Malcolm Gladwell: Hierarchies are crumbling, but the new world is a better place

Do you honestly believe that people can continue to be pessimistic about our ability to solve problems? That’s the question the best-selling author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell asked in his Keynote at Adobe Summit. Why all that optimism amid a pandemic that still wreaks havoc? The past year’s events have irrevocably changed our societies from hierarchies to networks, and Gladwell demonstrates why that’s brilliant news. 

Gladwell: from hierarchies to networks

Gladwell reminisced about his generation’s most defining social movement: Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the 1960s. Back then, if someone wanted to change the world, it had to be perfectly organized. Gladwell talks about King’s master plan to bring down a police chief in Birmingham who was a terrible racist. It took a whole year to think it through. Long story short: one tiny step after another, King drove the police chief over the edge, and the media caught him attacking children with his dogs. 

“King’s people are in there looking out the window at the dogs and the kids marching, and they start jumping up and down, and they say, we’ve got to move. Now, for those of us who are my age or older, this is what a revolution looks like,” Gladwell says. 

But that’s not what a revolution looks like today. 

The revolutions of our time

Gladwell points out that we already experienced our version of King’s revolution: the Black Lives Matter movement. But how its organisation looks like is an entirely different story. The spark ignited immediately after the murder of George Floyd, without any sophisticated planning or an appointed leader. Gladwell says there wasn’t even a unified ideology: individual protesters had their own notions about what should be done next. “What passes for a social revolution in today’s world and what passes for a social revolution in the US in which I was born could not be more different,” he explains. 

In the past, any real change in any area of life was achieved with hierarchy: a closed system with clear rules, ideas, and codes. Everyone who wanted to join needed to learn them first. And the power usually concentrated on the top among a few people. 

Today, networks are much more critical than hierarchies, Gladwell explains. “Think about the big social movements of the last ten years. Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter last summer. They don’t resemble hierarchies at all,” Gladwell illustrates. On the contrary, they were based on open networks. Anyone could join, the rules are flexible, the plans are made one step at the time. As for the leadership, it’s not top-down either: the power is “diffused to the people on the streets, to the front lines.”

Networks, networks everywhere

In his Keynote, Gladwell showcases that networks became the cornerstone of today’s society. Centralized, disciplined encyclopedias have been replaced with Wikipedia, fueled by community. We rent our houses to random strangers from the internet, and we trust strangers to drive us around cities. 

Still, Gladwell doesn’t want to put one over another. “Hierarchies are really, really good at executing complicated plans,” he says. However, networks are much easier to form and operate because they don’t depend on one leader, you can fund them overnight, and they’re so much more resilient than hierarchies. In the pre-pandemic world, the two coexisted, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes less so. But the Covid-19 crisis has changed everything, and networks seem to be a few steps ahead. 

Gladwell says the transformation from hierarchies was ongoing from the moment the lockdowns started last March. “What happened? We deconstructed every hierarchy in the whole economy,” he states. Indeed: we used to work at a designated place at a designated time under supervision. Fast forward to today “And we replaced it with what? With a system where you worked from wherever you want to work. You worked whenever you wanted to work. Your supervisor was off somewhere else. And all you did was check in periodically on Zoom,” he describes. 

Something similar could happen to education. Why sit four years in the same university, when you could just cherry-pick whatever suits you from several schools? The same goes for brands, where we see people leaning away from uniform Starbucks to coffee shops with individualities and storylines rooted in their respective networks.

A better world 

Gladwell ends his Keynote speech with a reminder that humanity has achieved something unprecedented throughout the pandemic. The vaccine rollout was an incredible scientific feat that has never happened before.

“Do you honestly believe that people can continue to be pessimistic about our ability to solve problems? Do you think that opposition to genetically modified organisms can survive that kind of case study? I don’t think so. I think we’re in a very different world now, and it is a much better place. It is a much more hopeful place, and it is a much stronger and resilient place. That’s the world that we have to be ready for,” he concludes. 

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