Malcolm Gladwell: Plagiarism Is Just ‘Bad Manners’
The bestselling author sat down with Marlow Stern at SXSW to discuss his new documentary ‘Autonomy,’ plagiarism allegations, and that strange marijuana column.
AUSTIN, Texas—It’s only natural that, at a festival the late, great David Carr once branded “a riot of corporate logos,” Malcolm Gladwell, perhaps the most prominent cultural arbiter of our time, would make an appearance.
Gladwell, the celebrated New Yorker writer and author of bestselling books like Blink and The Tipping Point, is here at SXSW to promote his new documentary Autonomy, which provides a primer on the past, present and future of autonomous cars—something that the so-called thought leader, who is a producer on the film (and talking head in it), sees as an “inevitability.”
His involvement with the film, made in concert with Car and Driver magazine and directed by Alex Horwitz, dates back to an episode of his Revisionist History podcast featuring the editor of Car and Driver. After their spirited chat, he later asked Gladwell if he would like to be involved in their self-driving car doc.
While Autonomy is decidedly pro-autonomous cars, it does a commendable job of presenting the arguments both for and against the emerging technology. And while I’m fascinated by all the futuristic gadgetry—Minority Report is a sci-fi favorite—I was also interested in speaking with Gladwell about the various controversies that have engulfed him, from allegations of plagiarism to his recent controversial column on the dangers of marijuana. This is our chat.
You know, before we get into autonomous cars, I’m curious what you think of these electric scooters we’re seeing zipping all over Austin.
Oh, I was going to use one to go back to my hotel—for the first time. I think they’re fantastic. For built-up urban spaces, they’re ideal.
I personally think they’re a public menace. But let’s talk Autonomy. Did your involvement in the doc change your perception of autonomous cars?
I now believe it is inevitable. The film did two things: one, it convinced me that it’s absolutely happening; and two, that it’s happening sooner than I’d ever imagined. It didn’t change my subjective evaluation of it but it changed my understanding of the phenomenon. I have no more insight into when more than anyone else, but the limiting principle is probably not the technology, the limiting principle is almost certainly going to be the regulatory environment, and political jurisdictions to allow it. But it does seem like we’re awfully close to a self-driving car that’s safer than a human-driven car, so at that point it’s just up to others to pull the switch.
The film dedicates a bit of time to the effects that this will have on the economy, since long-haul truck driving is one of the most popular jobs in the U.S. What do you think the consequences of autonomous cars will be? It seem like there are going to be a ton of people out of work and who’d need to seek retraining.
I understand it will disrupt people’s lives but then again, every single technological change does that, and that process is ongoing in a million different areas already. It’s not as if this transformation is going to happen overnight, and do you know how many long-haul truck driving vacancies there are? There’s a lot. So it’s happening in an atmosphere of full employment—knock on wood. And also, it may not create as many jobs as it displaces in the short-term, and it doesn’t create the same kinds of jobs, but it does create a new set of jobs. This is part of a larger move toward the internet of things, which is an astonishing transformation that is going to take a huge amount of human power. If you think about embodying objects with digital connectivity—which we want to do to every object, not just the car—the amount of people we’re going to need to write that software, install it, fix it, train people in it, on and on…
…But that’s a highly-skilled job. That takes a ton of training.
True, but being a long-haul truck driver takes a lot of training and a certain degree of skill. I don’t think we believe that those jobs are outside the ability of people who are currently employed in driving trucks. I always think of, if you want to introduce “the internet of things” to my mother’s apartment, well you’d better have someone spending a lot of time with her to tell her how to use things, and to fix it when it goes wrong—which is going to happen a lot when you have inexpert users.
There appears to be a divide along party lines when it comes to the future of automation. They do seem to be more forward-thinking on the Democratic side when it comes to thinking about automation, how it’s displacing jobs, and how to potentially replace those jobs. The Republican Party does not seem to have given this as much thought.
I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that. I think the public rhetoric of Democrats is different than that of Republicans, but I think privately, both are unavoidably caught up in this transformation. Regulations are going to come before Congress, we’re going to have to devise regulatory frameworks for these kinds of vehicles—both parties will be intimately involved in that, and it’s not like one party is turning its back on the process.
You don’t think there’s more reluctance to technological change on the part of the Republican Party? Look at the fossil fuel industry versus green energy.
That’s different, though.
It’s still a resistance to technological change.
I don’t know. Do you think the automobile industry is aligned more with one political party than the other?
Yes. I think they’re aligned more with the Republican Party, because they’re more aligned with the fossil fuel industry and those two things go hand in hand.
So, who’s behind this a hundred percent? The automobile industry, right? So, to the extent that they’re deeply interested in this development, and they’re aligned with the Republican Party, the Republican Party is going to be in the middle of it. The state of Arizona, the most Republican of states, has been the most willing to allow that experimentation in self-driving cars to go forward.
