This story may sound like a metaphor. But it’s actually a case-in-point:
When preparing to launch the Navigation Technology Satellite 2 (NTS-2) in 1977, the NAVSTAR GPS engineering team was in a bit of a pickle. The satellite contained the first cesium atomic clocks to be sent into orbit. That highly accurate timing device would be a key component of an early Global Positioning System (GPS), the grandparent of the system your phone is using, in this instant, to determine where you are.
The pickle was this: The satellite’s extreme distance from the Earth’s surface, its speed, and the exceptional accuracy of its clocks would place the project at the edge of conventional experience and experiment. The team had to decide, before the countdown, whether two centuries of Newtonian scientific theory and practice would still be valid in this new instance, or whether a different way of knowing was required. If they made the wrong choice, their mistake would be spinning around the globe, beyond their reach, for its useful life.
Some on the team were skeptical that any adjustments were necessary. The centuries-old physics of Sir Isaac Newton demanded that gravity, distance, and speed had no effect on the flow of time, meaning a clock anywhere in space would necessarily align with a clock on earth. Some on the team were convinced that the early-20th-century revelations of Albert Einstein were essential to this moment, and that a clock in orbit would slowly drift out of time compared to a clock on earth.
The underlying question was whether a long-standing and reliable means of seeing, knowing, and being would still apply in a radically new context.
The Limits of What (and How) We Know
Every durable way of knowing the world has a useful limit. This is true for science, philosophy, business, society, politics, religion, and even arts and cultural management (which is some combination of the above). Through experience and experiment, convention and tradition, sense and reason, we humans construct useful ways of engaging the world and taking action within it. Those ways are necessarily incomplete and bound by the situations of our surroundings.
For the tried-and-true, evidence-based framework of Newtonian physics, that useful limit is breached when we move beyond conventional human experiences of speed, size, and gravity.
As my father, the retired physics professor and textbook author, explains it to me: “Newtonian physics deals with all current human speeds AND all everyday sizes AND no gravity (or gravity so small that it can be treated as one more force).” As we approach the extremes of speed, size (big or small), and gravity, the universe no longer behaves as Newton et al would predict. So we need to change the lens and language through which we see.
As physicist Werner Heisenberg framed the issue: “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is a part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning.”
I believe we are crossing, or have already crossed, the useful boundary for our shared understanding of collective effort in the arts (we tend to call this “arts management,” but even that frame is part of the problem).
Well before the pandemic and the concurrent intensity of social justice movements, our conventions, traditions, and discussions of “managing” the arts were already showing signs of disconnect and dysfunction. With the added speed, complexity, disruption, and disarray of the past 11 months, it seems almost guaranteed that many of our established ways of seeing, knowing, and doing no longer apply.
And yet here we are, preparing to relaunch our arts organizations post-pandemic. Some are confident that old conventions will still win the day. Some are attending to the new reality, and listening/learning new ways to work within it. Some are determined to reboot and reimagine organizations entirely. Others haven’t yet had time or space to breathe, let alone reconstruct what they think they know.
Still and all, ready or not, the launch is coming.
The Relativity Switch
Which leads us back to the design team for the NTS-2 and their conundrum. To resolve the impasse, they devised an elegant cheat. They built into the satellite a way to change its worldview after takeoff. NTS-2 launched with its clock configured for Sir Isaac Newton’s reality, but with a built-in “relativity switch” allowing a flip to Albert Einstein’s reality if the evidence supported it.
On June 23, 1977, the NTS-2 began its first 40 orbits around the earth in its first 20 days, assuming that time anywhere would match time everywhere. The clock signals from the satellite drifted in comparison to its earth-bound reference, as predicted by Einstein’s theories. So, on the 21st day, the team flipped the switch to accept and engage this next way of seeing time and space.
As you prepare to relaunch your arts organization over the next 12 months, how are you reimagining your work, your team, your assumptions, and even your lens and your language? If you’re relaunching essentially as you were before, what indicators and switches are you adding, in advance, for the inevitable moments when the old ways don’t work?
Easton, Roger L., James A. Buisson, and Thomas B. McCaskill. 1978. “Initial Results of the NAVSTAR GPS NTS-2 Satellite.” Naval Research Lab, Washington, DC. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA058591.
Heisenberg, Werner. 2007. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. First Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Hegarty, Christopher J., and Eric Chatre. 2008. “Evolution of the Global Navigation SatelliteSystem (GNSS).” Proceedings of the IEEE 96 (12): 1902–17. https://doi.org/10.1109/JPROC.2008.2006090.