Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reservations & the theory of social epidemics

If you thought a couple of thousand students burning effigies and shouting slogans cannot change the fate of a nation of a billion people, think again. May be you should read up on the theory of the tipping point. This hypothesis is easy to understand if you knew how epidemics spread. Epidemics work in a very curious and counterintuitive way. Imagine, for a moment, about an epidemic of influenza in a kindergarten class. One child brings in the virus and in a day or two a couple of other children catch the flu. And nothing happens for the next three days and suddenly half the class is down with flu. That's typically how epidemics behave, just when you thought the thing died down, it suddenly flares up. This is the way social epidemics work. If you thought the comparison is a bit far fetched, you should read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The tipping point’ where he talks about mass teenage suicides in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia. Micronesia’s teen suicide rates in the 1970’s and 1980’s were ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Scores of teenagers were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. This brings us to the startling conclusion that ideas and behavior can be infectious in exactly the same way that a virus is.

Obviously no analysis of a socially relevant issue can be complete without understanding the impact of media, in particular the television. Read Rajdeep Sardesai’s blog on the awesome power TV wields on our lives ( I suppose it works in the same way subliminal advertising works. You keep seeing the images again and again; images of police brutality, images of self immolation and then suddenly something snaps in us. That’s how revolutions start.