By Minda Zetlin
Malcolm Gladwell believes that the post-Covid world will be a much better and more hopeful place than it was before the pandemic. He explained his reasoning in a thought-provoking talk at last month’s virtual Adobe Summit.
Gladwell is best known for his bestsellers Outliers and The Tipping Point, and recently published The Bomber Mafia about World War II. He began by noting that “only a fool makes predictions, especially about the future,” and that his vision of what’s coming could turn out to be wrong. But, he said, “I thought it would be interesting at least to give this one a shot.”
Gladwell began by talking about the difference between hierarchies and networks. For example, he said, Martin Luther King’s campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama was organized as a hierarchy. King was very much in command and planned the campaign very carefully.
Compare that with last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which Gladwell said was a network. The BLM movement has a collective of leaders instead of just one, and those leaders weren’t necessarily front and center, nor were they commanding the troops. Unlike King’s well disciplined marchers who followed precise instructions, BLM protesters were asked to remain peaceful and given guidelines for staying safe, but could express themselves however they chose.
The hierarchy has a long history; the network is a more modern arrangement, he said. Forty years ago, the idea that you might rent your home to a stranger for a few days, (as with Airbnb), would have sounded nuts he added. “No one in America would have said yes to that. In a world that is comfortable with the network, comfortable with the idea of flexible, open, decentralized arrangements, it makes sense.”
Which model is better? Hierarchies and networks each have strengths and weaknesses he said. “The important question is, which of these two models is winning?” Before the pandemic, both models were common, sometimes in harmony with each other and sometimes in conflict, he said. “What I think has happened with the pandemic is, the network has won. What we are going to take away from this experience is a clear preference for that way of organizing ourselves over the old one.” This is happening in part because of the big lesson we’ve all learned about remote work and flexible work. “We had a system that had been in place for hundreds of years where employees went to a specific place at a specific time every working day to be supervised by a more experienced manager. Overnight, we took that system and we just threw it out the window.”
The triumph of the network was evident in the vaccine rollout, he added. A hierarchy lover like himself would have hired a retired general to oversee the operation and given everyone a number based on their Social Security number. Everyone would have gotten an email or text telling them exactly when and where to show up for the vaccine. Instead, he said, “We did it like a network. States, cities, do whatever you want. People take charge, figure out where you can go. We’ll change the eligibility rules every couple of weeks and it will be on a website which you can find.” The result of doing it in that open, flexible, decentralized way? “Probably, outside of Israel, the best vaccine rollout in the world,” he said.
In other words, the network has won. “We have had proof of just how good networks are at solving modern problems. I don’t think we can go back.”
“If you look back on the years leading up to the pandemic, what’s striking is how much gloom and doom there was in the air,” Gladwell said. “We were worried about our future. We were worried about the ability of our institutions to deal with the modern world. Many people were profoundly pessimistic about our ability to solve the problems we saw in the future.”
What changed that was not the pandemic itself, but science’s response to it. “What has happened over the past year is something without precedent in the history of medicine,” he said. The Covid virus was identified in December 2019 and sequenced online in early January. “Moderna looked at that sequence and created its candidate vaccine over a weekend. They were in the clinic for safety trials by March, and they were successfully inoculating people with 95 percent certainty in December.”
Having seen all this, he said, “Do you think there will still be a powerful anti-vaccination movement in this country, in the face of an experience where we’ve managed to stop a deadly disease in its tracks inside of a year? I don’t think so,” And, he asked: “Do you honestly believe that people can continue to be pessimistic about our ability to solve problems?”
Gladwell believes we can’t. “I think we’re in a very different world now,” he concluded. “And it is a much better place, It is a much more hopeful place, and a much stronger and more resilient place. That’s the world that we have to be ready for.” Let’s hope he’s right.