The Tipping Point, perspective

From: Wade T.Smith (
Date: Sat Feb 02 2002 - 23:36:39 GMT

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    Here is a quick little excerpt from an interview with Malcolm Gladwell,
    the author of The Tipping Point. Joe wants me to ask him if
    consciousness is a godelian phenomenon, and I wondered if he would know
    what I was asking, so, in the event I have to explain Deesian emergence
    in some cogent and swift way amidst an audience of book lovers,
    scientists, newage loonies, Cambridge street persons, academic
    intelligentsia, and whatever else sort of human refuse decides to come
    and listen to Gladwell along with me on Thursday this week, I want Joe
    to actually provide me with the full text of his question....

    Anyway, looking at this exchange below, I will not be trying to couch it
    in memetic terms, since he doesn't much like the word, and uses
    'epidemic' and 'virus' much more often.

    - Wade


    5.  Are you talking about the idea of memes, that has become so popular
    in academic circles recently?

    It's very similar. A meme is a idea that behaves like a virus--that
    moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects. I
    must say, though, that I don't much like that term. The thing that
    bothers me about the discussion of memes is that no one ever tries to
    define exactly what they are, and what makes a meme so contagious. I
    mean, you can put a virus under a microscope and point to all the genes
    on its surface that are responsible for making it so dangerous. So what
    happens when you look at an infectious idea under a microscope? I have a
    chapter where I try to do that. I use the example of children's
    television shows like Sesame Street and the new Nickelodeon program
    called Blues Clues. Both those are examples of shows that started
    learning epidemics in preschoolers, that turned kids onto reading and
    "infected" them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as
    purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and
    Frank Oz. But the truth is that it is carefully and painstaking
    engineered, down to the smallest details. There's a wonderful story, in
    fact, about the particular scientific reason for the creation of Big
    Bird. It's very funny. But I won't spoil it for you.

    6.  How would you classify The Tipping Point? Is it a science book?

    I like to think of it as an intellectual adventure story. It draws from
    psychology and sociology and epidemiology, and uses examples from the
    worlds of business and education and fashion and media. If I had to draw
    an analogy to another book, I'd say it was like Daniel Goleman's
    Emotional Intelligence, in the sense that it takes theories and ideas
    from the social sciences and shows how they can have real relevance to
    our lives. There's a whole section of the book devoted to explaining the
    phenomenon of word of mouth, for example. I think that word of mouth is
    something created by three very rare and special psychological types,
    whom I call Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. I profile three people who
    I think embody those types, and then I use the example of Paul Revere
    and his midnight ride to point out the subtle characteristics of this
    kind of social epidemic. So just in that chapter there is a little bit
    of sociology, a little of psychology and a little bit of history, all in
    aid of explaining a very common but mysterious phenomenon that we deal
    with every day. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm not sure that this
    book fits into any one category. That's why I call it an adventure
    story. I think it will appeal to anyone who wants to understand the
    world around them in a different way. I think it can give the reader an
    advantage--a new set of tools. Of course, I also think they'll be in for
    a very fun ride.

    7.  What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

    One of the things I'd like to do is to show people how to start
    "positive" epidemics of their own. The virtue of an epidemic, after all,
    is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can
    spread very, very quickly. That makes it something of obvious and
    enormous interest to everyone from educators trying to reach students,
    to businesses trying to spread the word about their product, or for that
    matter to anyone who's trying to create a change with limited resources.
    The book has a number of case studies of people who have successfully
    started epidemics--an advertising agency, for example, and a breast
    cancer activist. I think they are really fascinating. I also take a
    pressing social issue, teenage smoking, and break it down and analyze
    what an epidemic approach to solving that problem would look like. The
    point is that by the end of the book I think the reader will have a
    clear idea of what starting an epidemic actually takes. This is not an
    abstract, academic book. It's very practical. And it's very hopeful.
    It's brain software.

    Beyond that, I think that The Tipping Point is a way of making sense of
    the world, because I'm not sure that the world always makes as much
    sense to us as we would hope. I spent a great deal of time in the book
    talking about the way our minds work--and the peculiar and sometimes
    problematic ways in which our brains process information. Our
    intuitions, as humans, aren't always very good. Changes that happen
    really suddenly, on the strength of the most minor of input, can be
    deeply confusing. People who understand The Tipping Point, I think, have
    a way of decoding the world around them.

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