Thursday, February 7, 2013

pioneer spirit

The other night, I was watching a TV retrospective on the growth of Silicon Valley, the area of California devoted to cutting-edge technology, a place where once the world of the computers came into existence in a variety of scientific discoveries.

One of the passing references in the program was to the meritocracy that made it all possible: Men who had been stifled in their love of science and invention and innovation in the corporate structures of the East struck out on their own, into uncharted waters in the West ... into a world they loved and yet where there was no guarantee they could succeed.

And in that world, there simply was no time to waste on corporate posturing, on power structures that put someone on top and someone at the bottom. Ideas were the currency of their adventure -- ideas to be posited and tested and re-posited and re-tested. Who had those ideas, how they dressed and whom they knew didn't matter... these pioneers didn't have the time or money or interest to waste on such frills... or anyway, that's what I heard between the lines. They worked together and alone and honored ideas, whoever had them.

No doubt Silicon Valley has its corporate-ladder geeks these days, but the historical underpinnings interested me, however badly informed I was: Good ideas and the daring and longing to put them to the test without fear or favor ... dictatorship and rigidity and preening were as bad for business as they were nourishing for the ego.

The American author Norman Mailer once observed, "A million good ideas die in New York every day." And the same is true, I imagine, for the individual -- good ideas that go unwatered and untested and fall away into a wispy world of "oh well...."

And yet some ideas do call up the pioneer spirit, the willingness to flounder and find out, to strike out from the safe and sane and comforting corporate structures of the past. There is no guaranteed success. There is no one to approve or promote. There is no social applause. There is just the determination to live it out because ... well, because the alternative is too dreary or the longing is just too overwhelming.

Watching the TV program, I could feel my mind yanking like some leashed canine intent on the neighbor's cat: Is it reasonable to infer that where rigidities are in play, mediocrity flourishes, whether within or without? Structures make room for and manipulate and nourish the very mediocrity they might claim to outstrip. Instead of actually making a better car, it is sufficient to say the car is better. Instead of daring, there is safety. Instead of a willingness to fail, there is an insistence on success.

Is it reasonable to infer ... where there is structure and explanation and socially-acceptable belief, there is fear and foolishness and a compromise that dulls the bright life that anyone actually leads? The dog on my mental leash yanks and tugs and wants to say so. And s/he's probably right to some extent -- an extent worth keeping an eye on. If the format is laid out in perfectly-acceptable terms ... then it is probably unacceptable and the pioneer spirit goes unrequited.

But every pioneering idea requires the format of the pioneer and so the format stands ready to overwhelm the spirit -- to create a resting place, a nesting place, a mediocre place where explanations and beliefs are allowed to build skyscrapers of comfort and salvation and ... lifeless mediocrity.

My dog yanks on the leash ... be wary, but not too wary ... just don't become an expert.

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