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The gang at Language Log provides a thorough overview of the meaning and function of the vuvuzela, the device that provided the soundtrack to the just-concluded Confederations Cup soccer tournament in South Africa (the result in yesterday’s final:  Brazil 3 – USA 2, more or less as I predicted last week).  It leads me to a speculative question about environment and creativity.

Count me among those who hated the constant buzzing supplied by vuvuzela users, especially when Brazil was playing.  I may not always root for Brazil, but I love the drumming that Brazil supporters supply, and I love to watch the Brazilian players occasionally match the rhythm of their play to the rhythms coming from the stands.

But my opinion doesn’t count for much.  Let’s ask the players.  Did the buzzing bother them?  How about the Americans?

And the deafening blare of the vuvuzelas that some teams at the Confederation Cup have complained about?  The Americans don’t mind them one bit.

“I think we’ve shown a spirit and competitiveness that people love, and that’s infectious for people,” [Landon] Donovan said. “We expect the same for tomorrow night, too, that people will be out there wanting to see us do well, and we thrive off that.”

[From MSN]  Most of the American players, in fact, played tremendously yesterday; at least until the very end of the match, their mental discipline was extraordinary.

That raises the curious possibility that the unusual environmental circumstances — not only the novelty of playing in South Africa, but also the novelty of playing in stadia where the crowd isn’t really hostile but where the crowd’s actions provide what might be called a “sharpened” sense of place — actually helped the Americans, once they got a bit acclimated to what was going on.  It’s probably impossible to separate the vuvuzelas from all of the other distinctive attributes of high-profile games against Brazil and Spain.  But the team seemed to play a bit above itself in the final.  My memory of the USA’s 1994 Independence Day match against Brazil at Stanford is similar:  That day, before more than 80,000 fans –many of whom were Americans dressed in Brazilian yellow, dancing to the drums, happily and loudly supporting both teams –  the USA again played above itself for most of the day, forcing the Brazilians to earn only one goal in a 1-0 defeat.  (USA fans will remember that the team lost something more important that day – Tab Ramos.)

A question worth considering, then, is whether there is a way to identify an “optimal” degree of environmental “richness” in order to produce better/best production, innovation, and/or creativity — in this case, the collective performance of a soccer team.  “Richness” is a mushy, imprecise word; I’m groping toward something that lies between a completely benign environment and a completely and unambiguously hostile.  For the US Men’s National Soccer Team, let’s say that the two ends of the continuum are  any national team venue pre-1994 and Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.  The vuvuzela-powered South African stadia might be a “just right” environmental middle ground.

And to shift gears abruptly and dramatically:  For the modern entertainment industry, we might suppose that the two ends of the continuum are the pre-VCR broadcast-television-broadcast-radio-and-LP era (the 1960s and 1970s) and the Wild West Internet of the late 1990s.  Is it possible that the “governed” Internet that has been emerging over the last 10 years is actually good — net — for innovation and creativity? 

Of course, there are crucial distributional consequences to consider.  Amateur creators might still be like the US Men’s National Team:  performing much, much better than ever — but still losing to traditional global powers.