The thresholds of change
Malcolm Gladwell’s thought provoking book The Tipping Point How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is about many things ” social processes, personality types, innovation diffusion, group dynamics. But mostly it’s about thresholds of change. The Tipping Point is the title selected for this year’s Truckee Reads, co-sponsored by the Friends of the Truckee Library and the Sierra College Institute for Sustainability.
In case you haven’t had time to read it yet, here’s an abbreviated Cliff Notes version of the basic ideas.
The core premise is that social phenomena behave like epidemics. An epidemic occurs when a condition or disease that has existed at some stable level in a population tips out of equilibrium, becoming suddenly prevalent and widespread.
An epidemic of any sort requires three things, Gladwell argues. One is the contagious element itself ” the virus, the behavior or the innovation. Another is the agent of diffusion to spread the contagious element; these are “infected” people who come in contact with non-infected people to pass along the disease, idea, technology or behavior. In the spread of social trends, Gladwell calls these people Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen. Finally, the environment or context has qualities that either enhance or limit the survival of the contagious element.
The tipping point is that moment when the balance of one or more of these three things shifts.
Here are some examples of different kinds of tipping points. A geographic example: at the 100th meridian, average annual rainfall drops below 20 inches, tall grass prairie becomes short grass prairie, and the arid West begins. An example in time: In the early 1980s, fax machines were fairly rare. But by 1987, “enough people had faxes that it made sense for everyone to get a fax.” Similarly, cell phones tipped in 1998, after technology and service improved, cost decreased and “suddenly everyone had a cell phone.” A social threshold example: Sociologist Jonathan Crane, studying the effect of role models in communities, found little change in teen pregnancy and high school drop out rates so long as professionals, managers and teachers made up between five and 40 percent of the population. But as soon as the professional population drops to 3.4 percent, drop-out rates and teen pregnancy rates nearly double.
Gladwell elaborates on each of these factors with cases as disparate as Paul Revere’s ride, crime waves in New York City, the way Blue’s Clues helps develop preschoolers’ cognitive skills, and the success of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood as a book group book. Among others.
The book ranges over a wide territory and lays out big, dramatic ideas.
Gladwell identifies tipping points in retrospect; it’s hard to recognize a tipping point while it is happening. But the author wants his readers to try applying these ideas to their own innovations and communities. Can we, he asks, use these concepts to create the kinds of epidemic change ” in literacy, say, or nutrition, or economic opportunity or environmental responsibility ” that we would like to spread?
Well…Read the book ” available at the Truckee Library and at The Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks ” and come to the Truckee Reads event on May 10, at the TDRPD Community Recreation Center to tip the discussion in a positive direction.