Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Culturally Significant Innovation

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

I was a bit too young at the time to have seen “Star Wars” during its original theatrical release back in 1977. I do vaguely remember though being in the car when my mom dropped my older siblings off at a local theater. And because I was so young, I’m sure my mind made the scene an even bigger spectacle than perhaps it actually was. It seemed like such a big deal at the time though.

I have a few recollections from the summer of 1980 watching “The Empire Strikes Back” in a theater with friends Tony and Jimmy. Apparently I was so captivated by the movie that my facial expression when it ended was one of emotional distraught. I must have wanted to know right then and there how the story would ultimately be resolved. I don’t remember feeling as such, yet I remember being briefly made fun of during the car ride home (Tony’s mom picked us up) by Tony and Jimmy because I had apparently become more emotionally enthralled by the movie than was socially acceptable for a boy my age.

When school let out for the summer of 1983 “Return of the Jedi” had just been released. I don’t recall the exact number, but I figure my screenings of Episode VI during that first week of summer must have hit at least double digits. I walked to the local theater every day for more than a week. And I’m sure I sat through two or three screenings at a time on some days.

More than 25 years later my affinity for a good sci-fi visual spectacle has not abated. My wife and I saw “Avatar” (in 3D) earlier this month. I thought it was a technical and visual marvel. And although the overarching narrative was relatively conventional, I thought the underlying premise and the details of the story were outstanding. I walked out of the theater thinking “This is my children’s Jedi. I want my kids to see this movie.”

My desire to have my kids see “Avatar” (in a theater in 3D) stems from my belief that this movie represents a culturally significant innovation. It represents a sort of turning point in our cultural consciousness. It’s not a historically significant innovation like the wheel, printed word, atomic bomb, airplane, polio vaccine, or machine gun, but rather culturally significant innovation like television, the electric guitar, “Star Wars”, the World Wide Web, and Napster. I think there is a difference between historical and cultural significance, but I’ll not try to describe this distinction here. Let’s just say I think the techniques and technology used to create “Avatar” will have a lasting effect on our cultural identity. It marks a moment in time that we as a society will remember.

Do you think anyone ever sets out to create culturally significant innovations?

I think James Cameron did.

I think Shawn Fanning did.

I think Steve Jobs did.

As an innovator, does cultural significance play a role in your innovation thought process?

My wife and I talked about it and decided we were willing to allow our slightly pre-teen kids (not our preschooler) to be exposed to some PG-13 violence and language. “Avatar” (in a theater in 3D) was an experience we wanted our kids to have. Given the fact that “Avatar” has taken in more than $1.8 billion worldwide to date and is on the verge of surpassing the domestic and international receipts record held by another Cameron flick called “Titanic”, I’m thinking there are a few parents around the world that made the same decision.

Last week I took my older kids to see "Avatar". They loved it. But I’m not sure they understand yet its cultural significance.

1 comment:

daniel.macgibbon said...

Innovate in a cultural vacuum doesn’t sound feasible. The role of the innovator most often stems from a cultural need. There are a few who are committed enough to have cultural significance as a goal for innovating.

Something worth checking in light if this is The Third & Seventh: http://vimeo.com/7809605; it covers some of the more iconic piece of architecture that I would classify as innovation with cultural significance as the end goal. I ended up finding this short film a great inspiration.

If you are interested in the response this video has been able to generate take a look at the comments on the video as well as around the web by searching the title. Another possibility is you can read here: http://www.inadequate-supply.com/2010/01/emotion-of-fictional-space.html what I had to say and how I feel something of this nature fits in the realm of architectural criticism.

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