Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anticipating Sunday’s Daytona 500: a social-science laboratory for thinking about complexity theory, network analysis, and game theory

On the eve of the Daytona 500, I always feel like reprising an old paper, and this year, instead of hesitating for one reason or another, I’m doing so. That paper — “Social Science at 190 MPH on NASCAR's Biggest Superspeedways” (2000) — may initially seem alien to this blog’s themes about TIMN and STA, but it does bear on them tangentially. As the second half of the paper shows, what makes Daytona-type racing unique — shifting draft lines — can serve as a primer for understanding social science about complexity theory, network analysis, and game theory. No other sports event is so richly instructive about strategy and tactics for the information age, if only metaphorically.

As the abstract states,
“In aerodynamically intense stock-car races like the Daytona 500, the drivers form into multi-car draft lines to gain extra speed. A driver who does not enter a draft line (slipstream) will lose. Once in a line, a driver must attract a drafting partner in order to break out and try to get further ahead. Thus the effort to win leads to ever-shifting patterns of cooperation and competition among rivals. This provides a curious laboratory for several social science theories: (1) complexity theory, since the racers self-organize into structures that oscillate between order and chaos; (2) social network analysis, since draft lines are line networks whose organization depends on a driver's social capital as well as his human capital; and (3) game theory, since racers face a "prisoner's dilemma" in seeking drafting partners who will not defect and leave them stranded. Perhaps draft lines and related "bump and run" tactics amount to a little-recognized dynamic of everyday life, including in structures evolving on the Internet.”
Much has changed since I wrote the paper, but not so much that it is obsolete or irrelevant. The racecars’ designs — thus their aerodynamics and drafting qualities — are somewhat different. Yet the conduct of a race still depends on the drafting strategies / tactics my paper lays out. Television coverage is not as skillful as it used to be; compared to Fox, ESPN used to provide better reportage about “deals” being made during a race, and better overhead camera angles for watching draft lines form and decay. But many basics are still evident despite what has struck me as a dumbing-down of coverage. Also, my enthusiasm for this kind of racing peaked years ago, as it became more formulaic — often too boringly safe or dishearteningly crash-ridden. Even so, I’m looking forward to this Sunday’s race (February 24), intrigued by a slight redesign of the racecars, by Danica Patrick driving so fast to become the first woman to win pole position, and by the fact that my favorite team (Stewart-Haas Racing: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and Danica Patrick) looks really strong.

If I were to redo the paper today, here are some revisions I’d make in the theory-oriented sections: I’d incorporate writings I missed at the time — notably, by James Golden on “cooperative competition” as an advisable diplomatic strategy (1993), and Adam Brandenburger & Barry Nalebuff on “co-opetition” as a game-theoretic strategy for businesses (1996). They spoke to one of my paper’s themes: that, in the information age, out-competing will increasingly depend on out-cooperating. And of course, I’d also incorporate subsequent writings — e.g., by Stephen Goldsmith & William Eggers on “competitor-partner networks” as a factor in “government by network” (2004), by Laurel Smith-Doerr & Walter Powell on how “groups of collaborators become involved in multiple forms of cooperation and competition” in high-tech business fields (2003/2005), by Jeffrey Cooper wondering how best to deal with complex network-like situations where cooperation, competition, and conflict are interactively intertwined (2009), and by Ben Hecht editorializing that “collaboration is the new competition” (2013). [UPDATE — March 11, 2015: In addition, Alexander J Stewart’s “New take on game theory offers clues on why we cooperate” (2015) summarizes insightful research about multi-player games where heavy cooperation by some teammates may incentivize others to defect — on grounds that “once strategies, costs and benefits start to co-evolve, something counter-intuitive can happen: cooperation starts to collapse.”]

I might do a better job of discussing “self-organization” in the section on complexity theory. Actually, I’d probably knock the concept, for much that is said to be self-organized — including Daytona draft lines — is often other-organized in some critical way. It’s frequently said (lately here; originally here?) that “The archetype of a self-organized critical system is a sand pile.” But I continue to doubt this, for sand piles are organized mainly by gravity — an outside force. And something similar applies to many groups that are said to be self-organized or self-organizing. They may well be so, to a degree; yet their postures and actions may also be shaped critically by the gravity of their situation, the physical context in which they are embedded, etc. — again outside factors that mean other-organization. It sounds good to be self-organizing, but it may also mislead analysis. And why sand piles are deemed an archetype or prototype remains a puzzle to me. Draft lines at Daytona are self-organizing too; but they are also other-organized by the high-banked nature of the track and many other factors, including the weather that day.

I’d surely add “strategic multiplexity” to the section on network theory. I’ve already blogged about this concept twice (here and here) and have little further to say about it. But it would make sense to introduce Daytona-type racing as an illustration. New material would also have to be added about network theory and the importance of social capital.

