Category Archives: rational organization

Sociable sociopaths – is it the system ?

System Analysis is simply another way of looking at the world, trying to look at the structure and composition of an aggregate of anything from computer code to people to machines.

For those unaware of terminology (which would be anyone who has not taken a systems course), a system is an entity with certain inputs and outputs, and which converts inputs to outputs through a certain mechanism. It can be completely defined by its inputs, outputs, external limits and feedback systems. Limits determine the boundaries within which the system must operate, like the size of our parliament is limited by the number of rich and powerful idiots in the country. Feedback systems determine the response of the system to changes in its output or environment, like the elections are a feedback in a democracy.

Another factor which determines the performance of the system is delay in the feedback systems. Scientists have been telling economists to change developmental objectives to include climate change issues for many decades and yet it has come into focus only very recently. Even today, development does not include many environmental issues like deforestation and toxic dumps and species extinction. This can be called as a large delay between output changes and the attendant change in system performance.

Why is systems thinking important ? From a business perspective, it can help analyse the people and objects that determine how a system (company) behaves, and how certain kinds of behavior of these ‘components’ can affect overall system output. For example, car manufacturers should change the specifications of their car according to general consumer tastes. Therefore, there must be some system feature that links car specification with consumer taste. If the person who is in charge of implementing this feature in this system fails to do her job well, system output (which is cars) will fail to make the desired impact.

Therefore, most social systems – religion, corporation, state – come up with a set of desired behaviors that the components that make up the system should have, and this is inculcated by various mechanisms – schools, corporate orientation, religious instruction and so on.

One can, if one has considerable amount of time to burn, apply systems principles to the present situation in India. First, a look at the state. The state is a glorified watchman of sorts, taking money from us taxpayers and giving political, social and economic protection. The recent spate of terrorist attacks have underlined the fact that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism which is structurally very different from the normal antisocial elements that it is used to dealing with. Highly motivated individuals, working in small groups, from varied backgrounds, with no monetary motivation causing mayhem is something no state can cope with: it was simply not designed for such a task. And there goes physical safety that we were supposed to have.

Next thing to go was religious tolerance. Talking to random people on the train shows that the average Hindu looks at his Christian neighbor with suspicion and will be more hesitant than before to attend religious festivals. This is due to the sensationalist feedback systems which have been set in place called the media and no doubt supported by a political party that wants to expel Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals (only those with expired visas, of course, preferably Muslims) since they might be terrorists. Never mind the fact that terrorists will go to great lengths to see that their papers are in order, and are not stupid enough to be in a place where checks are taking place. A system is only as good as the people that make it up, and this is shown well in Karnataka now and Gujarat before.

Before these was, of course, financial security. A global economic system needs globalĀ  regulatory agencies, a role which the IMF and World Bank ostensibly play. The present crisis shows that a system designed around rational ordering and behavior of individuals completely fails when greed, fear and panic are the inputs. The subprime crisis surfaced around this time last year and its effects are showing now, a huge delay between input and output. This kind of behavior can only mean worse things in the coming year. IMF and the World Bank probably should stick to bullying third world nations.

All these developments are having interesting effects – terrorism has made grassroot level spying a noble duty in service of the state (Orwellian nightmare!), people belonging to different religious groups are eyeing each other with suspicion, and people with money to lose are running around like headless chickens. If people are taken as a system, and if insecurity is an input, the system moves towards whatever promises stability. Therefore, unfortunately, the State and religious organizations are going to be more powerful than before when the dust settles. The last bastion of reliable information feedback, the internet, is now becoming more prone to State intervention. Wonder what the status of the people will be after this – are we going to be sociable components of sociopathic systems ?

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

What role does money play?

Apart from providing the ability to purchase goods to the one who has some of it, quite a bit. My focus here is more on what effect do economic relations have on social ones.

In a feudal society, where caste is dominant, economic and social relations are quite different. The closest economic relations a land-owner has is with the lower caste workers in his fields. Same with other castes and occupations. However, social relations are usually intra-caste, be it in celebrating festivals or finding a suitable bride/bridegroom. Though the picture is definitely not as simple as described here, (land owners are socially obliged to support an servant during times of need) but definitely not a very bad one either.

Coming to contemporary society, the stratification is somewhat more porous and many examples of a conflation of the two types of relations are seen. Best examples are those of office romances. If not for the monetary benefit that brings people to a common workplace, such relations would have never happened. HR managers portray companies as ‘one big family’, which is a bare-faced attempt to replace kinship relations with economic ones. Before further discussion, it is worth characterizing both kinds of relations.

Primary social relations are usually an end in themselves (intrinsic value), based on emotions and therefore quite strong (since emotions are very strong in humans), and tend to last long (in terms of generations). Economic relations are more the secondary type, having an importance proportional to utility (consequential value), based on rationality and therefore weak (humans are rational? From when?) and tend to last as long the the utility of the relationship lasts. Primary social relations assume no acceptable behavior patterns (a son who is a killer is still a son) whereas secondary relations do expect certain kinds of behavior. Therefore, when entering a secondary relation like an economic relation, a person is expected to behave in a certain way for things to go on smoothly. The norms that govern behavior may be implicit, but they certainly exist.

