Monday, October 20, 2014

How ceremonies kept us sane..

The culture in which I was born in, is full of ceremonies. There are ceremonies for everything. Ceremonies begin even before one is born, and continue well after they are dead and gone. In between, there is a ceremony for just about any event -- happy or sad, and for any day.

Ceremonies are rife with symbolic interpretations and these often get into huge complications. Many times in the past, when I had been stressed out by some thing like an exam or a paper deadline and had not participated in a ceremony in the intended fashion, it had usually let to a lot of hurt feelings and complications in social equations.

I've often been vocal about my criticism about such "meaningless symbolism" and such superstition that has kept us locked in a state of fear.

But then, this post is about another side of this story.

I've often wondered how did our society become so ceremonial in the first place. Ordinarily, individuals I encounter around me are immensely smart, talented and kind-hearted. So, why did we develop such levels of collective mediocrity? Why were we not able to translate our individual intelligence into collective intelligence?

A little peek into history tells us a very different story. We did in fact have high levels of collective intelligence several centuries ago. We had one of the first and the largest set of universities in the world. We developed some of the best number systems that made modern mathematics possible. Our astronomical calculations, even though based on a geo-centric model, were quite precise. Our languages reflected principles of "universal grammar" and had developed sophisticated methods of phonetic representation (without a need for spellings and spelling rules). We knew how to build ships and had established huge trade zones. Three of the five major Asian religions were born here. And so on..

There is no dearth of evidence for collective intelligence.

So how and why did our society become ceremonial and superstitious? Here is my theory.

Rather than representing collective mediocrity, ceremonies were pretty much the only thing that preserved our sanity over several centuries.

For the last several centuries much of our society lived in a subjugated fashion. Which meant that there were always limits beyond which our worlds were driven by arbitrariness of someone's whims and fancies. Much of pre-independence codified law for example, was based on the principle of "paramountcy" of the colonial rulers. Which meant that notwithstanding whatever the law said about anything, they could do whatever they want, however they want, without assigning any reasons whatsoever.

At a psychological level, the human mind has a pressing need for a consistent and predictable worldview. Some seminal work on prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky show several instances where our minds seek closure and consistency in what we experience and observe. Cognitive consistency theory is a related theory on this issue. Without consistency, we stand the risk of falling apart mentally and entering into a sub-human state.

And this is where rituals and ceremonies played a central role. Ceremonies created hypothetical logical structures that were consistent and complete to the extent that they were positively elegant (but not necessarily rooted in reality). For an individual, who had to put up with nonsense on a daily basis, the elegance of a ceremonial life was not only a soothing factor, but also perhaps the only recourse to maintain some semblance of sanity.

It is also one of the reasons why people still advocate ceremonial activity in response to discontinuities in one's life, like the loss of a close family member or the breakdown of a marriage. The idea is that the mental dissonance created by the event can be soothed by artificially bringing a semblance of closure and parity by performing symbolic activities. However, this is true only if the discontinuity is creating a sense of semantic dissonance in our minds.

Ceremonies also helped to bring people together in times of adversity. While each one suffered subjugation in different ways, they connected with one another through the common language of ceremonies.

Ceremonies also helped in keeping alive some echoes of past glory and gave some faint ideas into how life must have been in those days.

Therefore, far from collective mediocrity, a ceremonial lifestyle was in fact a manifestation of collective intelligence. It was the "best response" function by the society, given the realities of its subjugated existence and hostility and arbitrariness from the top.

However, in today's changed reality, the ceremonial lifestyle is no longer the best response to our collective challenges. We still approach collective challenges as though they were all manifested by a powerful and hostile adversary. We still attach ourselves emotionally to symbolic interpretations that are not rooted in reality. We have serious problems with conceptual modeling, argumentation and critical thinking.

We know how to build symbolic structures, but we have trouble in appreciating the fact that these symbolic structures have to be rooted in reality, and that that in itself is a very non-trivial problem. As the saying goes: You cannot reach truth by logic -- you can only communicate truth using logic. This is precisely the difference between a ceremonial and a formal activity. A formal activity is structured and grounded in reality, while a ceremonial activity is merely structured (and grounded in hypothetical or symbolic interpretations). Grounding the logic in truth is where much of the pain and complexity lies.