Finally, beyond these scholarly and theoretic updates, I’d try to say a lot more in a revised final section about implications for business, diplomacy, and other real-life endeavors. The parts about business — some would call it Business 2.0, or Capitalism 3.0 — might be easiest to elaborate, in part because over the years quite a few business-oriented writers have noticed and commented on the paper: e.g., Charles Duhigg, Carl Franklin, David Ignatius, Robert Lipsyte, Peter Orsi, Lisa Yoon. Drawing on points they and others have made, I’d point out that understanding Daytona-type racing helps show the importance of organizing business partnerships and commercial clusters. It helps show that strategy is the art of positioning: where go-it-alone can’t be a winning strategy, where connectivity can be decisive, where much depends on mutual trust and respect, where being second may be more advantageous than being the first to move out front, where defection by junior members to a rival team must be anticipated, as must episodic free-riding by the less-skilled.

Furthermore, understanding Daytona-type racing helps show that in business and other worlds being well-positioned is about much more than who’s leading and who’s following at any time. A lot depends on ancillary communications factors, such as the skill of “spotters” high in the stands who try to provide “topsight” for a team, or even on an ability to eavesdrop on rival teams’ communications. A lot also depends on technical adaptation during the course of a race. NASCAR races involve more varied and more constant adjustments to a racecar during a race than is the case with other motorsports. Trade-offs are made about whether to set up a car for short runs or long runs, for low or high grooves, for speed down a straight or grip around a corner, and for following or leading in a draft line. Tiny adjustments to tire pressures and tire cambers may have large effects on a car’s balance and maneuverability. Such points about topsight and adaptation are quite pertinent to business (and other) worlds, adding to why Daytona-type drafting is such an apt instructive metaphor.

I’d want (and have) to provide more real-life examples of such matters than the paper does in its dated condition. A good new example might be the rise of apps as a competitive factor. Some years ago Microsoft seemed to have drafting advantages over Apple, because Microsoft had more strategic partnerships with other major corporate players. But today Apple has the advantage, for it has thousands more small apps producers lined up with it. I could play that point out, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Many of these kinds of points also apply to the worlds of state diplomacy, party politics, and civil-society activism in the information age. But to wrap this post and get it out in a timely manner, I’ll just signal one point. The Obama administration’s foreign policy and national security strategy is often characterized (and criticized) as “leading from behind” — notable examples being the U.S. approaches to conflicts in Libya and Syria. That strikes me as being positively in line with the lessons a strategist may draw from Daytona-type drafting.

Finally, of course, I’d dress the paper up with more savvy quotes about Daytona-type racing. Here are two I have handy: Tony Stewart stating (in 2000) that “It’s not about what you and your car can do, it’s about what everybody else is doing to you and your car.” And David Ignatius noting (in 2000), that Daytona racing illustrates “partnering as a way of life” but also that “in the push for the finish line, the winner must have the killer instinct.”

Ah me, if I had a better killer instinct, I’d be finishing up languishing drafts for posts about TIMN rather engaging in this quickie diversion about a sporting activity that offers a better metaphor than any other sport for illuminating strategy and tactics attuned to the information age. But it’s been kinda fun. . . .

POSTSCRIPT — March 1, 2013: From what I saw and heard on Fox the day of the race, and later on the Speed channel, what happened on the last lap of the race was analytically interesting. Much of the race was tedious, exhibiting lots of monotonous single-file drafting. That was still the case during the last lap, until the cars entered the final high-banked turn.

Johnson led, followed by Biffle, Patrick, Earnhardt Jr., Martin, Keselowski, and Newman, in that order, all in line along the outside groove, with a car length or two between each car. Then Earnhardt began to “lay back” to get close to Martin, who also appeared to be easing back to Keselowski, who already had Newman near his bumper. This laying-back was probably accomplished by slowly pressing the brake pedal while keeping the gas pedal mashed. Earnhardt said later that he hoped Martin knew what was up, but odds are that there had been radio communications between the two teams, though the two drivers could not communicate directly.

As Earnhardt dropped back, his car and the three behind formed a closed-up draft line that gained a few extra miles-per-hour relative to the three spaced-out cars in front — the kind of tactical line that can be maintained for only a matter of seconds for a short distance before the cars space apart again. Fox swung the camera away to a sudden car crash back in the pack momentarily, interrupting my sense of what was happening up front. But when the camera swung back, it was evident that the Earnhardt-led line, coming off the high-banked turn, was dropping to the inside groove and “freight-training” under Patrick in third, and then Biffle in second, heading toward Johnson up front. Biffle and Patrick did not stand a chance of countering. As they got displaced and lost speed, Johnson moved in front of the oncoming Earnhardt-led line, and managed to hold position as they all swept across the finish line. It may have meant something that Johnson and Earnhardt drive for the same team.

Patrick remarked later that she was disappointed to fall back to finish eighth, largely because she had no drafting partner at the end. Biffle in front made no effort to make a go with her. And she could not count on Earnhardt behind if she had laid back to align with him, or tried dropping in front of his freight-train maneuver. Newman, who is one of her teammates, was not in a position to work with her at the end, and stayed in the line behind Earnhardt.

A mostly forgettable race, but a memorable finish in line with this post's analytic themes.

[UPDATE — April 19, 2013: First Monday, where I published the original paper, has been redoing the urls for older papers.  I hope the link correction I made up top holds for a while.  If not, search for the paper at First Monday's www site.]