Malcolm Gladwell on David & Goliath

Thanks to Richard Snyder (@RichardsTeapot) for sharing a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk on David and Goliath. During class today we talked about different kinds of technology, including some very primitive types of tools that nonetheless expanded human capacities. In passing I mentioned the story of David and Goliath as an example of how the slingshot as a technology enabled tiny-little-david to defeat big-ol-goliath.

Gladwell complicates that story in a couple ways. First of all, David didn’t carry a slingshot, but rather a sling. The sling, Gladwell explains, packed a much mightier wallop than the average slingshot. Second, Gladwell makes a compelling case for rethinking the typical underdog narrative. Instead of reading the story as pitting two unequal warriors against each other—with David at a clear disadvantage—it’s possible to understand the story as dramatizing war between asymmetrical technologies.

Slingers belonged to the artillery class of warriors along with archers and, eventually, the teams firing cannons, mortars, rockets and so on. Artillery, as a technology, enables long-distance combat. Goliath, by contrast, belonged to the infantry, or foot soldiers trained for close-range combat. His weapons and armor did not enable him to move fast or attack from a distance. Fighting against a skilled slinger like David, then, Goliath found himself vulnerable. Despite his intimidating size, the tools proper to his mode of warfare made him, as Gladwell puts it, a sitting duck for David.

Gladwell ends the talk by telling us that giants are not as powerful as they seem. It’s probably worth tempering that somewhat—giants may not be as powerful as they seem, depending on the circumstances. Technology can significantly change circumstances by enabling us to explore new methods, new techniques. Hopefully we can find uses beyond combat for innovative tools. But the story of David and Goliath shows how crucial it is to match tool to task, and how powerful the result.


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