Category Archives: innovation

The rise of the Individual

Have been working on a (one of many!) report for a class that Im doing this semester, and in one of them I have tried to try and get a feel for how humans got to be ‘civilized’, which in our times means asserting the rights of the individual and placing him into prominence. Just posting a few intersting things that I came across during this work. It is necessarily speculative considering the scope, so please adjust maadi.

First of all, we recognize that humans live in at least two worlds – the internal or mental and the external or material. Without doubt, these are inextricably linked, but the demarcation is very much present. The mental world is a world of possibilities and the material world one of actualities. However hard we try, not everything that we imagine can be realised in the material world, and this results in a tension between these worlds.

In the pre-Industrial times, the fact that malnutrition, disease and war were part of the daily life of every common person, and that it required the effort of a large number of people to sustain each one of them, it should not be surprising that the individual was not accorded the status that she is given nowadays. Even to this day, a villager in our own hinterland is referred to as ‘X’s son/daughter Y’.Whatever name is given to the group – clan, caste, village – the group was important simply because it provided security and shelter against the vagaries of nature and the kings above. Obedience and Commitment should be valued over Talent and Thinking if a group under severe pressure is to survive.

There undoubtedly would have been people who tried to stand apart from or rise above the group – that is not a peculiarly modern line of thinking. The complete lack of change in the basic social structure for millenia shows how little influence such people were able to exercise. Kings and administrators, however enlightened, were simply unable to change this pattern of life and this bears testimony to how strongly the group identity
was (and is) stressed over the individual.

The reasons for this are obvious: the individual simply was incapable of leading a life on his own. Clothes, food, shelter were not available without the collective labour of a larger group of people or commerce with this larger group. Remuneration was proportional to manual labor done, and manual labor required to lead a proper life was more than what would have been possible by a single individual. To go against this mode of life would imply becoming a thief, beggar, ascetic or king.

This behavior was thoroughly exploited by those in power, temporal or spiritual, to gain benefit for themselves and their kind, and their travails are the subject of most history. However, for the majority, the material basis for a society which preferred individual excellence instead of (or inspite of or at the cost of) group excellence does not seem to have been available – Liberty simply implies the absence of restraints, not the presence
of a good life.

In the post-Industrial revolution times, however, the tension between the inner and outer worlds of the individual that we mentioned earlier would have been considerably reduced. What Man could imagine, he could create. Of course, this applied only to those groups with money and power. The majority now had to get used to the excesses of the
industrialist as well as nature.

The individual rose to prominence, no doubt helped by the wonders of coal driven technology which enabled her to perform feats which were not possible before.With the easy availability of surplus labor or its mechanical replacement, limitations on what could be achieved was simply a function of what could be dreamed up (and sometimes paid for). With the expanding geographical extent of a single activity, the main challenge was no longer the availability of raw material or motive power, but of organization. It is therefore not surprising that the principles of ‘scientific’ management were explored in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

With information and not material being the main roadblock for progress, the so-called tertiary sector of society became dominant as well as desirable as a viable career choice for those who were born poor but had no intention of staying that way. With most traditional blocks to social mobility now gone, the tertiary sector provided the respectability and possibility of material wealth that previously was the domain of the landed or the wealthy. It is the dominance of this sector that has shaped the present world. Universities multiplied, with the intention of preparing high quality individuals who were capable of discerning efficient from inefficient, if not right from wrong. In fact, the race to industrialization was eventually won by the USA and Germany simply due the fact that they invested more in the development of engineers and technicians rather than philosphers and artists.

The rise of the heroic individual winning in the face of all odds was given an evolutionary twist by Herbert Spencer, who actually originated the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in the context of his Social Darwinism. Emancipation from manual labor was exemplified by the growth of amateur sport, which was a way of exercise for the sedentary tertiary sector of society (along with the rise of the gymnasium in the mid-19th century), with the now famous Oxford-Cambridge rowing contests, the Ashes Cricket series representing the ideals of heroism rising above mere material concerns. This trend was of course crowned by the revival of the Olympic Games, whose motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ perfectly matching the prevailing spirit of the age.

