The Eternal Spiral

How the tension between those driving and resisting change benefits us all.

No matter what the context, whether at the vanguard of an isolated academic niche or in the thick of our strained political system, people react very differently to change. On one extreme, we have drivers of change actively pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable, and on the other, we have resisters of change who want to protect the established traditions and values.

Odds are we have a proclivity to one of these sides in any given domain at a particular point in time, sometimes for reasons beyond our conscious examination. We may be die-hard technologists, but wary of mixing up the classic hummus recipe we’ve come to love. And we’re often caught up in an exhausting spiral of defending our position against a never-ending slew of sound counterpoints. We grow tired and apathetic of trying to reach out to people who just don’t get it. But perhaps we’ve missed the whole point of dialogue. Maybe it’s not about driving or resisting change. Maybe we’re all invoking an ancient mechanism to ensure our collective survival when we openly and honestly express our thoughts. When drivers and resisters clash we get solutions that push us forward, and everyone has a role to play.

Beyond the Border by Richard Mayhew

To strike a chord

One of the most famous conflicts in western classical music was between Italian composers Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Artusi during the transition from the Renaissance to Baroque eras. Monteverdi wanted to exploit the relationship between the text and music in his madrigals so the words could be more readily understood. This resulted in a new treatment of consonance and dissonance referred to as the second practice, which ultimately evolved into the tonal harmony we’ve come to enjoy in our popular music. Artusi wasn’t pleased about this break from tradition and published a treatise in 1600 called “Of the Imperfections of Modern Music” which set off a chain of correspondence on the matter. Here are some excerpts from Artusi’s treatise, and the resulting response by Monteverdi’s brother Giulio Cesare that highlight the classic tension between drivers and resisters of change:

“…these new rules break the [established] good rules, which are founded in experience (the mother of all things), derived from Nature, and confirmed by demonstration. These new rules must therefore be deformations of nature and the propriety of correct harmony.”
“It is my belief that there is nothing but smoke in the heads of such composers and that they are so enamored of themselves as to think it within their power to corrupt, spoil, and ruin the good old rules handed down in former times by so many theorists and most excellent musicians, the very men from whom these moderns have learned to string together a few notes with little grace.”
Artusi, Of the Imperfections of Modern Music [1] [2]

“My brother certainly knows that music, especially in vocal genres such as this one, hinges on the perfection of melody. Harmony, once considered the master, becomes the servant of the text, and the text the master of the harmony. The seconda pratica tends toward this way of thinking.”
“If you trust that the modern composer builds on the foundation of truth, you will live happy.”
Giulio Cesare, Scherzi musicali (1607) [3]

It may be trivial, and historically irreverent, to look back in hindsight and label Artusi as an artisanal Luddite trying to resist the inescapable transformation of music. It’s also true that Artusi’s sentiment was expressed in a time not far removed from when using the tritone was discouraged by the Church. But Artusi’s courage to publicly express his opinions helped bring an esoteric issue to the public’s eye and allowed it to play a more active role in determining the ensuing course of events. The proceeding dialogue gave Monteverdi a sounding board to refine his thought process and compositional method, and may even have spurred the development of alternative techniques that were just as innovative but less jarring in their transition from the status quo. The historical and cultural distance of this vignette gives us clarity in recognizing the tension between resisters and drivers.

Deep Purple by Zhuang Hong Yi

The dialectic of consumer goods

While culturally and historically a world apart from the correspondence between Artusi and Cesare, let’s briefly turn to Geoffrey Moore’s classic Crossing the Chasm (1991) where he expounds on the technology adoption lifecycle — a model describing how new products are adopted over time. The process of adoption is visualized in the form of a bell curve [Fig.1] where innovators and early adopters lie on the far left, and skeptics and laggards lie on the far right. Moore’s thesis is that every segment of the curve has vastly different expectations. The most effective way to conquer the market is to start on the far left with people who are actively seeking the change and innovation your product brings, and gradually move right while adjusting your tactics to conquer subsequent groups.

Figure 1: Bell curve representing the technology adoption lifecyle

It would be silly to look at this curve and make value judgments like the late majority is right and the innovators are wrong. Instead, this model shows us that every segment has a unique role in a product’s path to mainstream success. Products that eventually make it to the right side of the curve are almost always universal successes, and products that get cut off by earlier segments just don’t have what it takes, whether in idea or execution, to reach the entirety of their market. The critical insight is that when all segments work together — with innovators creating and fostering new technologies and passing them along the curve to each subsequent segment for further iteration and financial support— we collectively get technology like the laptop I’m writing this reflection on.

The attar from the rose (the gist)

Once we move beyond any one individual’s perspective in the dance between those driving and resisting change, it becomes clear that the process itself confers benefits to all parties. Drivers provide the spark to light the fire that keeps us warm at night, and resisters make sure the fire doesn’t burn out the village. In other words, drivers are the source of innovation that the human race needs to solve the existential threats that lie ahead, and resisters are the counter-weight to make sure the solutions we create don’t wipe us out. Resisters are the FDA to the drivers’ research. And when both sides clash we get solutions that push us forward, while maintaining our hard-earned order and stability.

Fractionating Column

In many cases this tension, especially when expressed publicly as in the case of Artusi and Cesare, allows us to collectively weigh in and make a conscious decision to support one side over another spurring additional conversation and refinement of ideas. It’s akin to a fractional distillation column where ideas clash back and forth with thousands of glass beads, and we get the most potent and useful ones on the other side. And as we saw with the technology adoption lifecycle, there are different intensities of driving and resisting spread across the curve, and each has a unique role to play. Each segment is a gate-keeper on a product’s journey forward. Each conversation, a sentinel on an idea’s path to the mainstream. There might be some tension when an innovator tries to explain her/his approach to the late majority, but that’s part and parcel of the mechanism.

Of course, there are many functional differences between the marketplace of consumer goods and the marketplace of ideas. One’s fanboyish support for Nintendo’s latest games does not affect others to the same extent that one’s support for universal healthcare might. The stakes become acute in political systems where the majority view is enforced upon everyone, and I’d argue that there’s a greater need for honest and open discourse in these situations. The only way to defeat a bad idea, aside from resorting to violence, is with a good idea. Unfortunately, this has become increasingly hard in a digital landscape strewn with echo chambers where we feel uncomfortable expressing our honest opinions for fear of personal and professional setback, and where only specific identities are allowed to express specific thoughts without castigation.

So next time you’re sparring over the efficacy of proposed legislation, realize that you may be invoking an ancient mechanism collectively embedded in all of us to help ensure our survival. You have a role to play no matter what side of the fence you’re on, and the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone is to accurately represent your opinions and thoughts in the marketplace of ideas. Be open about your doubts and concerns. Not everyone is on the far left or right of the curve. Not everyone needs to have strong opinions for the mechanism to work.

If you enjoyed this then check out my website for more reflections and music. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also keep on the lookout for Radical — an iOS application I’m building that aims to make online dialogue as easy and civil as possible using live audio streaming.

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