While old problems like arbitrariness and subjugation have reduced tremendously (even though they continue to vaguely persist in some form or the other), we are now faced with new kinds of challenges. We are suddenly faced with a large, young, angry and hungry population who are only exposed to symbolic ceremonialism, and lack required abilities in scientific thinking and problem-solving.

Our "best response" functions from the past will not be enough to address problems of the future. So while we understand and appreciate the ceremonial nature of our past, we still should spare no effort in figuring out what should be our strategic best response to future challenges.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The "lever" to unleash our potential

I've often wondered what would be a "lever" that would unleash the creative potential latent in our society. And here is the answer I've arrived at:

People in this society, for most of their lives, live inside a "social bubble." Their thinking is rooted in axioms that are based on social considerations. A social consideration is any assertion that involves interaction between two or more people. If we "re-root" these axioms in the physical world, we will unleash a creative potential at a level that perhaps the world has never seen since the dawn of the Age of Reason in medieval Europe.

Here is an example.

Recently I was delivering a talk on how the web is shaping our world, and to make my point, I used some inputs from social sciences. One of the members in the audience pointed to me that I am missing out on the most "fundamental element" of social interaction -- power. Apparently, all social interactions are fundamentally about power. Whatever question we are pursuing about society -- be it about governance, economics, education, justice, labour, etc. we should first understand the dynamics of social power to be able to make any headway. Indeed, the axiom of power is taken even to the level of an individual. An individual either dominates his/her environment, or is dominated by the environment.

Well yes, understanding power dynamics is very important, but is that really the axiomatic basis for all social interactions? I beg to differ on that.

Social power becomes relevant only when there is more than one person in the picture, contending for a limited resource that all of them are interested in. When there is only one person in the picture, or there is no contention over a resource, social dynamics are not really driven by a sense of power.

As humans, we are rooted in the physical world and are driven by physical needs at different levels -- exemplified by Maslow's hierarchy for example. From physical survival to self-actualization, we are driven by this innate need. This driving force is rooted in the evolutionary forces that have shaped us. Foraging, creating, socializing, dominating, submitting, implementing, and all of the stuff we do in the social world can be fundamentally traced down to the evolutionary forces that are driving us.

Power dynamics is just one manifestation of the social interplay driven by these evolutionary forces. Rather than being the axiomatic basis for all kinds of social interactions, power dynamics are seen only in pretty limited settings. There are ample examples of other social dynamics, like people going on a picnic, or sharing photos on Pinterest, or forwarding jokes on Whatsapp, or meeting up with old friends, etc. that are not necessarily driven by power considerations.

Social axioms lead us to rather superficial theories and inferences and often fail to capture the deeper underlying spirit behind a phenomenon.

For instance, we often see huge debates on questions about how men feel about working for a woman boss (while there are enough examples of women working for a male boss) and so on.

The problem with the above question again is the "social assumption" -- that people work for other people. Well no. People (should) work for the organization -- which is a conceptual entity, an abstraction -- and not for other people. Bosses are meant to do a job of managing activities of others so that the interests of the organization are upheld. The boss could well be a transgender person, a cyborg or a robot in the future. And it is irrelevant.

Social assumptions like that are everywhere. Students make decisions about taking up a PhD depending on who their adviser is, and not based on what they are curious about. People vote for political parties based on who the leader is, not what is the party's stance on different pressing issues. And so on..

From what I have seen, in our society there is no dearth of ability to think and reason -- the problem is where we ground our axioms.

Building our lives on social assumptions is analogous to growing a vegetable plant in a pot on the kitchen window sill. It may give some results, but plants are really meant to be grown on the earth directly.

If we can somehow take these roots that are floating around in these social pots and plant them in the physical world, we will leapfrog into the future with our capacity to create, reason and solve problems. The question of course is, who and how will we bell this axiomatic cat?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Managing misplaced moral indignation

This post is about an emotion called "moral indignation" -- not about morality itself. Morality pertains to the integrity of inter-personal interactions. When this integrity is violated, the emotion that is induced is moral indignation, sometimes coupled with moral rage, which is a more intense form of moral indignation.

While emotions are usually triggered by what happens in reality, it need not always be so. For instance, our emotional response to danger is fear. However, fear can be induced even when there is no danger. One could get into a fearful state by a perception of danger, or even by conscious attempt. Acting schools these days teach people to "internalize" the emotions of their characters. Which means, to actually feel the emotions that their characters would be feeling in that situation. So we can actually train ourselves to feel fear whenever required, whether or not there is real danger.

