus and trigonometry is hardly likely to follow cutting edge math and notice when the field has been upended.

    So it might just be that the sort of people who really paid attention to rock music in 1964 had some idea that the Beatles were going to last, and that people who worked in the computer industry tended to believe in the importance of the World Wide Web. If so, then the difference between the two types of cultural watersheds is nonexistent.

  2. 2 2 Harold

    Did music change the world, or the world change music?

    The Nobel committee tends to wait quite a long time to assess the long term importance of the work they reward. Sometimes too long, Rosalind Franklin perhaps. In cases where they jump in early, they sometimes look not quite so wise. Prions for example, was a bit contraversial. I exclude the peace prize here.

    Not too long ago we lived in a world where the existence of planets around other stars was speculated. Now we have hundreds of confirmed exoplanets.

  3. 3 3 Ken B

    Given the naturally slow rate of diffusion in various past periods I’d say these were almost instantaneous explosions:
    Monteverdi & Caccini

  4. 4 4 Ken B

    As a sour note — cannot be without our sour notes — I don’t accept the proposition that the beatles created or cemented rock and roll. It was about 8 or 10 years old in 1963, and Elvis Presley (who was the first big star but did not invent it either) is still a popular performer today. I do think the importance of the phenomenon was realized before Presley was drafted.

  5. 5 5 Alan Wexelblat

    TLSoJAP is one of my all-time favorite poems. I did not realize it had such an impact, though. My guess, then is that Steve Reilly is on the right track – people who are “in” a field or area of concern often realize a sea change has happened before others realize it. I’m reminded here of the arguments Kuhn makes in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (which was itself something of a revolution in the philosophy of science).

    That said, it’s rare that even a major sea-change in a field of endeavor has the chance to change the world and the people who seize that chance aren’t usually the originalists in the invention or field. I don’t think that the people who invented the birth control pill understood how much it would revolutionize the world if you gave women control over their own reproduction. I don’t think the people who invented the laser understood that it would revolutionize things as different as telecommunications, the guidances of explosive ordinance, surgery, and the measurement of time.

    When you look backward in retrospect you can sometimes see people (whom we sometimes call “visionaries”) who predict this sort of thing but who are seen as cooks or cranks or Cassandras before it comes to pass. Knowing it has happened at the moment it happens has to be incredibly rare. The memoirs of the atom-bomb scientists hint at it, but again they were a tiny group. Did the world at large know things had changed when we nuked Hiroshima? I can’t really say.

    I admit my sample is personal and haphazard, but I can’t say that I can think of many widely recognized cultural watershed moments. Woodstock? The death of JFK? The launch of Sputnik? The Challenger disaster? Are those the sorts of things you’re thinking about?

  6. 6 6 MW

    It might be easier with technologies than individuals. People had been claiming that social media will change the world more than merely superficially, but I did not really believe it until the “Arab Spring.”

    Likewise, ubiquitous CC cameras and dashboard cameras improved law enforcement capabilities 10-20 years ago but now the pendulum is swinging back with ubiquitous mobile phone cameras and instant posting to the Internet. Will this result in a sea change in law enforcement behavior?

    Similarly, the ability of law enforcement to follow electronic transactions has been an increasingly valuable tool for law enforcement. Will Bitcoin’s anonymity take away this tool?

  7. 7 7 Harold

    I think there is a distinction between technical and cultural watersheds, as alluded to by the posters above. When Grothendiek burst on the math scene, I doubt that a world survey would reveal a *cultural* revolution. The difficulty here is that they might have changed the world, but the world at large does not recognise it.

    There are several different types of “watershed”, I think.

    Often there are moments that crystalise the changes that have been happening in a technical field. Man landing on the moon, the atom bomb going off, breaking the sound barrier, twitters about the arab revolutions. These are not the result of a single individual, or a single discovery. We seem to need a particular event to epitomise the change from one era to another. I think the world changed after these events in an identifiable way. The internet perhaps lacks this – it sort of crept up on us, slowly getting more and more useful with more and more people connected. When precisely did we change form a pre-internet to a connected society?

    Some individual (or collabarative) technical breakthroughs also seem result in cultural revolutions: Einstein’s relativity, DNA structure, Pasteur and vaccination, identification of source of cholera outbreak to a water pump. I think the world changed quite soon after these events, and the world could identify that it was these events that caused the change.

    Then there are purely cultural (social, political?) events that change everything. Pearl Harbour, twin towers, declaration of independance, assasination of Julius Caesar.

    The Beatles are a focus to epitomise the changes in popular culture from the 1950′s and 1960′s. They are not the prime cause, but they are a powerful symbol. They picked up on the changes that had already happened. They are also very succesful. Whilst I agree with Ken B that Elvis is still popular, I am not sure we can say he is still a performer today.

  8. 8 8 Super-Fly

    I’ve thought about this question before and I think it’s largely a crapshoot.

    I think that sometimes people can know that they’re doing something big (Gillespie, Monk, and Parker knew that bebop was going to be big. Miles Davis was also aware of his impact) but I think more often than not, musical revolutionaries probably don’t know how influential they’re going to be. I think if you told Blind Lemon Jefferson or Leadbelly that a bunch of white guys in England were going to love his music and that they would (as a result) change the face of popular culture, they would have laughed for a long time.

