Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa

by Bill Benzon

Patterns-culture-ruth-benedict-paperback-cover-artBy the middle of the previous century anthropologists had come to argue that each culture has its own patterns and that those patterns pervaded its social practices, its practical arts, it’s beliefes and attitudes, and its expressive culture. The central expression of this conception can be found in Ruth Benedict's seminal study of Patterns of Culture. She argued her thesis by showing that the Pueblos of the American Southwest were Apollonian in their formality and emotional reserve, the Dobu of Melanesia were Paranoid in their bending of patterns of hostility into functioning social structures, while the peoples of America's Northwest Coast were Dionysian in their search for religious ecstasy. Cultures are not miscellaneous grab-bags of traits, they are patterned wholes.

So it is with European America and African America. Each of these cultures has a pattern, but those patterns have been blending and crossing for centuries. I have come to believe, for example, that the high tech world, though dominated by Americans of European descent, owes an enormous cultural debt to improvisational patterns of African American descent. Think of the difference between performances by a symphony orchestra and a bebop quintet. The orchestra is a large ensemble with a large number of well-defined specialists and it performs music that has been prepared beforehand under the direction of conductor who has ultimate control over every aspect of the performance. The bebop quartet is quite different, with much of the music made up on the spot. While one of the members more likely than not will be the leader, he (or she) does not dictate the performance.

In the next section of this “essay” I present a lyrical and impressionistic account of the America blending of Africa and Europe in the software world. Then I calm down and run through the same material in a more conventional matter, looking at basketball and football as embodying very different visions of organizational style and execution. At the middle of the previous century we have, for example, the steel industry and the automobile industry as examples of football-like organizational style. But the flourishing of software and related businesses in the last quarter of the century called for a more basketball-like style.

A Rhapsodic Invocation of the Software Mysteries

Why is America the software center of the Universe? Because it is also the Rap-Rock-Funk-Soul-Jazz-Blues center of the Universe. What does that have to do with the If-Then-Else imperatives of byte busting? Technology is not just technique. It is style and attitude. You can't write great software if your soul was nurtured on the mechanical clockwork and internal combustion rhythms of the Machine Age. You must free yourself from the linear flow of mechanical time and learn to improvise order from the creative chaos lurking in the multiple intersecting flows of the digital domain.

Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

Cases in point: Steve Wozniak took time out from Apple to produce rock and roll concerts. Microsoft was co-founded by a guitar-playing Jimi Hendrix fan, Paul Allen. Software guru Alan GUI Kay, formerly of Xerox, Atari, and Apple, worked his way through graduate school as a jazz musician. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor took to riding the informatic frontier with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow.

These high-tech funkateers didn’t come out of nowhere. In the Roaring 20s the sons and daughters of Henry “Assembly-Line” Ford and Tom “Light-Bulb” Edison cruised the night spots of African America dancing to the improvisations of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and all the other pioneering funkateers. Getting juiced, they got loose, and mechanical tick tock began to die.

Their sons and daughters dug Elvis the Pelvis and blew Bob Dylan's changing winds into the high-tech studio wizardry of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. When Woodstock Nation faded into decaying reels of audiotape and videotape the young, the hip and the restless decided that communes were 19th century and created the video game and PC industry. (Pro-tip: See John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, 2005).

In the last decades of the 20th century a cultural force emerged on the scene. Tempered in battle with Ronald Raygun and his Bush League Wrecking Crew, hip-hop reached back to the rhythms which created humankind on the African savannas and, through digital sampling, crossed those rhythms with our recorded musical legacy. Silicon Age rappers insinuated body-heart rhythm into the digital warp and woof of emerging cultural patterns. The anger cuts through accretions of industrial armor and creates room to grow, letting the neurons branch in new patterns.

That's where it all begins: the nervous system. While the genes lay down the basic plan, the detailed wiring is worked out through extended and intimate interaction with the environment. To update William Wordsworth, the jazz child is mother to the cybernetic man. The dancing you do at ten forms the matrix out of which you think when you are twenty. If you grow up to mechanical rhythms, digital dancing is unnatural. To be a natural born child of the 21st century you must dance at the wedding between the soul of John von Neumann and the science of Daniel Louis Armstrong.

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And now, let’s turn down the heat a bit. Let’s relax. Take a couple of deep breaths. Think.

Basketball and Football

But it’s not just music, though music IS central. Let's consider two brief examples from sports, which are a microcosm of the larger society. Let’s look at basketball and football.

Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach (as the conductor of an orchestra represents the composer of a composition). Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called “downs”, with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.

Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football.

