Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympic fever

No, not a new disease. But it might as well be. It is just as debilitating to be glued to the TV at every opportunity as being bed-bound with a sickness, but a lot more fun. I watched the opening ceremony last night and was truly amazing at the seemless integration of human innovation and technological mastery. The coordination of the performers was unbelievable, especially the multiple groups of 2008 artists who drummed, danced, and tai-chi-ed like syncytia across the floors, the props and through the air.
As the history of China unfolded in the performances I was reminded of the wisdom of the East. At a conference in Singapore a few years ago, a speaker asked the audience a question: Which of the following are the odd ones out: cow, grass chicken? The audience was divided, along geographical lines it seemed. The Westerner agreed the grass is odd man because it is not an animal. The Eastern folks were certain it was the chicken because the cow eat the grass, leaving the chicken out in the cold. Who was right? Well, both. If you think in categories as we tend to in the West, then the grass is odd. For Easterners who believe everything is connected, then the chicken loses. The fundamental disconnect between two diametrically opposed ways of thinking in this simple but profound example lies at the heart of current contentions around communications, medicine, science and computing. It is becoming more clear that the East is right--everything is connected, so what do we do about our heavy reliance on taxonomic thinking and uber-reductionism in the West? This is the big problem of our age and it is up to those who can see both sides to bridge the divide.
Like the Beijing opening ceremony, there will have to be choices such as not using technology just because we can (there were several elements of the performances that could have been easily driven by technology but where people were used instead). A hi-tech show would have been more flawless, but the real awe for me, was inspired by the trade off of precision for heart. Knowing the practice, the team work and the pride that went must have gone into those performances made them special in a way pure technology could not.
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