Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Individual in the Knowledge Society

What is at the center of Ghandi’s denouncement of machinery? He speaks of its presence among abusive and oppressive practices but they have existed by the powerful before automation. I was more compelled by his reference to the freedom of the mind – of the individual – that is sacrificed through the tedious machinations of factory life. Those who were once creators are now operators. They might not have created much, but they did so in a “dignified” way by being free to work at a pace and quality chosen by the individual, thus giving a person their individualness…

This is all done in the name of progress – to become ever more efficient. This becomes our obsession and our values become subservient to the inertia of improvement. But just what are those values. Are just the primary needs all that should matter? Surely not, but I see similar concerns in the knowledge society. The emphasis on the speed of the mind and the presence of unending distraction can easily “encroach upon…individuality.” How can technology evoke the individual, the creator, the self-sufficient mind?

The redditts and wikipedias of the world are one type of opportunity but they result in consensus that bubbles to the top, making consumption an easy path. Perhaps drawing on what makes the “distractions” of the web so effective, entertainment and friends, may offer a better way. Making content generation easier, more entertaining, and collaborative could help free the individual in us all that Ghandi values so much. Other ideas?

Gandhi, the British, Democracy and Communications

In re-reading these pieces, I was struck by how much the use of Charkha was seen by Gandhi as a form of resistance, as opposed to a form of truth-seeking (satyagraha) on its own.

I wonder how Gandhi would perceive the use of technology in a world where there wasn’t an obvious oppressor.  Would he see the use of Charkha as an inherently meditative, self-sufficient practice? Or, would he see value in labor-saving devices that allow human beings the freedom to pursue other, potentially spiritual, interests, as long as they were equitably distributed, and operated at the right scale?

Similarly, how would he perceive individual choice in such a world. In his time, British colonial rule provided an obvious foil – requiring collective action on a massive scale. How would his views play out in an independent India, or more precisely, in a nation of independent princely states, like the one Gandhi was supposedly in favor of reverting to?  Would Gandhi think that democracy is necessary, or would he agree with Plato’s notion of Philosopher Kinds, obviously with the right of the people to pursue their own satyagraha?

Finally, I am also intrigued by what Gandhi would have thought of communication and media technologies. On one hand, they have issues of scale and coercion. On the other hand, they allow us to understand perspectives and share experiences with others very different from ourselves. With his prolific efforts in writing and publishing, he must have had at least some thoughts on the matter.

Evil has Wings

“evil has wings. To build a house takes time. Its destruction takes none. So the railways can become a distributing agency for the evil one only. ”

This seems a concentrated critique around  speed of action.  Are all hasty things evil?  If so, we are in so much trouble.  Internet? evil.  4g?  evil.  This blog post? evil.

I worry that this line of reasoning leads to a “small is beautiful” fallacy, but I don’t think that is what the swaraj is all about.  When I seriously look at my own life, I recognize the slow things, the built things as the most beautiful in the tagorian sense of the word.


Wheel… Of… Fortune!!!

1. What do you think of Gandhi’s views on women and particularly his dismissive comment on the suffragette movement?

2. On education, Gandhi has this exchange with the reader:

READER: If that is so, I shall have to ask you another question. What enables you to tell all these things to me ? If you had not received higher education, how would you have been able to explain to me the things that you have?

EDITOR: You have spoken well. But my answer is simple: I do not for one moment believe that my life would have been wasted, had I not received higher or lower education. Nor do I consider that I necessarily serve because I speak. But I do desire to serve and in endeavouring to fulfil that desire, I make use of the education I have received. And, if I am making good use of it, even then it is not for the millions, but I can use it only for such as you, and this supports my contention. Both you and I have come under the bane of what is mainly false education. I claim to have become free from its ill effect, and I am trying to give you the benefit of my experience and in doing so, I am demonstrating the rottenness of this education.

Do you buy this argument?


“Civilization seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so.” Furthermore, “Even a child can understand all the inducement [of civilization] described above will  induce morality.” 

Gandhi argues that a society in which consistently makes it easier to obtain “bodily comforts.” In fact, it actively discourages morality.

Does that mean that we should abandon all efforts to build technology, which inevitable turn into labor saving devices? Or does that mean we build them for a different purpose?

‘The supreme consideration is man’

Tagore and Gandhi’s contrasting viewpoints and their relationship must have made for some intense and fascinating arguments.  The following quotation from the first preface, seems to align reasonably well with Tagore:

Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might. . . The supreme consideration is man.

Obviously they diverge significantly in their thoughts on how technologies could be integrated into society. Tagore’s approach and reasoning resonants with my technology-addled modern perspective — but I wonder what kind of reception it received when written / delivered?

I’m not sure I’d label Gandhi strictly anti-technology or Luddite (as Andrew pointed out, he acknowledged some technologies as ‘inevitable’ — and complimented the sewing machine). Those tendencies are highlighted in these writings, but within the context of self-rule; the technologies he mentions (railroads, western Medicine, others) were portrayed as tools of the oppressors that prevented self-actualization and passive resistance and that didn’t give ‘supreme consideration’ to the man.  I’m not sure the same applies to his treatment of lawyers or doctors, as others have mentioned. The outright rejection of both fields, while internally consistent, is tough to comprehend today.

Poverty sounds like a privilege

Gandhi doesn’t talk about poverty in the way we think about it today. He’s not suggesting people suffer and become dependent on charity, right? So what does it mean to adopt poverty as Gandhi suggests?

