Tipping points


Published: 10/6/2020 8:21:02 AM

A tipping point is that magical (or malevolent) moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and then spreads like wildfire. A single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu. Or a Twitter meme. Or a single sick person like an authoritarian president can tip the scales of democracy into a downward slide. Or an authoritarian president can contract COVID 19, the worldwide pandemic he deliberately ignored and then lied about.

We have reached not one, but multiple tipping points in 2020. Tipping points in our personal lives, our political lives and in our lives on the planet. Not our planet, the planet. If we really felt that it was ours, we’d take much better care of it.

At the turn of this century, Malcolm Gladwell received an estimated $1-1.5 million advance to write his debut non-fiction book, “The Tipping Point.” That’s the kind of money that it costs a contributor to Donald Trump to secure a cabinet post, ambassadorship or agency directorship.

Using data and real science behind cultural “epidemics,” Gladwell explained that a large number of patterns and factors underlie every trend. Small actions, he maintained, strategically placed at the correct time and with the “correct” people, can create a “tipping point” for a product, a domino effect that spreads a product’s popularity like a virus. He describes how ideas spread like epidemics. And that only a few elements need to come together to push an idea to the point of critical mass creating a viral effect that becomes unstoppable.

“The Tipping Point” sold 1.7 million copies by 2006 and became a staple in the marketing world as well in the field of public health. It changed the way people throughout the world thought about selling products and disseminating ideas.

Creating a tipping point is also a fundamental part of modern politics. While a small but precisely targeted push can create a fashion trend or the popularity of a new product, it can also cause a drop in the crime rate or an increase in white supremacy. A “targeted push” such as the recent “stand back and stand by” message from the president to white supremacists from the debate stage of the first public presidential “debate.”

At various points in modern history, ideas, products, messages, and other behaviors have suddenly and unexpectedly become very popular. This phenomenon is called a social epidemic. They come on so quickly that they almost seem to happen overnight. The moment at which a social epidemic goes from invisible to seemingly ubiquitous is called a “tipping point.”

There are three ways to understand social epidemics. Each way of understanding a social epidemic corresponds to a different rule or law of epidemics.

The first law of social epidemics is the Law of the Few. In all social epidemics, a small handful of people wield a disproportionate amount of power. All people are connected to other people through family, friendship, work, hobbies, etc. But some people have more connections than other people — in today’s marketing world they are called “influencers.” In the nation’s capital they are called “lobbyists.”

The second law of social epidemics is the concept of “stickiness.” People are important in disseminating information and spreading word about trends, but that’s not enough. The idea, product, or message being spread must be at least somewhat intriguing, memorable, addictive — or “sticky.” Advertising agencies often spend millions of dollars to identify just what is and isn’t “sticky” for consumers. So do national political parties. What is stickier in the current never-ending presidential election campaign? The unchecked coronavirus? The “booming’ economy? The terrible economy (depending upon who you are/earn). Fraudulent voting processes? A fraudulent person posing as president?

The third and final rule for understanding epidemics is the principle of context. People intuitively believe that human beings behave in a certain way because of their innate talents, personalities, inclinations and political affiliations. But in reality, real-world human behavior is more often dictated by context — in other words, the physical environment in which humans live and move.

The American collapse in political terms is directly attributable to the current climate of poisonous political partisanship fueled by a White House steeped in climate denial. The collapse of our global environment may now be inevitable because 9 of the 15 known global climate tipping points that regulate the state of the planet have been activated.

The environment has its own tipping points, the subject of my next My Turn essay.

John Bos lives in Greenfield. A frequent writer about our climate crisis, he invites relevant and civil comments and questions at john01370@gmail.com.

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