Category Archives: consumerism

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

Where everyday is Earth Day…

Looks like it was a success, atleast in our area. Darkness is now becoming a rare pleasure, unless you live in a village, where everyday is an involuntary Earth Day.

The gesture was definitely commendable – millions from the middle class, trying to make a difference, to bring back meaning into their lives, which otherwise is a mad rush from here to there under glaring neon ads and freezing AC vents.

Can people, i.e, society make a difference in a world that is dominated by either the Market or the State ? If they are organized, yes. The market comprises of firms that want to make money, not goods. So, if tomorrow all of the USA decides not to use tree-pulp based toilet paper, toilet paper manufacturers (theoretically) will start making some more environmentally friendly (and hopefully more hygenic) product to clean oneself.  Similarly, people can organize into vote-banks and pressurise politicians (for however brief a period) to allow duty free import of Batman comics, if they so choose. We should preferably do this before human cloning is made legal, since then politicians can manufacture their own vote bank.

Leaving the issue of having to deal with cloned voters for the moment, one should try and understand why the Earth Day is significant. Not only is it to increase awareness about climate change, but it is a call to reduce our consumption of anything voluntarily. The main problem with present-day society is that an IT professional requires 10 times more resources to go through her day than her less fortunate sister cleaning the floor of the office. We require so much because we are entirely geared toward high performance. Anything that comes in the way of performance, especially leisure is curbed. Just like darkness, leisure needs to be given its due importance. Only leisure can allow a person to grow as a person. Unless faced with financial commitments, employees should ask their companies for a four day work day with 4/5 th of the salary, or something similar. Beyond a threshold, what we value more is leisure and not money, and everybody has their threshold. We run the danger of infantilizing our workforce by making them do something over and over and not give them time to stop, step back, look and figure out what the hell they really are doing or where this is leading them.

It is also a call to stop taking yourself so seriously, to stop gloating over your achievements and see them in the context of the disaster you wreak on the society and ecosystem that you are a small but very powerful part of. To learn to learn from your ancestors as well as your children, to replace man from his place at the center of the universe where he thinks he is, and put him in his proper place – on an insignificant planet revolving around an insignificant star. To try and help people not by treating them as inferiors and victims, but as equals and family.

Descartes told us that we think, therefore we are. Earth day tells us that until we value manual labour and stop measuring superiority in terms of how many numbers you can add in a minute, nothing will change. Why should a theoretical physicist be any superior to a superb cook or a creative tailor or a responsible mother ? Because we have been lead to think that the mind is our evolutionary advantage over others, we have forgotten that our intial evolutionary advantage came because of our opposable thumb! Unless we see life, creativity, precision and beauty in the work of a person who uses her hands, Earth day has failed it purpose.

Thus, this day tells us that the world is not a linear succession from brutishness to civilization, but a cycle of life – nothing goes obsolete or out of fashion until we think that it is so, which is one of the reasons why ancestor worship was prominent in most pre-modern societies. ‘Modern’ thinking and attitudes have reduced to rubble the accumulated cultural wealth of millenia by a strange linear conception of time and progress. It is time we started looking back to avoid what is coming ahead.

These are the many reasons why everyday is an Earth day in certain ‘backward’ parts of our country, not just because they have lights that do not work when needed.

The New Industrial State: Review

Halfway through John Kenneth Galbraith’s most famous (and controversial) book, and thought of writing up the main thesis of the whole thing. There are two kinds of social analysis: one based on a set of axiomatic rules, and another is based on empirical investigation. Galbraith is of the latter category, and always seeks to undermine the former, in extremely enjoyable prose (I would put it almost at the same level as Bertrand Russell’s prose!).

I had written some time ago about how liberalisation looks at the ground level, when the gloss of Times of India / NDTV / CNBC coverage is not present. Galbraith’s main thesis is on the same lines, with obviously more content and better form. One of the intentions is to provide a candid view of the Industrial system as it existed in the ’60s, another is to undermine the ‘theology’ of conservative economics and (even contemporary) economic pedagogy.

The reason conservative economists like Hayek get irritated with Galbraith is that he is, first of all, not given to using equations for everything, and often indulges in ‘lesser’ subjects like sociology and psychology to supplement his analysis, and not purely economic theory (with its implicit preconceptions). His broad generalizations can cause his arguments to seem unfounded, but a person with first hand experience with the corporate (like most reading this) will definitely strike a chord with his reasoning and arguments.

