Two interesting quotes from the Q&A discussion following Malcolm Gladwell’s March 13 keynote address (audio) at SXSW Interactive 2005. Gladwell’s keynote focussed on rapid cognition, the subject of his latest book, Blink:
Timecode: 47:12 - 48:18
How do you find great anecdotes?
“I believe that research is a fundamentally social process. The way that you find great, interesting anecdotes and stories is when you have an idea that you want to pursue you tell absolutely every person you ever meet that’s what you are interested in to the point where you become that really scary guy at the party that everyone is trying to avoid.
“In fact, I could probably go through both books and give you the name of the person who gave me the story in every case. It’s almost entirely a person. It’s rarely a book.
“I have enormous faith in how much gold there is to be found in random social encounters, and these books, to some extent, are a tribute to that.”
How do you know how much information to take away (in order to improve decision making)?
“There is an interesting line of argument that says it doesn’t matter what you take away. It only matters that you take away. This is the whole open source movement in intelligence gathering, which points that there are now numerous cases going back to Pearl Harbor where the people who had access to less information about a given intelligence problem, regardless of what kind of information it was (whether it was high quality or low quality) tended to make more accurate predictions of what was going to happen than those who had access to all information.
“In Pearl Harbor, the intelligence establishment which had more information about Japan than almost any country it’s ever had about a potential enemy totally failed to see the pattern in there that said that the Japanese are going to attack. On the other hand, if you read the (American) newspapers in 1941 you would have gotten actually a really ...Roberta Wohl also makes this point in her book on Pearl Harbor… if you just read the newspapers you would have gotten a profoundly more accurate sense of Japanese intentions. Even though the people who were writing newspaper articles had access to a fraction - none of the codes, none of the top secret stuff - a fraction of the information. But by virtue of not being overburdened, they were able to see the critical pattern.
(See Pearl Harbor; Warning and Decision, by Roberta Wohlstetter, Out of Print)
“I always think about that when I think about bloggers. Sometimes not being overburneded with every conceivable last piece of analysis after since months of reporting gives you access to an insight that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
At work I have a saying I like to toss around after coming up with a headline in five seconds that one of my copy editors has been struggling with for a half-hour: “It’s much easier to write a good headline when you’re not saddled with irrelevant things like content.”
I’m only kidding when I say it, of course. But maybe there’s something to it.