Thursday, March 27, 2014

How Do New Things Happen?

An editor friend recently repeated the flattering assertion of a slog reader (see comment here) that I "invented" a style of writing (which, I should note, I seldom apply here on the Slog), and that lots of people have copied me.

I replied with my thoughts on zeitgeists and flocking, ripe moments and catalysis, and causality versus inevitability. It's something I pondered as a kid: why do so many artistic movements, scientific advancements, political revolutions, even athletic achievements stem from the parallel actions of unconnected people? How does The New unroll? Why, for example, was the four minute mile so easily achieved by so many people the instant Roger Bannister managed it?

My perspective boils down to this: We over-emphasize first-movers, crediting them with creating waves when, truly, they're just surfing them like everyone else. Causality has nothing to do with it. The first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop.

Not to say that lots of copying doesn't happen. That's what later expands an innovation into a zeitgeist. All early adopters are moved by the same ripe conditions, and the masses - a bit later (always laggardly out of phase) - are simply conforming. The leading edge isn't actually leading, in other words. It's simply ahead of the lagging mass reaction to the previous thing!


Adam said...

No one is ahead of his time. - Gertrude Stein

Jim Leff said...

Great one! Thanks! I thought I was being uncharacteristically terse and pithy with the kernel line, but this kicks my ass!

Reminds me of the story of the family that keeps moving deeper into the country to get away from crowds, but crowds keep growing, and only after years do they realize that they, themselves, were the problem all along! :)

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