Saturday, November 28, 2015

Connundrums around culture preservation

As a researcher interested in understanding how the Web is shaping the world, studying cultural challenges in India provides enormous insight into issues that the world at large is facing.

India is a country with incredible, innate diversity. This diversity is not something that is brought by immigrants joining a great big melting pot, like in the case of the US. Our diversity is innate. It has been there for centuries. There is no larger melting-pot infrastructure that can override and overrule cultural differences. Each cultural group believes they represent the real India.

In addition to myriad languages and cultural practices, there is also diversity in paradigms -- or mental models about how the world works. There is a saying that Indian culture is like a long snake. One end of the snake is in the 21st century, writing software and launching Mars missions; while the other end of the snake lives with a lifestyle that has not changed ever since recorded history.

There are places that pride themselves to live with 19th century values. There are subcultures that are still emotionally attached to 17th century rulers. And then there are tribes like the Jaruwa and the Sentinels who live in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in secluded islands cut off from the rest of the country.

The question about how or whether to integrate these disparate cultures have been the subject of intense debates.

On the one hand, "cultural preservationists" argue that culture should be preserved as they embody not just practice, but also knowledge that is deeply local and relevant. Culture preservation is also seen as a humane philosophy of governance, in stark contrast to colonialism or imperialism that impose a culture on the population.

But on the other end of the spectrum are "cultural integrationists" who are worried about effects like entrenchment and cultural isolationism, and the social, economic and biological problems it creates. Too much of cultural protection creates an element of isolation and inbreeding that has severe consequences both in the biological as well as cognitive development of the individual.

As an example, following the 26th Dec 2004 tsunami, an Indian Air force helicopter went on a sortie around the Sentinel island in the Nicobar to assess damage to the tribes if any. They reported that the tribes came out in force and shot arrows at the helicopter to drive it away.

Now imagine a young man in that tribe, seeing a helicopter for the first time. His curiosity would likely be aroused to an extent that he would want to explore the world outside. But the strong tribal norms in his culture would have likely prevented him from pursuing his dreams and he would most likely end up learning how to spear fish like all others.

Cultural isolationism, and even milder forms like cultural entrenchment (cultures having too little interaction with the outside world) lead to problems of "local minima" where there is a lot of resistance to new ideas and practices that could potentially hold solutions to their long standing problems.

Entrenchment also fans ideologies of "us versus them" and poses a hurdle towards understanding universal human values. A collection of entrenched subcultures would likely nurture distrust, xenophobia and discrimination across subcultures.

On the other hand, cultural integration is not without its problems either. The Sentinels for example, are known to be extremely vulnerable to some of the diseases that are common in the rest of the world. As their tribe have never faced these diseases, their bodies have not developed the required immunity. Forcing them to integrate with the rest of the country, might actually put them in mortal risk.

In addition, often times "integration" simply means "homogenization". A stronger subculture usually bullies itself on the rest, in the name of integration. Like the term "globalization" getting equated to "Mcdonaldization." A city is called "globalized" if it has McDonald's or Pizza Huts. But it is not considered necessary for a "globalized" city to also have a Darshini or an MTR or a Saravana Bhavan.

Similarly, it is said that Bollywood is a great engine of national integration. In a Bollywood movie, the actors could be from any part of India -- say Gujarat or Bengal or Tamil Nadu or Chattisgarh. But ultimately, in their hearts, they are all Punjabi, and break out into a bhangda at weddings! :-)

While homogenization in movies is likely benign, when it comes to cultural integration it is just as dangerous, if not more, than cultural isolationism or entrenchment. It leads to eradication of a highly pertinent local knowledge, practices and paradigms.

This is exemplified by an anecdote mentioned in our convocation address by a professor from IIT Kharagpur. As part of their outreach efforts, they were given the mandate to bring "development" to tribal areas in their state. However, despite several efforts, they found that the tribals were opposing digging of borewells that would mitigate water shortage in their area. When asked why are they opposing, they had this to say: "We consider the Earth as our mother and drink whatever water she has to offer on her surface. We do not believe in injecting her with a syringe and pulling out her blood, if she does not provide enough water!