Not really the reddest of states anymore in light of Kyrsten Sinema’s midterm win. It’s definitely getting a bit more purple, but I hear ya.
Although I would raise an eyebrow a little bit at the idea that much of this imagined future is something that we can plan for. The real lesson of technology is you actually can’t plan for technological change, you can only react smartly and quickly to it. We really have no idea. With each of these new waves, the modal response to waves of technology is surprise, not “I knew this was going to happen.” There is no consequential part of the downside of the internet that was predicted. The two biggest problems we would say with the internet are: it seems to have a toxic effect on the quality of democracy, which nobody saw coming; the second thing is, we now think it probably is implicated in a profound way with the mental health of young people. Nobody saw that coming. So, can we plan? We can imagine. There are certain scenarios which we could make more likely. We could reconfigure urban spaces so the introduction of autonomous vehicles is easier, but do we know how people are going to use this technology? No. We have no clue.
Elizabeth Warren just spoke at SXSW about how she wants to break up the big tech companies—Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. And it does seem like many of these companies have exhibited patterns of abuse—both of information and employees.
Oh, I’m so in favor of breaking them all up. I would smash them to tiny pieces. I mean, find me a human being on the planet who thinks the breakup of AT&T was a bad idea? Find me a human being on the planet who thinks the breakup of Standard Oil was a bad idea? In retrospect it was absolutely clear it is not a good idea in technologically fluid situations to have one company with overwhelming amounts of power.
Sounds like you’re describing Amazon.
Oh, don’t even get me started on Amazon.
Well, you’re a New Yorker like me and we just had this big fight over its planned corporate headquarters in Queens. I was sort of agnostic, to be honest, and found people on both sides of the debate to be a bit hysterical over the whole thing.
I’m of two minds about this: if you have a strictly utilitarian economic analysis of the Amazon deal, would the city as a whole have benefitted? Were we going to get more back than what we were going to lose in whatever tax credits we were extending to them? The answer to that of course was yes, we would get more back. At the same time, does Amazon’s behavior disgust me? Yes, it does. They made a great pretense that they were choosing the place for their headquarters based on all these objective criteria—is this the right community for our workers, is their a knowledge base there, etc. But it turns out, what was it really about? Who gave them the sweetest deal. I just find that, for one of the most powerful companies in the world to go sniffing around money-grubbing like that. Google didn’t ask for that kind of deal. I’m just sick of the idea that where we are as a democracy in 2019 is that governments exist to bail out governments and rich people, so to the extent that we sent a message that we’re not willing to do that anymore, I think is just fine. Sadly, however, someone else will just give them the same deal. But it is time for corporate welfare to come to an end.
You’re on social media, so I’m sure you see the vitriolic replies and all that. But—and this is an admittedly broad question—how do you feel about the state of social media in 2019?
If you’re asking me if we’d be better off if Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist, I actually think we would be better off. But of course you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Speaking of pushback, I want to discuss your recent New Yorker piece on marijuana. I had several issues with it. It did seem to rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence versus scientific evidence. And there’s one portion in particular that a lot of people, myself included, took issue with concerning the rise in murder and aggravated assault in Washington.
OK. First, two comments. One is, the article was in large part a representation and a rephrasing of the National Academy of Medicine report, which was a report written by basically the 15 or 20 foremost experts on cannabis in the world. I was not representing anecdotal evidence in that sense, I was representing the state of knowledge in the scientific community. They are the ones who say we don’t know enough, not me.
There was a lot of correlation implying causation in your piece.
Hold on, hold on. Part two, I said that since we don’t know everything, let me give you the worst case scenario, which was this book. Now, I freely say throughout the article that the book’s [Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence] arguments are alarmist, one-sided, there’s a lot of correlation without causation, and you have to know how bad it’s going to be.
But isn’t that alarmist in itself?
Of course! But you have to engage the worst-case scenario if you are going to make up intelligent and thoughtful analysis. You can’t pretend that you are in the Magic Kingdom. And by the way, the positive response to that piece outnumbered the negative response by many, many orders of magnitude. But the cannabis-lovers who so objected to that are people who have put their hands over their ears, closed their eyes, and are simply drowning out all the noise. Look, if you were to put a label on an ounce of marijuana, what would the label say? Can you tell me whether someone who is pregnant should smoke this? You can’t. Can you tell me at what age someone should safely start smoking it? You can’t.
Look, I agree there should be more research done on it, but—
—But that’s all I was saying. There has never been a drug of that power legalized in this country without asking those basic questions. We are so far into uncharted territory here, and that’s all I was saying.
But I want to go back to Washington State. In the piece you directly correlated the rise of violent crime in the state to the legalization of marijuana.
