I thought I should get this entry going today, although I'll need to add the substantive content later.
The reason why the post is being made today is because it's the 100th birthday of I.M. Pei, the Chinese-American architect behind the pyramid in the middle of the Louvre museum in Paris. The pyramid was constructed in the late 1980s and at the time Pei faced intense criticism for his bold and controversial design. Since then the pyramid has become accepted and even admired. The same applies to a lot of what is presently considered to be great art, but which at the time saw the world from a new perspective that was unfamiliar to audiences.
Here's a pic I took of it a few years ago, the rain rendered it less glamorous than it's usually pictured:
I suppose you can guess that this post is heading in the direction of considering great art, innovation and religions and their relationship with public opinion.
In contrast to I.M. Pei's courage, we have the use of focus groups by film directors, who test out their plots amongst target audiences in order to ensure their movie's commercial success. This issue came up recently on these boards when we were discussing the British film 28 Days Later. It's because of tools such as this that Hollywood movies aren't as emotionally challenging as those made by independents.
The need to make commercially successful films means that they have to appeal to as wide a group of people, who judge the movie on the basis of whatever it is that they like here and now.
It's that very approach that was decried by two American academics, Roger Bennett and Robert Cooper, writing in 1979 in a paper titled, 'Beyond the Marketing concept'. According to them in the preceding decades, Japanese industry had overwhelmed its American counterpart because counterintuitively the Americans had put the customer first. They had focused on making the easy incremental changes to products that consumers said that they wanted.
What they had ignored was what economists refer to as 'information asymmetry'.
In the consumer context, this refers to the idea that consumers could only talk about those things that they were interested in and knew about. But by definition consumers can only talk about what they are familiar with and what they know about and invariably there will be an asymmetry between this and what product specialists know is possible.
American companies focused on customers to tell them what to do, Japanese industry in the 1960s and 1970s focused on what its engineers said could be possible. It was the Japanese who came up with the compelling innovations and products that customers never know they needed until they were available.
The following video shows, how something we take for granted was the type of innovation that focus groups can't surface, but engineers can:
More recently it's been the same story if you consider the world before the first Apple iphone and what we have now. Prior to the first Iphone the world of mobile telephones was dominated by Nokia. When the first iPhone was launched there were a lot of questions about whether an IT company could make a consumer product, there were also questions about the lack of a keypad and other good reasons as to why an upstart entrant obviously did not know what consumers wanted.
But Apple understood what was technologically possible and what the future could be, this was the asymmetry between the company and its customers.
The key lesson from the worlds of art and innovation is that while the crowds may be good at telling people what they would like here and now, they are less good at anticipating what they'd like in the future, and much less what others may like in the future.
In contemporary society where religion is consumed much as we would a movie or a smartphone, there are similar pressures to conform to the audiences' expressed tastes. There is little acknowledgement on the part of the consumer that an information asymmetry may exist between those who had laid down various religious edicts and those who are supposed to follow them.