Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Countersignalling and the genius of John Cage

There's a paper by Kim-Sau Chung and Peter Eso on signaling when an individual has career concerns. This paper has been around for a couple of years, but this is the first time I saw it applied to music and particularly John Cage's 4'33". From Jeff Ely's Cheap Talk blog on economics and more:

Which type of artist debuts with obscure experimental work, the genius or the fraud? Kim-Sau Chung and Peter Eso have a new paper which answers the question: it’s both of these types.

Suppose that a new composer is choosing a debut project and he can try a composition in a conventional style or he can write 4’33″, the infamous John Cage composition consisting of three movements of total silence. Critics understand the conventional style well enough to assess the talent of a composer who goes that route. Nobody understands 4’33″ and so the experimental composer generates no public information about his talent.

There are three types of composer. Those that know they are talented enough to have a long career, those that know they are not talented enough and will soon drop out, and then the middle type: those that don’t know yet whether they are talented enough and will learn more from the success of their debut. In the Chung-Eso model, the first two types go the experimental route and only the middle type debuts with a conventional work.

The reason is intuitive. First, the average talent of experimental artists must be higher than conventional artists. Because if it were the other way around, i.e. conventional debuts signaled talent then all types would choose a conventional debut, making it not a signal at all. The middle types would because they want that positive signal and they want the more informative project. The high and low types would because the positive signal is all they care about.

Then, once we see that the experimental project signals higher than average talent, we can infer that it’s the high types and the low types that go experimental. Both of these types are willing to take the positive signal from the style of work in exchange for generating less information by the actual composition. The middle types on the other hand are willing to forego the buzz they would generate by going experimental in return for the chance to learn about their talent. So they debut conventionally.

Now, as the economics PhD job market approaches, which fields in economics are the experimental ones (generates buzz but nobody understands it, populated by the geniuses as well as the frauds) and which ones are conventional (easy to assess, but generally dull and signals a middling type) ?

If you're not familiar with John cage's famous piece, here's a rendition of it:

If you haven't read the Cheap Talk blog before, its worth checking out. Also, Jeff Ely's web page has a great version of the classic Asteroids game.

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