Tuesday, February 8, 2011

One Camera, One Picture and a Time Machine

Suppose I gave you a digital camera with enough memory for exactly one picture.  One and only one.  Oh, and you get a time machine, too.

In fact, suppose I put you in the time machine and gave you the opportunity to travel into the past and take exactly one picture of anything you wanted.  Anything at all.

Think about that for a minute.

Images are incredibly powerful and especially relevant in a world that can manufacture and distribute them as easily as ours.   Witness Facebook, YouTube, and your smartphone. 

When it comes to images, we now live in a time when it's nearly impossible to lose anything, even things we wish would get lost.  So it's occasionally a surprise when a set of images that seem important disappear.

Take for example the first Super Bowl played in 1967.  It was recorded by two of the three major networks.  Green Bay beat Kansas City 35-10.  It was the first of one of the most remarkable video juggernauts in the history of media, its descendant played out this last Sunday before 111 million fans.  Yet the Wall Street Journal reported recently:
In a bizarre confluence of events, neither network preserved a tape. All that survived of this broadcast is sideline footage shot by NFL Films and roughly 30 seconds of footage CBS included in a pre-game show for Super Bowl XXV. Somehow, an historic football game that was seen by 26.8 million people had, for all intents and purposes, vanished.
It was, the WSJ said, the Holy Grail of American sports videos.  Missing for over forty years.  A search for the tape went worldwide, including checking on the persistent rumor that Hugh Hefner had taped it in the Bunny Mansion.  All to no avail.  Until now.

"The Paley Center for Media in New York. . .has restored what it believes to be a genuine copy of the CBS broadcast. The 94-minute tape, which has never been shown to the public, was donated to the center by its owner in return for having it restored. It was originally recorded on bulky two-inch video and had been stored in an attic in Pennsylvania for nearly 38 years."

If you've ever visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, which chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy, you'll get to see the famous Zapruder film.  But you'll also get to see a raft of other home movies taken that day by Americans ready and able to record important images.  Zapruder was historic in what he captured, but he was not alone in being there to try.

In 2008 the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered the earliest known photo of Helen Keller.  It was a wonderful find and created a sensation--because we love images.

I myself am kind of an image junkie.  I have about 10,000 family and genealogical images on a hard drive in my office, with about 3,000 more paper pictures to convert.  That spans all the way from "what a good father you are for taking pictures of your children" to "could you be any more obnoxious, Dad, with that camera?"

When I come back in my next life I'm going to be a National Geographic photographer. 

Or maybe work for Vanity Fair.  In the last twelve months alone I've received three unbelievable books of images, including the stunning Vanity Fair Portraits book--everyone from H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, and George Gershwin to Run-DMC, Joan Collins, Madonna and a shot of Tony Curtis that will give you nightmares.  For years.

The second miraculous book of images (which I've mentioned before) is Maureen Taylor's The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation, 70 images of veterans, loyalists, Native Americans and African Americans, all of whom lived through the American Revolution.  The story of how she gathered and dated the photos alone is worth the price of admission.

Third, and perhaps most profound, is a beautiful coffee table book, The Gernsheim Collection, an archive amassed by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963.  It includes the world's earliest known photograph from nature taken in 1826.  Ever wonder what Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite looked like in 1838; it's there.  The Acropolis in 1842; yes.  Soldiers resting in the Crimean War in 1855; unbelievable.  (That's Alice of "Wonderland" fame on the left.)

Indeed, if you are looking for some quiet, powerful time away from technology, one of these incredible book of images will provide it.

All of which brings me back to my original question.  What did you decide?  What great historical image would you, your camera and your time machine capture for the rest of us? 

Years ago I read a science fiction story about a Time Machine company that offered group tours to various historic events.  Their number one destination?  The Crucifixion.  Macabre and a little distressing, I know, but probably not all that far off.  Maybe your preference would be the manger scene, or the Sermon on the Mount--I'm just guessing some image of Jesus shows up in a few of your answers.

Me? Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or one of Hannibal's elephant charges?  Maybe.  King Tut?  How about Washington crossing the Delaware, or with his Cabinet?  Confucius?  Helen of Troy?  Cleopatra?  Moses? Galileo?  Bach?  Gutenberg printing a book?  DaVinci painting the Mona Lisa?  Construction of the Forbidden City? Sun Tzu swinging a sword?  Egyptians building a pyramid?  A group shot of Abraham, Isaac and family, or just a bustling day in Ur of the Chaldees?  Marco Polo on the Spice route?  Magellan crossing the Straits of Gibraltar?  The first humans crossing the Bering Strait?  The first humans departing Africa?  A Neanderthal?  An image of men, or Martians, planting one of those Easter Island monoliths?  Stonehenge being built? A mastodon?  A dodo bird?       
Your great-grandfather, the one the family won't talk about any more?

Let me know. 

In the meantime, I'm going to be busy getting another picture or two of my family, despite the abuse it will undoubtedly invoke.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

First-Order Questions (Going a Little Cosmic)

There's a well-tread logic for thinking about how best to organize and operate a business, one that's appeared in a million business plans and PPT decks.

