The impossibility of prediction, Justin Timberlake edition

This sounds a bit like an experiment in philosophy. Is a group's questionable taste in music questionable in all possible worlds?

The New York Times piece, Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?, describes how a couple of experimenters set up a music download site to rate music popularity under a couple of conditions - one, where music comes packaged with the preferences of others, and two, with only the song title and band name listed. The first group was split into eight other groups, with the members of each group - each "world," if you will - able to see only the rankings of members of that group.

Assuming that download figures would play into download decision making, wouldn't the popular songs in one of the eight groups also be popular in the others?

What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable (emphasis supplied).

...Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance, to be dispelled by greater knowledge or better analysis. But even a modest amount of randomness can play havoc with our intuitions. Because it is always possible, after the fact, to come up with a story about why things worked out the way they did — that the first “Harry Potter” really was a brilliant book, even if the eight publishers who rejected it didn’t know that at the time — our belief in determinism is rarely shaken, no matter how often we are surprised. But just because we now know that something happened doesn’t imply that we could have known it was going to happen at the time, even in principle, because at the time, it wasn’t necessarily going to happen at all.

Not only was the listener easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to other downloaders, but the early adopters had an outsized influence over the subsequent success of the particular music in question. The problem for futurism isn't that the we can't predict the future, it's that we can't predict the future in isolation. Each moment is uniquely freighted with the expectations of others.

Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.

As for Timberlake, he'll just have to make do without me, which shouldn't be difficult. Nobody asks my opinion. 


Hat tip: Deep Jive Interests