Politics-Related Things Writin'

The stupid myth of “picking winners”

Dear the Internet,

This has been on my mind for a little bit, and then became a bit of a Facebook rant, and is now a blog post on the prestigious Internet – which I think these days is pretty much the entire writing process in a nutshell. And speaking of which…

Before finally accepting that putting words on pages in some sort of order was the main – or, to put it another way, only – skill for which anyone would ever pay me money, I tried my hand at a few other doomed career alternatives including such can’t-miss wealth creators as “indie rock bassist” and “inner-city stand up comedian”. And much as I failed at them – and failed hard, let’s be clear – they did teach me some valuable lessons about the process of doing stuff.

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013
Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

That method is incredibly straightforward, regardless of the medium, and boils down to this: try things and see what happens.

That’s because, much as we’d like to rely on our own unerring judgement and genius insight, discovering what works isn’t a process that one discovers by any other method than simply trying stuff out.

No band ever consciously sets out to suck, and no stand up ever aspires to be humiliated on stage. The only reliable way to test hypotheses like “this joke is hilarious!” or “this chorus totally rocks!” is to put them in front of an audience and assess the subsequent reactions.

Now, this all seems like an uncontroversial sort of an idea – but perhaps it’s not as widely understood as I’d assumed.

One of the ideas underpinning the continued funding of the CSIRO is that the body tasked with Australia’s most basic scientific research should “pick winners” – that is, concentrate on areas of research that will prove commercially lucrative – rather than dick about doing wasteful, naval gazing “basic research” like mapping genomes or trying to puzzle out dark energy.

The problem is that this idea of picking winners is complete and utter bullshit – and you don’t even need to be a vaccine chemist, crop geneticist or supernova astrophysicist to understand why.

As one particularly awful date once asked to me at the time, “why do you have jokes in your set that no-one laughs at? Why don’t you just have great jokes all the time, one after the other?”

And the answer was obvious: fake an emergency phone call and leave early. But the reason my set was part-killer-mostly-filler was partially because I was pretty lousy at stand up but mainly because there’s absolutely no way to know what jokes work until you tell ‘em.

The thing that seems like a knock-down universal truth in your own head may, in fact, be complete arse – as evidenced by the grim silence that followed quips like “Newtown is Sydney’s most misleadingly named suburb – I’ve lived there for over a year now and haven’t seen a single newt.”

Want more evidence? Ponder for a moment the songs that have been huge, worldwide hits and you’ll realise that most of the biggest sellers over time aren’t the mighty multiple-writer workshopped pop hits. A significant majority of global smashes have one thing in common: they’re generally really, really odd.

They appeared because an artist had an idea and just knocked it out, and then circumstance, timing and decent marketing did the rest. The sales job happened after the work was created, because no record company executive on the planet would ever start a meeting with “You know what would definitely sell millions of records worldwide for decades? A multi-section six minute operatic ballad with no chorus about a nihilistic murderer which vamps on figures from classical Italian commedia dell’arte and Arabic mythology!” And yet chances are you’re humming Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ even as you read this.

People with an idea about the market – one might call them “marketers” – are successful if they are able to see new developments or products and go “hey, this could be popular!” Starting from the premise “here’s a thing people like that they’d like again!” doesn’t get you the iPhone; that’s how you get the Zune (remember them?).

Indeed, the invention for which the CSIRO are most often praised – wifi – didn’t come about because the organisation realised there’d be a global market for wireless communication.

It was a weird byproduct of an ultimately unsuccessful experiment to detect the theorised explosions of mini-black holes, for which the organisation needed to develop a way of unscrambling the radiowaves that such explosions would hypothetically create. In so doing, they inadvertently created a method of “unsmearing” messy data transmissions which – after about a decade of development – turned into a commercial goldmine.

Starting point: explosions of black holes. End point: a worldwide patent.

Trying stuff out can be expensive and messy – you know, like life is in literally all other ways – but it’s also the only way to actually discover things. And if the government’s going to keep making noises about how Australia needs to be innovative and agile, the idea that Australia’s key public research body should sacrifice research in favour of marketing seems an odd one.

Of course, maybe these CSIRO cuts are the equivalent of trying out a joke about amphibians of the inner west and seeing the response.

If so, federal government, learn the lesson I did: if people stand there with their arms folded staring at you with blind, barely-contained hatred, perhaps you need to try something else.

Yours ever,

APS

Advertisements

0 comments on “The stupid myth of “picking winners”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: