Saturday, February 23, 2013

After This, Nothing Will Be the Same

Remember Dick Fosbury?  In 1967 he was ranked the 61st best high-jumper in the world.  At the Olympics in Mexico City the following year he cleared the bar at 7 feet 4.25 inches and won the gold medal.  He did it with a style so different from the traditional “western straddle” that it came to be called the Fosbury Flop.  People laughed.  Even some of his coaches watched in disbelief.  One newspaper described it as going over the bar “like a guy being pushed out of a 30-story window.”

Today, you cannot find a world-class high jumper who doesn’t do the Fosbury Flop.  One moment it was one thing; the next, it would never be the same.

I was pondering these kinds of events as I wrote my post on Henry Leland (The Prophet of Quality)--how suppliers and competitors could not believe what he was able to do with quality and interchangeable parts in 1908 on that British test track, but afterwards, if they did not do it as well, they could not compete.

Here’s a small one with big implications:  In 1970 or 80 or 90, if someone stood up on an airplane and started causing trouble, most of us put our head down in our books and let the flight attendants handle things.  Now, after 9/11—one of the silver linings, I suppose—if someone stands up on a plane and starts causing trouble, the entire plane stands up and duct tapes him or her to a seat.   There’s no hesitation.  We’ve learned the hard way that there’s no protection like self-protection.  One day changed everything.

Here’s a big one with gigantic implications:  In 1923, Edwin Hubble used a 100-inch reflector to discover a “Cepheid variable.”  By 1924 he had discovered 12 more, calculating that one of these newly-found galaxies was 900,000 light years away—or nine times further than the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy.  In the early 1920s we were the only galaxy in the universe.  In the late 1920s there were 125 billion others.  People throw the term “paradigm shift” around haphazardly; 1 to 125 billion galaxies is the definition of a paradigm shift.

Here’s one that might be big, or not: In 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first computer to ever win a game against the reigning World Chess Champion under tournament conditions and time controls.  Before that, nobody thought a computer could ever beat a Grand Master.  Now, does anybody believe a Grand Master will ever win again? 

Chess, sure, but Jeopardy?  What? 2011 you say? OK, Jeopardy, sure, but how about poetry?  After that, of course, nothing will be the same.

I write about Louis Armstrong in this blog from time to time, not because I am a great jazz aficionado, but because even I can hear something astonishingly different and special in what he played.  Critic Gary Giddins called him “the figure who. . .shows where the future is going to be.”  Armstrong created modern time, Giddins said, and all modern rhythms, from jazz to rock to R&B would proceed from him.  Jazz violinist Matt Glaser said Louis Armstrong created a new way of experiencing time, not unlike Albert Einstein.  He embodied the theory of relativity; “the faster the music would go, the more Louis sounded utterly at ease and utter, utterly relaxed.”  We now know that once Armstrong picked up the cornet, nothing would be the same.

Our parents and grandparents saw the first black baseball player in Major League Baseball; today, could you conceive of baseball as a segregated sport? 

I was wondering what events our children and grandchildren might see as before-and-after moments.  The first person to live to 150?  (“You mean people used to die at 70?”)  The first confirmation of alien life? (“We used to believe we were the only ones out there?  Seriously?”)  The Singularity?  (“People actually tried to build things instead of letting machines do it?” “We tried to get smart by learning things?”  Whoa.) 

And then, of course, there are those before-and-after events that are highly personal but perhaps still universal.

One day you’re drinking coffee at Dunkins and Starbucks.  The next, a Tassimo machine arrives (from heaven) in your kitchen with a box of Tim Horton’s.  That’s a paradigm shift.

Better than that: One day your toddler isn’t talking.  The next day she’s precocious and articulate.  The day after she’s a verbal terrorist.  After that, nothing is the same.

And I mean nothing.