Gladwell Logic: There Was War Before Nuclear Bombs Existed, Thus Nukes Have No Impact On War

from the make-your-own dept

In what can be considered impeccably poor timing, last fall, Malcolm Gladwell penned a silly article in the New Yorker, insisting that social media is useless for revolutions or civil actions because it doesn’t involve real personal connections, but only weak ones. Of course, in the months immediately following Gladwell’s piece, we’ve seen massive protests show up all over the Middle East, with nearly all of them making significant use of social networking tools for organization. And while I agree that it’s silly to give too much credit to social networks, it’s undeniable that such things have become a key tool used by protestors these days, and almost certainly has helped their ability to organize and disseminate necessary info.

All of that might make a lesser man reconsider the original faulty premise. But not Gladwell. Not only is he standing by his initial thesis, he’s backing it up with the intellectually void argument that because people organized and toppled governments prior to Twitter, it means that Twitter isn’t a big deal in these protests and regime changes:

I mean, in East Germany, a million people gathered in the streets of Berlin. They were – the percentage of people in East Berlin in East Germany who even had a telephone in 1989 was 13 percent, right?

So, I mean, in cases where there are no tools of communication, people still get together. So I don’t see that as being a – in looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability people to socially

In other words, if something happened before a technology came about, then technology has no impact on it later on. This is laughably bad logic. Just because something happened without technology X, doesn’t mean that technology X has no impact on it. Of course, this has now created something of a meme on Twitter, kicked off by Jeff Jarvis, called #GladwellLogic, in which you try to apply that same logic to other things. Jarvis kicked it off by pointing out:

#GladwellLogic: People were smart before there were books, therefore books don’t make us smarter.

It’s not hard to come up with your own examples:

  • #GladwellLogic: Wars happened before there were nuclear weapons, submarines, machine guns or airplanes. Therefore, none of those things impact war.
  • #GladwellLogic: People got from point A to point B before there were cars. Therefore, cars have no impact on transportation.
  • #GladwellLogic: People produced stuff prior to there being electric lighting. Therefore, lightbulbs had no impact on productivity.
  • #GladwellLogic: People made music before machines could record it. Therefore, recorded music had no impact on music.

Try and create your own…

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Comments on “Gladwell Logic: There Was War Before Nuclear Bombs Existed, Thus Nukes Have No Impact On War”

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51 Comments
Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Re: Re:

#GladwellLogic: There was music before piracy, so piracy has no effect on music

I don’t know if you intended this as some kind of dig at TD, but if so, I wholeheartedly agree that the statement is fallacious.

I don’t think anyone here thinks piracy has zero effect on music. For example, I think it has a decidedly positive effect!

Markus Hopkins (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was thinking about that, and the fact that what we classify as trolls today have had many other names in the past, and how the internet has made their job so much easier. But since “trolling” is a new term, and it’s arguable that the addition of anonymity and lack of any need for restraint have really created something new here, I decided to go the other way.

Brandon Steele says:

Re: Re:

Are you really surprised that a website called “TechDirt” would have several hits when you search for “social network”? It’s only one of the most common phrases you’ll find in any media referring to modern technology. Was there any point in pointing that out. Of course they are a fan of social networking as well. Who isn’t?

bdhoro (profile) says:

Don't hate on Gladwell

In this case, Gladwell is guilty of believing his own opinion. As Malcolm tends to do excellent research, I’m sure he’s found plenty of evidence to back up his theory and so he believes it with much of his cognitive power.

Mike, you are quite guilty of the same, and so are most people. I mean, isn’t it our nature to believe our own opinions? Even when there’s apparent evidence against us.

Clearly his premise was wrong, as the revolution has been tweeted. But of course we all know if it wasn’t twitter it would be something else. Revolutions are social phenomena, any type of social network will have some effect.

Anonymous Coward says:

#GladwellLogic: Sex was around long before contraceptives, therefore contraceptives have no impact on sex.

#GladwellLogic: Computers were around long before the internet, therefore the internet has no impact on computers.

#GladwellLogic: I have been around long before my son, therefore my son has no impact on me.

#GladwellLogic: The human body has been around long before medicine, therefore medicine has no impact on the human body.

