Tipping Points or Titanic Moments?

Posted on November 15, 2011 by

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R.M.S.  Embarking on Fatal Maiden Voyage

This post is from Prof Ranald Michie, a lead researcher on IHRR’s Tipping Points project in Work Package 2: ‘Financial Crisis in the Banking Sector: Past and Present

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell published a book that caught the public imagination with the concept of Tipping Points: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  According to Gladwell: ‘The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.’  Since then, the term ‘Tipping Point’ has been applied in the media to describe any event that is a major break from the past.  The use of ‘Tipping Point’ in this way by the media has two major implications.  The first is that what has happened appears predictable and so avoidable if appropriate measures are taken.  Thus blame can be allocated when those who failed to prevent the Tipping Point are identified.  The second is that what has happened has serious and long-term consequences.  Thus there is pressure on governments to act both to contain its immediate consequences and to prevent another Tipping Point occurring.  However, there is an alternative school of thought.  In 1994, the historian David Landes concluded that, ‘Here let me state a golden rule of historical analysis: big processes call for big causes’.  From his perspective, big changes were not the product of small events but large ones and so neither predictable nor avoidable.

Between those two extremes lies a series of events that were of importance at the time, but cannot be described as Tipping Points when examined with the benefit of hindsight.  One such event was the sinking of the Titanic.  In 1912, the ocean liner — the Titanic — struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank causing huge loss of life.  Both then and subsequently many have speculated on the causes both to allocate blame and to avoid repetition.  Experts from many fields have offered their opinions ranging from design and construction faults through the nature of the impact, and the shortage of lifeboats to the loss of telegraphic contact and the unusual weather conditions.  What emerges from this research is that the sinking was not an accident waiting to happen, but the product of an exceptional set of circumstances which were unlikely ever to be repeated.  Despite the sinking, passenger liners got bigger and faster as they continued to compete for custom on the North Atlantic route until superseded by air travel.  Nevertheless, the sinking of the Titanic continues to be seen as a Tipping Point representing the break between the world of class and opulence before the First World War and the more democratic age that emerged after the Second World War.  This is part of the reason it continues to exert a fascination 100 years after it took place.  A Titanic Moment can thus be described as a once-in-a-lifetime event that lingers in the memory but does not change the course of collective history, though it deeply affected those personally involved.

What would have made the sinking of the Titanic into a Tipping Point would have been if it had led to a ban on transatlantic travel at certain times of the year; a switch to smaller ships travelling more slowly; a raft of costly health and safety regulations; or a refusal by the public to accept the risks associated with this form of ocean transport.  None of these things happened. Instead there were minor recommendations such as relating the number of lifeboats to the passenger capacity of the ship. In keeping with the prevailing orthodoxy of the pre-First World War years, governments only intervened if there was an absolute necessity to do so.  Governments did respond to events such as tragedies on land and at sea, but only slowly and incrementally in the belief that a self-correcting mechanism existed and in the knowledge that intervention had costs as well as benefits. That may have been too lax an attitude, but today the opposite exists.

As every event is portrayed by the media as a Tipping Point there are constant calls for government intervention and the passing of new laws.  If successful, these could change behaviour with far-reaching consequences, creating in their wake new Tipping Points and so leading to a spiral of intervention and legislation.  What is required is a willingness to distinguish between Tipping Points and Titanic Moments.  The latter may require some modest reforms, such as additional lifeboats in the case of the Titanic, while the former does call for more radical changes.  Distinguishing between Titanic Moments and Tipping Points is not easy and requires careful investigation.  The question is whether democratic governments have the strength to resist the call for immediate intervention coming from a competitive media searching for the next big story. To date, the signs on that front are not promising.

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