I was at an excellent conference yesterday called Bike Summit 2008 that brought researchers, policymakers, politicians, etc. from across North American to discuss biking, infrastructure, public transit and all that stuff.
What was a bit less excellent, though, was the continual reference to the pop philosophy concept of “tipping point,” an idea that has some merit but not quite enough to warrant the amount of play it gets. For some relevant and fairly convincing criticism of the theory, see:
- Is the Tipping Point Toast?
- Which better explains how ideas move through society: diseases or social networks? (I think the answer here is a solid “it depends”)
At the same time, Gladwell doesn’t deserve some of the criticism he’s received for this book. With the “tipping point” idea, Gladwell was, in one sense, a repackager: he took an old idea that had been floating around in similar form in the study of non-linear dynamics, chaos theory, combined it with some marketing theory on influecners, and came up with a new presentation. “Repackagers” are often disparaged in Western culture, and there are more than a few critics nipping at Gladwell’s heels, claiming he’s simply recycling old ideas and hasn’t provided anything of merit (with the implication that only what is new is worthwhile).
But Marx was a repackager too — he repackaged Feuerbach, Saint Simon, Hegel, Bakunin, Proudhon, etc. This is of course no mean feat, and a good repackager is every bit as valuable and original as someone who comes up with a “new” theory.