The profundity of this statement stumped the folks wanting to bring "development" to them. The tribals were not asking for water. They were asking to get back their lifestyle where they lived in harmony with nature, and not in confrontation with it!

In their worldview, nature has personal boundaries too. The water that is below the surface -- it is believed that nature keeps it for its own functioning, while the water that is on the surface is what it provides for us to live on.

A worldview that establishes personal boundaries for nature and treats it as an interested party in any decision-making is solely missing in our "developed", "globalized" worldview.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Understanding Dharma

That Hinduism is grossly misunderstood in the West (which still wield a lot of influence and power in India) is an understatement. Given that a significant percentage of the population in India practice some form of Hinduism, this often leads to controversies and skirmishes that captures and polarizes popular opinion.

The most recent episode is the recent controversy around a ban on cow slaughter and consumption of beef in several parts of the country.

This post is not about the particularities of the above controversy -- it is about how the controversy is understood and interpreted in the two different parts of the world.

I remember several years ago in Europe, when someone asked me to explain "Manu Smriti," I asked him, "What is Manu Smriti"? I was not in denial; I had never really heard of it till then. Neither had I heard of Paneer Tikka Masala, which according to them was our favourite food.

After listening to my story of how we practiced Hinduism in our homes, his next question was, "So, who is a true Hindu"?

Even that question made no sense to me, and I vaguely answered using the standard boilerplate template that "Hindu is a word that was coined by the Arabs" and "Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life." I was not sure myself what that meant, and I could see that my European host lost any respect he had for this "religion" and came to believe that Hinduism is nihilistic, and that anything goes. "After all, there are millions of Gods in this strange religion," he must have thought.

Over the next several years I tried to learn as much as possible about my cultural moorings -- not specifics in terms of particular sayings, but in terms of trying to understand the underlying thought process. And some time ago, I'd provided this answer to a question on Quora about Hinduism, that captures essential elements of what I'd learned.

At the core, Hinduism is a philosophy (described in the Vedas) that tries to ask questions about the source or the root of everything -- and pretty much gives up right in the first paragraph of the first Veda. Essentially, the idea is that any description of the root, forces the question, where did that feature come from, hinting that this is not the root. It goes on to say that this root entity "that which is" cannot even be said to "exist" because it is the creator of existence. It cannot be described, because it created the framework in which descriptions are given. "That which is" cannot be explained -- it can only be realized. In other words, "that which is" becomes us.

And then, the texts go on to provide a number of heuristics or pathways (called "marga") to help the seeker realize that "that which is" that is being talked about. There are different pathways like knowledge (jnana), devotion (bhakti), harmonization (yoga), etc. none of which by themselves will guarantee realization, but make it easier for the seeker when they follow such a path.

So fundamentally, Hinduism as a practice is deeply personal. It is up to the seeker and his/her chosen pathway that determines what they practice and how they approach the pursuit. The millions of "Gods" of Hinduism are actually "deities" that act as pathways in our pursuit of the ultimate realization. There is the Oneness of "that which is" that is behind the millions of the deities.

Social elements like rituals, festivals and ceremonies that are commonly associated with Hinduism come from the evolved practices in ancient India that were fundamentally based on the above paradigm.

An important element of the social practice in these societies is the concept of "dharma" -- something that is again widely misunderstood.

In our English medium school education, we were taught that dharma meant "religion" or "faith". In some other contexts we were told dharma means "duty" or "ethics" or something else.

Wikipedia rightfully declares that the concept of "dharma" has no exact translation in English.

However, I recently realized from a friend that there is a word that comes quite close: sustainability.

The notion is dharma is based on designing systems in a way that they are "sustainable". Dharma is attached to just about every element in life. There is Raja dharma or "sustainable administration," there is Vrutti dharma or "sustainable business" and so on.

What is normally associated with Hinduism was what was earlier known as "Sanatana dharma" or "sustainable co-habitation." As the name suggests, this refers to principles and guidelines that help in making co-habitation sustainable, essentially including elements like inclusiveness, tolerance, celebration of diversity, etc.

