The Tipping Point

"A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world we think we live in now," Malcolm Gladwell writes in the introduction to his best-selling new book, "The Tipping Point." The kingdom of epidemics turns out to be one we already inhabit in much of our lives. In the book, Gladwell shows how the worlds of fashion, crime, smoking and taste all follow the patterns of contagious disease. Beneath those seemingly diverse fields lies a recurring phenomenon, captured in the book's understated subtitle: little things make a big difference. In epidemics -- as in most non-linear systems -- dramatic change can happen suddenly, almost without warning. A virus circulates quietly through a population, and then something changes in the environment -- or in the virus itself -- and it explodes. That moment used to be called a "phase transition" in the language of chaos theory, but for Gladwell it's the "tipping point."

Tipping points can be terrifying things, as the influenza outbreak of 1918 demonstrated, but they are also cause for hope. For many people, Gladwell first made a name for himself as a journalist with an essay published in The New Yorker that examined the tipping point that New York City experienced in the mid-nineties, as the annual murder rate dropped suddenly from two thousand to seven hundred in the space of three years. Gladwell became one of the first public voices to explore the now-famous "broken windows" hypothesis, and The New Yorker essay became the basis for a widely-Xeroxed book proposal that landed him a lavish contract with Little Brown. Two years later, the final book has arrived, to mostly positive reviews and brisk sales on Amazon. It even appears to have "tipped" in the business community, surprising Gladwell himself, who says now he had "no idea" who the audience for the book was going to be.

I spoke with Gladwell over lunch at the JOHNSON offices in Manhattan, as a torrential rainstorm flooded the streets of Soho. He was entertaining, emphatic, and surprisingly self-deprecating for a writer with such confidence and range on the page. We talked about smoking, his generational relationship to AIDS and New York City's crime situation.

JOHNSON: So let's talk first about how "The Tipping Point" came into being. You talk about the book as a kind of biography of an idea, and I was curious about the autobiography of the idea. What first inspired you to write it?

GLADWELL: I got interested in epidemics because I was covering AIDS. I'm of the generation that came to intellectual maturity during the age of AIDS. So in a way it made perfect sense that I should be so interested in epidemics -- it grows out of that kind of generational obsession, an obession that our parents didn't share. Our parents' parents may well have had something like it, but even then, you know, the flu epidemic of 1918 didn't inspire any cultural obsession. In fact, it was immediately swept under the rug the minute after it was over. No one wrote a thing about it. Whereas AIDS, by contrast, is something that we obsessed about.

JOHNSON: And it was a cultural event as much as it was a medical one.

GLADWELL: Yes. The epidemic of 1918 was not a cultural event. So that was kind of the beginning of the book. And when I was covering HIV it just became clear that epidemics are deeply interesting things. They work in really kind of weird ways. And just from a kind of "gee whiz" standpoint, a lot of epidemiological research is just really cool. It wins the cool battle. (Laughter) And then I just, I mean, the germ of the book is simply the incredibly banal observation that things other than viruses are contagious. Right? And so why not use all this wonderful work about contagion and epidemics and apply it to non-disease epidemics. So I don't think there's any great leap that hasn't been made before, but I just wanted to play with it -- in realms and in areas where people hadn't necessarily played with it before.

JOHNSON: So do you have an ideal reader for the book?

GLADWELL: I don't. Actually, once I'd written it, I had no idea whatsoever who the audience was going to be. And when people before publication asked about where in the bookstore they ought to shelve it, I'd be completely lost. (Laughter) As it turns out, it's becoming a business book to my astonishment and delight. The earlier adopters were people in the nonprofit worlds, but it's taken a hold of marketers, which is actually interesting to me because I actually don't think of the book as being that prescriptive. I tell lots of stories, but a lot of those stories are being told in hindsight. I mean, I think you can draw some important lessons, and I can talk about things that I think marketers take out of it and should take out of it. But I never pretended that I can call epidemics in advance. People always say to me, "What do you think is going to tip next?" And I have no idea. (Laughter)

JOHNSON: Let's talk about this wild passage kind of at the end of the discussion of the New York City crime situation, where you write, "This is what I meant when I called the power of context a radical theory. Giuliani and [former New York City Police Commissioner] Bratton -- far from being conservatives, as they are commonly identified -- actually represent on the question of crime the most extreme liberal position imaginable. A position so extreme that it's almost impossible to accept." That's a pretty contrarian position.