It all starts with Vision, or--awkwardly translated--what you wish the world in which you operate would look like.  I'd call this the first-order question when launching an enterprise.  Vision is the currency of entrepreneurs, the thing in which they presumably revel (though we know better).

Next comes Mission, or the fundamental purpose of your business--why you bother to exist. That's a very important question but still second-order, after Vision.  (And yes, me too. I always get Vision and Mission confused.)

Then, Strategy, or deciding where and how to compete.  That's a question of the third-order type.

And finally comes Operating Tactics, resulting in a bunch of goals, metrics, programs and an annual budget, which is all about fourth-order questions: How will we go to market in that segment?  How do we take 15% out of our product this year?  When do we make the next point release available?  Stuff like that.

I suppose there are a series of questions after that--what paper stock should business cards be printed on, should we have a company summer outing--that could be classified as fifth-order questions, but hopefully I'm expressing the uber-logic clearly.

In fact, common wisdom holds that disaster awaits those who start with anything but Vision and work their way methodically to Operating Tactics.  Successful businesses are built from first-order to fifth-order, in that order.

I was thinking about this particular hierarchy the other day when I read an interview with Brian Greene about his new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos."

In a very sober way, Greene posits that there may be multiple universes.  He says, "Our most refined cosmological theories indicate, for instance, that the big bang, which created our own universe, may not have been a unique event. There may have been (and may still be) various big bangs at far-flung locations, each one creating its own universe. Our "everything" may be just one enormous expanding bubble in a gigantic cosmic bubble bath of universes." 

It makes you think of that universe-in-a-marble-in-a-bag-of-marbles at the end of Men in Black, no?  Makes your head hurt, too.

Going a Little Cosmic

If success in business is the result of responding well to a set of cascading questions in an linear, orderly fashion, could Life work the same way?

In other words, is there such a thing as a first-order question for Life, in the same way that Vision must answer the first-order question in organizing a business?  Something that's so fundamental that if we don't answer it everything else could be noise? 

I would suggest there is, and it might go something like:  What is the totality of reality?  That's not "Why am I here," or What is "here," but more like Why is "here" here?

It is the most daunting of all questions, and right about now you'll want to be sitting with other people in a well-lit room.

Perhaps a series of second-order questions might be: Why am I here?  What happens when I'm no longer here?  And, if you want to depart from the secular, Is there a God?  

I'll be the first to admit that if there IS a God, then we may have answered the first-order question too.  But not necessarily.  For example, getting to Heaven might be great, but WHY are we getting to Heaven?  And, you'd have to know if God is subject to any constraints and if even he knows why "here" is here.  

It's kind of like Isaac Asimov's famous question about whether God has to follow his own road rules.  Asimov wondered, assuming nothing can exceed the speed of light, if God isn't fully aware of the mess we have made of our world and is returning as quickly as he can--though it turns out He was just a LONG way off tending to His other Creation when we started messing up?
Following this little thought-mess we've created, then, a series of possible third-order questions about Life could be: When did the universe start and when does it end?  Is space curved and how many universes are there?  And, how does it all work--in other words, is there a Theory of Everything? 
It seems to me that only here--roughly in the "Strategy" level of Life--do we have any real chance of coming up with some answers.  And it's a pretty slim one, and not for those of us with average IQs.  Before this point, however, we're kind of running on faith and hope and decoder rings.

Then, we get to some fourth-order questions, something we can actually wrap our heads around (though still not easily): What's a good life, and how do I live one?  (There's a recent interesting article here from legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin on the topic.) 

Fifth-order Life questions might finally be things we talk about at the dinner table: What do I do for my career?  Should I launch a business?  How many kids might we want to have?

And then, our sixth-order questions become: What should I have for lunch?  How do I lose 5 pounds?  Do I get a blue rollerball or a black ballpoint for my next pen?

And this, of course, is where we spend almost ALL of our time.

So, let's compare:

First-Order (must have)
“Why is “here” here?
Second-Order (critical)
Why am I here?
Third-Order (essential)
Is there a "Theory of Everything" and how do we apply it?
Operating Tactics
What’s a “good life” and how do I live it?
Summer outing anyone?
What career should I choose?
Beef or fish?
What should I have for lunch?

It's kind of enlightening to know that, in Life, we have no real chance of answering the “must have” first-order question, we leave the “critical” second-order questions to philosophers and clerics, and we hope that brilliant physicists and mathematicians are working on the “essential” third-order questions.

Most of us only really start being able to sort things out in the morning with fourth-order questions, the “operating tactics” level.  Then, we spend some of our time at the fifth level (summer outing anyone?), and much of our time at the sixth level (beef or fish?). 

Which, if we were running a business would be an absolute, unfundable, chaotic disaster.

But, in Life anyway, answers to fouth-, fifth-, and sixth-order questions are the best we’ve got.  

Which means, on those days when your business rocks but your life is a mess, it really does all makes sense. . .