Thursday, August 12, 2021

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors, as evidenced by my earlier reviews here, here, and here, but it’s been a while since I’ve dived into something new from him.

A few weeks ago, while browsing mask-free (alas, how short that interval was!) at my favorite big-box bookstore, I stumbled upon Gladwell’s latest offering, The Bomber Mafia. The World War II subject seemed a bit beyond his usual psychosocial playground, but the book looked like a quick read, and besides it was in the “50% off” bin.

Gladwell does not disappoint, coming through again with lessons for the entrepreneur. Though framed as a war story, he seeks an answer to a question with much broader reach: “How is it that, sometimes for any number of unexpected reasons, technology slips away from its intended path?”

Carl Norden, a Dutch inventor, created a computer-like mechanism that, it was thought, would enable American bombers to “drop bombs into pickle barrels from 30,000 feet.” The top brass hoped that surgical bombings of critical industrial plants would lead to a war that was “precise and quick and almost bloodless.” Bomber crews swore to protect the secrecy of the device with their lives.

The problem? It didn’t work.  From six miles up, cross-cutting winds mocked attempts to lock on to targets, and clouds over the target area completely prevented the use of the bombsight. While some in the military remained committed to precision bombing, frustration with poor results led others to seek alternative ways to derail the enemy’s industrial wherewithal. Enter an alternative that did work, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives—area bombing using other new inventions such as napalm, and, ultimately, the atomic bomb. The exact opposite of what the Norden bombsight was meant to achieve.

What’s the lesson here? Gladwell summarizes it quite succinctly. “The Bomber Mafia is a case study in how dreams go awry,” he writes.  “And how, when some new, shining idea drops down from the heavens, it does not land, softly, in our laps. It lands hard, on the ground, and shatters.”  This is as applicable now to the internet, social media, and other innovations as it was to the bombsight. As Gladwell concludes, “things also, invariably, go sideways.”

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