Steve Landsburg has a post up talking about the Beatles, so I read it with great interest. (My taste in music is almost as antiquated as my taste in economists.) After explaining that people at the time didn’t know how lasting the Beatles (or rock and roll) were going to be, he asks his readers:
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”….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 [remarkably] 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.
My title derives from the following observations:
(1) About 7 years ago, I gave a pep talk to a group of high school students to get them all fired up to go grab their dreams or something. (It was honestly the biggest bomb of a talk I have ever given as an adult. My opening joke failed, and a girl in the front row actually said aloud, “No.”) Anyway, I was trying to list examples of people who were successful but had to ignore the doubters. I mentioned J.K. Rowling getting rejected by at least a dozen (?) publishers before someone finally picked up the first Harry Potter novel, the Beatles not getting a record deal with Decca Records, and–my favorite–the fact that Godel presented his preliminary findings for “Godel’s theorem” at a math conference, and the talk wasn’t even written up in the notes about the conference. (As I remember the anecdote, some big gun–
Turing maybe? von Neumann–was in the crowd and came up to talk to Godel after his presentation, but nobody else even recognized there was anything important.) And yes, I realized the irony as I was rushing just to get through the #)$(*#$* talk that I should heed my own advice, and not let the Bueller-esque response of the kids affect the enthusiasm with which I shared my advice for their lives.
(2) I think Landsburg is overlooking the most obvious cultural phenom of our age: Free Advice. Seriously, do you people realize just how big a deal I am? Sometimes I wonder. It kind of reminds me of high school. I just kept waiting for everyone to realize how cool I was, and then we graduated.