Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sustainability and Stagnation

This is my first time reading Gandhi, and it was interesting to read primary sources from which I’ve heard so many people draw inspiration.  That said, through the lens of the ‘alternative visions of technology’ focus of the course, I found Gandhi’s opinions on technology surprisingly contentious.  Setting aside his doctrine of passive resistance, Gandhi’s views on the mechanization of society and the societal ills which that has heralded surprised me with their vehemence and, to take Andrew’s phrase, Luddism. Of particular interest to me were Gandhi’s arguments concerning railroads and the practice of western medicine.

Railroads, here taken as shorthand for mechanized locomotion generally, have the capacity only to meaningfully carry evil things, Gandhi contends.  It is railroads that carry diseases, both of the body and of the soul, to and from disparate places which would otherwise lie unconnected.  And I do follow his argument that, but for railways, the massive exportation of goods that contributes to starvation and poverty might not have occurred.  Yet I balk at accepting the only remedy to such ills is to tear up all the tracks and call it off as a bad job.  Additionally, there seems to be little hope of simply giving up the modern modes of locomotion – one group of persons refusing to construct a railway would do little to prevent another group, perhaps even their descendants, from simply constructing them in their stead.  I see little sustainable prospect in simply refusing to advance technologically, as it seems like short of globally unanimous abstention, there isn’t much to be done to stop it.  Additionally, Gandhi’s assertion that religious disputes would be solved simply by isolating warring factions by disallowing mechanized travel seems to fly in the face of a world history where railroad travel has hardly been prerequisite for war.

Similarly, I find myself at odds with Gandhi’s view of the medical profession.  In an allegory involving overeating and treatment of an ensuing malady, Gandhi claims that “had the doctor not intervened, nature would have done its work, and I would have acquired mastery over myself, would have been freed from vice and would have become happy.”  And in so claiming, he implies that the work of a doctor is merely a crutch which allows us to avoid the consequences of our mistakes.  Yet such a claim is manifestly untrue – when a doctor sets the leg of a person who has fallen from a hill and broken it, are they preventing some sort of mental unity?  When the timely application of an antibiotic prevents sepsis in an incidental wound, is the doctor at fault for preventing an unnecessary death.  Gandhi’s contention that the medical profession provides only solutions to problems we ourselves have created is, by my own reckoning, simply incorrect.  Malaria was certainly not a human concoction.  I understand that this was written in a context where western medicine was less successful than today – yet I must protest at the depiction of the profession as an unnecessary sinecure for the procurement of personal wealth.  While greed might be a motivating factor for some doctors, I can certainly say that I would prefer a licensed physician to Gandhi’s quack doctor.

I don’t think these points unsettle Gandhi’s argument about passive resistance – they seem on the whole to be orthogonal.  But I can’t help but think that the society that Gandhi proposes is one of unsustainable stagnation.  What would a world in which we tore up the railways look like?  What would stop them from being rebuilt?  More generally, now that we have opened the pandoras box of technology, do we, as a society, even have the choice to go back?

Form Function & Fallacy

What struck me most when reading Gandhi side-by-side with Tagore is the differences in their chosen rhetorical forms. Tagore took a very western approach to writing his critical piece, The Cult of the Charkha. Whereas Gandhi took a more eastern, dialectical method with Hind Swaraj, revealing the argument to the reader through the voice of guru and student. Tagore’s critique could have been written by a University professor, it’s a well written essay that starts with a cute story about going boating, then effectively leads into his main points.

Tagore’s rhetorical form is that of his oppressor. Whereas Ganhi’s is indigenous to India and can be traced back millenia through Buddhist and Vedic tradition. I wonder if either author chose their form intentionally? Or, if through its use, they unintentioanally divulge their stance towards investigations of truth?