With this background in mind, a more fruitful analysis of economic-to-social relation shift can be made. One thing is certain: humans are inherently crazy. They get depressed, have deep seated phobias and philias, feel guilt and shame and anger, and generally defy rational explanation. (This is to be taken as a limitation of rationality rather than defects in humans.) Thus, when a person enters an economic relation, she is expected to conduct herself in a rational, predictable manner. Therefore, more often than not, one sees a very small part of a person’s personality when engaged in a secondary relationship. Sure, people get angry and break down at work, but this is the exception to the rule. Only in a primary social relationship will the true craziness of a person come forth. That is why, in my opinion, taking an office romance ‘to the next level’ usually does not work out. Once the bond becomes more and more emotional, things like jealousy and possesiveness appear. A person who is used to seeing the ‘rational’ side of their partner will find it difficult to accept such behavior. ‘You were so different in college’, ‘It was not always like this, you know’ – these are quotes that you will hear in such contexts.

Americans, ever the pioneers in handling wierd situations make sure that pre-nuptial agreements are in place to cater for such exigencies. Little wonder that divorce rates in the USA are close to 50%. Bangalore, which is a place where economic relations are increasingly determining social relations, the same issues are cropping up. Financial freedom is being attributed as one of the causes of increasing divorce rates, which simply drives home the underlying economic tinge to these relations. While economic independence to women is to be highly encouraged, and helps many escape from abusive marriages, saying financial independence increases divorce rates simply says that the marriage was more utilitarian in nature than with intrinsic value to the participants.

Companies nowadays, with the HR development mantra, are making sure that this trend will become more pronounced. Instead of advising employees to spend more time at home with family, a practical view that they take is of accepting that employees will spend more time with their colleagues than at home, and hence make the workplace a second family. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people spending ten times more time with co-workers than with kith and kin and spouse. Whatever value a primary relationship has is dependent on face to face interactions, and this becomes nil in such situations. Marriage has additional functions of sexual satisfaction and taking care of the young, which are also neglected. Considering such factors, it is unsurprising that divorce rates and broken families are on the rise in places which encourage more and more economic engagement in lieu of kinship relations.

Solutions? one cannot ignore work. one cannot ignore family and friends either (family more important here). One must understand the needs of both kinds of relationships and strike a balance that is suitable in a given personal context. Saying that one takes care of one’s family well because the family goes on a trip every year and all family members’ monetary needs are fulfilled is confusing one kind of relationship with another. If the only reason your family loves you is because of the above reasons, then you have serious issues to address!

How watertight can we be ?

Was reading a book that I previously mentioned, about an introduction to the notable sociologists from when the term was coined. Among one of the greatest among these was undoubtedly Max Weber, and a small section of the chapter devoted to him talks about his prophecies of doom, that social organisation would tend to more and more rational organisation in terms of efficiency, run by a scientifically guided bureaucracy.

Thankfully, we do not yet live in an age where managers rule every aspect of our lives, from what we eat to who we sleep with. Though it is obvious that an efficient bureaucracy will lead to maximally efficient organisation of human productive output, it is far from obvious that that is what people want, and far less obvious whether it can really be implemented.

An incident narrated by a friend working in a company in Bangalore comes to mind. A romantically involved couple, both working for the same company, were said to be seen smooching in the office. Now, the reaction was one of complete disbelief and shock at how unprofessional people can be. Looking at it from the other side, can one not question as to why a person in love (with what/who ever) cannot show her/his affection where and when one feels ? The answer would be that the office is a place to act in a certain way, and there are unwritten codes of conduct which govern osculatory behaviour here. Why are certain modes of behaviour permissible and others unprofessional ? Because they cause a disturbance, a distraction from the normal activity of efficient production ? While it definitely not my intention to condone smooching in corridors and cubicles, it is definitely my intention to question why any person is required to curb certain parts of her personality. It is hard to see how such an environment would help in formation of a well rounded personality. Also, one finds a tinge of hypocrisy in such attitudes. One is told not to bring home worries into work and vice versa, but one never hears about people told to leave their happiness at home and wear a surly mask at the workplace. Certain things which are beneficial to production are always welcome, the rest, please excuse, please.

Romantic escapades apart, there are many instances of companies cutting employees off the Internet, and similar restrictions in the name of ‘distractions’. But employees find creative ways to overcome such things where possible, and a purely machine-like worker will hardly ever surface. To the horror of the top brass, people seem to want to waste time in idle chatting, gossip, tales of woe, trip discussions and many other such uneconomic behavior (I almost forgot the coffee machine ;). Nowadays, many companies seem to have recognized (or resigned to) the fact that people do not enter the office in the morning just to work continuously for 8 hours and then get back to their normal lives, and provide a much more liberal atmosphere, where one gets an opportunity to explore other aspects of social behavior and grouping. Far from Max Weber’s tight bureaucratic dystopia, bureaucracy now seems to recognize human inability to divide space and time into watertight compartments, each requiring a kind of behavior that provides maximum efficiency to the task at hand.

Similar to the managerial expectations and frustrations, are our own wishes that sometimes go unfulfilled. We would like a park to be neat and clean and we end up seeing beggars and homeless bums in them. We would like our roads to be clean and free from disturbances but find religious processions and bales of ragi put out for drying. We wish to watch movies undisturbed but end up covering our ears against the cat calls as soon as Bipasha comes onscreen. We want our footpaths wide and safe, but end up walking on the road due to the sudden appearance of a temple overnight on the footpath. Just like human behavior, his cultural creations overflow and confound the best laid plans of the urban planners and middle class.

Just as we want to do things ‘our way’, so do so many others. About time we recognized and respect the non-watertightness that is so natural in the world.