Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Not the Lion King

"Started 30 minutes late then read a crap story from his book" - the verdict of one punter last night on the talk by Malcolm Gladwell. Starting his session with a description of how he cons people into attendance by inserting historical thinkers into the event description perhaps didn't bode well.

Over 2,500 people paid £35 each for an hour of his wisdom last night at the Lyceum Theatre: so his techniques are working! Problem was they all turned up at the same time to collect their tickets. The staff, presumably more accustomed to coaches of bluerinse ladies from the Midlands obediently queuing for the matinee of The Lion King, seemed slightly stressed by the influx of all these Londoners seeking intellectual enlightenment, fast.

In the end it wasn't so enlightening but at least moderately entertaining. Gladwell explained how 'mitigation' - his lingo for failure to be direct and clear due to power relations within a team - causes all sorts of problems, particularly air crashes. He emphasised that in technical fields such as running a nuclear power station, it is often not technical but social problems that create disasters.

He added that it's usually not one catastrophic failure, but a sequence of unlikely, unrelated coincidences that add up to a showstopper: the 'average' air disaster has 7 such factors. This is certainly true, making it difficult to either assign responsibilities or create a technical process (such as a check-list) to prevent it happening again.

At one point Gladwell seemed to be advocating a new racism. It was caveated, but worrying to hear the logic that cultural differences are real and predictable so systems should take them into account. This with the explanation oft provided by those with unshakeable faith in the hard sciences, that it's not the speaker or their opinion, it's the undeniable 'facts': they must acknowledge the objective 'reality' that different races (though he used the world 'culture') have different aptitudes, predilections and capabilities. That's the kind of logic an insurance company could use to price higher premiums for black people: not the sort of thing I'd risk going anywhere near. I thought it careless, a bit over-excited saying something controversial without thinking it through.

Some lovely anecdotes, but it was light on real information: I'll have to assume that's in the book. You got the impression he was having a great time wandering around the world talking to interesting people, writing populist books then giving 'profound' talks to paying audiences - but that makes him a modern-day campfire storyteller, not a leading light of progress. Substantial insight, analysis and thoroughness of approach wasn't in evidence. Overall: not a bad way to spend an hour of my time, but I reckon there are better thinkers out there.

Watch Malcolm in action at TED