In The Armchair

Indirect Signaling in non-Indian Societies

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on November 16, 2008

I was reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat recently. One of the things it says is that during the dot-com boom, companies laid excessive amounts of fiber-optic and other data carrying cable, so that communication became dirt cheap. The surprising thing is that communication is not dirt cheap for the consumer in the USA. In the competitive market, competing companies have somehow accomplished the feat of dividing up turf and avoiding a competitive price war without any explicit negotiations (that would be illegal). They signaled their intentions through indirect communication and were able to arrive at figures that were profitable to them (and, of course, detrimental to the consumer).

This kind of indirect signaling appears common in many societies. Its features are:

  1. Enhancement of the common good
  2. Existence of conditions which make agreements/pacts impossible
  3. Decision making based only on observation of behaviour of other agents

It seems to find less purchase in India. For example, Jihadi terrorism finds a lot of sympathy in India. There are many people who are staunchly opposed to it, but there are also apologists for terrorism who give sympathetic reasons why it exists. This makes it hard to act against terrorism: there is always a section of apologists opposing any anti-terrorist move. On the other hand, in Western society people are somehow able to get together on issues like terrorism: everybody condemns it and no one makes apologies for it. Those who do make apologies for it are excluded nonviolently but very firmly. Society is able to act more coherently against the problem.

Another example comes from the recent India-Australia cricket wars. In Australia, Ricky Ponting set a nasty tone by employing a sledging approach as well as dishonourable calls (claiming catches that bounced) to win matches. Initially, the Australian press seemed annoyed with Ponting for this behaviour. But pretty soon, they almost magically banded together and began vilifying the visiting Indian team to put pressure on them. Harbhajan Singh came in for particularly nasty attacks. The Australian press went so far as to position a camera that exclusively shot footage of Harbhajan throughout one of the matches, and soundly criticized all off-field moves the Indians made. The Australian press rallied around this psychological attack on the Indian team in a way that the Indian press can never do. There is often a “fashionable” section of the Indian press which will support the Australians in such situations. Putting concerted pressure on the Australian team during their visit to India never occurred to the Indian press. Thus, teams like Australia have an extra card up their sleeve that the Indian team is unable to possess.

Perhaps another example of such signaling lies in the way European powers divided up India and avoided conflict with each other to a great extent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They somehow recognized it was better that a European power win control than the alternative of fighting among themselves and letting the Indians repulse them. The Indians, on the other hand, failed to recognize that defeating the European powers should have been higher on their agenda than trying to use the Europeans to defeat other Indian powers. Europe signaled, India didn’t. This example may not be valid because I’m not sure the Europeans didn’t explicitly discuss this among themselves. Maybe they did.

That Indians fight among themselves is well-known; we are taught this in our history classes from primary school onwards. It is obvious in our politics and our culture, which seem based on primacy. However, the distinguishing feature in indirect signaling is the indirectness. Some societies seem to be able to act in concert even without explicit agreements. India seems to be able to do this to a lesser extent than some other societies.

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