Time, by and large, flies. Doubly so, when you put it in terms of technological change. The other day I was casually browsing through some old YouTube videos when I suddenly fell upon a treasure trove: video reviews of computer games from the late 80s and early 90s. Sonic. Altered Beast. Golden Axe. Shinobi.
Oh my god. Shinobi.
Instantly, I was hurled back in time violently, tossing and tumbling through a thunderstorm of memories and hopes and regrets and UAE residence visas. And there I was, stealthily absconding from my weekly swimming lessons to go play Street Fighter 2 at a nearby arcade called Happy Land. (Which explains both my persistent love handles, and my peculiar ability to jump over killer turtles.)
Nowadays nobody goes to video game arcades. At least nobody without a criminal record. Instead, we play mind-bogglingly sophisticated games on our mobile phones or Xboxs that make all those Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats look like cave paintings.
How things change. Things change with velocities and in directions that we can almost never predict. Except, it appears, in our offices and workplaces. Where everything somehow magically becomes perfectly deterministic. Or, in any case, we pretend they are.
Three years ago, almost exactly, Apple launched the iPad. Today, everybody owns one. No really. Everybody. I saw a Buddhist monk on a train recently who was playing Angry Birds on an iPad.
But when the device originally launched it was received with quite scathing criticism. Earlier this week, a technology blog I follow closely posted a compilation of quotes. These were culled from statements by journalists, fund managers and stock analysts about the iPad device shortly after Steve Jobs unveiled it.
The last time I cringed so much was during the Commonwealth Games 2010 opening ceremony when the Doordarshan commentator welcomed one nation’s squad like so:
“Did you know Rajeev? This country is one of the poorest in the world…”
Reading these quotes about the iPad felt almost as bad. All of them found various faults with it. Most of them agreed that it would be a tremendous flop for Apple.
One prominent technology reporter said this:
“I added it up and... like 800 people are going to buy the iPad... It’s not that the iPad is a failure. It’s just a product ahead of its time. No one should actually buy this iPad—between its inevitable first-generation bugs, fulfilment problems, and buyer’s remorse over added features and price drops, it’s heartbreak waiting to happen.”
My point isn’t that their observations were erroneous. In fact, many of their criticisms about the iPad are actually quite reasonable. My point is that ultimately their criticisms, expertise, analyses and dissections counted for nought. People bought millions of iPads anyway.
These guys, whose jobs presumably involve knowing these things better than the layperson, got their conclusions utterly wrong. The iPad was a roaring success. Yet, as far as I can see, most of them kept their jobs.
Also, this is not a particularly rare incident. In fact, I think predicting things wrongly is more or less “business as usual” for so many sectors and professions. Stock analysts churn out buckets of dross every day of every year, most of which is pointless 15 minutes after publishing. I particularly enjoy when the speaking heads on TV scramble to explain why the market ended up or down on a particular day.
Remember when the euro was supposed to cease to exist sometime in the late 2011? Giggles.
Also remember when EVERYBODY was talking about how Cyprus was next? Me neither.
The snake-oilery is particularly intense in things like branding research, market forecasting, trend analysis, credit ratings and other such dark arts. Where somehow people have managed to convince us that there are quantifiable ways of capturing emotional response.
Six years ago I attended a business presentation by a trend analyst who said that Facebook would never work in India because people had already committed so much to Orkut. The “exit barriers”, he said, were too high.
In November 2008, the Queen of England was briefed on the economic crisis by the elders at the London School of Economics. Where she stumped them all with a simple question: Why did nobody notice the crisis was coming?
Whither thy punditry?
Yet there are entire industries and job profiles that are based on such dubious punditry. The real success of these businesses is that they’ve managed to convince clients of the Bhagavad Gita nature of their business models: “Pay us only for our pundit efforts, don’t judge us by the business outcomes.” In other words, they’ve made “science” out of what may be called, at best, “art” and, at worst, “luck”. What a great scam.
Earlier this week the Financial Times cited a new study that showed randomly picking stocks, the monkey method, yielded better returns than a market cap weighted index. This is not the first time the monkeys have proven to be better fund managers than actual people.
Yet nobody invites monkeys to analyse on TV. Maybe they should. I am sure there is potential.
Who wants to arrange a focus group to find out?
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama- -