Profit maximization, pre-eminence of capital, informed choices by a consumer, free markets, firms being subordinate to the consumer by the working of the market mechanism are some of the fundamental notions that any standard economics textbook would try to instill in a reader. However, to say that this represents reality is a matter of faith and not fact, argues Galbraith. He takes the Corporation as a case study to drive home the point.

The structure, behavior, motivation, goals of the modern corporation, when studied without the rose-colored glasses of what Samuelson or anyone else teaches, shows how divorced economics is from reality. Economists have grudgingly admitted to some points, but they refuse to face reality in the face of decades of work going to waste. Galbraith also questions two social goals that we have only recently taken for granted (He analyzed the USA, whom we faithfully copy with increasingly decreasing phase lag) : The pursuit of growth for its own sake, and development of advanced technology. To think about it for a second, growth is a fundamental necessity for any modern corporation, both to keep its stockholders happy and for money to drive further growth. Fast changing technology also, in most cases, is a corporate goal, which contributes to the former goal in no small measure nowadays. Thus, instead of the corporation responding to accepted social goals, the corporations of considerable size actively work to shape social attitudes. This is in part a result of the members of the corporation to feel that they serve some social purpose. Another is of course to ‘create’ markets, which is what planning is all about.

In places like Bangalore, where the white collared elite are no longer in a desperate search for daily bread, alternate (some would like to call it ‘higher’) goals take their place. The corporation, with its immense reach and resources provides individuals the opportunity to influence a larger mass than it would be possible to do individually. Once an individual is persuaded that the corporation can be moulded in accordance with his/her inputs ( This is definitely true, since decision making is fundamentally a group activity and some individuals are, as always, more equal than others), aligning with corporate goals is easy. You would notice that loyalty to an organization increases with amount of time spent in it, which derives from the fact that you ‘matter’. Making sure that the corporation takes care of all the needs of the employee (financial, social, psychological) is an important part of the way a corporation behaves. Once all needs are taken care of within, there will be no need for an employee to look outside.

The past two paragraphs enumerate various facets of corporate behavior, which are driven by the need to reduce unreliability of markets. Any firm will require adequate supply, predictable labor behavior and reasonably reliable consumption of its products. Without these, planning for the future is almost impossible. There is no way a corporation can plan sales targets without all these factors of production and consumption being reliable. Most large corporations are in the habit of meeting or even exceeding previously set targets. This is not possible if the consumer is left to his/her own faculties to make a buying decision and if supply of labor or raw materials are not reliable, ie, left to the working of the market mechanism. Thus, large corporations must try to control behavior of markets if they are to invest large amounts of capital, which is a given in this time and age. A Reliance can hardly invest a few thousand crores in a refinery unless it is allowed certain concessions from market behavior. BIAL wants no other airport around for the same reason. More the competitors, lesser the power of a single competitor, and lesser their capability to plan.

To be fair, there are many markets (like those of clothing, FMCGs) where influencing consumer behavior is difficult due to a large amount of choices. But Galbraith’s focus is on the large corporation, which along with other large corporations constitute an oligopoly. In a corporation, the tenet of profit maximization fails for the simple fact that if every employee looked to maximize  profit, chaos would result. Thus, instead of personal profit maximization, stockholder profit maximization is the aim. This can hardly be called acceptable behavior in conventional terms. Thus, motivations of the corporation and its employees cannot be profit maximization. Similarly, consumer can no longer be called king, since there are various devices employed to bias his/her behavior. The tenets of economics, due to their lack of recognition of power as a fundamental factor in real-life economic behavior, fail quite a few reality checks.

Due to their reliance on high technology and an organised workforce to realise the same, the power now has moved from capital to organization of people and information. Thus, the class struggles of our times are no longer between those who have capital and those who do not, but those who have skills valued by the corporation and those who do not. This essentially boils down to an Engineering degree in Bangalore’s context. Anyone familiar with Bangalore will have seen how those with lesser education, organised in various groups, vent their frustration in the form of cultural and lingual pride.

A joining letter that my friend received from Oracle had the following sentence (paraphrased): “Oracle believes the the faster the employee is assimilated into the Oracle culture, the sooner the employee will be productive”. Oracle obviously does not have many bright bulbs in its HR department, but compliments to their candidness. The only other context where I have seen ‘assimilated’ being used is by the Borg in Star Trek. Obviously, the large corporation is not very different. I had once, on another blog, used ‘The Borg’ in this sense. Intuition, combined with some touch with reality, is always an eye-opener.

