Tipping points and long tails

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Alex Kirby

Having just finished reading ‘Homo Dues: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ by Yuval Noah Harari, it got me thinking about other books that I’ve read that have carried with them the same sort of zeitgeist thinking.

I can think of two in the past 20 years – Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ (2000) and Chris Anderson’s ‘The Long Tail’ (2006). All three books delve into subjects that have, or will become key cultural reference points.

The Tipping Point

Have you ever heard that something has reached a ‘tipping point’? The phrase was coined by Malcolm Gladwell in The ‘Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’.

A ‘tipping point’ is the point at which momentum swings irreversibly – for example, recent headlines have included this phrase many times:

  • Climate change has reached a tipping point
  • Online lending has reached a tipping point
  • Donald Trump’s presidency has reached a tipping point

In his book, Gladwell outlines how the influence of a few highly connected people can have massive effects on outcomes. He elaborates by describing three types of key people – Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen who through connections, word of mouth or charisma, drive messages out to much wider audiences. Gladwell’s other books include ‘Blink’ and ‘Outliers’, both of which are worth checking out.

The Long Tail

Another example is ‘The Long Tail’ by Chris Anderson, who was the editor of Wired magazine in 2004.

‘The Long Tail’ was originally an article that evolved into a book in 2006. He lays out that if your business is large enough, your products that sit outside of your top sellers can collectively rival or even outsell the big sellers, despite their lower individual sales. The internet has created sales and distribution channels never seen before, and successful companies have clearly tapped into this.

His follow up to this included ‘Free – How today’s smartest businesses profit by giving something for nothing’ and ‘Makers – the New Industrial Revolution’ which are both great reads.

Now ‘Homo Dues’, published last year, depicts a world in which humanism is replaced by dataism (a term I believe he has coined).

Dataism is all about information flow – rather than our inner feelings being at the centre of the universe. What we outwardly share becomes everything. You might think you know about technology and where the future could be headed, but in this

You might think you know about technology and where the future could be headed, but in this book, he positions a very plausible scenario where humans as we know it cease to exist, as we fully immerse ourselves into the ‘Internet of Everything’.

Our ability to tell and believe in stories is what separated homo sapiens from any other species on earth; it was the glue that enabled us to organise ourselves. However, Harari proposes that this organisation will now concern itself with an all consuming data flow of which we will all be part of – and possibly blissfully unaware.

The future

With one eye towards humanity’s future, it’s also the anniversary of Judgement Day from the Terminator film series – the day that the Skynet computer system becomes self aware, and wages nuclear war on humankind. It makes me think – what would be the tipping point be for Skynet to really happen?

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