In 1966, The Beatles grew tired of what John Lennon called the “bloody tribal rites” of live performance: concerts that had, he said at the time, “nothing to do with music anymore.” Following months of rumours that the group might be on the verge of breakup, they went into the studio to record their eighth album.
What came out, in May of 1967, was like nothing ever heard before – consuming an estimated 700 hours of production time, roughly 30 times what was needed for the group’s first album Please Please Me. In this 50th anniversary year of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, some kind of synaptic crossover (unaided by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) led me to think about some surprising parallels: between what that album did fifty years ago to redefine the scope and purpose of recording technology, and what we are currently doing that redefines our demands on information technology.
Let’s challenge the world, Mr. Kite, and I hope you will enjoy the show.
To begin: Sergeant Pepper defied the idea that the purpose of recording was to give the listener a time-shifted, location-shifted approximation of a live performance. Yes, the album was in the form of a recording of a live concert by the mythical title group – but the studio became an instrument, in its own right, for creating new effects, rather than trying to be as invisible as hardware and technique could achieve.
In one case, for example, Paul McCartney wanted a unique piano sound (for a single four-measure solo) after the fourth verse of the song, “Lovely Rita”: the recording engineer put pieces of sticky editing tape on the rollers of the audio-tape machine to perturb the sound, violating every good analog audio engineer’s concept of sacred principles of mechanical mag-tape handling. In our first massive irony, “tape-on-the-rollers technique is available today as a plug-in for digital sound processing,” writes Forbes contributor Kevin Murnane.
That metamorphosis of analog hack into digital feature raises an interesting question: did recording engineer Geoff Emerick get the idea for that technique only because he was familiar with the stubborn imperfections of analog equipment – and was that why he was able to imagine intentionally exaggerating those imperfections to achieve a desired effect? Does an engineer without Emerick’s legacy analog experience, selecting “tape on the rollers” from a menu of effects, work at a disadvantage – having never observed the underlying mechanical principle?
At the risk of digression, is this perhaps quite a general problem for educating the next generation of technology creators (and managers) in other domains? Math as well as music may be subject to this concern: for example, I had a similar reaction when the Los Angeles Times printed, early this month, a mathematical expression in an outsized font with the headline, “Solve this puzzle to graduate: If you can’t simplify the following operation, chances are you wouldn’t qualify for a community college degree.”
Was that math expression obviously subject to high-school algebra techniques for factoring and simplification? Yes. Was it even easier to simplify by typing it into Wolfram Alpha? Absolutely. Would a person’s being completely dependent on the second option be a problem? Discuss.
Learning from Sergeant Pepper
To return to our main topic, music and math have thus raised the first bullet point of what I call “The Sergeant Pepper Agenda”: What does technology change make possible? The delivery of that album illuminated (and even relocated) the boundaries of analog technology, requiring laborious planning and meticulous rehearsal so as to avoid the cumulative degradations of multiple passes through imperfect edits and mixings.
Even a year or two earlier, perhaps, it might not have worked at all – but once shown to be possible, the novel became the norm. “The studio artifice that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ daringly flaunted has long since become commonplace,” noted the New York Times in its 50th-anniversary commentary on the album earlier this year.
That’s only the first of the agenda’s three points, though, because merely enabling change is not enough: the initial New York Times review, in 1967, of the Beatles’ breakthrough album sniffed that “substituting the studio conservatory for an audience makes their new album a monologue.” Rather than seeing the creation of a new art form, observers in the moment were just as likely to see loss rather than gain.
Again, this is not confined to the domain of music recording: we saw the same glass-somewhat-emptied reaction during the first emergence of “cloud computing,” which was pretty much an unknown phrase before October 2007 (as far as Google Trends can tell). Ten years ago, people were far more concerned about the performance overheads of virtualization and resource sharing, than they were excited about the resource elasticity and the improved software reliability achieved by a move to multi-tenancy and metadata-based configurability.
The second point of the Sergeant Pepper Agenda, therefore, calls for us to look at a situation from one of two perspectives depending on what we’re trying to do: we must ask either What does people’s behavior change make necessary? or What behavior changes must come to be seen as acceptable? We see the first when talking about the demands of the smartphone-enabled, 24-hour-connected customer; we see the second when talking about the shift of perspective on information security that we have seen in the past ten years, from “cloud seems so risky” to “do-it-yourself information security seems so reckless“.
Both of those versions of the second point lead necessarily to the third: What leadership challenges must be met to make these things work? It’s not enough to unleash a barrage of buzzwords upon those who must get things done, and then withdraw with a satisfied “That’s enough leadership. Now the rest of you need to do something”. Dilbert is supposed to be satirical, not instructional.
To unpack the glittering generality of “digital transformation” into specific charters for individual teams, I’ve previously proposed the acronym CAST for Connected, Aware, Smart, and Trusted: the first being an engineering accomplishment, the second a business unit behavior, the third an R&D initiative, the last a CEO and C-suite mandate to declare as a policy and demonstrate as a reality.
The Sergeant Pepper Transformation Agenda, then, is to notice what has become newly possible through technology change; to recognize that possibilities only turn into realities when people want that to happen; and to accept the challenge of leading people toward the realities that work the best for the most. It’s not always glamourous work: we’re fixing the holes where the rain gets in, and only in a studio do people get to do it over until they get it right; only in a Beatles lyric can we say that “a splendid time is guaranteed for all.”
Our audience is live, and they’re quickly filling the hall: let’s not disappoint them.
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