Moral indignation too can be triggered from a variety of factors in addition to actual moral misconduct. To understand this, it helps to first understand the emotion itself.

Moral indignation is a negative emotion -- which means that it primes our body to defend itself. At a fundamental level, our body reacts to negative circumstances with the following behavioral traits: flight, fight, freeze or acquiesce (give up).

Moral indignation is a combination of fight and freeze. Primarily, it comprises of the following responses: passivity (freeze), anger (fight) and non-cooperation (fight).

If moral indignation is induced subconsciously (without the person being aware of it), it usually means that they believe that either they or someone else is being victimized by an immoral act that violates fundamental tenets of inter-personal interaction.

However, it is often possible to see people responding with moral indignation at issues that have no moral dilemma at all. For instance, people express moral indignation about the kind of clothes others should wear, the type of food they should eat, the language they should speak, etc.

I've seen moral indignation appear in conversations involving (for instance) whether we should drink tea or coffee on a daily basis, whether we should use the Indian commode or the Western commode in our homes, whether we should wear shoes to work or chappals are enough, and so on. Hilarious as they may sound, the people involved in these confrontations genuinely experience indignant emotions. A quick look at the usual saas-bahu serials on TV would show the saas (mother-in-law) perennially sporting a morally indignant look, making us wonder how can anyone survive for so long by being in an indignant state all the time...

So how do we explain these reactions? Well, the thing with moral indignation is that, it is much more than a response to some immoral activity: it can also be a potent weapon of persuasion or a cry of desperation.

As individuals, we have an innate need for maintaining the integrity of our self-image. No matter who we are, we need to have a "positive" self-image in order to survive. A positive self-image means that we truly believe that we are good as a person, we are doing good for the world and people will remember us for our good deeds. This is true, even for people who perpetrate evil deeds -- they genuinely believe that they are doing good and some "pain is necessary" for goodness to prevail.

Moral indignation directly aims at this self-image of ourselves and tries to implant an element of suspicion about ourselves. If the person is indeed evil, perhaps implanting this self-doubt will do good. Even if one is not evil, a certain amount of self-doubt is healthy. But beyond a point, self-doubt can be devastating. When faced with an indignant adversary, we start suspecting ourselves, our intentions, our values and principles. We start toying with thoughts that maybe there is some deep rooted evil inside us, maybe we are not good as a person after all.. Being clobbered with indignation can break our self-image to the extent that it becomes difficult to even convince ourselves to live.

This is the reason why we routinely see stories of under-trial prisoners committing suicide, even when it is clear that they have not committed the crime and their arrest was only based on suspicion. The indignation of being called a criminal when one has done no criminal act, can be so devastating on their self image, that they lose their will to live.

In more routine organizational settings, moral indignation can seriously bring down morale and productivity. No one likes working among colleagues whose morality may be suspect. Misplaced moral indignation can similarly break families, increase distrust and make the society as a whole, weaker.

Moral indignation can also make people vulnerable to nefarious elements. Usually, it is the outcasts of a society that become easy targets for crime and extremism. Outcasts are those people who have been subject to moral indignation by the society and have their self-image seriously dented or broken. They don't trust themselves. And they are the ones who are the most vulnerable to adopting radical ideas.

With today's mass media and the Internet, misplaced moral indignation can travel far and wide and have far reaching collateral damage. If some Facebook post or tweet has made you defensive and messed up your mood for the entire day, you have already been a victim of someone's moral indignation. The indignation may may be genuine and may not be directed at you, but it was powerful enough to affect your self image, just the same.

So how do we manage misplaced moral indignation directed at us? (Please note the emphasis on misplaced.. and don't direct misplaced moral indignation in response to this post. I am not saying that it is wrong to be indignant -- but that indignance can cause collateral damage.)

Ideally, problems should be approached with a balanced state of mind, as our analytic and problem-solving abilities would be severely compromised if we approached problems with an emotionally charged state of mind. However, emotional responses are natural and they have to be managed. Trying to subdue or curtail our emotions will only make things worse.

