Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gladwell on tour

No doubt you were one of the *thousands* - and no, that isn't hyperbole - who was crammed into the Lyceum Theatre last night - twice - to see thinker, writer and Sideshow Bob lookalike of his generation Malcolm Gladwell expound on his latest book 'Outliers'.

An indication that he probably is the world's most popular non-fiction writer at the moment: the queue to pick up tickets stretched around three sides of the theatre, and the show started half an hour late. We surmised on the way home that the evening's second gig had started even later than billed.

On the face of it, there's slight evidence as to why Gladwell should be given this rock star approbation. For one there are other *popularisers* out there - Friedman, du Sautoy to name to radically different ones. For another, he certainly doesn't dominate a stage, instead preferring to self-deprecate ever so slightly before launching into the dissection at hand, which last night was on 'the ethnic theory of air crashes'.

But as he started to unwind his premise, delve into it, open it up with both theory and anecdote, you started to get a glimpse of what makes him good. For starters, he does the legwork that a reporter should, which in this age of Google is an impressive boast. It was clear that not only had he read the relevant literature on airline safety, he'd understood it too, and got people to explain to him the bits he didn't understand. Second he has a gift - and I think it is a gift - for making the complex not just simple, but witty and memorable too. We sometimes disdain aphorisms as if they somehow dumb down the phenomena they seek to explain. But he's good at making something dry and academic seem relevant to your life. And in doing so, he's also able to re-cast a problem to make it more explicable: 'Air crashes are social problems, not technical problems'. So you get a different perspective on things.

And ultimately I think it's his laser guided focus on trying to put the human, the person, the social back into the heart of the questions that he's answering, that reveals why he's so popular. In a time when it's easier to for people to explain (and accept explanations) of behaviours and actions that are technologically determinist, he stresses that while systems may be complex, they are understandable and subject to change and improvement as they are fundamentally human. And this is re-empowering, perhaps unexpectedly so.

So see him if you can, when you can, not only so that you become more fluent in terms such as 'mitigation' and 'power distances' and 'social turmoil spectrums', but also are reminded of the power of stories and narratives to answer questions about ourselves.

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