Lone Nut

Not for the first time, I found myself explaining tipping points today, this time in the context of cash transactions. One of my students was observing how every transaction in Britain these days seems to be a card transaction, rather than a cash transaction. I agree. It does seem so. And while the numbers contradict that intuition, the proportion of cash transactions over the past few years having increased, the numbers might only represent a local variability. The underlying trend might have already put us beyond a cash economy. This is the silent menace of tipping points: something may have changed irrevocably without anyone having realised it. The oceans may not only be more full of jellyfish that we realised: they may be fatally full of jellyfish.

Similarly, a student’s English may not be as comfortably fluent as he or she wants or expects, but in terms of tipping points it may only be a whisker away from an avalanche of fluent babble.

The movement from systematic study to fluency is not a smooth one. You are waiting for some sort of critical mass: pour enough language in, and at some point something will start to happen. I recall my own frustrating approach to fluency in Italian – it wasn’t until I went to work in a school where none of the staff spoke English that the dam finally burst. In a couple of short months I went from apologetic stammering wreck to eloquent, articulate rhetorician (in my head, at any rate).

Which brings me to the lone nut.

In this short TED talk, Derek Sivers demonstrates how movements can reach a tipping point by using footage of a nutty dancer gathering a crowd. It seems the critical point is the garnering of a first follower. As with any tipping point, it requires only a small change in the dynamics of the system for a major change to result.

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