Tipping Points

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of a “tipping point,” the point at which something is displaced from a state of equilibrium and evolves, either quickly or slowly, to a new and different state of equilibrium.  For example, my telephone bill used to be something like $20 per month; now it is several hundred.  The capabilities offered by smart phones led me, and many others, to commit to service contracts that increased bills by a factor of ten or more.  What “tipped” me was the iPhone.  For many others, it was Blackberries.  Now, we can talk, text, and email 24 x 7.  We are always connected and it somehow seems like that is the way it should be.

I am not concerned, at least not at the moment, with whether or not 24 x 7 connectivity is a good idea.  Instead, the point is that we somehow have arrived to where we are willing to pay for connectivity amounts of money that we used to allocate for monthly car payments.  In the process, the “equilibrium” that was $20 per month is now $200.  Change has happened and we are unlikely to retreat to past communication habits, in part because the younger “digital natives” never experienced that past.

Most major social and economic changes do not happen because we consciously decide to make a major change.  Instead, such changes creep up on us until a tipping point is reached and, seemingly suddenly, the major change is upon us.  Yet, there were often many, usually unseen, symptoms of these changes manifesting themselves in our social and cultural peripheral vision.  It may be difficult to anticipate what the tipping points will be.  However, it is possible to watch for slowly emerging changes.  Global warming and natural resource depletion are reasonable examples.   Demographic changes are another great example.

The average education level of Americans increased every year for the first 380 years since Europeans first colonized North America.  This level has been decreasing for the past ten years.  The United States was long ranked first in terms of percentage of young adults with college degrees.  Now, we rank 12th globally.  These trends suggest that at some point we will lose the lead in number of patents granted and number of scientific articles published.  Next, we will no longer lead in terms of percentage of Noble Prizes garnered.  There is a tipping point waiting for us out there unless we address these trends.  If we do pursue these trends aggressively, we will not need to know what the tipping point would have been because it will not happen.


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