The way dharma was practiced also has specific characteristics that are alien to the Western framework of thinking. Here are some of them.

  1. By definition, dharma is holistic in nature -- it addresses the system as a whole and tries to harmonize between the different interests that cohabit the system. This is in contrast to the process of articulation that is central to Western thought, where we study each element in isolation to understand its characteristics. 
  2. Since it is difficult for the human mind to process very large systems holistically, dharmic traditions were practiced in clusters that were loosely knit between themselves, within each of which, a dharmic framework could be reasonably managed. 
  3. While the underlying purpose is the same (sustainability), dharmic principles differed from one cluster to another based on the physical and social context in which it was situated. Hence, there are Hindus who eat meat and there are Hindus who are strict vegetarians. There were Hindu societies that had strict social and family norms, while there were Hindu societies that had very liberal outlooks on issues like marriage. There is no contradiction. Because, dharma are not edicts or commandments, they are guidelines and principles towards a deeper goal called sustainability.
  4. Dharmic knowledge were managed in two broad ways called Sruti and Smriti. Sruti means "that which is heard" and pertains to knowledge that are managed by word of mouth. Smriti refers to knowledge that are written down and communicated. The "Manu Smriti" that is often considered by the West as the "holy book" of Hindus, is just one of the several Smritis generated in one of the different dharmic contexts. (I always thought our holy book was the Bhagwad Geeta.. no wait, it was the Vedas themselves.. no.. it was the Puranas.. or was it the epics.. oh well!) Which is why, where we lived, we had never heard of it. As noted earlier, Smritis are not commandments and are not binding rules -- they are guidelines and heuristics. The only "binding" goal is sustainability. 
Between 2500 to 500 years ago the above mode of thinking permeated almost a third of the world's population which dwelt in South Asia. Most of the "religions" that were born in this framework have a similar "holistic" approach towards managing society -- be in Buddhism or Jainism or Vaishnavism. 

Sustainability does not imply lack of conflict, and indeed there were several conflicts and wars in ancient India. However, the interesting thing was that these wars often had their own dharma (yuddha dharma) or were fought in order to uphold dharma (dharma yuddha). 

What is interesting to note here is that, the reason for war was upholding of dharma, rather than to conquer and rule over the opponent (this is not to say that this never happened). This is very different from say, the wars described in the Illiad and the Odyssey that were fought for values like honour and pride. 

The Indian paradigm is also sometimes thought to be the manifestation of the so-called "feminine" energy that upholds characteristics like nurturing, harmonizing and sustaining life; while the Western paradigm is thought to be the manifestation of the so-called "masculine" energy that upholds characteristics like defeating an adversary, taking charge and control of our lives, and upholds order and law.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Your emotional disposition is more than just who you are...

For a couple of years now, I have been practicing a technique called "mindfulness" -- a term, which is used in several senses by different people, so let me define it here.

It is a technique by which we try to understand our emotional disposition or emotional profile, by observing our emotions over a long period of time.

Emotional disposition is different from our emotional "state" -- the latter simply refers to how we are feeling right now. Emotional states are transient, and in fact, just asking someone how are they feeling, may make them feel different.

Our emotional disposition is our strategic tendency to be in certain areas of the emotional state space, than certain others. It is how we tend to feel and what we tend to pursue when we are under no external pressure.

In that sense, our emotional disposition is "who we are" as a person.

But, it is more than just about who we are.

If we find out things about ourselves -- things that we intensely desire, or intensely despise, and cannot attribute it to any childhood experience, then it is likely to be a characteristic property of our emotional disposition. But where did that characteristic property come from?

The only place it could have come from is our genes. And my conjecture was that forces of evolution encodes emotionally intense experiences of a parent generation, into the genetic code of the next generation.

A recent paper in the Biological Psychiatry journal addresses the same issue and confirms the conjecture. This article in the Guardian, explains more about this phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance.

This is nature's way of recording history. There is an "official" version of history that we are taught in schools and then there is this "personal" version of history that affects us directly.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Patriarchy and feminism

Many times, those who proclaim themselves to be feminists, are basically practicing what may be called "reverse patriarchy."

