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.