Daily Phil
Saturday 18th March 2000

It’s strange, but wonderful, when so many things click into place. Or, rather than clicking into place, slowly coalescing into recognisable form like some gorgeous but useless Flash interface.

I’d been stuck for a couple of weeks over a paper I’m supposed to be writing on ideational change; how ideas change society. I couldn’t get a grip on it, the classroom discussions seemed to be passing me by, it made no sense. Other ideas of change, such as technological change are no problem, I can see the cause and effect, the feedback loops. But this ideational stuff seemed like it was only the effect of external causes. Isn’t it technology, for example, which makes new ways of thinking, new ideas and paradigms, possible?

Stewart Brand’s keynote at SXSW began to slowly spin that swirling Flash collection of thoughts into a more coherent shape. He was doing his Long Now stuff, but before he began talking about the Clock he showed a diagram indicating how different phenomena change at different speeds, from slow to fast: nature, culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce, fashion. We could argue about the ordering but it stopped that spinny, whizzy 3D text in my mind spinning and whizzing quite so much.

Then yesterday it clicked, and the Flash stopped swirling and became something useful. Salon reviewed Malcolm Gladwell‘s The Tipping Point which compares the spread of information through a society to the spread of epidemics. Then Peter Merholz mentioned the same idea and how the Internet allows these epidemics to spread much faster. And everything was suddenly obvious. So today I rushed to the library and wrestled with microfilms to get Gladwell’s great ‘The Coolhunters’ article from 1997, not realising at the time that it was online. (But it must be said, looking through microfilms containing New Yorkers back to the twenties was a refreshing break from the web.) Then I went over the road to Denny’s and sat reading a chunk of Charles Mackay’s 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds which has fantastic chapters about the South Sea Bubble, ‘Tulipomania’ and The Mississippi Scheme, all epidemic-like events. So now I have almost too many diverse ideas to cram into one essay; a satisfying position to be in.

To top off this coalescing of ideas, today’s Monstro! neatly ties up all the loose ends which have been flapping around in my mind since Tuesday’s weblogs round-table at SXSW, and this is as much a relief as the more worthy ideational gubbins, believe me.

So it’s not been a bad birthday.