Even though we train ourselves to be emotionally neutral when faced with a problem, we may have to face others' emotions directed at us. With moral indignation, it is difficult to even reason with them. Someone in a state of moral indignation believe that they have been wronged by our actions or values. And trying to reason with them appears like we are trying to justify the wrong that they have been subject to. No matter what we say, it appears like we are doing more wrong.

Given this, the best way to manage moral indignation is to argue publicly and calmly, stating your point of view and basing your arguments on facts and sound logic. Usually, arguing publicly is considered to be in bad taste, because argumentation (debate) is often seen as a fight, and fights are supposed to be held behind closed doors. However, when the other party is indignant, arguing privately only makes it worse. Not only will it appear like we are trying to cut a deal with them, it also gives them ammunition to cast more suspicion on us. They may not be doing these with malicious intent, and may be actually feeling the emotions they are expressing, but the damage is done nevertheless.

It also helps to understand why the other person is feeling indignant. Something that the indignant person is witnessing is shaking the very foundations of who they are as a person or what they believe a person should be, and they have nothing else to hold on to -- making them passive, angry and uncooperative.

Our visceral response towards moral indignation is to become defensive ourselves. However, once we understand that the indignant person is actually witnessing a potential collapse of his/her self image, it makes more sense to shed our defenses and approach them with compassion (not pity). We need to give them the space so that they can (re-)discover themselves and encourage them to express in words why are they feeling indignant. It also helps to take them on a path of discovery, exploring the roots of their beliefs and the reasons why they were instilled as immutable axioms in their minds. Talking about our own human failings and showing how fragile we ourselves are, may (or may not) help.

Link: Difference between pity and compassion 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Think before you read..

Here is a piece of advice that I often give my research students:

Augment thinking with reading, rather than reading with thinking.. 

The idea here is that research has to be fundamentally driven by meaningful questions that we personally care about and that we are curious about and that we have understood from first principles; rather than something that is induced by what others are saying. As researchers, we should be exploring questions that we can relate to, rather than whatever is "hot" in the marketplace (because by the time we finish the thesis, the hot would have become cold anyway).

I think the above applies equally as a life skill, rather than just a research skill.

Our thinking is fundamentally driven by who we are as a person -- our desires, our hopes, our delusions, our fears, etc. The more we think the more we understand the depths of who we are. Augmenting our thinking with reading helps us relate who we are with the rest of the world. We can apply ourselves passionately to some larger thought shaping the world.

But generally, I see that we are taught to read first and think next. Our thinking is mostly an augmentation to what we read. There are all kinds of intellectual posturing games that people play based on what we read, rather than what we think.

It is strange that we define an "intellectual" as someone who reads a lot. Well, an intellectual is someone who thinks a lot. I've seen intellectual activity like conceptualizing, argument building, strategizing, empathizing, etc. coming from even illiterate people who don't even know how to read. And I've also seen copious dearth of intellectual activity coming from research labs and "think tanks" who revel in just citing stuff or quoting people or in sporting a permanently disinterested expression like, "Oh you won't understand me anyway, why bother arguing with you.." rather than building a sound argument.

When I state the above, I've heard people conclude that I'm advocating not reading at all. Really? Far from it. Rather than advocating against reading, I'm advocating for thinking. It is our thinking that defines who we are and shapes our destiny, and our reading augments and strengthens us in this process.

My advisor used to give an analogy, which I'll paraphrase here. Reading a lot is like putting a lot of zeros in a sequence. If they are augmenting thinking, which is a '1' then they will collectively form a big number -- 1 followed by a lot of zeros. On the other hand, if the thinking follows the reading, then it would just be a lot of zeros followed by 1 -- a much smaller number.

It is also easy to detect from one's writing, whether the author puts thinking first or reading first. Someone who puts thinking first would write in an "abstractive" fashion. This means that the writing strives to bring out the essence of some idea that the author wishes to convey.

On the other hand, someone who puts reading before thinking tends to write in a "transcriptive" fashion. Such writing aims to report something from somewhere that the author found interesting. The writing itself would be in the form of a transcription of whatever the author had read, rather than trying to make a point about something. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On the social psychology of teasing and sarcasm

Some time ago, I found an interesting article on Quora about the differences in a "sense of humour" between India and the US (specifically, the east coast where the author was situated).