The middle class household was another centre of emancipation from manual labor. Piped water, electricity, the pressure cooker, the vacuum cleaner being typical inventions from this era. The nuclear family was also probably materially viable only in this stage of societal development. The now considerable leisure time available was spent in exploring recently developed mechanical wonders like the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster as well as the incredible moving picture.

It was very rarely that the average, emancipated middle class person ever experienced a material world that was not imprinted upon by the internal world of another human. The line between actuality and possibility was blurring, and is almost completely absent in the present day wonders in the desert like the Burj Dubai.

Evolution – Variation and Similarity

Evolutionary thinking (due to Darwin) is no doubt one of those paradigm shifting moments in scientific history, changing how we conceive of the world around us and ourselves. The idea of ‘Descent through Modification’ is now well established and accepted.

While evolution is not a disputable fact, a major source of debate a few decades ago (and even nowadays, to some extent) has been the causes for evolution. Enter a evolutionary biology class and you will see that everyone tries to explain observable traits (non-jargon way of saying phenotypes) using fitness arguments – how this or that trait was required for survival and reproductive success, and hence it is here today. These arguments stem from a view that is called the ‘Modern Synthesis’ – evolution happens primarily through natural selection, and natural selection requires a set of variants to select from, and this variation within a population is given by random genetic mutation. It is called the ‘Synthesis’ since it combined ideas from evolution and genetics to give a plausible answer to the mechanism of evolution. The whole idea of evolutionary game theory rests on this hypothesis, and so does evolutionary psychology.

However, a physicist or a mathematician or anyone else who tries to look for patterns in phenomena will tend to be exasperated by natural selection arguments for everything: in some cases, it is obvious that natural selection caused evolution, while it is not so in others. However, a knee-jerk answer to any evolutionary question by a biologist will invoke natural selection. Now, most of these answers are plausible, but that does not mean anything. For example, a crash in a predator population can easily be put down to a lack in fitness, but everyone who has studied the predator prey model will tell you that this crash comes about due to interactions between predator and prey populations, and has nothing to do with genes or natural selection.

Creating evolutionary fairy tales frees the biologist from looking at a phenomena at a deeper level, and sometimes one feels that depth is what is lacking when one reads up evolutionary biology. The oft quoted example is of the Fibonacci spirals in plants – this shows up everywhere, from shapes of galaxies to arrangement of seeds in flowers. A hardliner selectionist would tell you that this is because there were many variants of the universe and ours was the only one that managed to survive (reproduce?), and thus all such successful survivors will have Fibonacci spirals because of their ‘fitness improvement’. Now, one cannot disprove this, no doubt, but the question is whether one should accept it.

For me atleast, the answer is no – while selection of variants has its place in biology and (I sceptically say this) in other fields, it cannot explain the unity underlying phenomena: Certain things ‘just happen’ to look/behave/think similarly, and this evolution via selection cannot explain. Are there physical, chemical, informational constraints on a living being that simply does not allow certain variants? Are ‘gaps in the fossil record’ actually ‘gaps’ –  is there a step jump from one form to another? Answering these questions is way harder than coming up with ‘plausible’ selectionist arguments, and has very rarely been attempted in the history of biology. However, if evolutionary theory has to have the depth seen in physics or mathematics, such work has to inevitably happen.

The Subject-Object distinction

A basic ontological position that is taken up in the quest for knowledge is that of  Subject and Object. The Subject is the Observer, the Object the Observed, and there has to be a definite distinction between both. Once this is setup, the observer uses some means of acquiring knowledge about the observed, be it meditation, divine revelation or the new-fangled thing called the scientific method. The knowledge acquired about the Object, through a means that is independent of the Subject is thus ‘objective knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is supposed to reflect reality as it truly is, without contamination by the biases of the observer.

It is easy to see why the scientific method of repeated observation and experimentation is the preferred mode knowledge acquisition – God apparently reveals to people of every religion that theirs is the true religion or that theirs is the superior religion, and obviously not everyone can be right, i.e, there is some ‘contamination’. Of course, the previous statement implicity assumes that there is actually a single reality, but without that assumption, one falls into the critical theory mire, which to me is the worse of the two alternatives. Thus, the scientific method, atleast in theory, can be relied upon to produce subject independent knowledge about some object.