Melkote: Reflections – 2

Onto more people.

The scary-looking person in the photo is Dr. Deepak Malghan, who is currently writing an intellectual biography of J. C. Kumarappa, and was another speaker in the workshop. He isn’t as scary in real life, though his English is. Deepak’s specialty is giving a clear picture of things from a theoretical context, and he does it very well.

Deepak Malghan

The talk was called ‘Science, State, Market, Society and Ecology’ or something like that. His focus was on two main things: what science and technology in India is doing, and problems of linked to a poor definition of progress and development. The first part was more interesting, will elaborate.

Modern India can be said to stand on three pillars: State, Market and Society. The problem with science and technology in India seems to be that their main focus is either the State or the Market. The State angle is pretty clear: our former President has published only two scientific papers in his entire career, and the people praise him as a scientist. This is due to his being the head of DRDO, trying to make India self sufficient in methods to kill people (a deterrent, of course). One way progress is measured is by the amount of advanced weaponry a country has, which is directly a State interest.

The market angle is even more apparent: our best minds working to solve problems which will make sharper videos, clearer sound, ubiquitous connectivity, long lasting mobile phones etc., etc., Most of these are things are bought and sold in Western countries, and many proudly admit that their product ‘will touch the Indian market in only another 3-4 years’. A market trend may be indicative of people’s choice, but the crucial point is that it is the people’s choice weighed by the amount of money they have. Thus, more people work on making mobile phones into computers than making computers into catalysts for development. You will find almost 24-hour electricity in Bangalore where the big people have generators anyways than in a village during crucial examination times simply because Bangalore pays more rupees per kilowatt.

This is the centenary year of IISc and apparently there was a committee that was setup to research the Institute’s history and find the technologies that it had delivered to the Indian people. The result: zero (or very close to it). Being a publicly funded institution, this is not only shameful, but immoral. Deepak went to state that US universities are accountable to the societies that they are in, and actually solve problems faced in the society, unlike our boys in the IISc or IITs (less the mention of IIMs, the better). No audited reports of IISc are ever published, (unlike say, UC Berkeley) and insiders know what a farce auditing is. Now, if the premier institutions funded by taxpayer’s money cannot help solve problems that we face, then who are they accountable to ?

An extempore in the evening was by Prakash, an activist from Dakshina Kannada who happened to drop by. He looked at the issue from the lowest empirical view, saying that he was unable to see how the present trends of development can be stopped or even wether they should be stopped. His view that media is generating desires in a phenomenally large amount of people which aggregatively generate a tremendous force pushing development. Castes, Classes and Genders who were suppressed have suddenly found liberalization to work in their advantage. His question was: Once you give freedom to a people, how can you tell them not to do things ? How can you tell a girl kept down by athoritative parents not to elope ? How can you tell a Dalit boy not to wear fake Adidas and Ray-Bans ? How can you tell farmers not to buy fridges, bikes and other things they see on TV ? To Prakash, all critiques of development which do not take into consideration such issues are of little relevance.

I countered this thesis by raising the question of duties. All the points that he had raised were about rights, duties never figured even once anywhere. Forget about duties, what about consequences ? DDT may kill malaria bearing mosquitoes, but does a farmer know what it does to his environment and eventually to himself ? Would a person who has such knowledge use DDT ? As I have always maintained, India started on the development path without ever providing its citizens with the cultural skills to benefit most. As a result, most have suffered at the hands of a few. However one may criticize the development paradigm that the West put forth, it is a fact that the average life expectancy, income, social security there is far superior to anything here. The West had an advantage of a smaller population. If to reach similar Quality of Life as in the West we have to consume as much as they do, we will need a few more earths. Prakash’s views showed how dangerous it can be if one does not stop and look at the bigger picture once in a while.

Hosa Jeevana Dhari

This is the place where we stayed, and we got to see quite a few beautiful birds, including the rare to sight and beautiful Scarlet Minivet , Paradise Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher among others. Nice place to sit and reflect, and has been quite and experience.

iPhones vis-a-vis Open Source: implications

This is a normative view of technology, i.e, what – in my opinion – technology ‘should be’ or ‘should do’. As we know, technology is the means by which we interact with the world around us, and with ourselves as well. However, one gets the feeling that technological developments nowadays are being driven not by the necessity of invention, but the invention of necessity. Addressing people’s needs ostensibly seems to be the purpose of new technological developments, but what is more likely is that technology is pushed down consumer’s throats with relentless advertising pressure.

