10 December, 2015

The limits of informed consent

In the liberal worldview, informed consent is seen as the cornerstone of all kinds of relationships, be it personal or professional.

Often times, relationships operate under some form of a "power asymmetry" where one party dominates over the other in some matters. For instance, bosses can overrule their reportees, a higher court can upturn the decision of a lower court, and so on.

Sometimes, power asymmetry crosses objective boundaries and tread into the personal lives and the individuality of the people involved. For instance, the military controls personal lives of its personnel to a large extent and agents in the movie industry often dictate to their clients when they can get married, and so on.

Such cases often poses ethical dilemmas, which are often sought to be resolved using the "informed consent" axiom. Basically, it means that if someone willfully and knowingly enters into a relationship where they experience power asymmetry positioned against them, they don't have a case for justice.

But this post is meant to argue that even informed consent has its limits.

To make my point, let me take the example of some of the new forms of employee "productivity enhancement" tools. Some of them collect so much data from employees in the name of integrity or productivity. These data include elements like their location, their phone details, their internet usage details, details about web pages visited, email details, details about time spent at different locations at work, and even details about emotional state and inter-personal relationships.

The "informed consent" in such cases are often vacuous. Usually, consent about these measures are buried in a long legal contract, for which the employees just have two choices: take it or leave it. Existing employees consent to such contract mostly out of fear of losing their jobs. Indeed, anyone trying to speak against such measures are immediately seen as suspects of some sort, trying to undermine the organizational goals for personal gain.

Such practices are not only unethical and counter-productive, I also believe that they should be made illegal. Labour laws of today were basically framed in response to centuries of exploitation of employees under different other forms of such "productivity enhancement" measures. Advances in information technology and data sciences have opened a backdoor to these practices to be reinvigorated. We should not wait till things reach such desperate levels, before framing adequate laws.

One might argue that such forms of power asymmetry controlling one's personal lives also exist in cases like doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, etc. The difference here is that in these cases, personal information and power asymmetry is used for the direct benefit of the one below in the power asymmetry. This is not the case with the "productivity enhancement" example. In this case, power asymmetry is used for greater benefit for the company, which may or may not trickle back to the employees whose personal lives and individuality were intruded upon. Secondly, with the case of doctors or lawyers, the personal information collected is directly relevant to the problem being faced by the recipient which is sought to be solved. While in the case of employees, even if they get back a benefit in the form of a better pay, it may not directly compensate for the personal information and control relinquished by them.

Informed consent is meaningless when there are no available choices to those facing power asymmetry stacked against them.

28 November, 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.

24 October, 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.

22 August, 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.

28 May, 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..

23 May, 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. 

04 April, 2015

On the causes of depression and suicides in south India

South Indian states are known to have the highest levels of suicides in the world, which is starkly different from north Indian states. Suicide is the culminating state of an intensely depressed mind.

I have been to hell and back myself, including attempts to take my life during my school days back in the '80s. Since then, I have tried hard to understand and model what is happening around us. And what I have learned is if anything, even more depressing. The roots of our depression problem go deep.

Worldwide, there is a stigma around depression and other mental illnesses. There are several well-intentioned initiatives to address this stigma by calling depression as just an illness. Like this video for example, which basically repeats several oft-heard statements about depression, like women suffer are more likely to suffer from depression than men, and it is an illness that can be treated.

But look at the statistics from the NIH study linked earlier, in south India, men are almost twice as likely to be driven to suicide (44.7/10,000) than women (26.8/10,000).  To put these numbers in perspective, the worldwide average for suicides is less than 3 per 10,000.

And if I've understood our dynamics well, calling depression an ``illness,'' is not likely to reduce the stigma -- it is only going to make things worse.

Studies and theories on clinical depression that are considered authoritative have been predominantly developed in the Western world, studying for example, the high incidence of depression in Scandinavia.

However, the causes of depression in south India are characteristically different from that of Scandinavia. According to the NIH study, the main causes of depression induced suicides in India are: "individual, family, and societal level factors." While in Scandinavia, depression is a result of vast changes in the physical climate and weather. This is also called Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD).

Physical factors lead to neurological causes for depression like degeneration of cells, stunted growth, etc. On the other hand, depression triggered by social factors are caused by having forced into an intense emotional state like frustration or submission or helplessness for long periods of time. 

Imagine someone getting locked up in a cell for several years for no fault of theirs. They go on to become depressed. This depression is not due to the physical surroundings, but due to the intense emotional state of desperation they stay in for a long time. The paucity of light inside their cell is no more a cause of depression, than the intense emotional state of having been confined to a cell for no reason.

An emotional state results in the release of specific sets of hormones, And staying in an intense emotional state for a long time results in a hormonal imbalance. This is characteristically different from depression caused by physical factors leading to neural or other forms of cellular degeneration.

So why did our society become so deadly unto itself? 

The main social factor leading to depression is our cultural emphasis on deindividuation. Our culture is based on instilling a sense of social membership in the individual and encouraging them to work towards collective good. This has several desirable outcomes. Our society is characterized by its strong dynamics around religion and spirituality, sensitivity towards other living beings including the environment and emphasis on harmonizing with the environment, rather than taking charge or control. 

However, over the last several decades, with increasing education, awareness, technological advancement and connectivity with the rest of the world, our society has seen a lot of changes taking us away from these collective ideals. To counter this, and to maintain homeostasis of our earlier social state, these collective ideals are pursued with renewed intensity and vigour.

Beyond a certain point, emphasis on the collective starts to de-emphasize the importance of the individual and the individual autonomy. "Selflessness", deindividuation and self-deprecation become virtues. Right from a young age it is common to see people being shamed or morally admonished into compliance to the collective. 

Moral admonishment like shaming is the cognitive equivalent of throwing acid on someone's face. The damage it does is basically irreversible. For some reason, we have not understood how potent a weapon it is, and tend to bring the moral lens into everything. 

A sense of individual identity is very important to face challenges of life and to keep one's body, mind and spirit together. Without a sense of one's individual it is very hard to just convince oneself to keep breathing and be alive. 

In south India at least, deindividuation afflicts both men and women. Statistically men, are more likely to be driven to suicide, as any attempts by them to portray their problem will only subject them to even more moral admonishment.

Calling this form of depression as an "illness" makes things even worse. An illness carries no less a stigma in our society. 

Besides, an "illness" is something that can be "cured" by treatment. But a hormonal imbalance created by social pressure, cannot be "cured" by restoring the hormonal balance. It is not some form of a deficiency created by the physical environment, that can be replenished by medicine. 

To really counter the problem of depression and suicides in south India, we need to comprehensively infuse ideas in the society that respect the individual. We need to help the society understand why people pursuing their individuality does not necessarily result in collective misfortune. In fact, if the collective ideals are so good that people voluntarily associate themselves with the collective, then it only makes the collective stronger, not weaker.