Malcolm Gladwell’s book _The Tipping Point_ is in many ways popular science writing at its best. The book is lucid and intelligent, and it gives concrete examples for its arguments–without being condescendingly simple-minded about those examples in the ways popular science books often are. The subject matter of the book is both fascinating and important: how the logic of epidemic contagion applies to social phenomena, often causing things to develop in ways that are nonlinear, and hence deeply counterintuitive. All in all, a worthwhile read. And yet I find myself having complex reservations about the arguments of The Tipping Point— though my problems are less with Gladwell himself, than with (I guess) the zeitgeist…
Gladwell writes about how epidemics are organized around “tipping points”–transition points, at which a very slight change can cause a virus, a behavior, or a syndrome, to move out of the state of equilibrium into one of virulent expansion. The logic applies to how the ‘flu spreads around the Northern Hemisphere every winter; but it also applies to things like how brands of shoes suddenly become popular, how crime or drug use suddenly increases or decreases several orders of magnitude, and how shows like _Sesame Street_ capture children’s attention.
Gladwell describes these processes in great detail; he also draws some unsettling conclusions from his observations. Most notably, he insists upon how much human behavior is influenced, unconsciously, by seemingly trivial surrounding circumstances–rather than by things like conscious decision, or fundamental values. I think this is the best thing in the book. Character, Gladwell writes, “isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits.” Rather, “it is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context” (163). A lot of the things we do come, not from deep inside ourselves, but from relatively superficial conditions that exist outside ourselves. This goes against our most cherished beliefs about responsibility and free will, but I am convinced it is true; and Gladwell gives good evidence for thinking so.
Why, then, do I have reservations about _The Tipping Point_? As I already said, these have more to do with the general ideological atmosphere we live in, than with Gladwell’s arguments in particular. My problem is with certain underlying assumptions, that Gladwell shares, but that aren’t unique to him.
Gladwell’s argument relies upon one variety of an assumption that is ubiquitous in our cybernetic culture. That is the belief that (mathematizable) patterns are what really matter, regardless of the substances in which those patterns are instantiated. That is to say, it’s the same software, no matter on whatv hardware it is run. The same mathematical patterns that result in the positive-feedback loop of a ‘flu epidemic, also occur in the stock market, in human social groups, in our brains, in computer networks, and so on.
There is a lot of truth in this picture, but it is not the whole truth. It relies on a dubious assumption that we really can distinguish between software and hardware, and that the latter really doesn’t matter. But we cannot always so distinguish, and different types of hardware do have different qualities, even when the digital pattern is the same. The belief that it all comes down to software, or digital patterns, is our postmodern version of Descartes’ dualism, his view of mind as “the ghost in the machine” (as Ryle, I think, called it). It’s a way of denying the pressures and the inertia of materiality, a way of thinking that the message remains the same, no matter what the medium. We should know better–not everything is digital, if only because our senses operate on analog principles. And the course of an epidemic among human brains is different from the course of an epidemic among viruses, if only because we care about individual human brains, and their possessors, in a way that we do not care about individual viruses (indeed, it is dubious that the word “individual” can even be applied to viruses).
My second, related reservation has to do with the instrumental nature of Gladwell’s argument. Most of his emphasis is on how to start, or stop, an epidemic. His examples are things like how to mount a successful advertising campaign for athletic shoes, or how to reduce teenage smoking. His exemplary figures are people like “coolhunters,” people who spot trends early so that advertisers and corporations can profit from them. My problem with this is that it seems to understand society and culture only from the point of view of how it can be manipulated. Sociology is reduced to advertising tactics. Culture is reduced to a series of fads. Such a perspective is extremely cynical, but it’s a cynicism Gladwell doesn’t admit to. While a certain cynicism about social idealizations is often a virtue, to take the consequences of such cynicism entirely at face value, without a hint of criticism of the situation thus described, is not.
I wish Gladwell had some of the ironic sense about coolhunters, for instance, that SF writers like Jim Munroe (Everyone In Silico) and William Gibson (Pattern Recognition) do. Both these novels feature coolhunters as sympathetic main characters; but both admit a certain ironic consciousness, in the minds of these characters, about what they do–they are aware that there is something appalling about appropriating all human endeavor for the ends of marketing. I wish Gladwell shared such an awareness, but there is no sign in The Tipping Point that he does.