Another question I had was: What’s up with Gandhi hating on doctors and lawyers? Can both of those be traced back to his belief that people only seek out those professions with greed in mind? I had forgotten how much of a Luddite Gandhi came across as, but I also had to wonder if the only reason he hated on trains and looms was because he hated on the British* so much Are doctors, lawyers, trains and looms just substitutes for his real dislikes, namely greed and the British? Since he states the only reason the British are in India is for commerce and greed, can I take it one step further and just say he didn’t like greed? Or maybe he didn’t like greed because the British are greedy?

* Gandhi incorrectly conflates England with Britain and confuses the terms. I will use the proper term British since Great Britain was a country at the time and it wasn’t just the English that were oppressing India.

Synthesis

My favorite quote comes from the Poet’s Religion:

“…growth is not that enlargement which is merely adding to the dimensions of incompleteness. Growth is the movement of a whole towards a yet fuller wholeness… Life is a continual process of synthesis, and not of additions. Our activities of production and enjoyment of wealth attain that spirit of wholeness when they are blended with a creative ideal. Otherwise they have the insane aspect of the eternally unfinished; they become like locomotive engines which have railway lines but no stations; which rush on towards a collision of uncontrolled forces or to a sudden breakdown of the overstrained machinery.”

Rather then a set of questions, I’ll follow this with a short piece this motivated me to write as a wide-eyed, idealistic grad student teaching and traveling in rural India. An Indian newspaper actually randomly picked this piece up and published it as a column at one point, so it is also the one output of my short-lived career as a newspaper columnist. I don’t know how much I agree with this anymore, but here I am re-posting it for posterity:

A Synthesis of Complexity

A proposition: Humanity implies complexity.

Considering the vast reaches of stars and space, the infinitudes of nothingness, vast spaces filled with small subatomic particles passing like trains in the night, we are infinitely more complex and rich. Ordered. Low-entropy. High potential energy.

That is our calling card in the universe. Otherwise, as Douglas Adams said, we live on a relatively obscure planet on a relatively obscure sun somewhere in an obscure part of a backwater galaxy. But we live on an island of tremendous richness, an Eden of Life, of incomparable complexity and order amongst the vastness of the universe.

One could go on to argue: Life implies complexity.

We should not forget where we come from. Human complexity is one of a line, many branches along the ladder of evolution. Our complexity, on a microscopic level, is no more than of the many wonderful plants, animals and fish we see all around us. Cells and mitochondria, DNA, proteins and hormones. Receptor sites. A complex interplay of the highest kind of order and efficiency.

Complexity lives all around us.

Could our purpose in life be to increase the complexity?

Why not? As sentient, willful beings, endowed with the gift of life, can we not consciously _choose_ to evolve? To decrease the entropy yet further of our already lush and ordered corner of the universe? What more noble aspiration could there be?

Hypothesis: We can do it.

I see it all around us. Cities, cars, stock exchanges. It can be done, complex systems can be created. Our efforts can lead to an increase in order, an increase in complexity and richness that often mirrors life itself. But, in general, have they?

I look at cities today. Bombay for example, where I happen to live now. A crescent moon carved out of the Arabian Sea. White and glaring amongst smoke, buildings and concrete, grime and dust. Is it more complex than what came before?

Nostalgically swaying with the Palms Trees along Marine Drive, I escape into reverie, into a shadow of another time. A rich green scattering of islands, awash in life. Growing and beating with the tides, nestled among soft green hills and relentless monsoon rain. Fishermen villages clinging to the edges, reaping life out of the richness. Bombay breathed a different way then.

Was it somehow more special then? Was it fundamentally more complex? I don’t know. Bombay is certainly awash with life now, rats and people and crows and pigeons and dogs and cats and sometimes cows.

But we’ve lost a lot of our dear friendly plants along the way. Speaking from a pure complexity perspective, including the microscopic scale, I would be surprised if Bombay was richer in complexity now then it was before all this. These buildings and cars, once you get past the surface, there isn’t much too look at. Can a car muffler be compared in complexity with the roots of a tree? All the way down to cell walls and chloroplasts? I doubt it.

But one thing is even more clear. What existed before was a more self-sustaining system. More able to organically grow and live within its own means. It had the means of its own sustenance ingrained in its essence.

