Sunday, May 31, 2009

Free markets, innovation and culture

It is widely believed -- at least in the wake of liberalisation in India -- that a free market economy promotes innovation and better products and services -- which, it is taken as a given, is better for society. In my experience this is true to a large extent. When I was growing up, there were only three models of cars available -- Fiat 100, HM Ambassador, and Standard Herald. By 1970 or so, this shrank to just the first two. Then we had Lambretta and Bajaj 150 scooters, soon supplemented by the public sector Scooters India scooters licenced from Lambretta, Italy. So, at least in terms of variety, there were far fewer choices; and variety is at least one measure of innovation (though not the only, or most the most critical one). So for material goods and services, the free market economy has delivered far more, in a far many more ways, and mostly of higher, or much higher, quality.

On the other hand, in my experience -- which means, I'm not claiming that this is an absolute truth -- free markets do little, if anything, for innovation, and importantly, quality, of cultural artifacts. By cultural artifacts, I mean, music, poetry, literature, art, dance, spirituality, etc.: just about anything whose purpose is mainly to enrich our emotional lives, and thereby make life meaningful and worth living at all. When I left for the US over two decades ago, I was excited and looking forward to living in a world which offered choices and variety that I, as an Indian, could only dream of. Having grown up on American movies, magazines, music, books and so on, this was the Promised Land I was heading towards. And when I arrived there, it seemed to be everything that I had imagined it to be, and much more. It was exhilarating. It was heady.

The India that I had inhabited at that time provided about two or three radio channels, and just a few TV channels -- all run by Doordarshan. And the programs were mostly aimed at farmers. The USA delivered scores, hundreds of channels. What a bounty! But once the excitement faded, it became clear that the vast majority of channels delivered junk. I found myself listening to only two radio channels and watching two or three TV channels. Interestingly, the only radio channels worth listening to were Public Radio channels. And while I tuned occasionally to programs on other TV channels, over 80% of my TV watching was of the Public TV channel. The only programs of very high quality and which could appeal to people of any intelligence and taste were to be found on Public TV and Radio. So, the wealthiest and most educated demographic -- the market segment that most corporations would kill for -- hardly ever tuned in to commericial broadcasts.

So while mass markets help lower production costs and deliver high quality products, the same mass markets actually end up delivering low quality cultural products. High culture is inherently elitist -- and this is exactly the opposite of what mass markets mean. When we look to the past, the greatest literature, poetry, art, etc., came from highly talented individuals who did what they did for the love of it, not because of market demand. Vincent van Gogh, whose paintings have fetched over $50 million each, sold only one painting in his entire life (before he committed suicide). Any society that relies entirely on market feedback or support can never produce great art or literature. Great cultural artifacts, being elitist, need the support of wealthy connoisseurs and sponsors, individuals who understand what art and culture are about and are not driven by market sentiments. I recall some really wonderful Doordarshan TV as well as Akashvani radio programs from the early 1980s that were far superior to anything today on commercial TV or Radio (FM radio stinks, in my opinion); they were the products of efforts that were protected from market forces.

There's a lesson here even for free market products. There are some products or services that are imbued with a strong cultural and aesthetic component. The iPod comes to mind. These products were not developed through market research, although consumer testing was done. The design of the iPod (as with the design of the Apple Macintosh) was carried out by a combination of marketers and highly talented designers with very high aesthetic sensibilities. This is why Mac and iPod have ended up as displays in the New York Museum of Modern Art -- they can be appreciated as art objects, even if they served no other functional purpose; it is as if the products' functionality came as a bonus : "Oh wow, it even helps me accomplish some work! How cool is that!" Companies like Porsche, Ferrari, Four Season's Hotel, and some others understand this.

What's important is to try to achieve that balance between populism and elitism; human society needs both.

Speaking of high quality radio programs, one American radio program that I am a huge fan of is "This American Life". I used to listen to it while driving around, and sometimes I found I had reached home but the program was still not over. I would sit there in the parking spot, in rapt attention, until the program finished before I locked up and went home. Today, I download the program as a podcast via iTunes, put in on a flash drive and listen to it as I drive around in Bangalore. I highly recommend it: it is an unusual program where ordinary people speak of extraordinary things in their own lives, in their own voices. Their stories are hilarious, fascinating, poignant and moving, far more than any fictional program you can watch on TV. What you learn is that the life of ordinary human beings is far stranger and more interesting than any story that writers can make up. I highly recommend it to you; maybe one of you will decide to bring something similar, or even more interesting, to life in India. You can download the podcasts from here or here.

BTW, if you like a program, don't delete it from your hard drive after you've heard it; the free download lasts only one week, and then you need to pay a dollar to download it. Happy listening.

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