Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Disruptive Technology is the Death Knell for Mesoamerican theory

In the last few weeks, I've heard the death knell for the Mesoamerican theory ringing loudly.

(Obviously, this is a metaphor; in a literal sense, a death knell is the ringing of a bell to announce a death. I clarify this because metaphors have been popping up lately in surprising places.)

I recognized the death knell when I read Matt Roper's review yesterday, which includes this claim: "The Lost City of Zarahemla: From Iowa to Guatemala and Back Again is the latest manifestation of an ideological movement currently popular on the periphery of Mormon culture." (emphasis added) That sounded like a nice description of disruptive technology (another metaphor).

Here's an explanation of disruptive technology:

"Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology... Christensen separates new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive technology lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience, and may not yet have a proven practical application. (Such was the case with Alexander Graham Bell's "electrical speech machine," which we now call the telephone.)

"In his book, Christensen points out that large corporations are designed to work with sustaining technologies. They excel at knowing their market, staying close to their customers, and having a mechanism in place to develop existing technology. Conversely, they have trouble capitalizing on the potential efficiencies, cost-savings, or new marketing opportunities created by low-margin disruptive technologies. Using real-world examples to illustrate his point, Christensen demonstrates how it is not unusual for a big corporation to dismiss the value of a disruptive technology because it does not reinforce current company goals, only to be blindsided as the technology matures, gains a larger audience and market share and threatens the status quo."

Here are a few examples of disruptive technologies: 
  • The personal computer (PC) displaced the typewriter and forever changed the way we work and communicate.
  • The Windows operating system's combination of affordability and a user-friendly interface was instrumental in the rapid development of the personal computing industry in the 1990s. Personal computing disrupted the television industry, as well as a great number of other activities. 
  • Email transformed the way we communicating, largely displacing letter-writing and disrupting the postal and greeting card industries. 
  • Cell phones made it possible for people to call us anywhere and disrupted the telecom industry.
  • The laptop computer and mobile computing made a mobile workforce possible and made it possible for people to connect to corporate networks and collaborate from anywhere. In many organizations, laptops replaced desktops. 
  • Smartphones largely replaced cell phones and PDAs and, because of the available apps, also disrupted: pocket cameras, MP3 players, calculators and GPS devices, among many other possibilities. For some mobile users, smartphones often replace laptops. Others prefer a tablet.
  • Cloud computing has been a hugely disruptive technology in the business world, displacing many resources that would conventionally have been located in-house or provided as a traditionally hosted service. 
  • Social networking has had a major impact on the way we communicate and -- especially for personal use -- disrupting telephone, email, instant messaging and event planning.

The parallels are apparent.

The Mesoamerican theory has been the established technology for decades. Its proponents consist of a citation cartel comprised of around a dozen people who confirm one another's biases, generally through the Interpreter, BMAF, and FairMormon. They repeat the same tired arguments, ignore criticism, and fight any "novel" approaches that threaten their hegemony.

And yet, thanks to the Internet, the Joseph Smith Papers, and social media, the theory is imploding. Here are some indicia.

1. The Maxwell Institute has effectively abandoned the Mesoamerican theory. It has published nothing on it since Mormon's Codex, a book that looks impressive but sets out criteria, or filters, that the Mesoamerican theory doesn't meet. See this for an overview.

2. The Interpreter, the online journal that is the successor of FARMS (which the Maxwell Institute absorbed and then dissolved) has a handful of die-hard Mesoamericanists who continue to publish in this area, but their work is both increasingly defensive and increasingly indefensible. I've reviewed the two latest examples here: Roper and Gardner.

3. The latest FAIR conference barely touched on the topic, except for Brant Gardner's presentation about his book, Traditions of the Fathers. It was an excellent presentation and it's an excellent book, but not because it supports the Mesoamerican theory. Instead, the book adds a new layer of "Sorenson translation" complexity about Mayan culture that, IMO veers even further from the actual text. One example is here. The most important thing to come out of the FAIR conference was Gardner's point: "Please don't be sad about good scholarship." In that sense, the death knell is nothing to be sad about.