The crucial thing, again, is the fact that we must be able to provide a clear separation between the observer and the observed for this to work. Without this separation, the scientific method is as good as divine revelation. There are quite a few objects that are amenable to this separation – the solar system, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, ice-cream, among other things. However, there are certain objects that do not allow such a distinction (Of course, you cannot call it an object anymore, but Im retaining the nomenclature and discarding the ontological connotation).

For example, the stock market – If someone gives you ‘objective knowledge’ that there is a good chance of the stock market crashing and you pass on that information and you and your friends selling all your holdings triggering a crash, there is absolutely no way of telling whether the crash would have happened if you did not know that it would happen. Another example would be the ‘study of the Self’ – If you figure out through psychoanalysis or meditation or something else that ‘humans are essentially xyz’, and you begin to see yourself acting (or trying to act) in that manner, it is difficult to gauge whether behavior follows the statement or vice versa. This is not to say that humans are not xyz, but whether they are only xyz. If someone subscribes to the Freudian prescription of  the mating instinct dominating our actions or the Christian one that Man is incomplete without God’s grace, and tries to interpret his everyday action through such a framework, then he is likely to see that everything ‘fits’. But it is evident that there is no way that this is objective knowledge.

The previous paragraphs can be considered as a very short summary J. Krishnamurti’s line of thinking – that there exist situations where the subject-object distinction does not hold and thus statments about objectivity or subjectivity make no sense. The critical theorists in addressing the same issue come to the conclusion that everything is subjective – made famous by the statment ‘ Death of the Author’, but the issue to me cannot be interpreted from the subject-object perspective – the negation of objectivity need not only be subjectivity but also lack of both.

Take the example of a drama – one may imagine that there is a clear distinction here between the observer and the observed. But if one takes another look, the drama is written and produced keeping the audience in mind, for otherwise there is no point in it being performed, and thus the audience is also part of the play – the observer is also the observed. The drama, as it unfolds, is a dialogue between the performers and the audience and can thus be interpreted only as a whole. A ‘flop’ is one which fails to bring about this unity, with the dramatist complaining about how backward his audiences are. The drama is simply not situated within the correct context, which alienates the audience from the drama.

Similar questions arise in other places as well – can historical records and religious texts be interpreted by an observer who is not also the observed ? In India, the interpretation of history is a huge controversy. But neither the Hindutva glorification of the spiritual nor the Marxist focus on the material can do justice, since neither ‘lives’ the history – it is an exercise in textual interpretation. The only true history can come from someone who actually lives it. Similarly, atheists/rationalists tearing apart religious texts serves little more than angering others.

Another interesting place to look at is music. It is well known that most classical music is also religious music – some of the finest music has been in the praise of God (regardless of definition). Is is possible to appreciate Handel or Tyagaraja without sharing the intense experience of divinity (again, regardless of how you define divinity) that lead to the actual creation of the music ? Bland technical music criticism leads to a ‘fossilization’ of the music just as textual criticism of religion only shows a religion that is ‘dead’ – both lead to unnatural and normally harmful ideas of  ‘purity’ which do not allow any evolution of the object under scrutiny. A true purist will try and maintain continuity rather than stasis – not hinder evolution, but participate in deciding its direction.

This question is more important now than ever, given that natural scientists and engineers are called to take on the burden of examining and interpreting phenomena that are complex beyond comparison to the objects of study which they initially started off with, which decided their methodology. Unless we evolve new ways to understand reality, all we will be doing is tuning zillions of parameters, looking for an Objective Model of the World.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.

Design as if people mattered: A report

Settling down into the madness that is IISc, but had to complete a (somewhat tiny) report for my final semester here in JSS college, Mysore. It is an account of theoretical and practical issues and experiences that one should consider while trying to design something which has to be used by others. It’s main focus is on rural areas and LED lighting, but I believe that the principles are quite general in nature. The interplay of science with everything else is quite obvious in this report, if somewhat implicit since that was not the main focus. You can find the report here and the slides here, or check out the documentation section.