    Beethoven was wildly popular in his day, and that popularity has stayed pretty constant. He also knew that he was drastically changing music. Bach, on the other hand, wasn’t really known as a composer in his day. I’d also like to find examples of musicians who people *predicted* would have a huge legacy, but who eventually faded away.

  9. 9 9 Pete F

    What event are we talking about here? Are we talking about the origination of an idea/movement/style/whatever or the point at which it really caught on? By definition the latter is likely to have a pretty immediate effect. If we’re talking about the former, then certainly in areas like philosophy it seems ideas can be round for hundreds of years before anyone realises their importance.

  10. 10 10 Dagon

    I think it’s important to examine fads as well – much of this question can be restated as “how do we know in advance if LOLCats will count in this category or not”?

  11. 11 11 Ken B


    Actually I doubt there is a better, more extreme example.

  12. 12 12 iceman

    In my view the early-60s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” Beatles didn’t actually offer much reason to believe they were destined to change R&R forever, they were just a popular (if impressively polished) new group from England. Tunes like Eleanor Rigby started to suggest their potential as artists, but it really wasn’t until they went into studio seclusion and finally emerged with Sgt. Pepper that most people quickly realized (with good reason) they had just witnessed a paradigm shift.

    I agree that in jazz the bebop pioneers were intentionally making a rather radical departure from the past, although initially Parker’s “new music” was not necessarily widely appreciated. Miles’ counter-reactive “modal” period was equally deliberate and significant. But this gets into my standard lament that rock and pop “artists” get so much more recognition, adulation etc. — certainly measured in terms of monetary reward — than the jazz masters in general (for whom IMHO the pure musicality is simply on a different plane). There’s probably a simple economics lesson in there that it pays to cater to a larger audience even if by “dumbing down” the output…but at least groups like The Beatles are a nice example of how it can pay over time to do something truly significant.

  13. 13 13 MW

    Ken B may be right about Darwin. Newton might be comparable. Rembrandt? Aquinas? Agustine?

  14. 14 14 dave

    i agree with dagon.
    the strength of a meme is in the pudding. highly successful memes will propagate quickly.

  15. 15 15 Harold

    Some interesting observation from religion. Christ did not change very much during his lifetime. It was after St Paul that things took off, I think. For about a century after his death there was no such thing a a Christian religion, but a Jewish sect. This idea took quite a bit of time to cook before it became world changing. About 50AD it is quite likely that Christ would be dismissed by most as unimportant.

    Mohammed was different. He changed everything in his own lifetime.

    I also agree that Darwin is a fine example. I believe he was a pioneer, but his ideas were being thought of by others. He refined “On the Origin of Species” for about 20 years before publishing. Partly because he was aware of the controversy that would be stirred up, and as a consequence he wanted to be sure he had it all worked out properly. Part of his genius was also to be able to write and communicate extremely well. So whilst the ideas may have been about to emerge around this time, even without Darwin, without his genious, patience and excellent communication skills, the ideas may have taken very much longer to be accepted.

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    Well Bach was not an innovator, and that was known at the time. He was just the best.
    I will outrage many by suggesting Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez as examples you want. Now in some circles they have indeed been enormously influential. Webern ruined 3 generations of composers. But their influence on the outside world is bupkis, and fading. Serialists no longer dominate even academic studies anymore.

    Other older examples include Raff, Perry, Hummel. (Hummel is well worth investigating btw).

  17. 17 17 Will A

    It doesn’t seem that the invention/creation of a thing has to do with a cultural shift. What makes a cultural shift is making the thing available.

    As it relates to the internet. I think an argument could be made that it is Netscape Navigator that changed the world. And it doesn’t seem to have been all that gradual. Navigator was released in 1994. In 1995 Amazon sold its first book. eBay launched in 1996.

    The same argument would say that the invention of the internal combustion engine didn’t change the world, Ford changed the world.

    Perhaps what distinguished the Beatles was the ability to be seen as “safe” to middle America. This “safe”ness is what gave them access to TV and the media and made Rock and Roll available to America.

    As it relates to Darwin, it seems to me that he suffers from – through no fault of his own – a lack of perceived hands on application being available to the public.

    If you were to ask folks in Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma whether the science behind genetics is valid and can explain cross pollination and can be used to create crops that have better yields and higher crop production, pretty much all would respond that of course genetics is valid.

    If you were to ask the same folks in Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma whether evolution is valid, you would get different responses.

  18. 18 18 Ken B

    @Will A: Might be right about your crop questions, but the real point is the effect Darwin’s book had on the world and the culture in 1859. And it was immediate, dramatic, and lasting.

    Darwin’s book predated Mendel and genetics by a generation too, and the real importance of the book was not about crops but god. Darwin refuted the argument by design. He refuted every religion on the planet.

  19. 19 19 Ken B

    @MW: Newton maybe as much as Darwin, certainly a good example. Rembrandt was out of fashion before his death, and had little impact until later. Caravaggio is a much better example, or as I cited before the inventor of perspective Brunelleschi.

