AN AUTUMN CORNUCOPIA by Michael S. Malone
Random thoughts on a rainy day. What do World War II, Apple v. Microsoft and the Republic of Armenia have in common? Recently, they’ve all been reminders that technology — and the people who create it — are always moving on, and forever upending the status quo.
We’ve all grown so jaded about technological change, and the miracles big and small it brings, that’s it pretty rare these days that something comes along that actually makes us sit up in amazement.
But this week, I had that experience while watching, of all things, the History Channel. I don’t know what’s lately gotten into this cable channel – just a few years ago derided as the ‘Nazi Channel’ for its endless run of cheap war documentaries – but it is doing some amazing, landmark, work. Coming up is “The Beatles On Record”, which promises to be both terrific and timely. And next Spring will bring “America: The Story of Us.”
But both will have a tough time improving on this week’s extraordinary five night, ten hour production of “WWII in HD”. This series is the product of two years work by producer Frederic Lumiere (whose name sounds like an homage to the pioneers of cinema) and his team, who combed the world for more than two years in search of 1940s footage, some of it never publically seen before, then used state-of-the-art digital tools to clean it up and present it in HD. [Coincidentally, the Smithsonian Channel is showing an equally stunning WWII documentary series at the same time – though its technical achievement is not quite as great.]
The footage itself is stunning, not least if you’ve spent your entire life watching footage from the War and assuming that you’ve seen just about every clip four times. In some episodes of “WWII in HD” it seems that at least three-quarters of the footage is seeing the light of day for the first time in sixty years. And some of that footage is horribly gory – which may explain why even the official copies have been hidden away for so long.
But the glory of this series is not just the footage, or the music score (which, though not original, is the best I’ve heard for such a production since “Victory at Sea”), but the incredible technical achievement of putting these old –and I’m sure delicate and brittle – films, most of them in color, into high definition digital video.
The result is mind-boggling. And disorienting: at first the clarity of the imagery is so good that it doesn’t seem real, but rather like out-takes of a really high-budget war film. This, of course, is a legacy of how we’ve always been taught to see that war: black-and-white footage is authentic, color footage is staged. But once you get past that perceptual hurdle – for me it was in hour three – something extraordinary happens: In a strange way, for the first time World War II seems real.
What I mean by that is the old, grainy black-and-white footage enabled us to psychologically distance ourselves from the events unfolding before us. Sure, we knew it actually happened, and that those were real people in those images – but it seemed a different reality, filled with folks not like us at all. “WWII in HD” erases that distance. Suddenly the faces on those soldiers waiting on the decks of transport ships are not only visible, but indistinguishable from the clerk at Starbucks or the Fed Ex driver. The shattered bodies on the volcanic sand of Iwo Jima aren’t just misshapen forms and piles of torn clothing, but gaping wounds, smeared blood and swollen faces. And if that little shivering child on Saipan always broke your heart, it explodes it now. These aren’t just soldiers and civilians fighting and dying in another age . . .they are here and now.
As you might imagine, if you know my family history, the episodes on the 8th Air Force were of particular interest to me. I never forget that my sons and I are only in this world because of two men: Paul Campbell, pilot of the B-17 ‘Badland Bat’ on which my father was bombardier; and James H. Howard, the P-51 ace and Medal of Honor winner, who single-handedly fought off 20 German fighters and saved the 401st Bomb Group. But the documentary library of 8th Air Force footage is, with the exception of “Memphis Belle”, both slim and, not surprising, given the conditions in which they were filmed, murky and jerky.
But watching “WWII in HD” I found myself, for the first time, searching faces for a glimpse of my 23 year-old father, scanning wing markings for the familiar Triangle S, even looking for my dad’s name on mission blackboards. I was immersed in the Second World War in a way I had never been before.
When we think of the power of technology, it is usually its ability to bring us something brand new that we’ve never seen before. But sometimes, and no less important, technology – as it has with “WWII in HD” — performs the miracle of taking something familiar and bring it back to life.
I never thought I’d see the day, but are Microsoft’s TV commercials actually eclipsing Apple’s these days?
