Thursday, April 02, 2009

SMS competitions

There's this new thing going on in TV in which you get a number in the Thums Up bottle. You have to SMS it to some number. There will be a lucky draw and you have a chance to win a Hero Honda motor-bike. Similarly, these days, every dance-show, music-competition or reality show on TV has a compulsory model of seeking feedback from the viewers. The feedback determines the fate of the competitors -- a method very questionable when looking for the real talent. Yesterday, I saw a question rolling past the bottom line of the TV screen:

Actress XYZ played the role of ABC in the movie PQR: A) Yes; B) No; C) Can't say. SMS your answer to DEFGH and win ...

I thought that was stupid enough to deserve a blog post. If someone sends 'C' as an answer, the person should be sent for psychiatric treatment. If there are sufficiently large number of 'C's coming as an answer, there should be national level red-alert. Having so many idiots in the country poses a serious threat to the national security and general well-being. The matter should be taken up at the summit level as a matter of highest concern.

But this article is not about choosing 'C' as an answer. It's about choosing 'A', 'B' or 'C' as an answer. It's about choosing to answer. I have often felt very uncomfortable with the very business model of encouraging people to spend money for a minuscule chance of winning a prize. The only party which is sure to gain in this game is the one who throws the competition. Of course no one is being forced, and people are being conned on their own. But, I feel, while the business model is a source of easy income for TV channels, mobile service providers and other business houses, it lies in a very grey ethical area.

Order and beauty lies in making improbable things happen through expert actions. It's been the nature of humans to be fascinated with things which couldn't have existed without an expert hand bringing them into being. But, what distinguishes man from others is his capability to cause the order that makes the improbable happen, to be that expert hand himself. A passive fascination with improbability, where a person waits passively for an improbable thing to happen and rejoices when it does, is characteristic of a baser nature. It leads to gambling.

Perhaps it is fair to give a thought to what acts behind the psychology of gambling. The instinct of gambling seems to be encoded in our genes, like many other unfortunate genetic quirks of our species. The genetic explanation of gambling identifies that risk-takers of the past reaped rewards in the form of survival and progeny. So, the 'risk-taker' genes have been passed on to us by natural selection. We are hardwired to feel a thrill in taking risks.

However, while the fact that this gene has survived in us also is a proof of the fact that though the risk-taker ancestors ultimately managed to clinch a jackpot in the struggle for existence, risk taking by itself may not be a formula to a highly probable success. The gene just gives us an urge to take risks. It doesn't encode the intelligence in us to count the number of risk-takers who have perished due to the same instinct, a number which must have been very much larger than that of the winner ancestors. Like many of the intelligences that are critical for giving us not just an edge over other species, but the barest chance of survival, this intelligence doesn't come naturally to us; we have to groom it.

The import of the last two paragraphs was just to know that the fascination to see an improbable thing happening exists in us thanks to evolutionary reasons. In that, we can't look for an answer to whether it's justifiable to act in accordance or opposition to this instinct. It just tells that in spite of all conscious knowledge about it, all of us will fall prey to it some of the times; and some of us will fall prey to it often enough to ruin themselves and others around them. But the answer to the question of ethical justifiability of gambling, whether done once, occasionally or compulsively, has to be sought elsewhere.

In any kind of gambling, the odds of winning are abysmally low -- making it illogical for the gambler to gamble, and a very profitable business for the organiser of the game. To quote 'illogical' as 'unethical' may be something of moral belligerence. Being illogical at times is considered 'indulgence', and in general is allowed to all of us, albeit in sparing amount. For example, we sometimes binge on ice-creams and chocolates. We spend exorbitant sums of money in travelling to exotic places. We drape ourselves in expensive clothes, jewellery and make-up. Non of which makes any direct logical sense (except again a digression into the evolutionary antecedents of the instincts of vanity etc.), but we are allowed to do them in controlled quantity, and nobody frowns. In fact huge businesses exist around each of these indulgences. Is occasional gambling an indulgence in the same parlance; and should businesses flourishing around it be looked at in the same way as any of the other businesses that cater to our 'indulgences'?

Gambling done in moderation indeed seems to qualify as a harmless indulgence. In opposition to traditional forms of gambling, SMS gambling has two peculiarities. One, they make it extremely easy to start gambling, which raises a red flag against them. Two, they don't seem to scale in a way that a person could turn into a compulsive gambler by indulging in them. The very tedium of typing an SMS makes it infeasible that a person could lose a significant amount of money by sending too many of them. That might be a thankful aspect.

