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Viral Culture

Malcolm Gladwell uses a medical metaphor to explain modern culture. And his optimism recalls that of a medical forebear: Dr. Pangloss.

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While the book's arguments may be academic, their appeal is alchemical: You can get something for nothing, or near enough.  

The Tipping Point
BY MALCOLM GLADWELL
Little, Brown; 279 pages; $24.95

Johnny Appleseed. Horatio Alger. The Little Engine That Could. Steve Jobs. The idea that you can start small and grow enormous is the fundamental American faith. In the business world, it expresses itself as a cult of optimism and growth, the fuel that drives Amway salesmen and IPOs. In politics, it's responsible for the zeal that periodically lifts outsiders into positions of national influence. (Consider the McCain campaign, which preaches that one small adjustment to the system, campaign-finance reform, can ripple out and transfigure all of government.) The success that Americans are said to worship is success of a specific sort: accomplished not through hard work, primarily, but through the ingenious angle, the big break. Sit down at a lunch counter, stand back up a star. Invest in a new issue and watch it soar. Split a single atom, win a war.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is a pop-science tribute to the hopeful notion that standing in the right place with the right lever is often all it takes to move the world. Like The Power of Positive Thinking and How to Win Friends & Influence People, the book should have a special attraction for salesmen who need to believe in commercial, secular magic. For while the book's arguments may be academic, their appeal is mystical, alchemical. You can get something for nothing, or near enough.

The first great American myth the book revives is that it's not what you know but who you know. In a chapter titled "The Law of the Few," Gladwell seeks to show how certain people -- well-connected, gregarious types who send lots of e-mails and keep fat Rolodexes -- have a disproportionate influence on the spread of ideas and products. All word of mouth isn't equal, in other words; it depends on the size of the mouth. Gladwell shows how Hush Puppies shoes, for instance, enjoyed a renaissance when they were taken up by downtown hipsters who then were noticed by influential fashion types who spread the trend to the country at large. Gladwell compares the trend to an epidemic -- not in itself an original metaphor but one that he explores with stimulating rigor.

Next, Gladwell takes on another truism from the salesman's bible: It's not just enough to grab someone's attention; you have to hold it, too. The contemporary term for this is stickiness, that property of an ad or a TV show that keeps the viewer from changing channels or wandering into the kitchen for a snack. Gladwell makes children's TV his case in point, demonstrating how Sesame Street's producers experimented long and hard, with the aid of sophisticated specialists, to capture the eyeballs of the nation's 3-year-olds. (The secret, it turned out, was blending live characters with puppets.) That these same techniques have been employed by the makers of Cap'n Crunch and Pokémon cards goes unmentioned, and one wonders why. Perhaps because this is a gee-whiz sort of book that implicitly advocates what it explains.

Back when, the subtle manipulations of marketers were the stuff of alarmist best-sellers (Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, for example), but Gladwell is somewhat passive in this respect. He's interested in how things work and not to what end. He's a technocrat at heart, infatuated with process for its own sake. Take his chapter on New York subway crime, its precipitous rise and sudden fall. Gladwell gives credit to the broken-windows theory subscribed to by former police commissioner William Bratton. Scrubbing the graffiti off the trains, busting the turnstile-jumpers, and air-conditioning the cars broke the crime wave, according to this theory, and thereby demonstrated the power of "context" to affect human behavior. That's well and good. What's troubling, though, is the extension of this idea into a sort of lofty apology for the likes of Bernie Goetz, who acted verminishly, according to Gladwell, because "he was in a rathole."

Gladwell's smart. He knows full well that his cool appraisal of human behavior and how it's modified through artful nudges, deft suggestions, and changes of environment won't sit well with traditional moralists or, for that matter, old-fashioned liberals. He offends individualists by pointing out the limits of free will and conscious decision. He offends progressives by minimizing the importance of venerable social villains such as poverty. Old categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice don't seem to interest him -- he's a postmodern, market-era pragmatist. He defends the position of having no fixed position with an appeal to results, efficacy. In a chapter on teen smoking -- which, to his credit, he'd like to see reduced -- he pooh-poohs the influence of parents and scare tactics and advocates the reduction of cigarette nicotine levels to just under the threshold for addiction. Tiny changes, big effects.

One suspects there isn't a problem in America, no matter how knotty or profound, that Gladwell can't imagine some nifty solution to, if only we'd take off the blinders of ideology and put on the glasses of science and observation. That's the latent promise of the book: that the same techniques that made Airwalk sneakers a hit and Sesame Street an institution can be applied to -- who knows? -- ending domestic violence or revitalizing the farm economy. Ross Perot preached a similar line when it came to rationalizing government. And so did Robert McNamara, of course, when it came to whipping Ho Chi Minh.

Politics and policy aren't really Gladwell's concern, though. His real fascination is with why things sell, and why certain things sell better than other things. He traces the geometric rise in sales of a so-so novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, through its adoption by the book-club network. He shows how Blue's Clues, another kiddie program, uses repetition to mesmerize. He sings the praises of the makers of Gore-Tex for their decentralized, team-based corporate structure. Each example illustrates some principle from cognitive psychology or chaos math, and the exposition and analysis are always lucid, clear, and fresh, though some of the concepts are pretty old hat. The underlying message is older than that, though. It's the can-do faith that was satirized in Babbitt and came apart in Vietnam at the hands of America's best and brightest (what was the domino theory, after all, but another sort of "tipping point," elegant in the abstract, disastrous in practice?). The metaphors change; the faith remains the same.


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