When Mao famously said that power springs from the barrel of a gun, it was assumed that he was talking about guns. There wasn’t much interest at the time in how he chose to communicate that sentiment: whether he said it in a speech, say, or whispered it to a friend, or wrote it in his diary or published it in a book. That would never happen today, of course. We now believe that the “how” of a communicative act is of huge importance. We would say that Mao posted that power comes from the barrel of a gun on his Facebook page, or we would say that he blogged about gun barrels on Tumblr—and eventually, as the apostles of new media wrestled with the implications of his comments, the verb would come to completely overcome the noun, the part about the gun would be forgotten, and the the big takeaway would be: Whoa. Did you see what Mao just tweeted?
Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last summer in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.
☛ The New Yorker News Desk: “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” by Malcom Gladwell, February 2, 2011
Although I share some of Gladwell’s exasperation regarding the exaggerated, over-enthusiastic views regarding the importance of “new technologies” for protests in Middle East (Tunisia, Egypt), I really can’t get myself to agree with the little piece he just published in The New Yorker.
For instance, take the very first sentences of his argument. Gladwell refers to Mao’s famous quote: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” This quote was part of an article titled “Problems of War and Strategy” which itself was part of Mao Tse-tung’s concluding speech at the Sixth Plenary Session of the Sixth Central Committee of the Party, held in Yanan on November 6, 1938. The article was first reproduced on page 224 of the second volume of the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (I couldn’t find the date of the first Chinese edition, though the first English translation was published in London by Foreign Languages Press in 1955). Finally, the quote was again reproduced in chapter 5 of the Quotations from Chairman Mao, better known in to Westerners as The Little Red Book. This book was published by the Government of the People’s Republic of China from April 1964 until de mid-70’s. It’s considered by many sources to be the second best-selling book of all time, topped only by The Bible.
Now, go back to the second sentence quoted above and ask yourself: if Mao had whispered his saying about political power to a friend’s ear, would have Gladwell been able to write that Mao “famously” said so?
I’m not saying that the “how” is more important than the “what”. Nor am I saying it’s as important as the “what”. I’m saying that one ought to pay attention to the “how” as well as to the “what” while studying a phenomenon or an event to see how they are related, how they influence each other. Especially when the event –in this case the Egyptian protests– is still unfolding. That should make for a more balanced discussion.
About Malcolm Gladwell:
Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine since 1996. His 1999 profile of Ron Popeil won a National Magazine Award, and in 2005 he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He is the author of four books, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” (2000) , “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005), and “Outliers: The Story of Success” (2008) all of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, “What the Dog Saw” (2009) is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. (read more on Malcolm Gladwell official website)