This is fun, because it is so easy. I could keep going all day.

Ron (profile) says:

Still Some Validity

“So, I mean, in cases where there are no tools of communication, people still get together. So I don’t see that as being a – in looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability people to socially”

Actually, reading this, there is a valid point to be made: that, the absence of efficient communications tools does not limit the ability of people to interact. It may impede that interaction by adding significant time delay but there are many means to communicate that do not require direct interaction. For example: 1000 years ago, people separated by 1000 miles wrote letters to each other.

What I see missing the logic is the point, already made, that efficient forms of communications increase the speed at which the personal interaction occurs. Moreover, there is still the issue that in many of these protest uprisings, person to person communications would still be fairly efficient because the population density allows word of mouth to quickly pass neighboorhood to neighboorhod without the need of the physical carrier to travel any great distance.

xenomancer (profile) says:

Re: Still Some Validity

“It may impede that interaction by adding significant time delay”

That constitutes a significant limitation on communication.

Rates matter!

If you don’t believe me, ask the people trying to remove the heat from the reactors in Japan to just wait for the heat to leave on its own. Communication used to be more of a globally diffusion driven spread of knowledge and ideas. Now it is more advective at the global level, with direct transmission of ideas, and still somewhat diffusive at the local level.

kyle clements (profile) says:

Re: Still Some Validity

It has been quite a while since I read Gladwell’s original article, so I’m not sure if this was addressed or not, but is it possible that the speed and quantity of weak connections that build social networks overpower the much smaller number of strong personal connections?

100 real-life followers may matter far more than 100 twitter followers, but what about 1 000 000 twitter followers vs. 100 real life followers?

I can mail out 100 letters and get 20 RSVPs, half of which actually show up.
Or I send out 1000 facebook invites, have 10% click “attend” and only 10% of those actually show up.

In both cases, the same number of people show up.

At what point does quantity overpower quality?

vivaelamor (profile) says:

#GladwellLogic: There was philosophy before Plato existed, therefore Plato had no impact on philosophy

His logic can be expressed simply as:

A (historical protests)
B (development of efficient communication tools)
C (contemporary protests)

Because A happened and is similar to C, B did not cause/impact C.

He may be right about B not causing C, but A does not prove that. A proves that A can happen without B, not that C can happen without B.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

BONUS!

Once Gladwell is run into the ground, there’s more fun to be had coining your own Greenspanism/Greenspan logic, teeing off from this choice quote:

Today?s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith?s ?invisible hand? that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global ?invisible hand? has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

The comment thread here:

http://crookedtimber.org/2011/03/30/with-notably-rare-exceptions/

is particularly enjoyable. Some contenders:

With notably rare exceptions, Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed the play.

With notably rare exceptions, locking all exits to the workplace is a harmless way to improve your employees? productivity.

With notably rare exceptions, Rhett Butler did give a damn.

Anonymous Coward says:

#techdirtlogic: When someone tries to patent something old on a computer, it is not novel. However, when protestors organize and protest on a computer, it is novel.

#techdirtlogic: Malcolm Gladwell has written a thoughtful, eloquent, and subtle piece questioning the role and impact of social media in the evolving world of protesting. However, that is too hard to understand so we will oversimplify his position and then make fun of him for it.

#gladwelllogic: Protests and revolutions have happened with both rich and poor technologies to facilitate them. Therefore, we cannot assume that the lack of these technologies would prevent these movements from happening. Big revolutions seem to be fostered by strong relationships among revolutionaries, which may be facilitated by, but are not necessarily created by, social networks.

#techdirtlogic: MALCOLM GLADWELL SAID TECHNOLOGY HAS NO IMPACT ON REVOLUTIONS HA HA WHAT AN IDIOT.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“#gladwelllogic: Protests and revolutions have happened with both rich and poor technologies to facilitate them. Therefore, we cannot assume that the lack of these technologies would prevent these movements from happening. Big revolutions seem to be fostered by strong relationships among revolutionaries, which may be facilitated by, but are not necessarily created by, social networks.”

If only he’d said that. You’d think that as a writer he’d be better able to express himself.

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