Technology and Society

Book Reviews
Home
What's New
Privacy & Individual Rights
Commerce, Security, & the Law
Net Culture, Art, & Literature
International Affairs & National Security
Ethics, Rhetoric, & Metaphysics
Science Fiction

Other Resources
News
Publishers
Other Book Review Sites
Letters
Contact
Copyright

Title: The Tipping Point
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Back Bay
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0316346624
Pages: 301
Price: $15.00
Rating: 60%

Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has a way with words. He also has a way with ideas, and in this book posits an interesting concept: that major changes occur when things reach a "tipping point" (or "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point"). This idea is similar to that of the "paradigm shift", which is generally applied to science and our understanding of the world, but Gladwell attempts to show how it affects more mundane things: the sale of Hush Puppies shoes, epidemics, or the fall of crime in New York. 

The first example in the book - that of how Hush Puppies went from being a moribund brand, sold only to the un-hip, to a hugely successful national brand, thanks to a handful of downtown New York trendsetters - is a prime example of how such shifts can occur. A group of "opinion makers" started wearing these shoes; others saw them and copied the style, with people even driving to out-of-the-way places to buy up stocks of Hush Puppies. Then a few fashion designers used them on the walkway, and visibility reached the "tipping point". The brand then experienced a renewal that, to this day, astounds even those in the company, who had been ready to throw in the towel. 

But Gladwell then strays from this concept, talking about Paul Revere's famous ride to warn patriots that "the British are coming". Gladwell says that this event "is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic." But this doesn't fit in his other descriptions of "tipping points". After all, Revere's ride was a single incident - albeit an important one - but not one where anything "tipped". He alerted lots of people, in part because he knew them and was known, but there was no accumulation effect that caused this "ride" to have its famous results. 

Gladwell should also talk about what I'll call the "dipping point", that point in a book when the reader starts paying less attention because of information overload. For me, this started on page 112, when Gladwell had already spent far too many pages trying to convince me that "stickiness" was a key factor in the success of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues. Stickiness seems to be that indescribable, yet analyzable, factor that keeps you attention "stuck" on something. In this case, it is what keeps pre-schoolers glued to the TV screen. But this seems to have little to do with any "tipping point"; sure, it may attract and hold people, and contribute to the popularity of these shows, but I dipped as Gladwell stretched this example out over too many pages. 

The problem is that when Gladwell talks about people, he is sticky; when he talks about technology and processes, he dips. Chapter 2, The Law of the Few, talks about "connectors, mavens and salesmen", or three types of people who help spread ideas. Gladwell is in awe of all these people, and his prose is energetic. Yet when he describes the focus groups of pre-schoolers watching Sesame Street, it just gets turgid. 

Gladwell approaches the dramatic fall in crime in New York as a "tipping point", but tries to discount every meta-change that helped drop the crime rate: increased police presence, tougher sentencing, and, above all, a vibrant economy that lowered unemployment drastically among the underclass, those who commit crimes. He prefers to believe in some mystical force that "tipped" everyone from being mean to being nice. He claims that the first element that caused the tip was a crackdown on graffiti on subway cars: graffiti was cleaned off subway cars, showing the taggers that they would no longer be tolerated. Then it was a crackdown on fare-beating; stopping people from cheating obviously gave them new moral values. He loses me when, talking about the 1984 incident when Bernard Goetz shot four youths who were harassing him on a subway train, he claims this: "...the showdown on the subway between Bernie Goetz and those four youths had very little to do, in the end, with the tangled psychological pathology of Goetz, and very little as well to do with the background and poverty of the four youths who accosted him, and everything to do with the message sent by the graffiti on the walls and the disorder at the turnstiles." This after describing how Goetz, after a stern upbringing and being mugged and injured, got a gun, with clear plans to become a vigilante. This, after describing how the four youths had all been previously arrested for assault, and how at least two of them were on drugs at the time. But Gladwell finds nothing more than graffiti and turnstile-jumping to be the cause. Balderdash! Goetz was mad as hell, and was not going to take it any more. 

It's interesting how a tipping point can work in reverse. When an author writes well, he draws you into his stories, but his conclusions can be too ludicrous to accept. When the reader reaches that point, the BS detector goes on, and one starts noticing other stretches in logic, other concepts that just don't fit. He bandies around facts, ideas, studies and theories, none of which fit together neatly. But if you read the book enjoying the writing (Gladwell is a consummate journalist), you'll simply accept his ideas without question. Sort of the "power of context" that he describes in chapter 3, where he says that the environment where we do something is as important as what we do. 

The strong points of this book are many: an interesting idea, one that catches your mind; excellent writing; and a true desire, on the part of the author, to communicate with the reader. But the weak points are legion, and are an example of the current trend in "best-selling non-fiction books": a wealth of statistics, concepts and ideas, tossed about liberally, as if they are all being thrown against the wall to see which ones stick. There are so many, that the reader loses track, and actually loses sight of the initial idea behind the book. Gladwell is constantly leaning on monkeys, cognitive science, psychological experiments, the organizational structure of companies, and obscure concepts, in the hope that, together, they coalesce into something that inspires the reader to "buy" his idea. But I got lost in the muddle of disparate ideas that Gladwell used to try and ensure that some of them "stick".  

In the end, I finished this book without being convinced by Gladwell's arguments. I might have been convinced had he been more focused, instead of flitting from one idea to another, quoting studies and statistics. Above all, I wasn't sold by his argument; I saw it as a "dipping point" because of the way he presented it. Other readers may feel differently, but to me this book is incomplete, overburdened by factoids, and strays too much from its otherwise interesting premise.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.