Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter, Pain, and the Livery Stable Blues: Culture Trumps Technology


Not long ago I used my great-grandmother and her chicken-plucking machine to suggest ways in which gender can influence the adoption of new technology.

Recently, I’ve stumbled across a series of examples which focus more broadly on ways that culture—at least all of those phobias we classify as culture--can speed or retard the adoption of technology.
For example, when Ashton Kutcher began using Twitter, his adoring fan base embraced the messaging technology. Meanwhile, much of the rest of America continued to read and revel in a slew of “I don’t get it” articles. Now, what happens if Americans decide Twitter has been the key to supporting democratic resistance in Iran? How much of a boost will accrue to Twitter if the technology is—culturally speaking--suddenly part of the Great American Way?

Sometimes culture hurts. The first operation under anesthetic occurred on October 16, 1846, a momentous day that forever changed medicine. (Indeed, the room where the operation took place at the Massachusetts General Hospital is still called the Ether Dome.) So, it might seem odd that the existence of ether and its benefit had been common knowledge for decades, and the idea that anesthesia (via nitrous oxide) could extinguish pain had been recorded as early as 1525.
Over 300 years of unnecessary and excruciating pain. Why?

Before 1846, prevailing religious and medical opinion held that pain was an essential part of the human condition, not to mention God’s way of keeping us from harming ourselves. Much of the medical establishment believed it was pain that kept a patient alive during a procedure. Doctors who endorsed pain-relievers, therefore, were cranks who preyed on the fear of their patients, frightening others from having surgery and undermining public health.

Despite the miracle of 1846, it would take the rest of the nineteenth century to convince the entire medical establishment that pain was unnecessary, as well as confirmation from the Pope in 1957 that anesthetics were not an obstacle to interior purification. (See Mike Jay’s complete and excellent article here.)

You laugh, I know, but have you heard your wife after her (male) obstetrician rolled his eyes when she requested an epidural during delivery? The moral disapprobation by those who don’t suffer pain, directed at those who must, continues, regardless of the technology at our disposal.


In 1917 Victor recorded a group of New Orleans musicians known as the Original Dixieland Jass Band in what is generally regarded as the first commercial recorded jazz. The two songs, Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, went on to sell millions of records. Millions. In 1917. Indeed, this first jazz record annihilated the reigning record champs, Enrico Caruso and the John Phillip Sousa band.

What happened next? Victor went on to release dozens of records to exploit the commercial success of jazz, right?
Nope. Victor disassociated itself from jazz. So did Columbia. One industry magazine claimed that “the future of our industry lies in encouraging the sale of high-priced goods and the best records. . .[not] cheap machines and jazz records.”

The problem, culturally speaking, was that high-brow, white America associated jazz with blacks and illegitimate activities. (Jazz, the myth went, was created in the brothels of New Orleans). Thomas Edison expressed his disdain for jazz, as did the wives of Messrs. Morgan, Harriman and Phipps. The Catholic Church and Salvation Army vigorously fought jazz. The founder and president of Victor was the top financial contributor to the Republican Party in 1928, putting him in the sphere of Mellon, Rockefeller and Guggenheim. The vice president of Victor married into the family that produced John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

You see the problem. Victor stumbled into a cultural train wreck and could only recover by backing away from tainted commercial success with new recordings of European operatic and classical music that would appeal to the “best class” of people.

(So as not to make this post too long, I’ll simply say: jazz prevailed. So as not to completely confuse the subject, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was composed of white musicians. But that’s a different post for a different day.)

Sometimes the culture wars play out in a smaller technology community. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman tells the fascinating story of how IBM—a poster child for proprietary software in 1998—approached the open source Apache community. “IBM said, ‘We would like to figure out how we can use [Apache] and not get flamed by the Internet community.’” IBM understood that culture trumps technology, and their subsequent measured, respectful approach to the open source community led to the incorporation of Apache into WebSphere; today, Apache powers two-thirds of the Web sites in the world.

On an even smaller scale, and in motion today, the battle to acquire Silicon Valley’s Data Domain between neighbor NetApp and “buttoned-down East Coast EMC” is just such a clash of cultures. (See here.) The Wall Street Journal reported, “Silicon Valley companies don’t like being taken over by out-of-towners, especially East Coasters like EMC.” Similar cultural angst played out when Sun Microsystems rushed into the arms of Oracle, escaping big, bad IBM.

Was that the best result for investors? Will Data Domain allow culture to supersede value creation? This is not an inconsequential point some culture-deaf shareholder might make to a CEO.

Similarly, a patient might well have argued to his surgeon in 1840 that God had other ways to let him know he was human than having him suffer through an amputation.

Technology matters a lot. But, as Twitter may find out with their impressive showing in Iran, culture often matters more.