Proposition: Our complex creations have come at a great physical cost.

These things we have created, they have not come for free. They have displaced other systems of their own richness. They have created smoke and occupied land. Monoliths of concrete and steel, displacing a patchwork green of multi-layered complexity. Were we too crude in our strivings? Too clumsy?

Many religions, I believe, teach us this basic fact – to respect complexity. To respect life and all of its creation. To respect the richness of the universe unfolding all around us. They may say it in different ways, but all religion teach respect for life and the universe as one of the most basic responsibilities of man. I think that responsibility is even more pertinent today.

Proposition: Computing is different.

Computing is alive with complexity. There are layers upon layers of abstraction. From microchips and resistors, to bits, to assembly code, to programming, to applications – all the way to chat rooms, web sites and 3d games. A whole world of complexity lives inside small white boxes connected with wires. And now the boxes are getting smaller and the wires are going away.

Hypothesis: Computing creates eddies of complexity at low physical cost.

I propose that computing allows for great leaps and bounds of complexity, the capacity for human creation, at very low physical costs. We can create worlds inside of small boxes. Those worlds live in very real ways. There are so many worlds that have been created by now that they are innumerable. Usenet is a time-space continuum in and of itself. Clearly this is a remarkable increase in complexity, in order. But consequently it really displaces very little. And every year it displaces less and less.

Since the advent of micro-electronics computing technologies have gotten smaller and smaller, consume less and less energy and are increasingly powerful. This trend shows no indication of reversing. In fact we seem to be getting smaller and faster every day.

Could computing be a godsend? After so many years of unsustainable adventures and failing creations – has humanity finally happened on a winner? A sustainable and low-impact way to increase complexity, to increase the capacity for productive human creation, a way for humans to create that can carry on without being buried amongst its own trappings?

A possibly great opportunity lies ahead for the human race. If we are able to grasp it in an intelligent holistic and way. We can leave these urban misadventures behind us – we can abandon these wastelands of overpopulation, pollution and unsustainable creation, and try to come up again in what remains to us – the rural hinterlands.

Conjecture: Computing should be spread to rural areas in a sustainable, organic way.

The rural, pastoral expanses remaining in the world – upon which many covetous eyes are now laid in these days of economic downturns and saturations. Like a pretty girl dancing by herself in the corner – how will we approach? What will be our first line?

We have this wonderful tool with us now – computing – access to knowledge and creative facilities in a small little box. The ability to create, produce and even earn without reducing the world to dust and smoke. Can we use this tool to build up again, in a different way?

Warning: But we must tread with greatest caution.

We should not recreate the urban mistakes again. Will we learn from them? We have experimented. We have created. We have investigated. We have had our fun, and seen what it can amount to. We have learned a lot. But have we learned respect?

Without a fundamental respect for all the things that live and breathe and exist all around us – we will never be able to create things that sustain – things that stand the test of time Things that do not disturb the harmony that lives all around us. Things that do not collapse on themselves.

In our adventures in rural computing, it is important we intervene with this feeling – with an awareness of the richness that lives all around us. Our interventions should be subtle, holistic, and contribute to the complexity of the system. They should never degrade. They should never somehow make life less.

This feeling and respect can never be delegated. It can never be specified or enforced upon us. It cannot be imposed. It must rise up from within the hearts of all of us. This respect must come with feeling.

Is that possible? Can we as human beings create melodies in productive creativity? Can we create structures in symbiosis with the life and universe all around us? Will our tremendous drive to produce ever know temperance? Will it ever know the gentle touch of respect and subtlety?

I truly don’t know. But in my mind this could be the defining question of the 21st century. But what I do know is that I intend to be right at the front lines trying to find out. Hope to see you there too.