Complaints and heresies apart, my focus here is how the technology gets developed and what normative view does it subscibe to. Technology, even if may be developed in air-conditioned offices or clean rooms, has a distinct political dimension to it, and it is this dimension that this post deals with. From the time of the germination of an idea to selling it in the market, many aspects of the nature of the consumer and their relationship with the creator are assumed, implicitly or otherwise. A rough genealogy of the development of a product can be given by:

  • Top level design/Wish list (sometimes preceded by surveys)
  • Detailed low level design
  • Implementation
  • Packaging/aesthetics
  • Marketing
  • Feedback and start all over again.

Testing and review is usually there in every part of this list, especially in pharma, chemical, civil works. When this cycle is no longer felt as required, one can say that a technology has been ‘commodified’. It still carries the same politics and relations that were internalized during its development, but one cannot do much about it, since it gets ‘black boxed’. The only time that these politics re-emerge or are made explicit is when things go wrong with the product, or things don’t go according to plan (These two things may not always mean the same thing). While technology is the heart of any product, the role it plays during the product’s lifetime is very small, since it is considered a ‘black box’. To elaborate on this point, one can take the politics surrounding the Apple iPhone as a very good example, which I have been following on (where else!) Slashdot for some time now. The iPhone is a Pretty Thing and all that, agreed, but Apple’s response to active tinkering instead of passive consumption of the iPhone reeks of stupidity and snobbery. The battery is not easily replaceable (as bad as it gets!), people can only buy using credit/debit cards (to ensure a paper trail), limited to two per head, no SIM changing facility, warranty being void if SIM unlocking is tried (which was found to be infringing US warranty laws). None of this actually is concerned with the technology of the iPhone, but more with the control and profits that Apple gets. Where is the user an active participant in how the iPhone looks, feels, performs ? The user cannot even do what he/she likes with the phone after buying it! Though some people may say warranty may go to hell and play around anyways, it is not everybody’s inclination. The power that such blatantly unfair conditions to own an iPhone gives the manufacturer is quite considerable, and the feel-good factor more than overwhelmed such considerations, driving Apple to one of its highest share prices ever. The invention of necessity is extremely important to mask such asymmetric power relations, and the multitouch screen (and supporting interface) practically did this on its own. From a ingenious piece of technology, it becomes an instrument to legitimize the asymmetric balance of power. The iPhone may provide most things a user might ever need, but it precludes the possibility of choice. I fail to see how this is different from the burqa system. A Muslim woman may be comfortable and even proud to wear one, but does she have a choice whether or not to wear it ?

In contrast is the Open Source phenomenon. I did not mention ‘Free Software’, since it brings in its own ramifications, but simply any piece of code that is viewable by a potential consumer. The most important factor that comes in here is choice, like I mentioned earlier (Software is a nice example to take up simply because it is one of the most flexible of technologies mankind has developed). Freedom to do what one pleases with available technology radically flattens the structures of power. Though this is quite a libertarian sentiment (We have made it possible to modify software, but if you don’t know how, too bad!), it has many consequential implications also. Software potentially becomes better, more diverse, responsive to user needs and a person who modifies it to her needs feels a sense of ownership. None of these can happen with the iPhone, API or no API. This is an evolutionary, organic model of growth, while the former is a more totalitarian, ‘silver bullet’ kind of approach. One must however concede that even with the iPhone kind of technology development, large players can still tailor it to their needs. Here, the power structures even out because of the economic backing the client has.

Which one can be more effective ? the participatory model of development, of course. Which is more efficient ? the consumerist model, of course. Which is more important ? here comes one of the major points of conflict in any sphere of human social life: should we let people have a part in shaping their future, or do we do what we somehow know is best for them ? From the conception of the State to planning cities, all questions implicity or explicitly (but quite fundamentally) answer this question in their own manner. Technology, being a product of the social world that we live in, rather than the clean room temples that technologists would rather have us believe, also hinges on this crucial question. Are people mere consumers or should they be participants as well ?

A question that we answer in our daily lives, without ever realising it.