4. On key issues, the Mesoamerican position is crumbling.

 - Fit. One pillar of the Mesoamerican theory is supposed to be that it fits the text. But in Traditions of the Fathers, Gardner asserts that the sea north and the sea south mentioned in the text are purely metaphorical; i.e., they don't exist. If the only way you can fit the geography to the text is to claim that where the geography doesn't fit, the text is metaphorical, then I'd say you don't have a fit.

- Cumorah: Whitmer. Another pillar of the Mesoamerican theory is that the New York Cumorah is not the Book of Mormon Cumorah, which is supposedly in Mesoamerica somewhere. The idea that the New York Cumorah was the scene of the final battles developed as a tradition among early Saints who just assumed the hill where Joseph found the plates was the hill Cumorah. True, David Whitmer said he learned the name Cumorah from a heavenly being who was traveling toward the New York hill, but, according to the Mesoamericans, he was an old man whose memory was unreliable. But now Roper has claimed that Whitmer's memory, five years after he related the Cumorah account, was excellent and reliable. When the Mesoamericanists can't get their story straight even on one of their pillars, the pillar is cracking.

- Cumorah: Cowdery. With input from Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to W.W. Phelps that contained a detailed description of the final battles in the valley west of the New York Hill Cumorah. It was published in the Messenger and Advocate in Kirtland. A few months later, Joseph Smith directed his scribes to copy Cowdery's letter into his journal as his personal story. (This is in the same book that contains what is now Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price.) A few months after that, the Savior, Moses, Elias, and Elijah appeared to Joseph and Oliver in the Kirtland temple. Later, Joseph Smith gave Benjamin Winchester express permission to republish the letters in the Gospel Reflector. About the same time, Joseph's brother Don Carlos republished the letters in the Times and Seasons. In 1844 a pamphlet containing the letters was published in England. The only response the Mesoamericanists give to this is that Cowdery was acting alone and speculating--and he was wrong. To the extent Joseph helped him write the letter, he, too, was speculating--and was wrong. Fewer and fewer believers accept that explanation.

- Premise. A third pillar of the Mesoamerican theory is that Joseph Smith wrote or approved of the 1842 Times and Seasons articles that placed Zarahemla in Quirigua, showing he changed his mind about Book of Mormon geography toward the end of his life, leaning toward Mesoamerica. However, the historical and stylometric evidence shows Joseph couldn't have written the articles, and so far not a single document has been found directly linking Joseph Smith to any Mesoamerican setting.

- Popular elements. Mesoamerican theory has been popular because it involves exotic locations and has the appearance of scholarly authentication of the Book of Mormon. However, once-popular elements such as Quetzalcoatl and the Lehi "Tree of Life stone," or Izapa Stela 5, have been shown even by Mesoamericanists to have nothing to do with the Book of Mormon. Ordinary believers in the Mesoamerican theory are sad to hear this, which is what prompted Gardner's "Don't be sad about good scholarship" comment.

- Viable alternative. When believing LDS people learn about a viable setting in North America as an alternative to the problematic setting in Mesoamerica, many readily prefer the North American setting. Many believing LDS people don't realize that the Mesoamerican theory excludes the New York Cumorah as a Book of Mormon site. When this is explained to them, they become skeptical of Mesoamerica, not New York.

Those are enough examples to make the point.

One phrase in Roper's article caught my attention: "The periphery of Mormon culture." I attended the FAIR MORMON conference a few weeks ago. They had one meeting hall, one presentation at a time, over two days, for a total of 14 presentations. They have once conference per year. I didn't take a head count, but let's say there were 750 people there. That less than a quarter of the number of people who attended the FIRM Foundation conference last April. At that conference, there were multiple speakers every hour. It went over 3 days. They hold these twice a year.

So I'm wondering, what "periphery" is Roper referring to?

Disruptive technology always starts on the periphery. Sometimes it replaces the old technology quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. It remains to be seen how long it will take for the Mesoamerican theory to disappear completely. Given the dogmatism of its adherents, it may come back from the dead a few times. But you can hear the ringing if you listen carefully.

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