— Tapan S. Parikh, September 12, 2002

 

a harmony of adjustments

Tagore wrote this piece in 1922, at the very first signs that India might emerge from a 400-year period of colonial/capitalist/foreign rule.

meanwhile, he notes that

 The political and commercial adventures carried on by[170] Western races—very often by force and against the interest and wishes of the countries they have dealt with—have created a moral alienation, which is deeply injurious to both parties

Western cultural modes and thought, according to Tagore (and I borrow from elsewhere in his speech here),

[become] an impediment when taken into different surroundings, just as when lungs are given to the whale in the sea.

in the design of his own educational mechanism, Tagore offers a contrasting directive:

in our centre of Indian learning, we must provide for the co-ordinate study of all these different cultures,—the Vedic, the Puranic, the Buddhist, the Jain, the Islamic, the Sikh and the Zoroastrian. The Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan will also have to be added

however, Tagore offers few clues in these essays how these different studies will be “co-ordinated.” although we can infer from Tagore’s general ideas about oneness and unity that these studies will be somehow integrative, we have no idea how different cultures will be related to each other, or contrasted, if at all.

can’t the integrative study of external cultures be, in its own way, colonial? instead of taking your culture and bringing it elsewhere, you absorb the culture of others, thus blurring the line between you and they. not that there aren’t advantages of integrating across cultural lines, especially in a multiethnic state like India, but doesn’t Tagore’s point about lungs and whales still have some bearing?

They don’t do this in The United States…

Leymah Gbowee, speaking at the Millenium Development Conference a few years ago, told an eager college-aged crowd of how women in Liberia had done everything they were supposed to do: they organized themselves in a movement for peace and gathered overwhelming support all across West Africa. They met formally with political leaders. The short response they got for all this effort was, “They don’t do this in The United States, why should we do it here?” End of conversation. Her message was for young leaders whose hearts were moving towards international development to clean up our messes at home first. Everyone cheered and clapped, which I don’t think she expected.

Tagore’s reflections on the world and especially the Eastern University, “The deepest source of all calamities in history is misunderstanding. For where we do not understand, we can never be just… If the whole world grows at last into an exaggerated West, then such an illimitable parody of the modern age will die, crushed beneath its own absurdity…” brings me back to thinking the most good I could do with my time and technology might be here at home. Is it fair to spend so much time and money and energy traveling to gain an understanding of other parts of the world while the West has such a negative impact on it?

On Language

Tagore writes:

“But when this language [English], with all its products and acquisitions, matured by ages on its own mother soil, is carried into foreign lands, which have their own separate history and their own life-growth, it must constantly hamper the indigenous growth of culture and destroy individuality of judgement and the perfect freedom of self-expression. The inherited wealth of the English language, with all its splendour, becomes an impediment when taken into different surroundings, just as when lungs are given to the whale in the sea.” [191]

This quote made me think about the Imperialism of language on the Internet, and the very limited computer-based language support available. As Tagore points out, this clearly has implications for the particular ways in which knowledge, society, art, culture, etc. are described and understood. Just a quick peek…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_used_on_the_Internet (no Indian languages)
http://translate.google.com/ (a few Indian languages)

I was wondering what Tagore would think of the more contemporary form of language Imperialism — which seems to be largely driven by the market for computer software. Colonialism looks a bit different now — people aren’t necessarily forced to speak the language of the colonizer in the same way that they were, say, 100…or even 50 years ago — but perhaps the consolidation of language has nonetheless accelerated? Any bilingual folks in the class have any thoughts on the influence of language on cultural expression? How do contemporary forms of computer-mediated expression limit how you can communicate?

In “The Eastern University”, Tagore describes the establishment of a new “International University” which he believes will promote “mutual understanding between the East and the West” by inviting “students from the West to study the different systems of Indian philosophy, literature, art and music in their proper environment, encouraging them to carry on research work in collaboration with the scholars already engaged in this task.”

Tagore further states the following: 

It is my hope that in this school a nucleus has been formed, round which an indigenous University of our own land will find its natural growth—a University which will help India’s mind to concentrate and to be fully conscious of itself; free to seek the truth and make this truth its own wherever found, to judge by its own standard, give expression to its own creative genius, and offer its wisdom to the guests who come from other parts of the world.

