It has been a tough year for authority figures in fields as diverse as finance (hello, Wall Street), politics (RIP, Moammar Gadhafi) and sports (goodbye, Joe Paterno), so it's no wonder Malcolm Gladwell is preoccupied with the uses and abuses of power. Mr. Gladwell, who wrote bestsellers The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, is planning to make this the subject of his next book, due out in the fall of 2013. The 48-year-old New Yorker staff writer, who grew up in Elmira, Ont., was in Vancouver this week for a speaking engagement with the venerable Bon Mot Book Club. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Gladwell discussed his new book, the Occupy movement and what might make him grab his Canadian passport and head back home for good.
What more you can tell me about the theme of your book?
I wish I knew. The problem is when I write books, they evolve as I write them. They start out being about one thing and often end up being about another. I don't know how the book ends at the moment. I've only plotted out a third of it. It's entirely unclear to me. All I'll say is I am very interested in the foibles of the powerful.
What kinds of powerful people are you interested in?
At this stage, all kinds since I have a book to fill. I am interested in, obviously, military power. I am interested in economic power. I am interested in any sort of situation. We're always in situations where power is an issue, where we're not equally matched with our competitors, compatriots, colleagues. Whenever there is a kind of disequilibrium, it's interesting. It's kind of puzzling and complex. That's what I am interested in exploring. Those moments of disequilibrium.
Was there incident – a tipping point – that led into this new project?
I never can remember where I come up with my story ideas. I just have things I am thinking about. And they coalesce and I go off. It's very much in the air, isn't it? We're at a moment where, between the Occupy movement and the rebellions and revolutions in the Arab world, these questions are very top-of-mind.
What do you make of the Occupy movement?
I am intensely curious about it. And my question is where it leads. It has all of the characteristics of an incipient movement, right? It has a lot of emotion, but not a lot of clarity at this point, right? That's how social movements start. They start with a large number of grievances. And if they succeed, they sort through them and figure out a coherent plan of action. And that's the interesting question with the Occupy movements. Will they become strategic in that sense? That's what I am curious to find out. Can they convert the considerable emotional energy they have into a pointed and strategic assault on the status quo? I've read a lot about the civil-rights movement in recent years. People have forgotten how intensely strategic it was. It was a carefully controlled, incredibly hierarchical, thoughtful, even Machiavellian assault on the status quo. It couldn't be more different than the Occupy movement.
Isn't organization at odds with the Occupy movement?
If they want to persist in not having a spokesman, then they're going to seriously, I think, limit their ability to create meaningful change. They can make a lot of noise, but they won't make a lot of change. That's why the example of the civil-rights movement is so instructive. There's a lazy reading of history that suggested that was a bunch of black people and white liberals marching down the street. Totally wrong. That was a brilliantly orchestrated campaign put together by Martin Luther King Jr. – one of the foremost tacticians of the 20th century. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Then how can Occupy go anywhere?
It's the beginning of something. It's the opening salvo. What they're tapping into is something very profound, which is a level of frustration, a genuine level of anger and frustration with the way our society is organized, and the imbalances in the economic inequality and the imbalances in power and the way that the political system has been hijacked by special interests. These are all, particularly in the United States, less so here, but these are all profoundly important issues that absolutely, I think, will find some more coherent voice. This is going to be going on for years. I think it's foolish to pass judgment on Occupy after six months.
I'd like to go for a moment into your review of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, in which you referred to Mr. Jobs as a “tweaker.” It caused some discussion. Were you surprised by that response?
Oh. I don't know. I don't know what you're referring to by the response. Lots of people seemed to like it. There were a handful of times when people thought I was dismissing him when, in fact, the point of the piece is that the tweaker is one of the noblest and most important of all roles in innovation. I was trying to both characterize and ennoble his efforts, but I think most people got that.
Are there such a thing, in your view, as political tweakers?
Most of politics is tweaking. There is very little revolutionary thinking – particularly in mature democracies. You have less real innovation and you have tweaking in the best sense of the word because politics is necessarily so grounded in the real world. You don't really have a chance to start over. We're happy with what we've got so, I think, by necessity, we avoid the really revolutionary voices and we embrace those who are willing to work to perfect what's already there.
Any examples come to mind?
Bill Clinton's a great example of a masterful political tweaker who, at the end of the day, for all the controversy that surrounded his time in office, accomplished a great deal, left the country in really good shape and worked really well within a very hostile system. He did not turn American society upside down. He backed away from his most revolutionary notion, which was health-care reform, and he contented himself with perfecting the society at the edges and did a real good job.
Is there anyone else you would class as a notable (political) tweaker?
It's hard to even be a tweaker these days. American government is essentially at a standstill. They're just incapable of doing anything at the moment. Nothing has gotten done in America since health-care reform. That was a miraculous thing.
You point out that most of politics is tweaking. Do you see that changing?
Increasingly now, there are these situations where something more is demanded. I don't know whether you can tweak your way out of the euro. I think maybe you have to blow up the euro and that demands a very different mindset. It may have been that was a completely misbegotten experiment, and that it will cost all of Europe in the end and maybe something radical is demanded. And the health-care system in America, I think, is so ill at the moment. I think it, too, needs to be blown up. I don't think it can be tweaked.
Despite health-care reform?
Yeah, I actually think health-care reform was too timid. So there are a handful of areas where problems are so intractable that I think, maybe, you need some more revolutionary vision. We have gone beyond the realm of the tweaker who is at least someone who gets things done.
Where do you see that going?
I don't know. I see myself taking my Canadian passport and coming home.
Ian Bailey is a member of The Globe and Mail's British Columbia bureau. This interview has been edited and condensed.