An example is this panelist who was a self-proclaimed feminist on a TV news-hour debate some weeks ago discussing the "arrogance of our netas (leaders)." Her argument was that the netas should not act like Maharajas, they should act like our sewaks (servants).

So, basically she does not want them to be Maharajas, because she wanted to be the Maharaja. Clearly, if we have to abolish Maharajas from our lexicon, we cannot do so without abolishing sewaks.

In my understanding, she was not a feminist, but a reverse-patriarch. And my understanding of patriarchy and feminism is detailed below.

The cornerstone of the patriarchal mindset is the use of dominance and control to bring order in society. Power is revered and discipline is seen as something that needs to be imposed in order for social peace.

In contrast, a feminist worldview is one that espouses values like synergy and interpersonal harmony as cornerstones for social peace and order. In a feminist worldview, power needs to be as distributed as possible, discipline has to be innate rather than imposed and the underlying axioms about power is that "power corrupts" and "power attracts the corruptible."

In patriarchy, the ends justify the means. Hence, supporting a dictator, empowering drug dealers are all fine, if they lead finally to upholding democracy. In the feminist worldview, means are more important than ends. In this worldview, it does not matter if one does not achieve anything of significance in one's life, but it is extremely important for one to live a life of high personal integrity.

Surveillance as a means of social security is characteristic of a patriarchal mindset. The feminist mindset wants vigilance, not surveillance. Vigilance is a bottom-up construct leading to a harmonious society, while surveillance is a top-down construct leading to a law-abiding society.

The "good" patriarch is "God fearing" and washes away his/her sins accumulated in their power dynamics, in front of God by resorting to symbolism and rituals. The feminist in contrast, is "God loving" and often gets into long-winded dialogue with one's personal deity and treats the deity as a confidante and friend.

The patriarch believes in a "code of conduct" while the feminist believes in a "bill of rights."

When confronted with injustice, the virtuous response for a patriarch is to "fight back" and the virtuous response for a feminist is "non-cooperation". Because the feminist believes that injustice happens due to tacit cooperation by the victim and that "No one can make you a victim without your consent."

While stereotypically, patriarchy is associated with men and feminism with women, these two mindsets have nothing to do with gender. Gandhi was a feminist, while a cursory look at our tele-serials seem to suggest that the average mother-in-law is generally a patriarch.

As with any mindset, both patriarchy and feminism are practiced in "unawakened" and "awakened" forms.

The unawakened patriarch uses crude strategies to pursue power and dominance, including for instance, glorifying slavery. The crude rationale for slavery is that weak persons have two choices, either die in a fight for survival or survive by becoming the slave of a strong person.

The unawakened patriarch glorifies competition and considers honour, prestige and social status as reflections of one's worth. The unawakened patriarch believes that competition brings out the best in people.

In contrast, the unawakened feminist resorts to crude strategies to avoid conflict at all costs and prefers to live in denial or abstinence, rather than confront uncomfortable situations that may cause discomfort. The unawakened feminist tends to confuse comfort for harmony. Because solving the harmony problem over a large population is complex, the unawakened feminist would favour solving the harmony problem for oneself or for one's own family and friends -- often using a flawed logic that if everyone harmonizes for their own lives, the overall system is also automatically harmonized. The unawakened feminist is often not familiar with situations like the Prisoners' Dilemma and the dynamics of entrenchment and ghettos.

The awakened mind on the other hand, realizes that things are not as simple as they look. For starters, the awakened mind at least acknowledges the legitimacy of the other paradigm. The awakened patriarch does not view awakened feminism as a threat or morally reprehensible, and vice versa.

The awakened mind accommodates the other paradigm within a larger framework that is still rooted in their base paradigm.

For instance, Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, famously observed in his book "Made in Japan," the differences between the American and the Japanese approach to corporate profit as follows: The Americans believe that it is important to nurture harmony and employee happiness for bringing profits for the company; while the Japanese believe that profits for the company is important to achieve employee happiness and harmony.

Also, as I see it, the Ramayana was written with the mindset of an awakened patriarch, while the Mahabharata was written in the mindset of an awakened feminist.

