Chapter 14 - Tipping Points and Criticality

NOVEMBER 6, 2011

Chapter 14 - Tipping Points and Criticality
Who could ever calculate the path of a molecule?

How do we know that the creations of worlds are not determined by falling grains of sand?" -Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.

Scientifically speaking, criticality is the point at which complexity tips into chaos; and the term is sometimes used to illustrate the phase change that occurs for example, when ice melts or when water boils.

Water moves from solid form to liquid and from liquid to gas and yet a single point of criticality triggers each change. In other words, nothing happens until that exact (more or less) moment is reached. Ice melts at zero degrees Celsius and water boils at 100 degrees on the same scale. Temperature is the agent that allows (forces) the change to take place.

In epidemiology, theory says small changes will have little or no effect on a system until a critical mass is reached. Then a further small change "tips" the system and a large effect is observed. In each case, the properties and the nature of the system have changed.

Self-organizing behavior such as a pile of sand also can reach a stage of criticality when the sand grains give way suddenly. Earthquakes are subject to similar processes. There is increasing evidence that societies (and businesses) do much the same thing.

Ever participate in a standing ovation? Didn't it build bit by bit until it became thunderous? You might say that this is a small illustration of criticality in action.

What triggered your action? Did you feel any pressure to participate? What does this mean to us? How can we use this information?

Perhaps that's best said by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point, in this excerpt from the book:

A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world we think we live in now. Think, for a moment, about the concept of contagiousness.

If I say that word to you, you think of colds and the flu or perhaps something very dangerous like H.I.V. or Ebola. We have, in our minds, a very specific, biological, notion of what contagiousness means.

But if there can be epidemics of crime or epidemics of fashion, there must be all kinds of things just as contagious as viruses.

Contagiousness, in other words, is an unexpected property of all kinds of things, and we have to remember that if we are to recognize and diagnose epidemic change.

The second of the principles of epidemics--that little changes can somehow have big effects and vice versa--is a also a fairly radical notion. We are, as humans, heavily socialized to make a kind of rough approximation between cause and effect.

... we are trained to think that what goes in to any transaction or relationship or system must be directly related, in intensity and dimension, to what comes out... To appreciate the power of epidemics, we have to abandon this expectation about proportionality. We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly.

It's a book about change. In particular, it's a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does.

If you talk to the people who study epidemics--epidemiologists--you realize that they have a strikingly different way of looking at the world. They don't share the assumptions the rest of us have about how and why change happens. The word "Tipping Point", for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point. It's the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards.

… because once you start to understand this pattern you start to see it everywhere. I'm convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does. This isn't just a metaphor, in other words. I'm talking about a very literal analogy. One of the things I explore in the book is that ideas can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is.

… We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical realm. But I assure you that … you'll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can.

A meme is a idea that behaves like a virus--that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.

The virtue of an epidemic, after all, is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly. That makes it something of obvious and enormous interest to everyone from educators trying to reach students, to businesses trying to spread the word about their product, or for that matter to anyone who's trying to create a change with limited resources."