Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Beating on the Long Tail: an infinite sum game

I think the Long Tail is a great idea. But I have to take issue with how Chris Anderson expresses some of it. I don't intend this as an attack on Anderson and his ideas. It's more of a rant on Wired style and its excesses, inspired by a recent post in his blog. He writes,

But where you have unlimited shelf space, it's an infinite sum game

What does "infinite sum game" mean? "Game" is a term of art from economics (via game theory). A game is a strategizable interaction with quantifiable results, which, in English, means: you and other participants put money in (Or you put something in: effort or prestige, maybe), you do stuff, and you get money (or something) out. A zero-sum game is one where the total gains and losses of all the participants (players) add up to zero, as in a friendly poker game. In a negative-sum game, individual players may win, but in general they lose, as casino gamblers do. In a positive-sum game, everybody is better off on the whole, as in a good baseball trade where both teams are improved; however, a positive-sum game may still have individual losers, as a growing economy usually does.

An infinite-sum game is the ultimate positive-sum game because the return is infinite. But all the inputs are finite — money, eyeballs, time, the universe —, and all the outputs are finite, so an "infinite-sum game" is impossible and the term is therefore meaningless.

Ultimately, "infinite sum game" is just an poorly-constructed metaphor. The master of this style is Thomas Friedman, who builds grand metaphorical castles (and malls and office parks) from blocks of warm Jello mortared with a thick slurry of bullshit. To build in Friedman's style, simply pile nifty, loosely-connected ideas atop each other: We've got an interaction with a payoff, so it's a game; everybody wins, so it's a positive-sum game; and it's a big sum, a really really huge sum — what's bigger than big and huger than huge? infinity; it's an infinite sum game! "Infinite-sum game" does not, thank goodness, rise to the height of to Friedman's towers of babble, nor is it an essential part of the argument for the Long Tail.

I think "infinite-sum game" is symptomatic of the tech buzz that Wired is prone to. In the "trees grow to the sky" milieu of Silicon Valley promotion, it's too easy to go from "neat idea" to "best thing ever." I keep turning away from Wired because of its hyperbole (along with unreadable yellow-ink-on-white-paper). But articles like "The Long Tail" are why I keep coming back.

2 Comments:

Blogger Billy Joe said...

Heaven is an infinite sum game. It operates in eternity. There can still be losses, but the wins are infinitely greater so that the losses become negligible.

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the concept of infinity come from man's inability to comprehend large numbers. Numbers are abstract, but in the real world we count things, and all physical assertions of infinity have been explained away.

Here's a theoretical example. Imagine an infinite surface made of tiles, extending to infinity everywhere. Each tile is one third black and two thirds white. Therefore, there is twice as much white space as black. But the amount of black and white is both infinite. It doesn't work.

11:54 AM  

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