A brilliant lecture: The Myths of Innovation; or, how "innovation is much more about sociology than technology"

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Right now I’m researching the story of how zoom lenses were implemented in early post-war American television, and how they played more than a small part in determining how early TV looked, and how post-war TV was regarded by opinion-makers.

You’ll have to stay tuned for details of that stuff. I haven’t finished researching it yet.

Zoom lenses in early American television are part of a longer innovation story. In fact they go right to the heart of questions about how best to assess the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s (as inhabited by Altman, Penn, Mulligan, etc). What a lot of the literature says is that if you want to understand the ‘new’ Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s best look to the European cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.

This message is further concentrated when it comes to the zoom lens. European directors used them in the 1950s and 1960s, and Hollywood directors used them in the 1960s and 1970s. So Europe must have influenced Hollywood. Post zoom ergo propter zoom; case closed.

It’s true enough that you can find lots of zoom shots in the European new wave films. Rossellini is often singled out as being particularly fond of the zoom. But it’s also true that the dominant zoom lens in the USA, from the mid 1940s to the end of the 1950s, was not the European Pan-Cinor, but the American Zoomar.

And where did many of the directors of the new Hollywood come from? Many cut their teeth in television, where if they’d used a zoom lens at all, they’d most likely used a Zoomar. Those who didn’t work in television probably grew up watching it. What I’m trying to do right now is understand how best to square that circle, because clearly Rossellini doesn’t hold all of the answers.

  • The video embedded below is a lecture, by Scott Berkun, about innovation. It’s somewhat targetted at people who want to be innovators, but it’s a great start towards thinking about, studying, and researching innovation. He’s a very engaging and energetic speaker.

Today’s ephemera, tomorrow’s history

I spent some time today having a phone conversation with a man who used to work for a major zoom lens manufacturing company. He’s one of the few people from the company to still be alive, and he had some very useful memories and suggestions for further research.

The less positive, but entirely expected, news was that very little documentation from the company survives. Not because it was destroyed in a fire, or stolen, or left to rot in a damp archive, but because it was all thrown away when the company went out of business. I guess the thinking was: who would ever want to read the company’s internal communications, reports, invoices, purchase orders, letters, etc?

Coincidentally, this fortnight’s Private Eye (#1258) includes the juxtaposition that I’ve scanned and included with this post. Amid the clamour to reduce the BBC’s spending it looks like the BBC’s website will have its wings clipped and serious harm may also be done to some of the Corporation’s projects to make larger swathes of its archive – not only programme content but also metadata.

Several years ago the BBC made its Infax catalogue available online as an experiment. Infax was a detailed database of tens of thousands of BBC programmes, radio and television, listing transmission dates and times and in some cases, shotlistings. There’s a helpful description here. The experiment ended, and the catalogue disappeared. It still hasn’t returned. If the current director general’s views are taken into account, it probably never will.

What these stories have in common is a lack of foresight. In the case of the zoom lens manufacturer, one that is entirely understandable. How could they have foreseen that someone would one day be researching their company’s history and their place in the history of early American television and postwar Hollywood cinema?

The BBC’s timidity in failing to strengthen and maintaining its web prescence is quite another thing. What the Corporation is building with its websites is a detailed social record which will stand as an invaluable resource for future researchers in numerous fields. A record not just of the BBC’s output but also of the ways in which programmes and stations were marketed.

Hopefully the BBC remains a good custodian of its records and even if websites are to be taken offline, they will be retained for future researchers. But we can never be sure (see the heartbreaking destruction of ‘wiped’ programmes as recently as the 1970s). Why not spend a little extra to turn current and archived programming into tomorrow’s research resource? And why not make sure that the resource is accessible as cheaply as possible, to as many people as possible: eg, free, and online.

Today’s ephemera is tomorrow’s historical breakthrough, and while we can’t do anything about the destruction of past archives, we can help to make sure that broadcasters such as the BBC – and, while we’re at it, minor production companies and technology manufacturers – are better custodians of their own records. Funding cuts at the BBC make that a far less likely outcome.