Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Opinion | The flawed wisdom of adopting a me-too strategy

Be it business, politics or world trade, efforts to copy the success of rivals tend to yield little

Naysayers mostly risk being frowned upon at best and shunned at worst. Nobody is given hemlock to quaff down in this day and age. But if dissent is scarce, its scarcity can be traced at least partly to a classic American saying that has acquired both the aura of common sense and the authority of a strategy. “If you can’t beat em," it goes, “join em".

Often, it works. Especially if there’s little hope in trying to zig against the zag. Who better to endorse its wisdom than realists who gave up their rants against the inequality of capitalism to go buy portfolios of stocks instead?

Yet, the ploy could also prove disastrous, as the case of Apple Computer testifies. Under price pressure from IBM clones in the 1990s, the original creator of a cool man-machine interface threw out its startup whiz-kid, Steve Jobs, and turned into a “me-too" of clone makers only to lose both its spunk and way in the market. It took the return of Jobs, a “Think Different" strategy, and a campaign inspired by Gandhi, Einstein, Lennon, Dylan and other mould-smashers for Apple to recover its vitality. Okay, it was the iPhone that made Apple’s sales boom, but at its core was a rethink of what ordinary folk might want at hand to crunch in this era of the big e-bang.

Big decisions, though, can be tricky. At times, the lure to “join em" may pose a dilemma. Consider a society that values anonymity in public spaces. The idea of going faceless could be drawn from a Rawlsian argument that a just social order is one that operates with a veil on who’s who, one in which nobody would protest if everyone were to randomly have his or her identity swapped by a roulette wheel or some such fate-rotary device. The exposure of faces in such a milieu could spell inequity by slotting each person into a hierarchy on some measure or the other. Net worth, body mass index and other formulae already exist to rank individuals—and confound egalitarians.

But a society of that sort would hardly be able to isolate itself and resist the rise of popular imagery forever. If not an outbreak of selfies, a world of amenities afforded by face scanners hooked up with gigaloads of data on people would probably call for its cloak to be cast off. These scans are fast gaining wide appeal for the ease of life they offer: They let planes get boarded without check-points, groceries be taken straight home off retail shelves, and, less convincingly, crimes get busted with due efficiency.

Yet, they are not only sneaky and invasive, they also imply urban habitats that are programmed to profile people. And with the popularity of facial enablers at odds with the principle of nobody being anybody, it’s hard to see how an internal wrangle could be averted over whether to join the facial zealotry or reject it.

In his 2004 book, The Wisdom Of Crowds, James Surowiecki makes an elegant case for letting the push of the many prevail, by and large, over the tug of a few. It’s what an open market has in common with a good democracy, the expectation that what most people want will yield what’s optimal for everybody. It’s also what motivates many to go along with whatever trend is spelt out by larger numbers. If a stance has to shift in favour of what can’t be beaten, they’d say, so be it.

The context of such a choice could vary far beyond the pressure on a person, company or group to conform with what’s fashionable, ascendant or both. Think of politics, for instance, where some of the same dynamics apply. In India’s political arena, the Indian National Congress party can’t seem to make up its mind on whether—or to what extent—it should push itself the way of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to revive its electoral fortunes. Its other problems apart, the grand old party appears wracked by the riddle of what Indians want. How the Congress resolves the question is its own business, of course, but going the way of its rival on vital stuff like ideology is unlikely to attract voters so long as they have an original version to go for. Still, the muddle that confronts the party speaks volumes about the difficulty of its choice.

If a political party can be hit by perplexity over how to succeed, might not a country? In India, the current rage is a chance to grab a chunk of the global supply networks that are snapping China off in response to American trade barriers.

This is indeed a worthy goal, given the jobs it should generate and the ballast it could give the Indian economy, but an effort to replicate China’s heft in cranking out cheap products mustn’t tempt India to adopt some of its scandalous policies. The wholesale use of public funds to grant private producers an edge, for example, may be hailed as “capitalism with Chinese characteristics" north of the Himalayas, but can only be sustained on the back of a naive electorate here. Arguably, much the same goes for financial repression, a policy that Beijing had few qualms deploying at the peak of its go-go years to funnel bank savings into factories without paying people a fair market price for their money. On turning the currency into a weapon for an export thrust, again, the Chinese model simply won’t do. It’s not just mercantilist, it simply doesn’t suit a country with complex objectives that would be hurt if the rupee’s value were to be turned into a tool for market conquests overseas. All said, India would have to work out its own special game to become an export dynamo.

Whatever the charm of a snappy saying, “join em" is usually just a lazy option. We could surely do better.

Aresh Shirali is Mint Views editor