We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, "What is the purpose of a sofa?"
Malcolm Gladwell's latest piece promptly fulfills its modest purpose as a teaser for Walter Isaacson's new book, summing it up as "enthralling" even before the end of the first paragraph, thus laying the groundwork for Isaacson to join Larry Ellison and Eric Schmidt at the next New Yorker Festival for a friendly round of what-does-it-all-mean metareporting.
By the time we've arrived at Act Two, Gladwell has begun to resemble his subject. With a flourish that is simultaneously the sort of thing at which Jobs himself excelled and which he found so frustrating from others, Gladwell tweaks an old idea and presents it to you as fresh, new, more perfect:
One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France, or Germany? Many reasons have been offered. Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, for instance. It had a good patent system in place. It had relatively high labor costs, which encouraged the search for labor-saving innovations. In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain's human-capital advantage -- in particular, on a group they call "tweakers." They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them -- refined and perfected them, and made them work.
Was Steve Jobs a Samuel Crompton or was he a Richard Roberts? In the eulogies that followed Jobs's death, last month, he was repeatedly referred to as a large-scale visionary and inventor. But Isaacson's biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker.
In case you've forgotten your classic Stephenson, here's a refresher:
Hackworth was a forger, Dr. X was a honer. The distinction was at least as old as the digital computer. Forgers created a new technology and then forged on to the next project, having explored only the outlines of its potential. Honers got less respect because they appeared to sit still technologically, playing around with systems that were no longer start, hacking them for all they were worth, getting them to do things the forgers had never envisioned.
Compare with Gladwell:
The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution.
At this point the Gladwell Method is tried and true, but surely there is still room for a tweak or two.