Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.


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