GLADWELL: Well, the idea is that for years and years in this country -- if you go back to the way we talked about crime in the 1980s, particularly the conservative movement -- there were a series of arguments that presented the notion of criminality as a trait, as a permanent feature of certain people's lives. It was either that there was a genetic element, or there was some permanent maladaptive psychological transformation, or the William Bennett approach, which is that society, the general lack of moral cohesion in society, had essentially corrupted certain people permanently.

We've forgotten this, because our memories are so short when it comes to crime; we've forgotten that for years and years and years in the seventies and the eighties and the early nineties, we thought of crime in the urban context as a permanent condition. Because we thought of criminality as an inherent trait. And so it was thought that we could do very little about crime, except to arrest criminals and throw away the key or run to the suburbs and live in gated communities, or just to kind of barricade ourselves into our houses.

Giuliani and Bratton come along and they say, "Oh, actually the cops can do an incredible amount to bring down crime, if we just change the technical aspects of policing." And some of those changes are good and some are bad -- I'm not passing moral judgement. But if we frisk kids, if we take the graffiti off, if we reduce the quality-of-life crimes, if we use computers to deploy cops in the right way, then actually we can cut criminal behavior by seventy-five percent over three years. We don't have to do a single thing to affect the fundamental disposition, the character of the population. They're doing nothing to change the psychological circumstances or the economic circumstances or the social circumstances. They're doing nothing to improve the economies of the inner city, to improve the schools. Zero. They're not even concerned with that.

They are merely tinkering with the technical particulars of policing. And they can bring about this huge change. This city had this overnight transformation in crime that was not accompanied by any long term demographic or economic change. People from time to time bring up some demographics they think are responsible, but our population did not get younger -- that happened before the drop in crime, not during. The economies of the inner city, the neighborhoods of this city did not get better during this period -- they got worse, because it coincides with the cut in social spending. The Machiavellian genius of the study was such that you didn't even have to make the economy better, you could make the economy worse and still lower the crime rate.

It's hard to wrap your mind around this, but they proved that the crime rate had nothing to do with the inherent nature of the criminal. It had everything to do with situation, with context, with changing the context in which crime appears. Now, first of all, that is a massive repudiation of everything the conservatives said in the 1980s, and in that sense, Giuliani could not be more at odds with William Bennett, right? Because Bennett said something 180 degrees different. Point A. But point B is that they're picking up on a similar argument we made in the sixties when we said that the situation matters and that criminality wasn't inherent. We were obsessed with these environmental factors causing crimes, but we were obsessed back then with macroenvironmental factors, with, you know, poverty, racism, unemployment, drug use. Giuliani has gotten so far to the left on this, that he's even rejected all of that kind of structural environmental factors, and is just now focused on the immediate details of the environment. It is a position so out there, it's in a certain sense hilarious, but also it's scary. I mean, what I didn't get into in the book is the political implications of what Giuliani has done in New York with crime. I think we will be dealing with these implications for the next twenty-five years.

Because there was an implicit contract -- social contract, political contract -- made between the left and the right in this country for many years when it came to social programs. And that is, conservatives went along with social programs, because they were convinced there was something in it for them. And this wasn't always articulated, but I believe it was deeply felt, and it was at the core of the political behavior of the right in this country for many years. If you were a suburban politician from, you know, outside Atlanta, a hard-core Republican, you went along with all these social programs, which did not benefit your own constituency, because you believed they benefited you indirectly, in that they bought you social peace.

In other words, if you needed to create a crime-free environment for your constituency, the way you bought a crime-free environment was that you spent heavily in order to improve the macroenvironment of the inner city. Giuliani has come along and said, "You know what? You don't have to do that anymore. In fact, it's irrelevant. I can cut social spending and I can still bring down crime." The example of New York City has, I believe, permanently ruptured this incredibly useful alliance that existed between liberals and conservatives in this country. It's over.

