The power of ideas

Today I watched an interesting two part video of Jon Ronson interviewing Malcolm Gladwell. They were discussing Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath.

The interview is mainly centered around Ronson analyzing the impact of Gladwell’s early work, namely his first book The Tipping Point and an article he wrote for The New Yorker titled Million-Dollar Murray. I won’t spoil too much of what happens and encourage you to watch the videos yourself (they're embedded below). They're only 15 minutes each and these guys are two of my favourite journalists / storytellers. I’ve read two of Ronson’s books this year (The Psychopath Test and Lost at Sea) and although I haven't read any of Gladwell's yet I am currently loving his new podcast Revisionist History.

I do want to mention two things that really stuck out to me as I watched this interview:

#1: Ronson makes a very good point: Because of the influence of his ideas, Malcolm Gladwell could be considered a powerful person. He might not write actual government policy but his work has definitely influenced public perception of certain social initiatives (like aggressive policing, for example). A few months ago I polled my Facebook friends by asking “Who is the most powerful man or woman in the world today?” Of course there were some obvious answers: Obama, Putin, etc. but I was surprised that no one even considered someone from the media. (And yes, the word "power" itself has a bit of a loose definition.) Certain heads of state could probably cause the most physical damage to the world with one command but I believe that certain writers, editors or media moguls can actually influence more people to see things a certain way than the government can. Do people believe in aggressive policing because the mayor of New York said it was responsible for the reduction in crime or because they read a really convincing bestseller called The Tipping Point? In the case of Gladwell’s books Ronson points out that this power has lead to good things and not so good things.

#2: Malcom Gladwell acknowledges that there are certain ideas from his early writing that maybe he got wrong and would like to revisit. He points out though that it’s a double standard that we still judge people by their old ideas when we usually ignore everything else that may have changed about them. Malcolm says his hairstyle, his choice of clothes, his girlfriend, basically everything about what he was like in 1998 is different today including some of his ideas, yet people can’t seem to let go of those. I hadn’t considered this point before. I guess we do judge people a lot more by what they said or thought in the past than perhaps we should. It’s not uncommon for us to change our minds over a span of 10-15 years. That’s the downside of being a successful author I guess: people are less forgiving of what you’ve said in the past because it’s been printed and read millions of times.

If you’re interested in reading more about the power of (online) media then I suggest checking out Trust Me I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday.