Sharjah: Popular Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell charmed his way into the hearts of fans with his unique insights and engaging storytelling at the 42nd Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), which concluded on Sunday after drawing 1.2 million visitors over its 12-day run at Expo Centre Sharjah.
After his session on Saturday night, Gulf News posed questions on the interplay between journalism and artificial intelligence (AI) to the maestro of storytelling and societal trends whose writing career was a natural progression from his journalism days at The New Yorker.
Talking about the need for writers and journalists to balance embracing technological advancements like AI, while preserving the human touch and emotional connection in their storytelling, Gladwell said: “What AI just does is, it allows us to concentrate more of our time and attention on doing what we do best, which is telling compelling stories that capture people’s imagination.”
On AI’s role
Gladwell acknowledged AI’s facilitative role in research, but emphasised that it should only enhance, not replace, journalists.
“It just makes it easier for us to do research and to learn things. I think AI is speeding up the process of reporting a lot more efficiently. I don’t think it will just replace the journalists themselves.”
However, Gladwell opined it is imperative to draw a clear line between machine-generated content and human expression. It is not just about knowing when you are talking to a machine or a person; it is about recognising the qualitative differences that define our understanding, he explained.
He also had a word of caution about the integration of generative AI into writing.
“The risk is that AI introduces errors into our understanding of things. I know that human beings are fallible, but I think the worry with AI is it is just capable of even greater mistakes.”
When asked if there was a need for journalists to write books in view of the concern of being forgotten once they cease reporting, Gladwell replied that the medium doesn’t dictate relevance of a journalist.
Instead, he highlighted the importance of effective communication with the audience through various channels — be it through podcasts, articles, or a direct exchange with the audience.
“I think the issue is what you say, not a form of what you say,” he said.
During his session, he explained how he has defined ‘successful work’ in his best-selling 2008 book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ as work that meets three criteria, saying: “It’s hard. Engages your mind. It’s independent.”
“If we do something that meets those three criteria, we’re successful in our work. And notice that that has nothing to do with fame. It’s nothing to do with money. It’s nothing to do with any kind of external validation,” said Gladwell while talking about how his mathematician father would go about his daily life working on solving math problems in the mornings before having a ‘tea and a biscuit’ with his mum around midday and then walking their dog in the evenings as a ‘profoundly content man’.
“Happiness is built out of very small moments,” he further asserted.
While describing ‘attributes’ of a great story, the 60-year-old known for his ability to distil complex ideas into compelling narratives, said: “I would say that very often the problem with stories that don’t work is that they’re told in haste. There is a big difference between a story and an anecdote. An anecdote is a little sliver where you’re making a very specific point and you’re leaving it at that. A story is a narrative that unfolds, that has a beginning, a middle, and end, and a twist in it. There is conflict, there’s surprise. That takes time,” he said.
Gladwell’s trademark storytelling style was on full display, weaving narratives that seamlessly blended real-world anecdotes with insights.
“I remember when I first sat down to write my first book, which was Tipping Point [The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference], I didn’t have any kind of expectations. I was just enjoying it. I had never done it before. It seemed very exciting to kind of try my hand at something new. I thought that I imagined that my mother would read it and that was probably it. The first time I ever had a reading from my first book, two people came,” said Malcolm, who recalled that he would often write “articles that were 7,000 words” at The New Yorker.
Explaining how instincts get to be good by learning from mistakes, he said: “Mistakes are extraordinarily rich learning experiences if we interpret it that way. I educate myself by looking at those cases where I’m wrong and saying, okay, now why was I wrong? And that makes me a little bit smarter next time. I think that kind of process of trial and error is at the core of learning. And so I think of mistakes, very often, as gifts.”
After the hour-long session, Gladwell signed copies of his latest book ‘The Bomber Mafia,’ published in 2021, as well as his other popular titles Outliers and Blink.
Visitors embrace beauty of Korean costumes
Also at SIBF, in a celebration of cultural exchange, visitors donned traditional Korean costumes as part of a unique Hanbok workshop hosted by the South Korea pavilion - the Guest of Honour country this year.
The hanbok is a traditional clothing of the Korean people who have worn it since antiquity. The ancient hanbok consisted of a jeogori (top), baji (pants), chima (skirt), and the po (coat).
“For all those interested in our culture, this was a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the elegance of Korean Hanbok through various types of Hanbok experience, including trying out everyday wear, ceremonial attire, and royal garments,” said Kyung Pung ‘Harry’ Kang of the Korean Cultural Center UAE that organised the Hanbok Trial Programme to showcase traditional Korean costumes.
The event was part of South Korea’s participation as the guest of honour at the 12-day event. Hanbok designs vary according to social status and occasions. With this experience, participants discovered the lives of people from Korea’s distant past,” he said.
The five-hour event saw participants not only immerse themselves in the beauty of Korean culture, but also discover the striking parallels between the intricate designs of Hanbok and their own traditional attire.
“It was my first time [wearing the Hanbok] and it was an absolutely beautiful experience”, said 29-year-old Emirati fashion enthusiast and K-pop fan Eman Ali.
“And what’s more, it felt just like wearing the abaya.”
For Omani Amna AlShehhi, it was a long-cherished dream come true. “As a K-drama fan, I have always wanted to try out traditional Korean costumes because of how they look. And now I’m so glad that I eventually got the opportunity to try it out myself,” said the 25-year-old who’s working at the SIBF as a volunteer.
Meanwhile British-Sudanese Tharaa Alharith said she was so enamoured by the Hanbok that she could wear it every day. “I just wish I had one to wear all the time to work and other places,” said the 23-year-old fresh university graduate.