Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sticky ideas

Made to Stick has just come out, a book inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. Rather than dealing with idea/diseases on a theoretical level like Tipping Point, Made to Stick tries to develop a practical guide to effective communication using Gladwell's principles.

I have to admit, my response to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point writings--and his writings more generally--is that Mr. Gladwell is not much of a thinker.

Gladwell reminds me of some of the folks I went to grad school with, who were great at throwing together plausible sounding ideas from all over the damn place and drawing startling conclusions without stopping to wonder whether a) those inspiring ideas were actually right, as opposed to interesting; and b) whether those ideas actually went together the way they thought.

Gladwell starting off with the identification of ideas as viruses immediately loses me. There are, of course, analogies to be made between ideas and diseases. Before mass communication, ideas were spread person to person (word of mouth), just like a lot of diseases. Other diseases spread through vectors that touch a lot of people's lives, like water sources. And some ideas spread through such vectors: newspapers and television. So we'd expect a "catchy" idea and a virulent disease to have similar looking patterns of propagation.

But that doesn't mean that ideas are themselves anything like viruses, or that the analogy can be pushed any farther than this.

One big difference most would immediately point out is volition: we can pick and choose ideas we wish to propagate or condemn or ignore. Not necessarily that we always so choose--we may involuntarily store and pass along certain ideas with certain "catchy" qualities, but our purposes play a role, and an important one in the big picture of what gets spread and what doesn't.

This isn't the case with diseases. You don't choose smallpox over cholera because you're more of a smallpox person.

The difference between someone like me and someone like Gladwell in explaining an idea is that he looks first to some quality of the idea to explain why it spreads. I'd look to the motives of the people. These are themselves essentially ideas, I realize.

For me, though, the system of ideas is incredibly complex, and there is absolutely no point in claiming we can look at a particular idea or expression and pass anything like absolute judgement on its "virulence." What would help an idea in one culture will kill it in another. What will help in one year will kill it in another.

Subtracting that complexity--what I call (admittedly shorthandedly) "volition"--is essentially to give up on the task of explaining why and how ideas spread before you start. Starting with "idea as disease" as your central metaphor is like explaining the weather by starting with the "storm system as brick" metaphor. In some ways a storm system is like a brick--it is a physical entity, it can travel through the air from place to place, you can get hit by one much as you would get hit by a brick. But nearly everything that's important about storms, their movement and behavior is entirely unbrick-like. And the differences are all in the direction of greater complexity and less predictability.

Just look at fashion. Are there general principles that can scientifically be applied that will cause a garment to succeed without fail? Not that I've heard about. And those people who are able to produce successful collections year after year are more than anything keen observers of the tenor of the times, rather than observers of general principles.

For this reason, when people begin to look for the general principles of "what makes and idea stick" or "what makes for success" what we usually get are reworkings of well-known rules of thumb, as one Amazon reviewer notes about "Made to Stick," or Polonian absurdities, like E.O. Wilson's formulas for literary success.

The successful venture in this field will not start with the notion that we've just got to find some common virulence factors in ideas themselves. It'll start with a theory of human socialization, as ideas are nothing but a currency between humans, NOT parasitic entities.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Heard public radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge yesterday. Yet more apologia for literary theft and dishonesty! There's been a lot of stir about plagiarism of late, and it's really rather stupefying to see how much niggling and bad faith has been said and written in defense of what is euphemistically called "borrowing" (or in the case of Jonathan Lethem "good plagiarism").

I think it'd be instructive to have a quick look at the two high profile cases that have hit the news of late, Bob Dylan's "borrowings" from Henry Timrod, a civil-war-era poet; and Ian McEwen's "borrowing" from
Lucilla Andrews.

(from the New York Times, full article here)

(passages "borrowed" from
the Mail on Sunday)

No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews

Our "nursing" seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains.

... the life-size dolls on which decades of young Nightingale nurses had learnt to blanket bath. Mrs Mackintosh, Lady Chase and George, a baby boy of convenient physique to allow him to double as a baby girl. In the absence of an adult male doll, the technique for blanket-bathing men was explained with ambiguous exactitude. At a precise point after the second change of washing water, the freshly soaped "back" flannel and "back" towel were to be handed the patient with the words, "I am sure you would like to finish yourself off now, Mr Blank, whilst I fetch your mouthwash."