It makes sense to think of a football game as being composed while a basketball game is improvised. In both cases, the coaches ultimately decide how the came is to be played. But the roles of basketball players are, essentially, more fluid and various than those of football players, giving the individual players considerably more autonomy on the playing field. A football coach can easily intervene after each play, and does so routinely after each set of downs. Basketball coaches cannot, and do not, intervene so directly and so often. Consequently, the basketball team exercises a higher level of decision-making than the football team ordinarily does. African-Americans dominate basketball and, while they are prominent in football, they have been kept from the key role of quarterback, the director of the coach’s composition. Football thus is still largely a European-American sport, reflecting European-American cultural patterns.

Given this analysis of football and basketball, it is clear that, if we compare these two sports to music, then football resembles classical music while basketball resembles jazz. Football is composed while basketball is improvised. The football coach, or his defensive and offensive representatives, calls the plays according to a preset plan. The individual players then execute their specific assignment in each play. Basketball coaches act more like the jazz composer/arranger, who creates a melody and a set of chord changes, and then lets the players improvise their own moves for finding their way through the tune. The coach sets guidelines about the pace and style of the game, but game itself unfolds so fast that the players are responsible for the moves they make.

Corporate Style

At this point it shouldn't be too difficult to see a resemblance between classical music and football, on the one hand, and the structure and style such corporations as General Motors and United States Steel. These corporations have highly specialized and compartmentalized work forces organized into deep hierarchies, just as football teams and symphony orchestras have many players with very specialized functions.

When I consider jazz and basketball in this context, what comes most quickly to my mind is the advice of management gurus about the need for a very fluid corporate structure, one which changes quickly and has multifunctional workers organized into relatively flat structures. Thus, in Liberation Management Tom Peters uses the carnival as one of his key metaphors. Carnivals run lean, quickly adapt to changing markets, and have employees who play multiple roles. Carnivals, and the corporation of the twenty-first century, are improvisatory. Likewise, when Michael Maccoby talks of the need for “corporate men and women who can work interdependently within a corporate structure that stimulates and rewards individual initiative and continual improvement” he describes a pattern of vigorous individuality in service of a group creation which is a fundamental requirement of jazz.

Duke Ellington's sidemen were all individualists who played their best music in Ellington's band; leaders such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis were known for so successfully fostering the growth of their musicians that many of them went on to become leaders themselves. Jazz culture stresses the importance of finding your own voice, your own style, even to the basic sound you get from your instrument. In contrast, classical culture stresses adherence to an ideal sound and is doubtful about individuality, even from virtuoso soloists.

This similarity between high-tech management and improvisation is more than an abstraction to me. I have some direct experience of this relationship. In the previous century I spent two years writing technical documentation for MapInfo, Corp., which makes software for geographic data analysis—population distribution, market information, facilities location, etc. While the sixty to eighty mostly-young employees were not cut from the same mold—salespersons and programmers, for example, tend to be quite different—rock and roll was certainly the musical common denominator. After all, most of the employees were born After Elvis. Sean O'Sullivan, one of the young founders and formerly Chairman of the Board, would end many of his electronic mail communications with an exhortation to “rock and roll.” Half a year after I left, he resigned to pursue a career in rock and roll. Further, to adapt to its rapid growth MapInfo revised its management structure at least two times in the two years I was employed there and two times again in the year and a half after I left. Change was explicitly recognized as being essential to survival. Being able to initiate change thus becomes a competitive advantage.

Such anecdotes do not a historical truth make. But they are telling anecdotes. And my general impression is that they could be multiplied many times over.

However, these improvisatory corporations are not, for the most part, owned and managed by African Americans. Thus they exhibit a pattern which reverses that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. finds in various important African-American novels (for example, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man). These novels use Western form to express African-American content. The high-tech corporations have an African-American style with a European-American technological content and management. Between the informal mores and prejudices of the corporate world and the unfortunate relationship between much of African America and the educational system, the corporate world remains largely European American. However, to the extent that these more fluid corporations are run by relatively young men and women, they are run by people who have, for example, grown up listening and dancing to rock and roll and have thus been significantly influenced by African-American expressive style.

One final contrast suggests itself. Classical music is the expression of a fully formed culture. Europe was under no pressure to conform to any standards other than its own. We know what a fully realized compositional culture and society are like. Jazz, however, is the creation of people under constant pressure to conform to conditions imposed on them. As critic Martin Williams asserted in his essay on “The Meaning of a Music”, “Jazz is the music of a people who have been told by their circumstances that they are unworthy. And in jazz, these people discover their own worthiness.” There is a sense, then, that jazz is the most advanced creation of an improvisational culture which has not yet fully revealed and realized itself. Whether or not this century will see that realization is question as open as it is exciting.

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Bill Benzon blogs at New Savanna, posts photographs to Flickr, is on Facebook, and posts his academic work to