First it was the latest installment of the once-clever, but now-tiresome, series of PC versus Mac series – you know, the one with the cool, but smarmy, Mac guy and the hapless, goofy PC nerd? After the first couple years, I found myself cheering for the PC character if only out of the natural human urge to root for the Underdog.
But in the latest segment, Mr. PC doesn’t need my pity. I’m sure you’ve seen it: PC announces that the new Windows 7 is trouble free and fixes all of the problems earlier versions of Windows. He then morphs back through time, representing each of those earlier generations of Windows by appearing in the clothing style of the era, always making the same claim.
Now, let’s all agree that the suck factor in Windows has always been greater than in the Apple OS, in some generations more than others – trust me, I’m writing this on Vista. That said, for a company that has been winning the computer war for nearly a decade now, doesn’t Apple seem awfully small and petty in this ad? Is it so worried about Windows that it is reduced to asking the audience to accept the logic that, despite all of the good recent reviews the new operating system has earned, it can’t possibly be any good precisely because it is Windows? Is Apple really saying – reinforcing the smug arrogance that is the company’s least appealing trait – that Windows 7 just can’t be any good because it’s not Apple? Ultimately, just who is this ad targeted at?
Suddenly Mr. PC is looking a whole lot more clever and cool and Mr. Mac.
And that’s just the beginning. I actually find myself enjoying the new ad campaign in which everyday people take personal credit for convincing Microsoft to make improvements in Windows 7. What I like about the ads are not only that they are populated with real, everyday-looking, folks – but in a clever touch, as these people recount their epiphanies the flashbacks are performed by much better-looking professional actors. It’s a hilarious, and mildly touching, exposition on the power of human self-delusion – and still manages to pitch Windows 7 in the process.
Apple – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – could take a lesson from Microsoft. As for Microsoft: I took a lot of grief five years ago when I suggested that the software giant had lost its edge and would never again be the Evil Empire. I think time has proven me accurate . . .but even maturing companies can still be clever. And Microsoft has done just that.
Next week is the annual Silicon Valley comes to Oxford gathering, and this one – despite the economy – is expected to be even bigger than ever.
SVCO was designed to bring some of the magic of Valley entrepreneurship to the hidebound old England . . .but in the last couple years the excitement has increasingly flowed in the other direction. While here in Silicon Valley – and in the rest of the U.S. – entrepreneurship is buckling under one assault after another by the White House, Congress and federal and local regulators, in the UK and other parts of the world it has begun to flower.
For example, at Oxford, the undergraduate Entrepreneur’s Club, a handful of kids five years ago now has nearly ten thousand members, making it the largest club on campus. At the same time, Oxford’s MBA program, out of Said Business School, is now almost totally dedicated to commercial and social entrepreneurship – and has become a magnet for grad students all over the world who dream of starting their own companies. Nine years ago, when I first asked the evening gathering of students and local executives how many had already, or were planning, start their own companies. Ten percent raised their hands. These days it’s 80 percent.
Oxford is rapidly becoming, intellectually at least, the entrepreneurial heart of Europe. But it isn’t alone: Cambridge now offers its own imitation event, and others are following.
Meanwhile, I recently found myself at a ceremony announcing the creation of the President of the Republic of Armenia’s Award for IT Excellence – and its inaugural award to Intel’s Craig Barrett. This medal has an unusual history . . .not least because it was devised by Synopsys VP Rich Goldman and me two summers ago while driving cattle up Oklahoma’s Chisholm Trail.
But that too is telling: here is an entire nation that is so committed to playing a part in the digital revolution – and creating new companies to do so – that the entire government was willing to greenlight and fast-track this program. At the conference that followed the award event, I listened as a parade of Armenian business executives, academics and government officials describe new programs to train students, reduce taxes and regulatory obstacles, build downtown technology ‘triangles’, and support the creation of new business ventures.
I used to see this kind of enthusiasm in Palo Alto, Austin and Redmond. Now I have to go to Oxford, England, Bangalore, India or even Yerevan, Armenia. This may seem a small deal now, but mark my words, it will have profound implications in the years to come.
[For a decade of Michael S. Malone’s columns on technology, society and culture, please visit www.abcnews.com.]