I was just saying, look, the dude says… by the way, have you read that book? I so backed off 98 percent of that guy’s claims. I did want to point out though that it is a little odd that they have a violent crime problem in the state of Washington.
That’s because income inequality has risen in the state—including over the period in question, 2014-2017. It’s the 10th highest when it comes to income inequality in the U.S.
That would be a correlation without causation.
I think increased income inequality plays a far greater role in the rise of violent crime than the increased usage of marijuana, wouldn’t you?
How do you know?
Oh, come on. You really think that?
The city with the greatest income inequality in America is probably New York City. New York City is probably one of the safest cities in America.
I would say San Francisco is probably the city with the biggest income inequality in America, and New York is not one of the safest cities in America.
New York is an insanely safe city. It’s one of the safest cities in the world. So, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re on firmer ground than me.
You did a podcast that caused a bit of an uproar too, where you called Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression on SNL “toothless.” Now, I think a lot of the political sketches on SNL are pretty uninspired these days. They seem to mostly be regurgitating what Trump and his cohorts say every weekend.
I don’t really watch much Saturday Night Live. I haven’t watched in years. I don’t think that was a very successful podcast episode. I thought it was a difficult subject that I took a crack at, and I don’t think I took a particularly good crack at it.
What did you think was wrong with it in the audit?
I don’t know exactly what was wrong with it. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to say. There are some of those episodes where some don’t work, and that was a B-minus.
I’ve read several of your books, and I’m curious if it’s weird to be pegged as the “10,000 hours” guy, and then to have many people in the scientific community—evolutionary biologists, etc.—pretty much debunk that theory.
Well, there were many problems. One was the idea that it was most misused in the realm of sport, and my book was unconcerned with sport. So the idea was taken away from me, distorted, and reflected back on me unfairly a little bit. I don’t know if it’s been… I was uninterested in the number, I was simply interested in the notion that the gestation period for mastery is longer than we generally think. That was my only interest in that, which is a thoroughly uncontroversial notion—and the evidence for that continues to mount. But it’s fine. Whatever. You lose control of arguments once you write about them.
I’m also curious about an incident that occurred a few years back, where two online sleuths found some passages you’d written that were quite similar to those written previous. Your response to it was to point to your 2004 essay when you yourself were plagiarized, and ultimately called it “the narcissism of small differences.”
I don’t think that’s plagiarism.
We’re under a president now that’s trying to poke holes in the fabric of journalism—the integrity of it—and I want to ask if you still believe that it’s “the narcissism of small differences,” and that it’s unimportant for journalists to maintain that fabric.
Well, let’s be clear: I’ve written several million words in my life. Two guys, who would not identify themselves, identified about a sentence from an article ten years ago—
—It was two passages.
—Two passages that were not identical, and I also credited the source of the passage. So, first of all, that’s not what I call plagiarism. Plagiarism is when you represent the words of someone else without giving any credit whatsoever. I, a) did not use the exact words, and b) gave them credit. So what they were doing was those were two people trying to make a little bit of a splash. I was resolutely untroubled by that, as was anyone who knows anything about journalism. And as far as my submitted response, I said, “Dude, that’s what you’re concerned about?” The issue with any kind of creative work is when people appropriate someone else’s ideas without giving them credit. That’s the core issue. The fact that a couple of nonessential adverbs show up, the idea that that’s what you want to spend your time zooming in on? Get a life! My answer, way back when, was talking about a real issue of plagiarism where someone took my words—and took them in totality, took paragraphs of them without giving any credit. And my response to that, which I think should be the response of anyone who’s plagiarized in that way, is: so what, whatever. Who cares? The person took the words and made something new. I’m fine with that! Why is this what we’re talking about? Like, there are so many more consequential things we need to be discussing.
You don’t think plagiarism is a journalistic sin?
I mean, it’s bad manners. Who cares. Someone can use all the words of mine they want. What I get angry at is when I have an idea that I think is original and consequential, and someone steals it and doesn’t credit me, that makes me mad. But if you want to go through my books and you find a paragraph, and you think that paragraph describes something really well and want to stick it in your book, go ahead!
So if I wanted to release Blink under my name you wouldn’t sue my ass into oblivion? I’m kidding obviously.
Well, not the whole book! But the book is an idea. There’s a story in Blink about a Marine Corps general, and if you think it’s a great paragraph and you want to take it, I hope you credit me. But if you don’t credit me, am I going to knock on your door and ask for you to be fired from your job? No! Life goes on, man. People have to have some sense of judgment about these things. These are not crimes; they are misdemeanors. If I saw you jaywalking, would I ask for you to be fired from your job?
You don’t think a journalist should be fired for plagiarism?
It’s bad manners. I don’t think the person who plagiarized me should have lost her job. I don’t care.