When we go back and we have this debate, ten years from now, five years from now, when we're in the middle of a recession, and all of a sudden they're all up to people in the inner city who don't have jobs, and all of a sudden there's a huge question about how big your AFDC paycheck is, the Republicans are not going to be lined up anymore to vote for these things. They're going to say, "You know what? There's no reason for them." They're not committed to these programs on a moral basis. They're committed to these programs on a pragmatic basis, and the pragmatic basis has now been removed.

And so it is incumbent on all of those who believe in a progressive social policy, an active social policy, to come up with a new rationale.

JOHNSON: Speaking of social policy, let's move on to the smoking debate. Because that's a point in which you really are the most prescriptive, and you've got a plan there that's very persuasive.

GLADWELL: I think if you look at smoking, it becomes clear that there's very little you can do to stop the spread of the behavior. There's an internal logic to smoking that has to do with the way that teens perceive certain kinds of character traits and behaviors that are privileged -- and there's very little we can do about it. And, in fact, to the extent that the authorities have tried to convince teens that smoking isn't cool, they're just enhancing the very qualities of smoking that appeals to teens in the first place, which is that it's an act of rebellion.

The louder that we have argued in recent years about smoking, the more teens have smoked. It's been an utter and complete failure. So the question is what do you do? Well, I think you can stop this epidemic by preventing not the experimentation with smoking, but making sure that the results of that experimentation are not permanent. And there are several ways to do this. One is to find some way to interfere in the addictive process of nicotine. A nicotine addiction first of all is very clearly a threshold process. It is not the case that if you smoke a little you get addicted a little, if you smoke a lot you get addicted a lot. You smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke, and once you hit a certain amount of nicotine -- and it varies from person to person, but it's fairly consistent -- once you hit a certain amount of nicotine, then you become addicted.

It is possible to smoke at a low level and not be addicted, which is something we learned relatively recently. So given this threshold process, if we can keep the level of nicotine and cigarettes below that threshold for beginning smokers, we can prevent them during the period when they are experimenting with cigarettes from getting addicted. Now there is a problem with that -- a practical problem with doing that in the real world -- and that is that if you lower nicotine in all cigarettes, people that are already hooked will compensate by smoking more in order to get their dose. But if they smoke more, they're going to die faster. Because the dangerous thing in cigarettes, of course, is not the nicotine, but all the other components. So there's a problem in the implementation of this in the short run. Now, you may be able to do things like, you know, encourage at least the presence of some low-nicotine cigarettes, but then teens will just gravitate towards the high-nicotine ones.

But there are other things you can do. We also have now at our disposal a series of drugs, and we will get more soon, like Zyban, which are incredibly effective in diminishing the addictive consequences of nicotine in some people. In fact, Zyban plus the patch is -- the numbers are not to be believed how good they are in helping people quit smoking. And what amazes me is, and this goes back to my earlier rant, even as we have been shaking down cigarette companies for all of this money, no one has suggested that some of that money go to treatment on demand for nicotine addiction. If you're a smoker, you ought to be able to get, for free, both Zyban if you want it or the patch if you want it. I mean, all of this stuff should be available to you. After all, isn't that why we've gotten hundreds of millions of dollars out of the cigarette companies, if not to treat the people that they've enslaved? Well, you know, we're spending it on cultural centers and bridges and PCs in classrooms. Which I think is an outrage.

JOHNSON: I was also thinking about how The Tipping Point relates to the Web. I was curious how historically specific you think your model of cultural epidemics is. You go back to Paul Revere's ride and other older historical examples, but when you're talking about tastes and how tastes are formed, these things are very much dependent on the communications technologies of the day. You and I have both written about this in different places: Television probably pushes us a little bit more towards a top-down system, but presumably the Web is a technology that's pushing us in the other direction.

GLADWELL: Absolutely. Yes.