In India, the concept of teasing is quite common among family members, friends and even professional colleagues. It is quite common for instance, among college students, that someone looking rather happy, or wearing new clothes, or showing any other signs of something brewing in their personal lives, would be subject to a variety of tease. Similarly in family circles, teasing is quite commonly seen among siblings, cousins and even across generational lines. Bollywood movies showing scenes of "joint family" often show ample amounts of teasing as a way of depicting how "happy" the family is.

On the other hand, what really gets the Indians' goat is sarcasm. A sarcastic remark will almost always be interpreted in an offensive manner. In the TV serials of today for example, the vile and vengeful mother-in-law almost always speaks in sarcastic taunts.

Quite interestingly, as the Quora author noted, and as I've been observing myself subsequently, quite the opposite is true in the US east coast culture.

A tease is almost always taken as an unnecessary intrusion into one's personal space. While a sarcastic remark is quite the norm, and is even used as a "coolness" statement. A sarcastic perspective on something is often seen as asset -- an indicator of how "differently" the person thinks and how "witty" they are.

This one piece of insight that I encountered on the web, has helped me tide through several situations of cultural gaps when interacting with folks from across the world. I can now understand why some friendly teasing remark from an Indian can blow things out of proportion, and put them into serious trouble. Similarly, I can understand why some folks here are extremely offended by the "witty put-downs" of the Americans (which are usually witty sarcasms).


As always, my understanding is complete only after I can build a model to explain this discrepancy in preferences. 

A quick search on the net did not reveal any convincing theory explaining the psychology behind teasing and sarcasm and for when a population prefers one over the other. Perhaps a more exhaustive search will turn up something, but then it is more fun to build hypotheses ourselves. So here goes: 

American east coast culture has some significant differences from the Indian cultural worldview, in that it places much more emphasis on objectivity and impersonal discussions. Specifically, there is emphasis on the issue being discussed and separating the people from the issue. 

Given this, a sarcastic remark is almost always a humorous perspective on the issue being talked about. It has nothing to do with the people involved in the discussion. While a teasing remark is violating the focus on the issue and is targeting the person instead. This can explain why a tease causes offence, while sarcasm doesn't. 

As an example, I remember some years ago, there were a few students visiting us from Boston. One of them, during our lunch together, was remarking about the practice of arranged marriages in India. While another made a witty remark about arranged marriages, comparing it with slave trade. And I could see how this was instantly taken as offensive by some of the Indians. On the other hand, one of the Indian hosts teased the guy who had started the discussion about how his parents would now be worried about his marriage. And the instant look of disapproval on his face was revealing about how this was considered a totally inappropriate thing to say. 

To explain the Indian perspective of things, it helps to remember that Indian society is extremely focused on people. When someone is talking, it is that someone who is the focus of attention, rather than the contents of what is being talked. When something is being said, the contents of what is being said is just one of the several things that is being processed by the listener. Other things that are being processed are the tone of the message, the choice of words, supposed intention behind the message, supposed people behind the person giving the message, etc. 

In addition, the contents of the message are also interpreted in terms of what is expected of us and what they are trying to say about us, rather than simply what the message is trying to say. 

So, a sarcastic remark in this context, is a direct "put-down" of the other person's intelligence, rather than a witty perspective on the issue. So, the witty perspective of slave trade as applied to arranged marriages, is seen as an insult to the intelligence of the people who practice arranged marriages. Given that, arranged marriages are common even among highly educated families, surely, it is not exactly identical to slave trade. 

While the people-centric worldview can explain why sarcasm is seen as offensive, there is still this question about teasing. Surely, a tease, that is directly targeted at the person, ought to be seen as even more offensive? 

Well, it is, actually. A tease can elicit vastly different reactions depending on how the teaser and the one who is being teased, view each other. Among close friends and family, a tease is seen as a sign of fondness. If the fondness is reciprocated by all the parties involved, a tease party is seen as fun and frolic. Watch a group of close friends from college having dinner at a restaurant, and it is common to see just about everyone, "pulling the leg" (slang for teasing) of everyone else. It is just a way for the group to express its fondness towards one another. 

However, teasing in a setting where there is no mutual fondness is treated as even more offensive than sarcasm. And it is easy to see why. A tease is a witty put-down directed at a person. When tempered with fondness, the witty put-down actually means the opposite of what is being said. When a close friend teases another saying, "Oh God! I have to put up with you!" and is smiling fondly, it actually means the opposite of what is being said. But when the fondness is missing, this can be a recipe for a disastrous interaction. 