The industrial revolution, which culminated in the 20th century was the epitome of glorification of patriarchy. Formation of nation states, games and competitions and the world wars, were all, at some level driven by a need to control and dominate over one's environment to achieve stability. Almost all technology till the 20th century were about power, control and dominance.

The 21st century however, promises to be fundamentally different. The Internet and the World Wide Web, are nothing less than nightmares and a pandora's box for someone who prefers order and control. The Web seems to connect anything with anything else, without any sense of status, respect, decency, honour, etc.

In my view, the Web is the fundamental building block for the resurgence of the feminist worldview in the new century. The Web cannot be controlled without causing widespread damage -- it can only be harmonized. The Web functions best when its power is decentralized and as Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently proposed, a "Bill of Rights" for online citizens is sorely essential to keep the spirit of the Web alive.

As for myself, I am an unabashed feminist according to its definition detailed above. I'm also hopefully "awakened" and do not view patriarchy as illegitimate, and realize the need for discipline and control over our own lives. Certain critical sections of the society like say, the military, police and emergency personnel need to operate in a strictly regulated framework. But the society as a whole needs to pursue (distributed) harmony rather than (centralized) control. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The wretched duty-bound life

Some time ago we lost an elderly member of the family. The extended family members came by to pay their last respects and there was grief everywhere. Everyone consoled the elderly wife of the person who was left behind. She was grieving and in shock, but given that he was ailing for a long time, this eventuality was not completely unexpected.

She received the usual statements of consolation from everyone. But I noticed something different, something unexpected.

She was actually displaying an emotion of relief! Even in her grief, one of the first things she said to me is, "Now I can come with you wherever you want to take me."

In the days following this event, we were suggested by other members of the family to take this elderly lady outside "to some temple" so that her mind remains occupied.

Which we did. But more than the "some temple" we visited in slightly far away places, I noticed something different. She ate with us in a restaurant, she tried new foods (chaats, which she had never had), asked a lot of things about our car, sat in the front seat next to the driver, and so on.

She was living her life now for the first time, at the age of 83!!

It reminded me of another elderly lady from our neighborhood, who was waiting to go to the US ostensibly to visit her son, but actually, to fulfill her desire to wear shirts and trousers, rather than the boring saree she was supposed to wear everyday.

It became clear to me that up until now, she was performing her duties as determined by the social norms around her. She was a wife, a mother, a grand-mother, a care-giver, blah, blah, blah.

Everyone seems to know exactly what one ought to do at some point in their lives. It is as though, we just live our lives according to a script. Individual autonomy, desires and needs are irrelevant. We are conditioned to feel ashamed about our emotions and our desires. We should only do what we are supposed to be doing -- which is invariably determined by someone else.

Whether it is on social media or home or in governance, people in positions of power never miss an opportunity to preach down and make indignant noises on just about everything. People seriously believe that it is desirable and recommended to shame others to get them to comply (according to how they think things should be done.)

People are emotionally violated all the time by making them feel illegitimate as a person, for getting trivial things done.

We have perfected the art of using moral indignation as a tool for social manipulation to pursue our self interest. We have also perfected the art of moralizing our self interest to make it appear like what we are pursuing is for greater common good, while what they (who we are moralizing against) are pursuing is for their own narrow interests.

We only focus on duties and never on individual identity.

And in this process we are silently killing ourselves.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Deterministic imprecision

Farmers in south India know that the monsoon arrives sometime in June-July. Crops have to be planted such that when the monsoon arrives they are neither too nascent, nor too old.

If for instance, there is heavy rain right after the seeds are sown, then they get washed away. On the other hand, if there is no rain for weeks after the seeds are sown, the crop becomes malnourished.

So, timing of the crop is critical.

Only problem is that, while the phenomenon of monsoon itself is deterministic, it is "imprecise". We don't know when exactly it will arrive and on what exact date will we get our first big rain.

This "deterministic imprecision" results in a number of collaborative and strategic activities among the farmers. They hedge crops so minimize risk, they cooperate with one another to reduce costs, and so on.

