Why tools take root, or not

The people in an audience who ask what seems like a rude question are often the ones worth listening to. Take, for example, one guy I heard recently. He talked about his old movie camera — which was relevant to the subject, cinema — but his question had parallels with a perennial issue in BI.

He said that he had had a Bolex 16-milimeter movie camera back when he was a kid, and so anyone else could have, too. To him, the idea that new technology like small video cameras and inexpensive desktop editing was now unleashing a burst of moviemaking was just not true. “It’s nonsense. You know it is,” he told the Oscar-winner Walter Murch, who sat listening patiently on stage.

I didn’t write down Murch’s reply, but I have my own: Great as the Bolex may have been, amateur filmmaking back then was slow, expensive, and lonely. There were no swarms of fellow filmmakers and no audience on YouTube. Bolex Schmolex.

Cinema, and business, depend on more than technology.

Murch’s main point, which he explained for almost an hour, was about cinema’s quick success a century ago. It took off, he said, because the popular culture was prepared for it, not just because the technology had arrived.

Just one of the “three fathers of cinema,” as Murch calls them, had anything to do with the technology: Thomas Edison. Beethoven, and introduced dynamism into music instead of the ordered music of Haydn and Mozart. Also Flaubert, another name as shorthand for the new painters and fiction writers who discarded fantasy and aristocratic life for everyday reality.

Does he mean that everyone in the bargain matinee seats a Beethoven fan? No, but I wish I’d asked how it worked. For now, I go with the teabag theory: a bit of pungent herbs have a way of permeating the surrounding medium. Just ask Sarah Palin.

From Beethoven’s dynamism, it’s a short leap into the vocabulary we know today: fast cuts, close-ups followed by panoramas, stories interlaced with other stories, and so on.

Imagine a tool that falls into a culture that’s not ready. Say some ancient toymaker invented the wheel but for centuries afterward the adults kept dragging freight around on sleds. That’s apparently what the Aztecs did. Same thing happened to the steam engine invented by the Greeks.

I wish I could raise my hand now to ask Murch a few questions: For example, could cinema have taken root with a Mozartian vocabulary instead of a Beethovenian one? I suppose we’d have nothing like “Citizen Kane” and a lot of films like “This is My Railroad” (1940; Southern Pacific).

Who can say about movies, though? It’s much easier to speculate whether BI can take root in an organization with no fathers or mothers of data analysis.


  1. Nick Button says:

    I think that you should leave political figures out of your blog and stick to the technology. Myself and other are viewing your posts for insights into Business Intelligence trends not political commentary.


  2. Ignoring the wheel- technology can solve a problem, but regardless of if the problem exists or not, the people need to believe the problem is a problem. If dragging sleds just seems to work, then who wants to mess around with all that wheel building, those fussy axles, that grease- yuck.

    I’ve seen groups that make almost all of their decisions based on the most attractive pie chart in the best delivered power point presentation, regardless of underlying numbers or definitions.

    Data is boring- lets make a decision and get going!!

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