Note on Malcolm Gladwell

There was a time I really loved Malcolm Gladwell. (Mostly for his Revisionist History podcast.) Then there was a time I really couldn’t stand him. (Mostly for the toxic galaxy brain “everything is not how it seems” trend he just understood before anyone else.)

Listening to a bit of Revisionist History again, I must again say that I appreciate his work. Is it a bit bonkers, oversimplifying, cutting corners? Sure! But this ain’t the 2010s any more, so everything is a bit bonkers, oversimplifying, cutting corners. What I appreciate about it is the playful, childlike joy in every of the weird weird stories he’s digging up. It’s clear: There is a man who has his audience and his millions and who is now paid to spend his time and his producer’s money (oh – his own money, he’s also an entrepreneur!) on any flight of fancy coming his way. The internet at its best! How beautiful!

There is also something wise in his attitude that I more and more learn to appreciate. A younger, more idealistic me would have seen it as careless, egocentric, even reckless. The way he celebrates fraudsters, for examples. His wild extrapolations. But I am not that person any more. I think we all understand internet celebrities better by now, how they too are experts only in a very narrow field. Gladwell is special among celebrity authors in how he has kept his connection to the here and now and all the messy chaotic details of the world. Sure, he is about the grand theories, but only because he doesn’t take them serious.

In “Hamlet was Wrong” he tells his story of hiring people. It’s just adorable! He runs into a guy on the streets, finds out he’s an accountant, and wants to hire him right away. The accountant has to force him to a real meeting to feel professional. Same with his assistants. He hires one assistant’s flatmate as he assumes she has good taste!

Why? Because he’s a “nihilist.” It’s not that he doesn’t care, but he thinks all the hiring theater is bullshit. So why bother.

I guess that’s why my stance towards him changed (for now?) whereas I still detest the galaxy brain twitterverse. There is no irony in galaxy-brainery, no real playfulness, no not-taking-yourself-serious. Sure, all the theories are totally bonkers as well, but all the gurus pray about them as if the world depended on them. You are supposed to take them serious! You could imagine Pizzagate to be a kind of weird postmodern online performance, but alas, it wasn’t!

And that’s the other thing. You can be fun and playful and earnest nonetheless. In “A memorial for the living“, he tells the story of 9/11 Memorial Plaza and how everything came together. How the winning architect was an underdog. How the construction needed mountains of ingenuity to get done on time.

The highlight is an interview with the person whose job it was to research the names of all the victims. She tried to find the names of the homeless who got missing, and tried her best to find out who know whom, so their names could stand next to each other on the memorial. The lady is driven to tears when she tells the story of how she wasn’t able to link the names of two people who died in different towers.

America, you are such a strange country. Having people like that, yet wasting all our time with oh so many obvious assholes, charlatans, and grifters…

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