"Six days we had of it. We'd start building a runway in this field, see, but before we'd half the job done, along comes Jerry dropping his load, so we moved back, starts another in another field and back comes Jerry. We got shoved so far back we run out of fields, and seeing as you can't build runways on the sea, here we are.

We counted them together as I removed them with forceps.

The deepest and largest was in his right thigh. It looked small until I began to take it out. It measured just under five inches and at its widest, half an inch. When all were out I nearly had to use force to get him to swallow an ounce of stock brandy. "It is you that should be having this, nurse, not me." In the few scribbled notes I made that night, I added, "I didn't dare tell him I'd thrown up in the scullery before getting his brandy ... When I tugged out that big one he hung on to the bedhead so hard his knuckles were white but he didn't make a sound until I got it out ...

"Bit sort of tight. Could you loosen it?" ... Then as I did not think it would do any damage to loosen the gauze bows, I let go of his hand, stood up, undid the first and, as the sterile towel beneath slid off and jerked aside the towel above, very nearly fainted on his bed. The right half of his face and some of his head was missing. I had consciously to fight down waves of nausea and swallow bile, wait until my hands stopped shaking and dry them on my back before I could retie the bow... [After he dies in her arms, a Sister says to her] "Go and wash that blood off your face and neck, at once, girl!

It'll upset the patients."

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise.

But mostly she was a maid ...

... practising blanket baths on life-size models Mrs Mackintosh, Lady Chase, and baby George whose blandly impaired physique allowed him to double as a baby girl ... [Sister Drummond] was always there ... murmuring in her ear that she had failed to pay attention during preliminary training to the correct procedures for blanket-bathing male patients: only after the second change of washing water should the freshly soaped back flannel and back towel be passed to the patient so that he could "finish off for himself." "We'd get going on the job, then Jerry comes over and dumps his load. We drops back, starts all over in another field, then it's Jerry again and we're falling back again. Till we fell into the sea." "Let's count them up together, shall we? ... When it's over I'll bring you a measure of brandy." He sweated, his whole body shook, and his knuckles turned white round the iron bedhead, but he did not make a sound ... She slipped away to get his brandy, and stopped in the sluice to be sick.

"These bandages are so tight. Will you loosen them for me a little?" She stood and peered down at his head. The gauze bows were tied for easy release ... She was not intending to remove the gauze, but as she loosened it, the heavy sterile towel beneath it slid away, taking a part of the bloodied dressing with it. The side of Luc's head was missing ... She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor, and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass ... fixed the gauze and retied the bows ... The Sister straightened Briony's collar. "There's a good girl. Now go and wash the blood from your face. We don't want the other patients upset."

Authors and fans are coming to the defense of this borrowing or apporporiation or whatever you want to call it by telling us that "this is part of the folk process," or "research is essential to novel writing" or "The myth of originality? There's no such thing."

But frankly, that's all rubbish. Deeply dishonest rubbish.

McEwen, to his credit, did cite Andrews' book in an afterword, but this sort of "borrowing"--closely following passages in the original work, often adding very little of his own--merits more than a mere citation: he should have acknowledged relying heavily on passages from her book in particular portions of his.

Dylan, on the other hand does nothing whatsoever to acknowledge where and when he adapts the work of others into his own. The liner notes do nothing but trumpet his own creativity "All songs written by Bob Dylan." Not a word about Henry Timrod. At the very least, if Timrod is good enough to inspire the mighty Dylan, he ought to be good enough for a recommendation?

And why don't these writers tell us where they "borrow"? Because they are interested precisely in maintaining the illusion that they are fonts of pure creativity. That their originality is, if not quite superhuman, at least far out of the reach of your typical fan or reader.

No one is interested in STOPPING borrowing. It has, of course, always been the case that authors borrow. But authors aren't valorized in our culture for clever borrowing. They are valorized for creativity. And if "originality" doesn't exist, then say so. Stop trying to make a buck and foster the illusion by keeping things ambiguous: if you borrow, let us know in a graciously composed side note.

You don't need footnotes, just something like, "Much of the material regarding field nursing in this book relies heavily on No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews, a memoir of the era that I highly recommend to interested readers blah blah."

Or, "Several of the songs on Modern Times owe a debt to the work of the Civil-War poet Henry Timrod, whose Collected Poems are published by blah blah"

That's how you acknowledge and repay a literary debt. Anything less and you are essentially a rip-off artist, trading on the fact that for most of the public "originality" is far from dead. Though "truth" and "graciousness" might well be dead amongst authors.