So using teasing as a strategy for "ice breaking" can be really risky -- its success depends on how much mutual fondness existed prior to the ice breaking, and a failure could have negative consequences. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The four pillars of great learning environments

Recently, my facebook timeline was abuzz with some news feature saying that the environment in our schools are worse than prisons. Apparently the annual suicide rate in our schools are several times more than the annual suicide rate in our prisons.

Unfortunately, this is not surprising at all. Being an academician by choice in a society that I love and care about, I am deeply pained about our approach towards education. My own educational experience (especially, primary education) was traumatic leaving me with several emotional scars. So much so, that one of my great curiosity these days is to understand the concept of slavery -- because at a fundamental level, I think that was what our schooling was about. We were conditioned to value certain things and think of ourselves in a particular manner, which I now understand, is the typical self-image of a slave. Basically, we were encouraged to be compliant workers, rather than thinkers and problem-solvers. I do not know whether this was by design or whether this was just the way the society as a whole was in those days (I suspect it is the latter). This has made me curious about its psychological, emotional, and social dimensions, and recognize how it continues to thrive in its various forms even today. According to, our country has the highest number of people living in a visible state of slavery in the world! And several invisible forms of slavery still permeate throughout our domestic and professional lives.


Two of the most abused terms I see today in educational environments are discipline and integrity. Both of them are basically used as excuses to enforce compliance and obedience to ill-thought out or ill-explained rules. I've even seen arguments like "fear is a great motivator" used in educational environments. Using fear as a deterrent is one thing, but using fear as a motivator says a lot about the underlying paradigm.

Behaviourism seems to be the predominant model for imparting education, which involves conditioning and molding the student's behaviour by mechanisms of reward and punishment. There seems to be a copious lack of understanding of other models of learning or even about how behaviour conditioning can go horribly wrong.

After the IT revolution, while several sectors underwent fundamental reforms, there was just some small changes in the educational sector. And in the wrong direction, in my opinion.

There were these viewpoints about education as a business or a service. Students were seen as "customers" and learning was seen as a "process." Recently, I had argued that production, service and learning are three different things. A learning environment cannot be modeled as a production or a service environment.

This set me thinking about what are the essential elements of a great learning environment. And I've cornered on these four: Objectivity, Participation, Immersiveness, Positivity.

And I would like to argue that these four elements are essential for all kinds of learning environments. Be they primary education or higher education, be they science education, arts education or professional training. Let me elaborate on the four pillars below.


Objectivity in learning environments means separating ideas from people and keeping the focus on the ideas or the object of inquiry. This is a discipline that needs to be built over time with deliberate effort. And of course, to build this discipline, we cannot be using conditioning based on rewards and punishments -- we should be using objective and dispassionate argumentation.

Just about every idea should be subject to inquiry. Students have to be taught how to question an idea without sounding arrogant or sarcastic. Teachers have to be trained on how to manage questions and keep debates objective.

Even notions of integrity and discipline should be questioned by the students. They need to understand why they have to do whatever it is that they are expected to do. Ideally, there should be no rule imposed by the educational institution that does not come with an explanation of the "why" behind the rule. Students should be allowed to suggest alternate forms of complying with the spirit of the rule, which may or may not be implemented because of practical considerations. The important thing is that they should be allowed to give alternate ideas, which should be publicly discussed.


Any good learning environment has to be participatory in nature. Students should actively do something and synthesize some output, as part of their learning. Even theoretical studies can be participatory. Students can propose their own hypotheses, build their own theoretical models, or try and attempt to prove a long-standing theorem.

Their activities may not be perfect and indeed may even be deeply flawed. But combine a participatory environment with objectivity, it becomes easy to evaluate one's own participation and understand the complexity of actually doing something.

A participatory environment would have elements of cooperation, competition and individual participation. None of the above would be any more important than the other. The focus is on objective results of the participation and not on the mode of participation.

Our current models of passive and bookish learning have instilled a strange overconfidence in our students who believe that the biggest challenge in the world is to pass exams with well-defined syllabi. Our current model of punishing mistakes have also made students deny or hide their mistakes -- even to themselves, rather than face them head long.


