The press release for the Vision Fortune ‘Mas Fiestas con el Grupo Vision Fortune’ (MFCEGVF) could be the best that 20JFG has ever received – it describes its songs by reference to the Parable of the Ox written by John Kay of the Kay Review of Equity markets and long-term decision making fame. In fact, MFCEGVF is loosely based in this paradox, ‘itself a thinly veiled allegory for unbridled capitalism’ (in the press release’s own words).
As awesome as all of this is, we don’t totally agree with this interpretation of the parable, or more accurately, we sort of agree with the interpretation of the parable but we also think that there is scope for greater precision in the description of the subject of the parable, in a way which will help us convey the sensations that Vision Fortune, MFCEGVF and their live show provoke in us.
Let’s get started.
So, the Parable of the Ox tells of a country fair where they stop weighting the ox to be auctioned, and instead decide to measure its weight using averages of the buyers’ guesses, which, according to the idea of the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’, will be quite close to the real weight.
These guessers start to second guess each other, and a whole infrastructure is created to regulate this process. Computerised models are developed to estimate the weight of the ox when there aren’t enough buyers guessing (since the idea of the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ only works when there are actual crowds).
In the midst of all this frenzy of guessing, everyone forgets to feed the ox, and the ox dies.
This is indeed, a thinly veiled allegory for unbridled capitalism of the ‘Anglo Saxon’ (or ‘financial’) sort. But more specifically, it is a commentary on different ways of measuring and – perhaps – predicting the prices of shares (i.e. the weight) of companies (i.e. oxes) in the stock exchange (the country fair).
The parable contrasts those who look at the ‘fundamentals’ (financials, investments and economic activities) of a company to gauge its future potential with those who look at the evolution of share prices using mathematical models of their historical performance, or that of similar share prices. This second group doesn’t really measure the weight of the ox, but looks at what everyone is guessing about the weight of the ox (or a cow) in order to evaluate what is its probable weight.
When the second group becomes dominant, the financial economy detaches itself from ‘the real economy’, and we move from investment to trading… and speculation. We move to a world where it doesn’t really matter what a company does – e.g. whether it has a bunch of incredible products in the pipeline (if it is a fat ox). What is important is how has its share price (the guesses on how fat it is) performed recently, and what it means for its future evolution.
Here is where the complexity scientist and the behaviouralist raise their bony fingers. The idea that, somehow, the financial analyst looks at the data from “nowhere” (an ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ position) and can identify patterns that allow her to beat the market have some big problems. For starters, the analyst is not alone. There is an army of would-be rocket scientists and wizards out there with her, and their actions impact on the movement of prices. Moreover, no-one in this army is rational. Everyone is afflicted by cognitive biases that shape the signals it gleams from the data, and how it makes decisions – status quo and confirmation biases, and an inability to conceive situations where things that have never happened may indeed happen – like, say, a crash in the housing market.
The biased guesses of thousands of analysts don’t average each other out, but interact like an equilibrium-less game, generating instabilities and weird cascades and bubbles. They pollute the purity of prices as a signal of what is and will happen. This may justify paternalistic interventions to protect these people (and innocent bystanders) from themselves.
Someone is needed, to keep the ox alive.
Which is where Vision Fortune come into the picture.
To be clear, Vision Fortune aren’t here to save the ox. If anything, their music pounds with the murderous thrust with which the quasi-ox (bull) is slaughtered at the end of Apocalypse Now. It is this murderousness plus a mystical something else that helps us make the connection between VF and the paternalistic solution to the cognitive biases which can send the marketplace in a bizarre economy-busting spiral, as outlined before.
Because Vision Fortune’s music harnesses with an ability not born of practice or premeditation a set of behaviours and body rhythms hardwired into our nervous system and simian-derived psyche – i.e. those biases that set us apart from the rational agent of economic modelling, and link us to our hunter-gatherer totem worshipping ancestry. Theirs is the beat with which the old tribes scared their prey out of gnarly woods, and the beat with which these tribes beat on their wooden shields before heading into battle with their neighbours, theirs is the light of a storm experienced in a barren peak, illuminating what could well be the face of the God in the clouds, frowning like the knots in the bark of a tree, before she speaks with the voice of thunder.
Every time Vision Fortune do their unleashing they create a demonstration pure like mathematical proof but written with sledgehammers, of the plethora of brutal heuristcs and biases that survive in mankind and its markets, manifested in bulls and bears from which we may need defending.
Their demonstration does however also illustrate the problem with that ‘paternalism’ that seeks to protect us from ourselves with its superior knowledge– because attending a celebration by Vision Fortune, entering the force field of their industrial stroboscope, getting tangled in their distorted quagmire, and celestially battered in their merciless roguelike, is something that is not going to make us live any longer, or make us better adjusted citizens, or more respectful of our elders (at least not the immediate lowercase ones, the uppercase millennial ones are a different affair altogether).
It is not good for us in any conventional, societally agreed way, but we’d like to see you, benevolent dictator, stand in the way between us and it to protect our very own health. Watch out, we say, because in this village we don’t let the oxes starve, we carve them.