Crowdsourcing, nudging and mass collaborating jostled eagerly. But was 2008 a vintage year for ideas books? It was a mixed bag—and perhaps not serious enoughby James Harkin / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
For one night in November, fans of The Lion King were kept out of London’s west end. Instead, the hip and attractive gathered to pay homage to a skinny man with eccentric hair: Malcolm Gladwell, the Lion King of idea-entrepreneurs.
Gladwell, the bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Blink, had flown in from New York to talk about his latest book, Outliers. The book debunks the idea of genius, by arguing that circumstances and culture are at least as important as talent in determining who succeeds.
Gladwell’s thesis is unlikely to trouble the Nobel committee, but his asides and enthusiasm can captivate an audience. And quite a few smart academics are now following his lead. Before Outliers hit the shops in November, Nudge had easily been 2008’s noisiest ideas book (reflected in its authors’ podium finish in Prospect’s public intellectuals contest). Sunstein and Thaler’s breezy attempt to move their behavioural economists’ tanks onto Gladwell’s social psychological lawn shows how discrete encouragements and understanding human foibles can change our behaviour. It was an instant hit amongst think tankers and new Tories alike.
But if Gladwell was this year’s icon and Nudge its most successful book, “mass collaboration” was certainly the buzz idea. Another quasi-academic, American media guru Clay Shirky, got in first in February with Here Comes Everybody—an exposé of how internet-based collaboration changes everything from encyclopedias to campaigns against paedophilic priests. Hot on his heels came Dan Tapscott’s Wikinomics and Charlie Leadbeater’s We Think. Journalist Jeff Howe, meanwhile, took the prize for the year’s most irritating neologism. His Crowdsourcing owed more than a small debt to James Surowiecki’s argument (in 2004’s The Wisdom of Crowds) that groups make better decisions than experts. “Given the right conditions,” Howe says, “the crowd will almost always out-perform any number of employees.”