Neal Stephenson on the Importance of Culture

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, Books, Rules of Thumb

Two excerpts from Neal Stephenson‘s “The Diamond Age” that have implications for the culture of a startup or an economic region. These are from pages 24 and 25 and outlines two real life events as a part of the back story of one of the characters in the novel, hyperlinks have been added to provide context.

During his early teens, a passenger jet made an improbable crash landing at the Sioux City airport, and Finkle-McGraw, along with several other members of his Boy Scout troop who had been hastily mobilized by their scoutmaster, was standing by the runway along with every ambulance, fireman, doctor, and nurse from a radius of several counties. The uncanny efficiency with which the locals responded to the crash was widely publicized and became the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Finkle-McGraw couldn’t understand why. They had simply done what was reasonable and humane under the circumstances; why did people from other parts of the country find this so difficult to understand?


One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood. Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles riots of the previous year provided a vivid counterexample.

Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed.

A couple of questions to ponder about your startup’s culture:

  • Is there an open and free flow of information so that teams can self-organize around problems?
  • How important is for you to be in control: do you prefer inaction to mistakes in the absence of your specific instructions?
  • Are the common high level goals clear to everyone: can individuals abandon their individual objectives and metrics to respond to unfolding situations or do they wait for instruction?

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