JOHNSON: Here's one quote I found that I thought related to this, even though you're not talking about the Web at all. You write: "Another study found that if you ask somebody why he's friendly with someone else, he'll say it's because he and his friends share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the two of them on their attitudes, you'll find out what they actually share is similar activities. We're friends with the people we do things with as much as we are with the people we resemble." But I wonder if the Web is one of these forces that is actually introducing you more and more to people whose tastes you share? And so whatever kind of lateral forces that are unleashed by that will only get stronger.

GLADWELL: The top-down world had the effect of reinforcing and of exaggerating this idea of loyalty, whether it's to a brand or to an activity or to an idea. Top-down is very status-quo. It locks people into relationships. The effect of the kind of relationships I'm interested in -- and of the Web -- is to fight, first and foremost, loyalty. Look at the role of mavens in the supermarket world and the world of grocery shopping, which is where we've studied this the most. These guys are not enforcing loyalty. They are the agent that breaks loyalty, because, left to your own devices, you would go to Gristede's. But the maven calls you up and says, "Did you know that there's a great deal on such and such at this store that you never go to? You ought to go there." He breaks you out of your habit. He enforces the business of the market, which says that you ought to go where the best price is or the best service is, not that you ought to go where you've always gone. Right?

Most of us don't think about that. The maven thinks for us. So the maven is a force for volatility, and he's a force against the kind of structured, status-quo relationships that have been enforced by this kind of top-down system. He's fighting the effect of advertising; he's a collaborative filter. You already know about the blockbuster. You need the maven, because he tells you about the sleeper. And the Web has the same effect, say, with all those kinds of sites that find you the best price. We're absolutely right to think that those are very transformative. They're doing what mavens do. They're institutionalizing the maven, breaking those patterns of very status-quo-oriented brand loyalty. You can also think about the role that the Web has in facilitating the role of connectors. It exaggerates the ability of certain people to be in contact with lots of other people. Which is another profoundly subversive act. Because, once again, it's granting power to people who aren't in the normal power structure.

JOHNSON: Paul Krugman wrote an interesting op-ed about your book in the Times, which critiqued some of your more optimistic hopes using the tipping point in social policy. His point was that people have looked at this kind of nonlinear behavior for the last couple of decades, and they've been able to show how little things can have large effects, with hindsight. But as a way of predicting or triggering behavior looking forward, it's much harder to do.

GLADWELL: That was an interesting critique, and it's a function of where he's coming from. When I was making a lot of my arguments, I was not coming from an academic, economic standpoint, but more from a kind of traditional marketing standpoint. What I was reacting to in the book was this notion that was out there that you could affect major change in people's behavior and people's thinking and ideas through a very traditional top-down approach.

In other words, it was the impression of many people for many years that behavior was predictable. That if you bought enough advertising time and if you had the right corporate spokesman, and if you did all these kind of things, things would happen. And I became convinced that this is not the case. I thought that the top-down view was an incredibly unsophisticated view of human behavior. And my book was an attempt to re-mystify human behavior in a certain sense. To say, "You know what? It's not that straightforward."

There are these organic methods of communication that are not dependent upon people of status or formal communication. They're dependent on, as in the word-of-mouth example, people who play a personal role in our lives. Personality types that are randomly distributed that have nothing to do with intelligence, income, education, make of car, size of house. That have to do with somebody's either innate personality or the nature of their relationship to us, which is unknowable by a marketer.

And also when you argue, as I do, that communication and social change is happening because of the actions of a very, very small number of influential people, then what you're saying is that the marketplace is unbelievably volatile. I thought I was reintroducing volatility into the equation, because I thought it had been taken out prematurely by people who assume that the world worked in this very kind of straightforward, prosaic manner. I'm saying no, no, it doesn't. It's in the hands of these people who we have no way of knowing. Good luck trying to find them. Because they're not in the directory, and you can't do it by people who went to Harvard who make more than one hundred thousand a year. So, in a certain sense, Krugman's critique is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. (Laughter) Which makes me puzzled as to why he thinks it's a critique.

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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