In a good learning environment, learning is "in the air" and not just in books and classrooms. Much of our learning happens by osmosis. This is not to say that classrooms are not important. Classrooms are necessary, but not sufficient to impart deep-rooted learning.

Several great universities across the world spend a lot of effort in designing their physical spaces. Just a walk down their corridors would be like a visit to a museum. There are universities that embed puzzles and intriguing questions in their public spaces. Other approaches include designing spaces like cafeterias, lounges and sitting areas towards encouraging academic discussion and debate. For instance, having whiteboards in corridor seating areas, having a small library in the cafeteria, etc.

In great universities, immersiveness is actively practiced by the faculty members too. Great academicians view academics as a lifestyle, not as a job. It is a lifestyle driven by a burning curiosity and unending thirst. It is a lifestyle that refuses to "settle down" in life. It is a lifestyle that strives to get to the bottom of things to understand them deeply, rather than get on top of things to control them.


The last and certainly not the least trait of good educational institutions is a culture of positivity. This means that positive emotions like compassion, empathy, trust, happiness, joy, etc. are actively discussed, advocated and pursued in daily affairs.

The pursuit of knowledge is a very unsettling process. As the saying goes -- the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge or the ignorance of ignorance. Breaking through this comforting illusion of knowledge is an emotionally unsettling experience. To counter this, educational environments should actively promote positive emotions, while at the at the same time keeping the environment immersive, objective and participatory. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Development in pairs

A hot topic these days is about "economic development" and its associated strengths and ills.

Unfortunately, much of these debates on social media or mass media degenerates into mudslinging between opposing camps, and at the end of it, an esoteric entity called people's "attitude" is blamed for all our ills.

From the way I see the debates going, we have almost zero understanding of an important element of any kind of economic or social change -- that of "non-linearity." Non-linearity is used in systems theory to indicate phenomena of positive feedback, where the effect of some cause in turn affects the cause itself.

For instance, a large city is likely to have more job opportunities than a small town, which in turn attracts more migrant population to the large city over the small town. Phenomena like rich getting richer, 80-20 rule and such, are all the outcomes of underlying non-linear processes.

Non-linearity is the reason why many aspects of economic and social phenomena are counter-intuitive. If we think linearly, we tend to approach problems with immediate, symptomatic solutions and often end up making the problem worse.

For instance, suppose the problem we are addressing is that of managing depleting oil supply. One common way of approaching this problem is to build more fuel-efficient vehicles so that they burn less fuel for the same usage. But what likely happens is that, now that vehicles give more mileage, people have a rational incentive to buy and use more such vehicles, thus aggravating the fuel shortage.

I am not saying we should not design fuel efficient cars. Not the point at all. The point is about strategizing in "pairs" which I'll come to in a moment.

Another example is the Cobra Effect story from the colonial days, when the ruling British government, who were afraid of cobras, offered a monetary incentive for people to kill cobras. This incentive, even though initially successful, had the opposite effect overall. Sensing a way of making money, people started breeding cobras instead of hunting them. And when the government sensed this and stopped the incentive, people who were breeding cobras released them into the open, thus making the original problem worse!

The thing with social and economic systems is that they are not inanimate physical systems with static characteristics. They are thinking, scheming, rational entities that responds to your input with a "best response" function that maximizes its own benefit, which need not be what we expected as the outcome.

There are two elements to non-linear systems: growth and saturation. Growth is typically visible, while the dynamics of saturation is much harder to measure and understand.

Growth happens when the system responds positively to our inputs resulting in a "honeymoon" phase. In the cobra effect example, when the monetary incentive was introduced, the people responded to it positively, hunting down cobras and depositing them. The positive response in turn gave an incentive to the government to respond promptly with their reward and to spread more awareness of this program. And hence started the initial "growth" phase of this engagement.

But a positively reinforced growth soon starts depleting resources (in this case, the cobras), that is when the strange effects of saturation sets in. Saturation happens when resources deplete globally and the system is unprepared to handle this depletion. And it is extremely hard to predict how a system will end up responding to a state of saturation. In this case, the system resorted to artificially sustaining the growth, because resources (cobras) could be artificially replenished.

