Saturday, August 7, 2010

Indian Idol

Indian Idol

The Sony TV super sensation- the great Indian Idol is in its last leg. The finalists- a troika of very gifted singers have been selected after a rigorous and long drawn process of expert –judgment and public voting. One often wonders – who should win? All the singers are very talented and they seem to be getting better with time. Though there is an apparent consensus among the expert judges that the singer from the southern state is the most deserving- alas they are not the ones who will be making the decisions! It is the airwaves of text messages sent by a great mass of people that decide the final outcome. The bigger question is whether the mass will select the best or such public decisions will follow a non-linear rationale.

Let us understand with the help of some popular examples how a single contestant wins in a competitive scenario or in an economic system. One may argue that the contestant who bags the booty which eventually catapults him into a charismatic singing career in Bollywood has some skills that others lack, some charm or special physical attribute that is perfect match for such a career path. That argument may sometimes lead to a fair result, but examples abound that the winning of the most deserving is subverted by skewed collective dynamics. These collective decisions are taken through a complex process that defies non-linear rationale. For example an Indian idol competitor becomes popular in some parts of the public because he is already popular in some other parts of the public. In other words, the singer’s popularity at a larger scale is the outcome of his popularity at a smaller scale. The process of gaining popularity may have started in some parts of the audience because the contestant has high levels of singing skill or that he belongs to a certain part of the country, boasts of a certain mother tongue, has a favorable last name or he happens to be of a particular sex. The outcome of this dynamics often leads to unexpected results not favoring the most deserving.

Researchers often use the example of QWERTY to describe the vicious dynamics of winning and losing in an economy and to illustrate how the final outcome is more than frequently the undeserved one. The arrangement of letters on a typewriter is an example of success of the least deserving method. For our typewriters have the order of letters on their keyboard arranged in a non-optimal manner, as a matter of fact in such a manner as to slow down the typing rather than make the job easy, in order to avoid jamming the ribbons as they were designed for less electronic days. Therefore as we started building better typewrites and computerized word processors, several attempts were made to rationalize the computer keyboard, to no avail. People were trained on a QWERTY keyboard and their habits were too sticky for change. Just like the spiraling propulsion of a singer into stardom, people patronize what other people like to do. Forcing rational dynamics on the process would be superfluous, nay impossible. Another popular example is the success of Microsoft operating system. Nobody ever claimed that it is the best operating system; in fact it is much inferior to Apple’s McIntosh. Most people are using Microsoft because other people are using it, a purely circular effect, subverting the fair process of selecting the most deserving.

Such ideas go against common sense and traditional social ethos (or classical economics), in which results either come from precise reasons or the good guy wins (the good singer is the one who is more skilled and has some technical superiority). The concept of non-linearity and path dependent effects are relatively recent concepts. Many economists brought in the concept of chance and nonlinearity in economic results- chance events coupled with positive feedback rather than technological superiority will determine economic superiority. Therefore, we may safely comment that it is risky to predict the winner; because how mass is going to behave- is anybody’s guess! With all my sympathies to the best singer- he may not finally win.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is winning so good!!

Few weeks ago at the end of the IPL season III match between Mumbai Indians and Deccan Chargers, I was struck with a curious thought. Even though cricket as a sport is notorious for throwing up unexpected results, Mumbai Indians were the favorites in the match going by their track record and the little master’s current blistering form. And they won quite convincingly. They so far have played 8 matches and won 7 of them. Therefore by the very basic principle of probability, Mumbai Indians have 7/ 8 probability of winning the next match/matches provided the set of teams do not change (which is not going to change at least in this season), playing rules and conditions do not change, and no tie result happens as well. In philosophy this is also called the problem of induction- wherein we tend to predict the future on the basis of past events and outcomes. In this case, this may be also the prevalent way of predicting the result of IPL matches. If you were a bookie, chances are you will follow the inductive method.

The less obvious way of looking at the phenomenon kept bothering me for a while. If we could some way know about the winning potential of a particular team then the complete picture would change drastically. For example if we could know that Mumbai Indians have a finite capacity for winning matches, then with every win they reduce their potential for winning in the subsequent matches. This is counterintuitive and goes in direct opposition to probabilistic or inductive approaches. However, there are plenty of proof that evince against the utility of probabilistic approaches in real world. For example if probabilistic approach held true then big companies would have become bigger and bigger with the passage of time; dynasties would have remained undefeatable and so on and so forth. Clearly that is not how history unfolds. In any ecology the winner does not keep winning the games following some probabilistic design. If we were to look at the world a little empirically we have to just look around to find examples. For example take a cross section of the dominant corporations at any particular time, many of them will be out of business a few decades later, while firms nobody ever heard of will have popped into the scene and replaced the old ones.

Consider the following sobering statistics. Of the five hundred largest U.S companies in 1957, only seventy-four were still part of that select group, the Standard and Poor’s 500 (an exclusive group top 500 listed companies in the US by earnings), forty years later. Only a few had disappeared in mergers, the rest either shrank or went bust. Many of those 500 giants have simply disappeared from our collective memory without a trace. So those monsters could not gobble up the tiny upstarts along the way; most of the big guns mostly could not survive the test of time. Therefore it would be quite logical to say that an entity has a finite though not measurable capacity for winning; they cannot go on winning forever. As a corollary to this statement, we can also say that with every win you actually reduce your chance of winning the next match. Therefore for a Mumbai Indian fan it may not be a very good news that her team has been enjoying a winning streak so far. In the abstraction of the argument winning suddenly does not look so appealing.