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Flip-flop, tram-tram 5 June 2009

Posted by cooperatoby in Uncategorized.
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Talking of solipsism, Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling The Tipping Point came up in conversation (in the amazingly-named Tram-Tram restaurant in Barcelona) at the weekend, and I cannot forebear from rehearsing my criticism of it. It’s a fascinating book because it proves its own point – but by underhand means.

The book is full of fascinating content – most of which entirely fails to prove its central contention. It’s the book itself that proves the point, in a recursive way. The point being that if you get it right you can manufacture a message and create a vogue. His has three aspects: the message must be ‘sticky’, the messenger must be a ‘communicator’ and the environment must be supportive in some unspecific way. So far, so uncontroversial. But let’s examine some of the wondrous pieces of evidence Gladwell adduces:

• First, the very idea of a ‘tipping point’. He describes out the case of a wave of flu invading New York from Canada, saying that if the infectiveness rate increases just fractionally, instantly the whole city will come down with an epidemic. He relegates the maths to an endnote, but get out your calculator and run a few simulations and you will see that it is not true. There is no magic figure at which the whole population suddenly becomes infected. It’s a gradual, asymptotic thing. Now there are phenomena that have binary states, where positive feedback causes a sudden reversal – an electronic ‘flip-flop’ circuit for instance – but a flu epidemic is not one of them.

• Then there’s the theory that your friendship network depends on knowing just a few natural born ‘communicators’. I tried this out myself as Gladwell suggests, drawing a tree diagram of my 40 ‘best’ friends and seeing how I came to know them. The answer depends on a factor Gladwell totally ignores – the passage of time. I trace 33 of the 40 (82%) back to my first serious girlfriend, Melinda. Why? Not in fact because she is an exceptionally connected person but because over the last 4 decades my friendship ‘tree’ has grown branches from our group of friends at that time. Maybe I’m unusually tenacious of my friends, but I think the argument is wrong. I’m sure he’s right that the sort of person you need to help solve a problem is one whose connections cross boundaries – who brings new links and disruption into your network. But you have calming friends too, the sort of people you ‘hang out’ with and chew these new ideas over with. This is nothing other than the two varieties of social capital, bridging and bonding. Whilst it does seem true, as network theory shows, that there are just a few key links that make a network work (6 degrees etc.), this particular illustration is not up to the job of demonstrating it.

• Nor does the example of the phone book ‘name test’ hold up at all – the author quite forgets that Manhattan has a highly eccentric distribution of surnames. And I’m not just being defensive because I scored 6!

• Even the one thing I did think he was right about – that you never take a big purchasing decision without asking someone you know – was disproved in a trice by my friend Simon. It may work for computers, cars and holidays, but not for the biggest purchase of all, houses. These we buy by talking to someone we don’t know. The one person who can give a personal testimony, the vendor, has interests directly opposed to ours!

The book shares some of that difficult-to-describe quality that people evoke when they say it’s like a elephant being felt by several blindfolded people – each person knows a part of it but no one can describe the whole. Gladwell’s engaging examples have an intuitive ring of truth, but on deeper investigation, many prove to be illusions.

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