All other "breakdown" phenomena like riots, looting, hoarding, etc. can be seen as a form of saturation dynamics. Something has saturated -- some critical resource has depleted and the system is unprepared to handle this, resulting in large-scale breakdown.


One way to manage saturation dynamics is to approach developmental strategy in "pairs" with two positive feedback loops posing as an alternative to one another.
Consider the above figure where two mobile service providers are competing for market share. Market share dynamics are replete with non-linearity. A service provider with a high market share can afford to spend more on advertising and can capitalize on "network effects" by users attracting other users. This results in a positive feedback loop.

However, at some time, the growth starts saturating. The number of users and the amount of use would have gone up so high that the infrastructure starts creaking.

At such times, nothing is more attractive than having an alternative.

So A and B above are competing over the same resource pool (users). Say A wins the game and gets into a positive feedback loop. It is a matter of time before resources saturate in A. At which time B is rationally attractive to users resulting in a migration exodus to B. Soon B may start saturating and a reverse migration begins. This back and forth eventually settles down to an equilibrium.

In order to tackle saturation this way, two things are necessary. First, A and B should be sufficiently distinct in order to pose as an alternative to one another. And second, the cost of shifting between A and B should not be so high that it would make rational sense to suffer the effects of saturation, than look for alternatives.

Consider another example of growth of cities, like say Bangalore. Recently, Bangalore grew from a mid-sized town of less than 3 million to a burgeoning metropolis of more than 10 million in a matter of 15 years. This growth was largely spurred by the IT revolution that attracted tech talent, which in turn attracted more companies, which in turn attracted more talent, and so on.

We are now seeing several signs of saturation in Bangalore. Not least of which is water supply. Bangalore does not lie on the banks of on any large river or lake. In fact, it is situated on almost 3000 feet of dry granite rock. A large portion of water needs of Bangalore are met from the Cauvery river, which is more than 100 kilometres away and almost 600 feet below in altitude. It is an extremely expensive proposition to pump tons of water up 600 feet to a distance of more than 100 kilometres. And yet, the socio-economic forces that are spurring growth in Bangalore, hardly factor this saturation constraint.

It is very hard to predict how the city will respond to saturation, and I am very scared to speculate. Being a native of this city, I know in whatever way saturation dynamics will get played out, those of us who have long roots in the city will in some sense, bear the brunt of saturation.

Several efforts to decongest the city have met with little or no success. For example, satellite towns like Kengeri and Yelahanka that were once meant to decongest Bangalore are now part of Bangalore.

One of the reasons why decongestion efforts have failed is that there is no alternative attractor for growth. If Bangalore is the A loop above, there is no B loop that can pose a serious alternative to A, and which is easy to reach from A.

One possibility could have been to have a city like Mysore act as the alternative. And facilitate easy movement between the two cities with the international airport somewhere in between Bangalore and Mysore; and with high speed rail and road connections between the two cities. Now that is not possible because the airport is built at the other end serving no other major alternative growth centre that can compete with Bangalore. In fact, the ideal would have been a multi-transfer hub somewhere between Bangalore and Mysore, where people can fly in, and hop into a high speed train or a bus to either Bangalore or Mysore.

We should be thinking in pairs for every major developmental effort. Because, development is a non-linear process and the very success of a developmental effort could be the cause of its eventual failure due to saturation.

You know the folk wisdom that married people are "settled down" to a more stable life than singles? You know the definition of a "couple" in physics? Two forces that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction? It is the same thing. :-)


So what happens if the A-B pair itself saturates?

This can be addressed at the next level by pairing two A-B pairs together. For instance, let's say we have a well connected Bangalore-Mysore pair each attracting growth to itself, and (say) a well connected Hubli/Dharwad-Belgaum pair up north in the state, contending with each other. We can now pair these two pairs by connecting the B-M hub with the H/D-B hub with sufficient air, train and road links. Other such pairs in the state could be similarly connected to form hubs at different levels. Now anyone from any part of the state will find it easy to travel to any other part of the state by first going to the nearest paired hub, from where they will find several connections to all other hubs, from where they will find connections to their town of interest.

The same pattern can be replicated in other states and the respective paired hubs tightly connected.

This kind of pattern results in a characteristic property of complex networks that are efficient in daily operations and robust against random (routine) failures. (But not necessarily robust against targeted attacks, which is a different matter.) But let me not go into the mathematical details here.