By the end of last week everybody I know was talking about the Sultan’s Elephant. Not only did thousands of people turn out to see it, just look at all the 3512 (when I looked a few moments ago) photos on Flickr of the weekend. Amazing.
I saw David Cameron in action again yesterday at the Power Inquiry’s conference to discuss the findings and recommendations of their report. He’s getting much better at speaking and growing into the role of leader. I’d venture to suggest that the majority of the audience were traditionally Labour, Lib Dem or Green voters, but he had them all on his side by the end of his session. Much better than the last time I saw him.
It’s been a strange week for democracy in the UK. On Monday, IPPR decided it would be good idea to make voting compulsory in the future. I think this is a A Very Bad Idea, but hey, they’re entitled to their opinion.
Their argument is that we need compulsory voting to counter greater voting inequality. From a social democratic point of view this sounds fair enough: Belgium and Australia have compulsory voting, and they have lower voting inequality, plus the Netherlands used to have it and when they abolished the system in the 1970s their voting inequality went up.
But I believe it’s the job of politicians to go to where the people are, not to try and wrangle people into participation in a system that simply does not meet their needs. I’m with David Cameron on this one: “It’s a bit like bribing people to come to your birthday party and then telling people how popular you are based on the fact that all those people have turned up.”
Thursday saw Labour hit in the local elections and the Lib Dems tread water. The Greens, Conservatives and BNP were the winners, if that’s possible in an election where the parties could only convince 36 per cent of the voting age population that any of them were worth voting for.
Tony Blair acted pretty quickly to reshuffle. We’ll probably never know the real stories behind the botched elements like John Prescott keeping his title and perks or Geoff Hoon being confused about whether he was in the cabinet or not.
I think the reshuffle plays to the theory that Blair doesn’t want Brown to rule for long, if at all. He’s finally promoted the next generation into high profile positions. David Milliband gets a department of his own, as does Douglas Alexander. Ed Milliband (who was also very good at the Power Inquiry conference) and Ed Balls get ministerial roles. They’re Cameron’s competition, because they will develop the next wave of policy ideas and the new post Blair image for the Labour party. Brown’s image and policies are already set because he’s been around for so long — he’ll have much more trouble reinventing himself.
“The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous… How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?”
So writes Malcolm Gladwell in a now widely cited piece about profiling for the New Yorker. He’s challenging the idea that all pitbulls are dangerous, all asian people with beards are suicide bombers, or that all single men in London who wear pointy shoes will eat pasta sludge pellets, but he might as well be talking about his own writing.
Gladwell’s articles have a particular formula. Each piece opens with a scene where he ‘shows’ rather than tells you what the piece is about. The level of vivid detail and precision is much greater than most other non-fiction writers. There will be at least one image that will remain with you throughout. In the profiling piece it’s the dog biting the child’s head and shaking it.
It’s a specific example that makes a general point. Gladwell has popularized this kind of thinking about the everyday in grand social terms, and thinking about social change in terms of the everyday. Let’s face it, we experience social change through little things. You might read research or news reports that tell you that globalisation is taking place, but you really take note when the person on the other end of the phone when you ask for train times is in India. It’s because Gladwell uses that type of anecdata that we believe him — it fits with the way we think.
In Blink he goes even further, writing about a period of just a few seconds during a bungled police operation to explain how the mind makes snap (sometimes right, sometimes wrong) judgments. He thinks those few seconds and what they tell us are important enough to write a book about. And we (the book buying public) think they’re important enough to buy millions of copies of it.
Fast Company called him ‘…a corporate sage, a 21st-century Peter Drucker’, but as an NYT profile of the frilly haired one points out, his market is much bigger than just the business shelves. He sells because in an age of information overload our demand is for meaning. Blink is about slicing information to get maximum meaning. Tipping Point is about using social networks to sell products or achieve political change. The Observer’s subhead calls Gladwell the most influential thinker for the iPod generation, and I don’t think they’re far off.
I love Gladwell’s style. There’s a hint of Dan Brown in there, lots of short sentences to reinforce messages and move things along and the use of interweaving plotlines. But unlike Dan Brown, he writes to make people think rather than just to entertain them. And I reckon making people think is a good thing.
But what if Gladwell chooses the wrong generalisation? As he becomes more and more of a phenomenon himself, it’s a high wire to tread.