In the year 2000, Malcolm Gladwell, one of America’s leading public intellectual and staff writer for The New Yorker published a bestseller titled, The Tipping Point. In that book, Gladwell attempted to interpret social behaviour by proposing a theory for our understanding of why little things make the greatest impact. He asserted that the best way for us to understand the mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. In his words, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do” (p.7). All social epidemics, for Gladwell, share three common characters. One: Epidemics are contagious. Two: Little changes make great and big effects. Three: Epidemics spread in a hurry. “These three characteristics- one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment- are the same three principles that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third trait- the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment- is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point” (p.9).
Gladwell agrees that the possibility of sudden change which is at the center of the idea of the Tipping Point might well be the hardest of all to accept, but argues that for us to appreciate the power of epidemics, we have to abandon the notion of proportionality. As humans, social beings, we are often prompted to make a kind of rough approximation between cause and effect. Gladwell tells us that, “We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly” (p.11). Epidemics are another example, not of arithmetic progression but of geometric progression. In this kind of progression, the end result- the effect- is far out of proportion to the cause. In summary, Gladwell posits: “Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating. And when an epidemic tips, when it is jolted out of equilibrium, it tips because something has happened, some change has occurred in one (or two or three) of those areas” (pp.18-19).
What is my obsession with Gladwell’s theory?
Gladwell seems to provide the most plausible theory for our understanding of the kind of crises our world is facing today. Humanity’s major concerns today are not so much concrete evils as indeterminate threats. What gives us sleepless nights are not so much visible dangers but vague uncertainties that could strike when we least expect them, and perhaps, when we are insufficiently protected to offer serious resistance. There are, of course, identifiable dangers, but what worries us about terrorism as different from conventional warfare is its unpredictable nature. What is most disturbing about our global economy today is its volatility and fluidity, that is, the inability of our institutions to protect us against extreme financial uncertainties. In the last couple of years, our world has sunk into the most brazen of disasters from ecological to economic, to political, social and cultural.
Think of the financial recessions or economic meltdowns of recent years, large scale environmental destruction and natural disasters, terrorist attacks, violence and bloodshed, the collateral effects of political instability, the spread of disease, the heightened degree of global poverty, the risks of nuclear energy and arms proliferation. Coupled with media-fuelled panic, much of our uneasiness is a function of our exposure to threats that are partly beyond our premonition or control. And because of increasing levels of global interdependence in politics, commerce and technology, little risks or challenges expose everyone around the world in an unprecedented way to higher risks and challenges. A little shortage of rainfall in the Amazon basin can have the worst of repercussions in the Iberian Peninsula. Drought or famine in the Horn of Africa can disrupt the peace of No. 10 Downing Street and the Capitol. Armed insurgence in the Niger Delta can stop some factories from running in Beijing and Tokyo. Violent skirmishes in the Middle East can crumble businesses on Wall Street. That is the increasing interdependence with which our world today is characterized. Whatever affects life even in the little unknown village of the world can have maximum impact on the globe. Other people’s problems are now our problems, and we can no longer look on them with indifference. Interdependency is now the key word, a shared exposure to hazards. Nothing is completely isolated. Nothing like “foreign affairs” exists any longer. It is now global affairs. That is the brave new world, the global village that we now live in!
In an article published in Project Syndicate by Javier Solana and Daniel Innerarity on The New Grammar of Power, these two cutting-edge scholars argue that all of these phenomena we have highlighted above form a part of the dark side of the globalized world: contamination, contagion, instability, interconnection, turbulence, shared fragility, universal effects, and overexposure. In this respect, one might speak of the “epidemic character” of our contemporary world. This is what we have said already in extrapolating the central themes of Gladwell’s social epidemic theory. My fears today are that the more technologically proficient, politically sophisticated and economically complicated our new world is with all its institutions of global governance, the more vulnerable we have become even to the minutest of problems. Today, there is a fair consensus among scholars and statesmen alike that governing global risks has become humanity’s greatest challenge.
In his 2007 autobiography, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, Dr. Alan Greenspan offered this fascinating description of today’s world: “We are living in a new world- the world of a global capitalist economy that is vastly more flexible, resilient, open, self-correcting, and fast-changing than it was even a quarter century earlier. It’s a world that presents us with enormous new possibilities but also enormous new challenges” (p.10). Commenting on the raison d’être of the global financial crisis after 9/11, he wrote these words: “In an economy as sophisticated as ours, people have to interact and exchange goods and services constantly, and the division of labor is so finely articulated that every household depends on commerce simply to survive. If people withdraw from everyday economic life—if investors dump their stocks, or business people back away from trades, or citizens stay home for fear of going to malls and being exposed to suicide bombers—there’s a snowball effect. It’s the psychology that leads to panics and recessions. A shock like this…could cause a massive withdrawal from, and major contraction in, economic activity. The misery could multiply” (p.3). That is the character of social epidemics.
Over the past couple of decades, global economy seemed to be increasingly resilient to shocks. Deregulated financial markets, far more flexible labor markets, and, more recently, the major advances in information technology have enhanced our ability to absorb disruptions and recover. “These new technologies not only opened up a whole new vista of low-cost communications but also facilitated major advances in finance that greatly enhanced our ability to direct scarce savings into productive capital investme
nts, a critical enabler of rapidly expanding globalization and prosperity” (pp.11-12). But recent events have shattered that vision about global resilience, the ability to absorb shocks and to recover. Economists have been trying to answer questions like that since the days of Adam Smith. We think we have our hands full today trying to comprehend our globalized economy and to understand the broad forces that define our age, yet the more scientific and automated our capacity to understand the conceptual framework of the new global economy, the more the critical elements of this emerging global environment elude our grasp. The result has been our increasing inability to absorb disruptions and our persistent slide into disaster. J. Solana and D. Innerarity propose new ways of governing today’s global risks, which in their opinion, are nothing less than the challenge of preventing the “end of history.” For them, preventing the end of history would mean averting the worst collective global failure we can imagine, not the triumph of liberal democracy, if one were to appeal to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in The End of History and the Last Man. In Solana and Innerarity’s words, the challenge is this: “In this era of global warming, smart bombs, cyber warfare, and worldwide epidemics, our societies must be protected with more complex and subtle strategies. We cannot continue to pursue strategies that ignore our common exposure to global risks, and the resulting environment of mutual dependence.” In a world in which risks can easily spread across national borders, more international cooperation is needed.