Deterministic imprecision is a characteristic property of nature. We can predict natural phenomenon at a coarse level. But we cannot predict specifics. In the colder regions of the world, we know that it snows in the winter, but we do not know when exactly and how much. We know for instance, a major earthquake is due in the Himalayas. But we don't know when.

There is perhaps a message in this deterministic imprecision. Deterministic imprecision is what motivates us to understand phenomena at a deeper level than at superficial levels. We need to build models of the weather. We need to understand risk. We need to understand costs. We need to understand needs. We need to prioritize. And so on.

In artificial systems, we seem to equate precision with quality. Specifications that are precise, are said to foster better quality work than specifications that are imprecise.

But usually what happens is that precision tends to foster "overfitting" to the specifics than towards meeting the spirit behind the activity.

Consider for instance, conference deadlines. Conferences put up deadlines in precise terms like 12 May, 23:59:59 PST. And what usually happens is that most of the submissions happen at the last moment. Web traffic peaks at this time and often results in disruptions and frazzled nerves.

The same thing is true with assignment submissions in classrooms. If the deadline for an assignment is set to precise terms like "Tuesday 1700hrs" then most of the students begin working on Monday night or Tuesday morning and submit the assignment very close to 1700hrs.

Such last minute work is primarily driven by a sense of compliance with rules, rather than adhering to the spirit of the activity (learning something through the assignment.)

Recently I've started to practice deterministic imprecision. I specify that the deadline is on (say) Tuesday without specifying the time. It is my prerogative to close the submission site on any time on Tuesday. If someone assumed that it was Tuesday 23:59:59 or something, well too bad. The rain has come and gone before you could till the soil..

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The "per capita" fallacy

Most policy-making models are based on estimating demand and production in terms of "per capita" units, where an individual is the unit of resource consumption or production.

This foundation is used to make major strategic decisions, like say how much water will a town or city use, how much garbage will it generate, and so on.

However, it is easy to see that in reality, the unit of consumption is rarely the individual. Consumption and production are primarily driven by systems of individuals like families, companies and other forms of organizations. Let me use the generic term "organization" to refer to all of these.

In a small place that is (say) primarily driven by agriculture managed by families, the relationship between the number of individuals and the number of families (which are the elements that drive major consumption) remain fairly static.

However, as the population grows, the relationship between individuals and organizations is not static. Individual affiliation to organizations are fluid, and the proclivity of new organizations being formed are also high.

A large city will attract the formation of more restaurants, clubs, theaters, malls, etc. and affiliation to individuals to these organizations are not tightly defined as with families.

So, for a city of N people, how many different organizations can be formed? This is like asking, how many subsets can be formed from a set of N elements. This comes to 2N-N-1 or asymptotically, this is called as "exponential growth".  The number of ways in which people organize themselves grows much more rapidly as the population keeps increasing.

To make matters worse, the presence of organizations sends out a message that there are opportunities for careers and livelihood. This ends up attracting more people to the city and increasing the N even further, making the consumption accelerate even more.

And ironically, when we say that a city gets enough rainfall to cater to per-capita water needs and promote "eco-friendly" measures like Rain Water Harvesting (RWH), it sends out a false sense of security, as though, the water problem is solved. Thus reducing the reluctance for people to enter or dwell in the city.

Note that I am not saying that RWH is bad. Nor am I saying that we should not invest in RWH. But the way it is portrayed as a solution to water related woes, is only going to make matters worse. It is no systemic solution. It is more in the nature of a pain balm, rather than a life saving drug.

The same thing is true of garbage production. By trying to reduce garbage production by individuals and families, we are barking up the wrong tree. The amount of garbage that is produced is exponentially proportional to the number of people in the city.

There is a dire need to invest in large mechanized facilities to handle the garbage production.

And no, the presence of mechanized facilities will not drive more consumption -- any more than having a functioning kidney will make us eat more.

More consumption is driven by the presence of opportunities, or more specifically, the relative presence of opportunities in a place compared to other places. To prevent overcrowding of a city, the way to go about is to promote alternate growth centers.

Development in pairs, which I'd written about earlier, might be an interesting strategy to consider.