Taking on Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is an author and cultural commentator of increasing influence, witness the success of his books "The Tipping Point," "Blink," and his latest, "Outliers."  Blogger John Kelvie of takes Gladwell to task for some of his pithier observations
, most notably his conclusion a a 2002 book review for the New Yorker that Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for David Sarnoff:

1) His piece on the inventor of the TV, Philo T Farnsworth, and his “failure” to bring the TV to market, something the large corporation RCA later succeeded in. The piece concludes that the individual inventor is often insufficient (as the subtitle of the article asserts: “The Myth of the Lone Inventor”). On it’s face this point is fair enough, though a bit obvious: obviously sometimes individual inventors are behind bringing new technologies to market, sometimes corporations are, and sometimes a sort of long-distance collaboration between the two does it….

Kelvie quotes Gladwell's article at some length, but arrives at his own more enlightened conclusion:

Either way, to suggest that corporations invent better (or at least are
the only way to invent) is demonstrably untrue: after all, it’s
Farnsworth that invented the Cathode Ray Tube, not RCA. Could RCA have
invented it? I guess (Gladwell says they were never “more than a step
behind” though apparently a step means approximately two years), but I
think the fact that Farnsworth did it on his own is pretty compelling
evidence of the efficacy of individual inventors.

I think part of the problem that I had with Aaron Sorkin's play The Farnsworth Invention stems from it's tendency to arrive at pretty much the same conclusion as Gladwell.  I guess there is something that happens once your prosperity becomes dependent on the largesse of a corporation:  you start to think that's the only path to success.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *