Malcolm Gladwell on Innovation & Limitation

Author Malcolm Gladwell keynoted the F5 Expo yesterday in Vancouver and this is a guest post on his presentation. If you attended the F5 Expo yesterday and are interested in sharing your thoughts in a blog post on Techvibes, please contract us.

“We celebrate the benefits, but not the costs, of technology,” said Malcolm Gladwell, at the F5 Expo on April 7th.  Gladwell is the author of well-know books such as Outliers and The Tipping Point.  His stock in trade is a contrarian viewpoint rooted in connecting facts for a unique analysis.  Gladwell addressed three key points of the limitations of technology. 

The Strength of the Internet is “Weak Ties”, But Not “Strong Ties”

First, he pointed out that the internet is a tool of weak ties.  As we all know, “friends” online are typically acquaintances.  The concept of “weak ties” and “strong ties” is highlighted in his previous writing.  Gladwell noted that there are positive aspects to expanding weak tie network.  For example, positioning, someone’s work status and their ability to help, is more important than motivation, such as friends who want to help but may be ineffective at doing so.  The Internet has exploited the power of weak ties, as we know many, many people.

There is a limitation, however.   Weak ties are not good for social transformation.  Gladwell discussed Fidel Castro and revolution in Cuba.  A small, fervent group of Castro supporters started a revolution.  This was a small group of people with very strong ties who ousted a much more powerful regime.

The Internet Facilitates Freedom of Expression Through Anonymity, But Does Not Build Trust

Gladwell made an interesting point that on the internet we “express ourselves without revealing ourselves.”  This is encouraged as there is no retribution as a result of our expression.  At the same time, it doesn’t build trust since we have no relationship with the person.

Gladwell noted that trust cannot be built in the context of anonymity.  Freedom of expression leads to conversation, but does not lead to freedom of action.  In other words, expressing oneself does not lead to mobilizing people to do something or to make change.  Action is rooted in trust between people and this trust grows out of personal encounters

Gladwell cited the example of the 1989 Eastern European Revolution that overthrew USSR control.  Popular support for resistance grew threw a network of strong ties.  Interestingly, he noted that strong ties at home were far more important than strong ties at work; people at work were not trusted

Trust is build out of proximate, local encounters.  This is not the strength of the Internet.  Gladwell emphasized that technology is isolating.  He cited a study about so-called “discussion groups” which are people you share most personal issues with.  These discussion groups among people have been steadily shrinking.  Individuals typically no longer include neighbours and friends, but generally just family.

The Internet Creates Spontaneous Action, But not Change Through Institutions

Gladwell explained that true transformation takes time.  Castro, for example, had engaged in a long process of building strong ties before his revolution succeeded.  Similarly, the 1989 Eastern European Revolution build over time based on strong ties.  The resistance started in a church is Leipzig; they met every Monday for prayer, and then over a few months the numbers grew from thousands to hundreds of thousands; the word spread through strong tie relationships.

By contrast, the Internet with social media tools such as Twitter gets people together, but it doesn’t result in lasting change.  Gladwell cited the example of the resistance to the Iranian government that was spread via Twitter.  That resistance was easier to put together, but also easy to pull apart.  The government easily snuffed out the technological links for the protesters and then the anti-government activity died.  This movement would not have died so quickly if it was rooted in strong relationships.

Conclusion

Gladwell noted that we should understand the value and limitations of technology.  The Internet is a means to an end – it is a limited tool of some value regarding social change.  However, the Internet is not an end in and of itself.  Technology is not the way to create change.  Technology can promote commerce, trade, and weak social interaction, but it will not facilitate lasting change.  Significant change is based in strong ties, typically rooted in face-to-face interaction and trusted relationships.