How do Tagore’s views on the problems with education differ from Freire’s and Illich’s critiques, and how does his proposed solution also differ? Which author’s solution do you think is the most practically feasible? Which do you think has the greatest chance of success?

Tagore seems to have great faith in the University form of education. But is the University not a Western institution, structured to fit the Western socio-cultural framework? Given what you have observed (or your other knowledge) regarding the way education is currently performed in Universities, do you think Tagore’s ideas remain valid or would they need to be changed in any way?

The “fairy imprisoned” in the box

I was particularly struck by Tagore’s tale of the “The Man from the Moon” who encounters a gramophone for the first time. He says the Man will “write about a fairy imprisoned in that box, who sits spinning fabrics of songs expressing her cry for a far-away magic casement opening on the foam of some perilous sea, in a fairyland forlorn.” — and that’s not a bad thing, because imagining world manifest with  companionship moves us closer to unity.

Could Tagore be describing a radical purpose for technology in this story? Perhaps the purpose of machines (or the ones the insides of which we can’t easily understand) is to stir our creative imagination to weave stories of companionship from our material surroundings?

Stop and smell the roses

In “The Poet’s Religion,” Tagore writes, “Our needs are always in a hurry.” This is definitely true in today’s instantly connected society, where we place high value on being busy and actively seeking out the next big thing. Here in the technology sector, a culture of hackathons and startups pairs well with a constantly moving atmosphere. With so little time before some assigned deadline, it is all too easy to focus on the basic facts of purpose: why something is created, instead of how–which can be implemented better/fixed up/improved later.

But what does this narrow scope of view cost us? Tagore writes of ideals where we understand the relationship between the whole and its parts. Can we take the essence of this idea and attempt to apply it to our own lives and the things we create? Is it possible, in our fast-paced era, to stop and appreciate the bigger picture? What would that even mean in the context of technology and innovation?

I think for me in a work context, it means focusing less on fact based reasoning and embracing an appreciation for pure artistry in my designs, at least once in a while.

Escaping a Limited Reality

1.

“In everyday life our personality moves in a narrow circle of immediate self-interest. And therefore our feelings and events, within that short range, become prominent subjects for ourselves.”

Tagore seems to speak of our proclivity to be self-centered in this age. Because we are fueled by self interest, our life revolves around us. I wonder what Tagore would feel about the social ramifications of mobile technology and social media today. I could only imagine him shaking his head at the hours mobile users spend glued to their phones. The “mobile phone” as an object struck me as a vehicle to what he calls a “narrow circle of immediate interest”; there is no object we carry that is more immediate than the phone, and no object that more entraps us in a circle of self-serving.

2.

“In their vehement self-assertion they ignore their unity with the All.”

“But pain, when met within the boundaries of[40] limited reality, repels and hurts; it is discordant with the narrow scope of life.”

Tagore conceptualizes in various times an idea of eternity or unified infinity in reality. I found this sense of “All” in line with with an Eastern philosophy, much like a sense of “nothingness” in Buddhism. Is our “reality” more limited in today’s age? I see this as a question regarding the diversity of experiences we may have. Is today’s technology worker, sitting at a desktop for more than 8 hours a day, his or her eyes navigating an LCD’s 2D plane, more “limited” in Tagore’s conception of reality?

3.

“But art gives our personality the disinterested freedom of the eternal, there to find it in its true perspective.”

“To detach the individual idea from its confinement of everyday facts and to give its soaring wings the freedom of the universal: this is the function of poetry. “

I think Tagore’s solution to the boundaries of a limited reality is art. First, the expression of the eternal and infinite is possible in art; one is not bounded in any way except the limitations of creativity. Second, one escapes the limitations of a “limited reality” of real life because he or she engages in a different reality concerned with “creating”, much like the psychological conception of flow (being fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus in the process of an activity). This brings me to a question of the intersection of art and today’s technology; how is technology affecting our ability to attain what Tagore calls the “creative ideal”?