Malcolm Gladwell’s new book is founded on the observation that social phenomena occur in much the same way as viral epidemics, not gradually but on sharp turning points. Rather than geometrical change occurring, as one might expect, change often seems to be exponential.
Gladwell goes on to thoroughly and convincingly study the issue, using a variety of complex examples: the sudden decrease in crime in New York in the 1990s, explosive growth in fashion trends and the power of advertising messages.
Whilst pop-science can sometimes be frustratingly anecdotal, Gladwell goes a step beyond, illustrating how the factors that he describes really can be put into effect to change a situation. Equally, whilst there are constant references to statistics that the average reader has no intention of verifying, they relate to a very simple argument that convincingly carries over from the viral metaphor. Typhoid Mary exhibits the key features of Gladwell’s message: a virus with epidemic sticking power, carried by a small group of people who will come into contact with a great number of other people, and existing in an environment where it can flourish.
These factors transfer surprisingly well to social viruses, and Gladwell recounts anecdotes of extraordinary bargain hunters and extroverts who act as communicators of trends, how the educational elements of Sesame Street have been honed in order to stick in the minds of children and how group psychology encourages people to integrate and to seize upon trends.
The example of the New York subway is particularly fascinating. Gladwell’s ‘Broken Windows’ theory proposes that in an environment of deprivation the population will assume that there is a situation of negligence and irresponsibility in the community and hence will assume that they can individually escape responsibility or reprimand for their actions, thus initiating a cycle of deprivation. He goes onto illustrate how, by attacking graffiti and fare-dodging the subway system was entirely turned around. Whilst Gladwell rehashes the tired Stanford prison experiment, and seems to make a slightly alarming equation between Micronesian teenage suicide and American teen smoking, the observations that he makes are extremely thoughtful and relevant to today’s world.