All the above arguments seem to advocate a lenient attitude towards this phenomenon of SMS gambling. I have my own doubts and can't decide either ways. There are some intractable questions associated with this business as with any business thriving on any indulgence. In a macro way, if such businesses grow relentlessly, I do feel that it sends disturbing signals about us as a race. Indulgences are like respite points from the tyranny of being logical. But if indulgences pervade our lives -- be it SMS gambling, making fun trips, wearing expensives clothes or sporting fuel guzzling fancy cars -- it fundamentally shapes what a life stands for at both an individual level or at a more collective level. Is life an instrument to achieve something noble, making it permissible to loosen up only to make it sustain its productive existence for longer? Or are all noble deeds of life just a fuel to the inextinguishable need to indulge and entertain oneself endlessly without regard to anything more meaningful than that?

Well, I must say that the fact that in the end I had to invoke a very lofty argument to defend my initial stand of opposition to SMS competitions, shows that my argument has weakened quite a bit over the course of writing this article. So, to sound fair, I must accept that these competitions seem harmless to an extent. But I would continue to feel unhappy if I see an individual indiscriminately indulging in it and never thinking that after all it's all stupid; and that we are allowed to behave stupidly only very very rarely. I would be full of blessings for a person who could bring me a data that such businesses are profitable but small enough not to matter in the grand scale.


Pritesh said...

Sujit, you completely echo my sentiments on this. Fine, people want to SMS whether or not some character in the serial will marry or kill some other character. What truly disheartens me is that often, things that should thrive purely on talent are based on SMS voting.

In India, I was disgusted to see the very ably judged (or were they?) singing talent programs announcing their results based on how many SMS "votes" some particular contestant got!!!! This defeated the very purpose of the judges that came to the show. What was worse was that these contestants had to harp after every song they sang: I'm so and so, please vote number X to number so and so and make me win!!! I mean, what the hell! I thought it was a SINGING show not public popularity show!

This was in India. Here in Belgium, it is much worse! The best Engineering project prize for Flanders region was awarded based on SMS votes from people. Without these "voters" having to prove that they ever went to the exhibit these students had put up! I mean, please! This is SCIENCE and not a singing talent competition (as if that was not bad enough!!!!!).

I once wrote about the same thing, long time ago!…a-solution-sms/ I was so disgusted with this get-rich-quick schemes of the radio station and what was worse, people were sending SMSes like: I've written to you 20 times already. Please call me, I'm depressed as I haven't prepared for my exam tomorrow!

I would think that the logical solution to such a situation would be to go and do your best at studying however much you can. SMSing to a random DJ who couldn't care less if passed or failed your exam was beyond ridiculous for my sensibility! But is a funny place, I guess

fuse me said...

Your post leads me to interesting questions. Do we need to be logical? Is everything causal? How does one get happiness? Can we know the consequences of everything we do? What makes me any judge about what is right or wrong, about what others do? If i can take advantage of others without their knowing about it, then is there anything wrong? What is the right thing?

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Whole gamut of all fundamental questions of philosophy you mean! I'm happy you see the connection. Most would dismiss me as 'thinking too much about little things!' :)

Aditya said...

Though completely orthogonal to your discussion, I found myself thinking about this hilarious situation which arose recently: ISS's Node 3 Might Be Named "Colbert" i.e. a whole group of people doing something absolutely pointless to upset
"the man".

DEBANJAN said...

Hi Sujit. This world seems to be full of tips...of big big icebergs... :)
I agree to your points...and would like to discuss some of mine too. Every being in this world has individuality in values, beliefs, experiences, and characterising them good or bad also reflects individuality. Though one may look ordinary or speaks so to others around... there is an element of creation deep within that keeps on suggesting new means to gain uniqueness and supremacy. These suggestions from the inner being are reflected in various forms based on the individuality.One form may be looked upon as a chance of winning in an SMS competition.
Aur umeed par to duniya kayam hai...
Every parent think their children will be no lesser than Ravindranath Tagore in literature, Einstein in physics, Tendulkar in Cricket,Bill Gates in riches, etc,etc , and all at the same time. And they invest all their earnings paying hefty fees at each of these tutorials.
Isn't it a bigger gambling ??

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Hi Debanjan,

I think that's a very thought provoking comment. I think, somewhere, while writing the article, I had that point in my mind. That's why, I added a line somewhere about the different between gambling and trying to engineer the improbable. One is about putting in money and waiting for the improbable to happen; while the other is about growing yourself and things around you so that you can become a component of the improbable happening. The former is a baser instinct, while the latter is more sophisticated.

I think the tradition of parents' investing all their money to create Einsteins and Tagores out of their kids is a very questionable one. However, deep in the parents' mind they perceive it as an act of engineering their kid's future.

But you are right. With some thought one may see it that this act is more a gamble than engineering.

Thanks for the well-thought words.

DEBANJAN said...

seems like a long time I exercised the thought process... on these lines.
Thanks for the opportunity.
Happy Blogging....