Everything That Counts

On a scale of emotional temperatures, it doesn’t get any hotter than the 2019 Indian election did. And with the summer comes another TV war, in the shape of the 2019 World Cup. The two offer similar opportunities to reflect, or riff, from a spot in the shade. On how we experience them as emotional or social beings, through symbolism and culture, essentially unchanged for millennia. But also in newer ways, through data, as supposedly rational humans.

Built into both is their adversarial nature, an organised contest of minds and bodies. They are meant to produce not just a winning side, but a win for an electorate or a sporting audience, extending beyond the side that wins. But ‘adversarial’ now seems too tame: confrontational or gladiatorial fit better. With the difference that much of cricket is now organised along commercial rather than national or state lines, and so some of its gladiatorial nature of the game is a creation of marketing, especially since the Packer revolution.

cricket is now organised along commercial rather than national or state lines, and so some of its gladiatorial nature of the game is a creation of marketing

Take a look at cricket league logos, such as those of the IPL, freed from the forced dignity of national representation and admire the aggression that they picture. Party logos don’t track this way but every citizen has noted the changing tenor of campaign language and explicit appeals to tribalism (us vs them).  And cricketing behavior, never short of ugly aggression lurking just beneath the surface of the ‘gentleman’s game’ that it never really was has kept pace. Model codes of conduct get ever more strict, the level of oversight seems greater, yet the violations seem more brazen.

Wagon Wheel displaying team India's performance
Wagon Wheel displaying team India’s performance

Both elections and cricket have moved far from their Westminster or MCC roots. The World Cup is more representative of cricket’s present and future than Test cricket or T20 is. It’s perched nicely between the poles of national representation and contest-based entertainment. Country and sponsor names coexist on T shirts. Appropriately, coloured uniforms appear midway been whites (albeit with football numbers, now) and the neon luridity of the IPL colours.

English cricket was elitist. Captaincy implied class, and Gentlemen and Players as they were quaintly called, were distinct. Indian cricket was too, to a lesser degree. It is less so now, because its social base has widened, and also because pure competitive ability appeals more to the paying fan. Indian elections were never elitist in the cricket sense, though ruling classes could be. Yet elitism has been (a belatedly acknowledged) part of the last two elections. But even here, the popularity of a winner conquers everything. (Perhaps even ideological opposition: the next five years will tell).

If it’s popular, it is right; the score matters. The arbiter of success is numbers. And that’s where data comes in.

We may feel the elections and choose our leaders on emotional grounds, yet experience them through the lens of numbers. Television screens are dominated by numbers, which seem to form a frame around the anchors and the conversation. On results day, they could be a rectangular garland around the winner. There is no attempt to guide the eye.

If it’s popular, it is right; the score matters. The arbiter of success is numbers. And that’s where data comes in. 

In the 2104 elections, NDTV’s screens stood out for their clear, focused design with analytical conclusions, conversation, and live data nicely balanced. Yet a colleague couldn’t actually spot these data on the NDTV screen; they were ‘too clear’, and she appeared to miss them because they weren’t in a familiar thicket of party scores. In 2019, NDTV’s style had adapted to the mainstream, its studio picture comfortably contained in a reassuring nest of state-wise, part-wise and otherwise data.

Television Screenshot of coverage on the 2019 Indian Elections
Television Screenshot of coverage on the 2019 Indian Elections

Both cricket and election reporting feed off the modern obsession with numbers and data. The systematic reporting and visualisation of data is one of modernity’s features. For a few days, around both contests, every citizen becomes highly numerate, a temporary magnet for numbers. Simply quoting them is enough.

Cricket, like baseball, naturally generates data; every action is a countable event, punctuated by moments of rest. Other sports must keep up (among many others, football has shots on goal, and tennis has unforced errors). Early generations of baseball and cricket fans would attend matches and keep score on specially printed scorecards. These are now memorablia, but the role of statistics in how we view cricket is even greater and perhaps more insidious.

Televised cricket has eclipsed the physical spectacle. With the giant screen television replays at stadiums, the arenas need no longer be differentiated. Cricket coverage is now a heavily numerical enterprise, with ‘Manhattans’ and ‘worms’ (look them up) being part of everyday discussion.

In subtle ways, they can are replacing our recollection of events and how we model them in our minds. Visualisations like Hawkeye that predict the trajectory of a ball are the real thing; the real action is a surrogate. Replays, split screens, super slow motion all present an alternate reality. But the sheer presence of numbers may lead us to value them over the reasons that drew us to the game: visuality, character, conflict.

A courageous fightback under crazy odds that turned the course of the game can be remembered—or reduced to—a recitation of the key numbers that described the circumstances. An entirely dissimilar innings may look numerically similar, with the appropriate adjustments.

As designers who deal with the complexities of behaviour know, numbers can excel at concealing, too. Ratios and aggregates can obliterate key differences (the average Indian is 55% male, as the joke goes).

Just by their presence, numbers lend authority; the owner of the data controls the conversation.

Just by their presence, numbers lend authority; the owner of the data controls the conversation. It’s as true in marketing, or medicine, both becoming more ‘objective’ in this narrow sense. Digital media by their very nature are literally made of data, and the opportunities for thinking-by-numbers are immensely greater than in any activity in human history. The possibility of reaching precise and dubious conclusions is greater than ever, because what can be counted may not count.

It’s time to push back and attempt to grapple, uncertainly, with the mind and its interactions, rather than aggregates of numbers. Un-measurable ideas may be immeasurably important.

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First published in a slightly modified form ‘Everything that counts’ in Business Standard, 8 June in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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