They know the score

Two cases, separated by 150 years, about technology, missionaries, and institutional change:

The first:

In 1818 the directors of the London Missionary Society sent a mechanical clock to grace the church at its first station among the Tswana in South Africa. No ordinary clock – its hours were struck by strutting British soldiers carved of wood – it became the measure of a historical process in the making. Clearly meant to proclaim the value of time in Christian, civilized communities, the contraption had an altogether unexpected impact. For the Africans insisted that the “carved ones” were emissaries of a distant king who, with missionary connivance, would place them in a “house of bondage.” A disconsolate evangelist had eventually to “take down the fairy-looking strangers, and cut a piece off their painted bodies, to convince the affrighted natives that the objects of their alarm were only bits of coloured wood” (Moffat 1842: 339). The churchman knew, however, that the timepiece had made visible a fundamental truth. The Tswana had not been reassured by his gesture; indeed, they seem to have concluded that “the motives of the missionary were anything but disinterested.” And they were correct, of course. In the face of the clock they had caught their first glimpse of a future time, a time when their colonized world would march to quite different rhythms.

– Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1, p. xi

And the second:

The first step toward implementing the system was a pilot study, involving one specialist and two or three stocks, to determine whether a specialist could physically monitor an automatically executing trading system while simultaneously performing other activities. Because of the narrow physical dimensions of specialists’ posts, Loss enlisted the Exchange’s carpenters to mount a wooden platform on a pedestal-pipe two feet above the pilot specialist’s post, where the ATS computer screen would stand and display its prices for all to see. A brochure explaining the new system was distributed to member brokers. The Friday before the pilot study was to begin, Loss left his office for what he described as his first relaxing weekend in months. The following Monday morning, all was in readiness for the start of the pilot program. Except…

As soon as Loss walked into his twenty-third-floor office he received a phone call from the Exchange’s floor manager. “You’ve gotta come down and see this,” said the manager.

“What am I going to see?” Loss remembers asking.

“Just come down.”

Minutes later, Loss saw for himself: In a pile of sawdust on the floor near the designated specialist’s post lay his Automated Trading System equipment. Someone had used an ax or a saw to cut a semicircle through the wooden platform and disconnect it from the post.

The jagged teeth marks on the wood, Loss recalled years later, “Looked like Jaws had just been through.”

– Marshall Blume, Jeremy Siegel and Dan Rottenberg, Revolution on Wall Street, pp. 195-196

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