They continue: “We must learn a new grammar of power in a world that is made up more of the common good – or the common bad – than of self-interest or national interest. These haven’t disappeared, of course, but they are proving to be indefensible outside of a framework capable of addressing common threats and opportunities. While the old power game sought the protection of one’s own interests with no concern for those of others, overexposure forces reciprocity of risks, the development of cooperative methods, and the sharing of information and strategies. Truly effective global governance is the strategic horizon that humanity must pursue today with all its energy.” There are two organizations that I feel are privileged to help the world in this struggle to grapple with new global risks and challenges. They are the organizations which we know already as the “third sector” and the “fourth estate”. What are they? The third sector is civil society, also understood as the social entrepreneurship sector or the citizen sector. In a world of terrorist attacks, corporate scandals, ineffective governance and big social and ecological crises, it is important to find people and organizations that are inspiring vectors of positive change. Today, government appears increasingly helpless and even ‘schizophrenic’ against the ever converging concentration of power in corporate hands that seem to empower poor people, make demands on governments that officials are not prepared to meet and provide effective and efficient service in a swift and reliable fashion than government is accustomed to providing. The third sector is thus growing in the provision of necessary social services, leadership, innovation and energy. This growing trend is also changing the structure of society and how society addresses social problems.
This obviously has implications for business and government. For business, it provides opportunities for collaboration with sophisticated and increasingly effective citizen groups. For government, social entrepreneurs are providing a stream of field tested new ideas and much needed competition. It is today providing individuals with fresh cutting edge ideas for social change, entrepreneurial spirit and strong ethical fibre. Social entrepreneurs are social innovators. They are people who radically alter the way things are done in the society and how society responds to the magnitude of social problems that today’s world is increasingly being faced with. As propellers of broad and breathtaking social change, social entrepreneurs have a profound effect on society. Social entrepreneurs, according to David Bornstein, are “transformative forces: people with new ideas to address major problems, who are relentless in the pursuit of their visions, people who simply will not take ‘no’ for an answer, who will not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can.” Of critical importance is the role of civil society in acting as checks and balances in global political, economic, financial and democratic organization.
For Joseph Schumpeter, the social entrepreneur is a source of creative destruction necessary for major social and economic advances. Old ways and patterns of doing things have to be creatively destroyed to give way for newer ideas, fresher insights, stimulating approaches and innovative impulses that pave the way for leaps in productivity and waves of change. Social entrepreneurs advance systemic change to counteract the spread of problems. Around the world today, government appears to clueless about ways to tackle the magnitude of problems caused by poor leadership and inept governance. Leaders of governments, technocrats, global financial institutions and international bodies on their part seem to be bogged down by this upsurge of events which have created many more crises unparalleled in the modern world. As these problems continue to task the ingenuity of generations of the world’s leading scholars, the third sector is taking the lead in harnessing solutions to these problems. As Bornstein argues, “It takes creative individuals with fixed determination and indomitable will to propel the innovation that society needs to tackle its toughest problems.” In the last couple of years, tons of hundreds of different types of international citizen organizations have emerged around the world. Their emergence today is even occurring on a scale unprecedented in history with organizational activity more globally dispersed than ever. They are less encumbered by church and state and, in fact, exert considerable pressure on government. They are able to forge partnerships and collaborations with businesses, academic institutions and governments and, in many cases, they tend to refine and sharpen government’s representational functions. The arrival of entrepreneurialism and competition represent an early but fundamental change in the dynamics of the citizen sector which history has shown to sit on the edge of innovation and creativity.
On the other hand, the fourth estate is the media industry. In a lecture delivered by Okey Ndibe, a fine writer and columnist for The Sun, on the title, “The Fourth Estate and Other Estates”, the author stated that, “In its contemporary usage, the fourth estate refers in the main to the mass media as a collectivity. Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish thinker and parliamentarian, is credited with categorizing the field of journalism as constituting a fourth estate in 18th century British society. In his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle suggests that Burke coined the term in 1787 at a time when the British press was rising to the challenge of providing more intense coverage of the deliberations of the House of Commons….By beaming a light on the arcane rituals and ceremonial encrustations of lawmaking, the British press was going to bridge the gulf between the people and their legislators, with the added collateral advantage of vitalizing democracy, enhancing transparency and increasing the quotient of public expectations and political accountability.”
The media in today’s highly digital world can help sharpen the focus of the world on pressing issues that humanity must band together to address. Thanks today to the revolution in information and communication technology, we
have uninhibited access to information that formerly was the exclusive preserve of elites and wealthy nations and also enjoy wider, insightful and more detailed understanding of the world. One major consequence of this change is that millions of people world over have become more acutely conscious of today’s problems and also possess powerful communication tools to coordinate efforts to attack these problems. The fourth estate and the third sector have major roles to play in this global effort to coordinate attack on global problems. There are enormous obstacles facing us in the decades ahead, and whether we surmount them is up to us. As Albert Einstein says, “The significant problems we create cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that we were when we created them.” If our world is likely to survive today, the bulk of the challenge rests on civil society and the media.