The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Co., 2000, 259 pgs, plus end notes and index
Review score: *** out of *****
I have been a reader of The New Yorker magazine for many years, but I'm embarrassed to say that I don't always remember who writes a given article, even when I've enjoyed it. After looking at Malcolm Gladwell's web site www.gladwell.com, I realized that I've been a fan of his writing for years. Perhaps because Gladwell is frequently published in The New Yorker, his articles have come to represent the magazine's style, so I have not noticed the byline. When The Tipping Point came out, I did not make the association between the essayist I had enjoyed in the pages of The New Yorker and the book. I thought that The Tipping Point was another fad book like Who Moved My Cheese and I ignored it.
Perhaps it is appropriate that I came to read The Tipping Point through a network of circumstance. Max Tardiveau wrote a review of Nasim Taleb's book Fooled by Randomness, which was published on slashdot.org. I had read reviews of Fooled by Randomness on Amazon.com and was put off by some of the negative comments, until I read Max's opinion. Max's review pointed me to Gladwell's article on Nassim Taleb (Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy, The New Yorker, April 22 and 29, 2002). After reading Gladwell's profile of Taleb I bought a copy of Fooled by Randomness and thought that the book was excellent. In e-mail we exchanged, Max also strongly recommended The Tipping Point.
Looking over the New Yorker articles that Malcolm Gladwell has archived on his web site, I am amazed at the range of topics he has written on. Gladwell seems to have a talent for catching issues and trends before anyone else. One of these involves one of the three major topics covered in The Tipping Point: self-organizing complex networks (although Gladwell does not use this label).
In the last few years there has been a lot written about self-organizing networks in contexts ranging from computer networks to social groups (see my review of Linked by Albert-László Barabási, 2002). Many people now believe that self-organizing networks (with a so called scale free structure) are involved in a variety of phenomena, including the spread of fashion fads and disease. The people who specialize in finding fads as they spread are sometime referred to as coolhunters. William Gibson has helped make coolhunters famous in his 2003 book Pattern Recognition. Gladwell was there first, however, in his March 17, 1997 article in The New Yorker titled The Coolhunt
Although a lot of research papers in physics and computer science journals have been written on self-organizing networks, the psychologists and sociologists where the pioneers. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell describes the work on social networks by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Milgram studied networks of acquaintance, discovering that there were people who acted like "hubs" in these networks. These individuals knew a large number of people and could be essential components in the spread of information. Gladwell writes that Paul Revere was such an individual, with a large network of social contacts. Revere's knowledge of, and membership in, a social network in colonial America was critical in raising resistance to the British. Another example of social networks in action has been made famous by the movie the Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
The second theme discussed by Gladwell in The Tipping Point involves what he calls "the stickiness factor". In "stickiness" a small change makes a big difference. It pushes a system out of equilibrium, causing cascading change. One of the most elegant examples Gladwell gives is in the spread of colds or flu. On occasion the rate of viral infection is balanced with the rate of recovery and the disease does not spread rapidly. During the Christmas shopping season in New York the density of people on the street, in the subways and in the stores increases. Now, the disease spreads a little faster, slightly faster then the recovery rate. The virus moves from equilibrium toward epidemic.
Although Gladwell does not mention this, possibly because The Tipping Point is aimed at a broad readership, systems that are governed by power laws display the behavior he describes. A small change can move the system out of equilibrium. As the system moves along the curve of the exponent of the equation that describes the system, change becomes larger and larger.
The third theme in The Tipping Point Gladwell calls context. I have never seen what Gladwell calls context described the same way anywhere else, except perhaps in chaos theory. Small changes in the environment (the context or background) can produce a major change overall. The most memorable example of this described in The Tipping Point involves the effect of visual cues on crime. Some researchers (and practitioners in police departments) believe that cleaning up graffiti, picking up trash and fixing broken windows can have a major effect on the crime rate. The visual cues in a neighborhood provide the context in which crime happens. If these cues are removed, the crime rate decreases. This is a fairly major departure from the brute force approach of more police, more arrests and more prisons which has classicly been used to fight crime.
The connection between the three themes in The Tipping Point is that small changes can make a big difference. These ideas underlie complexity science and chaos theory. Without mentioning these theoretical areas directly, Gladwell provides interesting examples of how these theories may actually act in the world around us.
I find Gladwell a better essayist than book author. There were times when I found that The Tipping Point really dragged. Many pages are devoted to the factors in children's programs, like Sesame Street, which make ideas "stick" in children's minds. Some of these factors are small and unexpected. They present interesting notions about how children learn and how childhood learning is different from adult learning. The spread of disease or ideas or fads within a social network involves cascading change. I did not see a similar process unlying Gladwell's description of the effectiveness of children's educational programming. Yes, small changes can make a big difference. But these changes may have more to do with how children learn than they do with a system where small changes cause big effects (e.g., power laws or edge of chaos behavior).
One person who read The Tipping Point mentioned that they found the book "profound and important". For me, this was not a book that "rocked my world". The discussion of the importance of context was new to me and was fascinating. However, I suspect that the importance of context in fighting crime is not without controversy. While I can definitely recommend this book, don't be afraid to skip sections when the going gets slow.
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