    I wonder btw if Steve is right about math. Galois had trouble getting published, his stuff was ignored for decades. Fractals were a little backwater of curiosities for 60 years until Mandelbrot. Imaginary numbers were known for over a century before Gauss, Argand, Euler et al realized what they really meant — hard to come up with a more important ‘revolution’ in mathematics than complex numbers.

  20. 20 20 Ken Arromdee

    “The people who realized that Prufrock changed poetry forever was a small subset of the population, and for that matter a small subset of poetry readers.”

    Did they *realize* that it changed poetry forever, or did they just make a lucky guess?

  21. 21 21 Chris G

    I think there’s a difference between being a cultural icon and being a “world changer.” The Beatles are a good example of the former, but not so much of the latter. In this, they share much with Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and, oh I don’t know – Kiss? As much as I like the Beatles, I don’t think they fundamentally changed things. They were just the best at the trend of the day.

  22. 22 22 Al V.

    @Chris G, I disagree about the Beatles, from two perspectives.

    First, they changed popular music more than anyone since 1950. Just look at the change in the music they played between 1963 and 1969, and how much those changes drove the change in popular music during that period. Compare that to music from the late 50s to early 60s – hits from the late 50s (“Heartbreak Hotel”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”) are not that stylistically different from those of 63/64 (“Walk Like a Man”, “My Boyfriend’s Back”), whereas hits in 1969 were hugely different (“Everyday People”, “Get Back”). The Beatles were the most significant driver of that change.

    Second, they were culturally and politically significant. Before John Lennon, what musician was considered an “enemy” by the U.S. President? The British Invasion turned America away from the insularity of the 50s to recognize our cultural place in the world in the 60s.

  23. 23 23 Al V.

    Thinking about two major changes in the early 20th Century, I think the signficance of both was recognized pretty quickly. Albert Einstein published On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies in 1905, and its significance was recognized within a few months, and by 1911 it was broadly accepted. Picasso and Braque developed Cubism in 1907-8, and within two years other artists had adopted it, and by 1913 cubist works were shown in New York. To me, those are both pretty quick recognition of signficance.

    I wonder if technological change (PC, Internet) takes longer to recognize because it is generally evolutionary, and are dependent on the network effect.

  24. 24 24 iceman

    I think Ken A is onto something here with the “lucky guess theory”…this seems like an area that is ripe for mental data mining. Perhaps the only systematic thing we can say is that there are many would-be game changers out there (deliberate or not), different people will view each one as real or bogus a priori, and my only hard prediction is that from there we will all tend to act like daytraders at a cocktail party — fondly remembering our “winners” and conveniently forgetting the errors (type I or II). So Prof. Landsberg knew the Internet would be really big – but not the “www” part? Has Voevodsky just upended the mathematical world? No one seems to know for sure (but if we ever figure it out some people will undoubtedly end up claiming vindication).

    Perhaps this suggests that a more formal criterion for determining the speed with which people are likely to discern the real paradigm shifters is their “testability”. (At least this seems as it should be in an allegedly rational world.) Art and music provide an immediate, tangible sensory experience we can compare with our past ‘collections’. (Of course whether something represents a significant innovation can be entirely separate from whether we “like” it; the latter may in large part determine short-term commercial success, and sometimes we can only hope that examples of the former will be the ones that pass the test of time.) Clearly the ease of testability of scientific propositions varies greatly. My understanding (based on some of the comments here) is that Darwin waited to publish his theory until it was catalogued with detailed physical observations (interesting to speculate on the reaction had he not been to the Galapagos). And in Newton’s time everyone was quite aware that apples fell to the ground (I know he did a lot more than that). In other more abstract cases (e.g. ‘the laboratory of Einstein’s mind’), theories are advanced and testing can take time (like finding just the right solar eclipse), and there may be little purpose in attempting to intuit the results in advance — in fact this is a recipe for bad experiments, such as the first attempt to “prove” the bending of light.

    Logical extrapolation may have greater usefulness in questions of economics (sometimes it’s the only predictive tool as real-world testing is not always possible). Even here, on the potential market for new products we know a “superior” technology doesn’t always win for various reasons like cost, first-mover advantage & network effects, the need for supporting infrastructure etc. Some of these may explain why innovators can be “right but early”, e.g. the Apple Newton failed but now smart tablets are exploding? (I’m sure more tech-savvy people will have many good reasons why this is a poor example.) About all I can say intelligently about Peano Axioms et al is that perhaps mathematics is on the low end of the testability spectrum.

  25. 25 25 Harold

    ” smart tablets are exploding”: some problem with the batteries again?

  26. 26 26 Stone Glasgow

    When I first heard about email, I asked “What’s the point? Why don’t you just use the telephone?”

  27. 27 27 Chris

    The babyboomers. They destroyed everything that had been passed down, then ate up the country and the world like locusts, and have left us in a physical and cultural wasteland.

  28. 28 28 iceman

    Harold – OK that was a little too easy :).

  1. 1 Landsburg Makes Two (More) Mistakes
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