Friday, January 23, 2009

Marketing Killed Imagining India

Strata Center MIT
It did, at least for me.
But before than ... a preface.

Imagining India is a book containing series of essays by Mr. Nandan Nilekani, the co-chairman of the India's software power house, Infosys. It is published by Penguin India. Now, for some reason Penguin and Mr. Nilekani decided to bring out a "nano" booklet in association with the magazine, Outlook. The booklet has two essays that are "exclusive excerpts" from the book.
The first page of the booklet, as a way of introduction, reads ...

Our excerpts are from two of the most thought-provoking and insightful chapters in his book.

I am reading the "exclusive excerpts" right now. To me it sounds as if once I am done reading the two essays, it is all downhill from then on. So instead of whetting my appetite for more, I am no longer inclined to buy the book.

The essays are not terribly insightful. In fact at one point in time I was wondering, "This is what I do in my blog. I read books and quote from them." To me an insightful essay would be something that interprets a known fact in a way that has not been done before, or better still, brings to our collective notice something that is beyond our current thought process.

My second problem with the essays I am reading is that it uses statistics to prove a point but does not reveal much (but that is what bikini and statistics are supposed to be, in the first place).

Let me quickly explain what I mean. Median age has been used to determine if a country's population is old or young. A single metrics to support a point. Perhaps, this is a standard measure used by sociologists. I would prefer average and range or standard deviation (if the population could be taken as a Normal distribution) also.

Ok, what is the median of the following numbers

1, 1, 1, 10, 10?

It is 1. And if these were ages, then a median would mean that 50% of the people are above the age of 1 year and 50% below. And what is the average, 4.6 years. And the range is 1 to 10. Which gives you more information, just the median or the median, average and range?

But wait there is more. Nilekani quotes David Bloom:
... particular kinds of population growth could dramatically drive the country's growth ...

to prove the point why India's population is an asset and not an hindrance (which I agree but because of different reasons). However, he could really be insightful if he could have extended the logic to show how this very particular kinds of population growth carries within itself seeds of self-destruction (now, wouldn't you like to know that? In some other post in this blog, I promise)

You see, Niekani has fallen into two traps that Nassim Nicholas Taleb brings out so wonderfully in his book, The Black Swan (now that is a book that is thought provoking and insightful). Taleb calls these (a) the error of confirmation and (b) narrative fallacy.

We focus on preselecting segments of the seen and generalize from it to the unseen: the error of confirmation.

We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our platonic thirst for distinctive pattern: the narrative fallacy.

In any case, the excerpts have nothing new to offer. Any one who read newspapers and magazines in India would know most of what is in there - more or less. There are many references but the one that is brilliant for stating the obvious is ...

The economist Abhijit Benerjee, who works at the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has emphasised that educating women is a very effective means of improving our social indicators ... as Abhijit notes, "when you educate a woman, you typically educate a family.

Wow! That is enlightening. I am not surprised at the platitude. Poverty Action Lab at MIT? Ivory tower any one?

To be fair I think the economist may have been quoted out of context. Or not.

Now, why am I being so critical? After all Nilekani has achieved much more than I have (yet!). Hmmm... I guess I am pissed off by the fact that the "exclusive excepts" is a marketing blunder. I may or may not agree with what Nilekani has to say. But to do so I prefer reading the complete book.

Perhaps, the book does have insights that these excerpts do not. But the Outlook exclusive has spoiled that for me. Outlook may have sold a few extra copies of its magazine. Penguin India may also have received some money from Outlook - I am not sure how this works. But Nilekani missed out on selling his complete ideas to at least one person - me. You think he cares a damn about that?

In any case, I would have preferred insights into Infosys.

Picture courtesy: Y C

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Lazybug said...

Good analysis.

BTW, I do feel that the book lost a of buyers due to another event - the Satyam fiasco.

lawman2 said...

great post! lazybug made a great point as well.

great blog you have here!enjoyed it!we will be back for more great reads!

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