Those who have money are not expected to throw it away, but they are expected to be indifferent about it. They must be prepared to lose every penny rather than give up passive resistance.

How do those who have money understand it well enough to prepare themselves to lose every penny? Even simple living in the US is pretty excessive. I personally hate losing money, knowing what it could have done for some of my favorite nonprofits.

I want to passively resist factory farming that is cruel to animals and bad for the environment. I am willing to go broke in the process, but if I couldn’t afford or find cruelty-free, sustainable groceries, should I not eat at all? At the same is it even right to spend extra money on good food knowing there are people right outside my apartment who are homeless and hungry? Gandhi might say by adopting poverty we become indifferent to the money as well as goods, and this is why passive resistance takes so much strength. In any case, avoiding the evils of our modern civilization is expensive unless you find the right thrift stores (and even then it costs time).

  1. As truth-seekers what is stopping us from adopting poverty and the clarity that comes with it, or why shouldn’t we?
  2. Can I justify less than full commitment to this passive resistance if it means focusing on other work that is important to me?

Primary wants of Man

Gandhi believes that Western Civilization, concerned with the advancement of machinery (which I had read as analogous to “technology”), is “godless” and immoral. I found Gandhi’s approach to technology very interesting and composed of some interesting threads of moral fabric, a few of which i listed below:

1) “The machine should not be allowed to cripple the limbs of man”. The machine should not encroach upon the individuality of man.

2) Gandhi rules out machines that “do not satisfy any of the primary wants of man.”

He rules out cars because ““ is not the primary need of man to traverse distances with the rapidity of a motor car.”

3) Gandhi would rule out all machines if he could, but “machines will remain because, like the body, they are inevitable”.

The ideas of Gandhi listed above seem to be intertwined with culture, or rather, his view on what “true civilization” is. To him, true happiness arises from the proper use of hands and feet. His forefathers opposed using machinery not because they did not know how to invent them, but because if they had used them, they would “become slaves and lose our moral fibre”.

I want to (and as of now, am more inclined to) believe that our happiness is relative to the time and culture we live in. In the digital society in which I live, technology is pervasive and intertwined into our social and professional lives. Our happiness adapted to immense use of technology. Facebook does not make us more lonely (as INFO 203 would have taught us that such an idea is technologically deterministic). Our minds are flexible and we, as social beings, are here because we, if anything, are good at adapting to our environments. The “primary wants of man” are culturally relativistic.

Gandhi speaks of “primary wants of man”. He speaks of “primary needs of man”. He also writes of the “individuality of man”. Using hands and feet trump using machines. Such phrases remind me of Tagore and the idea of a sort of essentialized man – a human in his or her purest form. Those ideas are enticing to me.

I don’t have a specific question but a rather broad one. Do we have a set of “primary wants” unphased by culture? Is there a pure way of life, such as using hands and feet for work as opposed to machinery? Or is such an idea relativistic? A few hours a day on desktop or mobile devices seems to be normal for most. At what point does it seem unnatural and not satisfying “primary wants of man”? 8 hours? 10 hours? 12 hours?

Made in China

Modern day clothing manufacturing in the Western world is thoroughly outsourced. A quick perusal of nearly any closet in North America will likely show that most item labels bear the words, “Made in China.” Although companies like American Apparel have made a push to promote goods that are ostensibly manufactured in the United States, it feels more like a passing fad than a trend we are likely to adopt at a large scale, especially given the relative cost. A cheap shirt made in an anonymous factory in Asia allows us to save money for other things, even if the shirt falls apart after a few washes–or so we think.

As a fibre and fashion enthusiast, I found the Wheel of Fortune to be a highly interesting read. Given the effort involved to start from fibre roving to weaving ones own cloth, it seems unlikely that many people would be willing to lead the ascetic style of living that would be required to discover the secret of Swaraj. Whether we intend to or not, the clothing we wear gives others a glimpse of the personality we hope to show. The right fashion choices can make the right first impression, and words like, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” are examples of the power that clothing can provide an individual. So in a world where power is money, and money provides life, who will be the first to pick up the equivalent of Khaddar?

Though I would be amongst the first to promote the fibre arts in any education system, and though I believe it would be highly beneficial to source local fibres and textiles, it feels like it would take a lot of effort to counteract the convenience that we benefit from today regarding outsourced manufacturing systems.

under the bane of civilization is like a dreaming man

gandhi prompts a shift in framing india’s predicament under english rule

The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them. [..]  If I am in the habit of drinking bhang and a seller thereof sells it to me, am I to blame him or myself?

in some ways, this is an extreme libertarian standpoint – it places ultimate responsibility with the individual

confer with gandhi’s later quote,

To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves. The Gujarati equivalent for civilization means “good conduct”.

(1) is gandhi’s conception of civilization a vision of individual rule as much as it is a vision of home rule? (2) can passive resistance be seen as a form of libertarianism? that is, is force is unethical because it tampers with the free will of the opponent?

join me in the following thought experiment: we, some ten thousand years ago, awaking as strange and hairless apes, reject the constraints of natural order and seek to replace them with our own. civilization-capitalism emerges. technology is the means by which this new order comes to be.

that is, we —

usurp the function of the Godhead and indulge in novel experiments

is technology intrinsically focused on conquest? of nature, of others? (like the railroads gandhi evokes, does it, like evil, “have wings”)? or is there a way of conceiving of technology in the self-directed, social, or ethical sense of civilization – civilization as “good conduct”?

another way of asking the same question – can technology only perpetuate the “trance” or “sleep” of civilization, or can it awaken us also?