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?

Why slick steps are not enough

Was in a great place called Auroville attending their first Tango festival, and had a fantastic time. Good dancers, eager beginners, good and bad natured people, all had their representatives in the mix of people present there. I had already written something about the dance itself some time ago. What the festival afforded me was an insight into the psychological aspects surrounding Tango, which go beyond the dance floor and into daily life as well.

The ultimate aim of any dance is to merge with the music completely and express what emotions the music evokes through your self. Couple dances add the complication that it is not only one person that has to do this, but two people at the same time. Tango, being completely improvised, adds yet another dimension of having to be in complete sync with what your partner is doing at any particular moment. If you learn the steps in advance, then only the music matters. Being in synchrony with your partner means letting her inside your head, and vice versa, and this can be quite unnerving. Though it is possible to dance a perfectly good tango without this psychological surrender, the experience is not quite the same.

It was not uncommon in the dances I attended in the evenings to see men exhibiting fantastic steps and good control over the dance. However, it was also common to see that the steps had nothing to do with what music was playing. One could see couples moving at 150 km/hour for a 30 km/hour song, violating the ‘ultimate aim’ of any dance. There were others who were musically inclined, but the necessity to show off still made them do smart steps in time to the music. One look at their partners and you could see them frowning all the time, trying desperately to keep in step with their ‘smart’ leaders and the music was completely secondary to them, which is a terrible thing to happen to a dancer. The dance looked attractive from the outside, but speaking to some of them afterward, it was clear that it was not very enjoyable from the inside.

Chemistry away from the dance floor seems to contribute something intangible but omnipresent in the dance. Those who are friendly, affectionate towards your off the dance floor tend to be excellent people to dance with, regardless of their technical capabilities. Having danced with a few people who were more interested about what was happening elsewhere rather than paying complete attention to the dance, Tango then becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. On the other hand, dancing with someone who is interested you as a person and not only as a dancer makes it possible to create something deep and intense with steps you learn in the first week of your Tango lessons. That tango allows you to create an instant connection even while dancing with a complete stranger is an added bonus, and something special about it. It is said (probably exaggerated) that women in Argentina won’t marry anyone unless they have danced a tango with him first. Looking back at Auroville, it is not hard to understand why.

So, how does this translate to real life? Tango is about being present in that moment, with that note playing, with this person you are dancing with, trying to make the moment as wonderful as possible for both. There is no ultimate aim. This is the reason that those who dance with some motive in mind, like impressing women or trying to find a soul mate, end up being unpleasant people to dance with. The only way to impress your partner or find your soul mate is to not try consciously. The awareness that you have found something/someone special comes to you only after the song is over. All you are doing by giving your 100% to this particular moment is painting an honest picture of yourself, which you can reflect upon and gain a better understanding of yourself.

What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,  one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

Thoughts on Tango

Recently started studying Tango under a most fantastic guru in Bangalore, and have to say that it has been a very interesting learning experience. Having never pursued dance seriously or bothered to understand it well has given me not only something to practise but also something to think about.

Tango originated in Argentina (Eric Hobsbawm takes particular care in mentioning that it emerged from the brothels of Argentina, though it has long since moved away from any such associations.) and is meant to be danced by a couple. Argentine Tango is completely improvised, which means that you cannot really get away by practicing with one partner and also that each dance is a new experience.

Dance differs from music and art in the following manner: while playing music, you think about notes and play notes. While painting, you imagine a scene and try to reproduce that visual. Dance, however, is fundamentally an interpretation — you listen to the music and convert it to a tableau with your body. Moreover, the representation that you are creating is not really visible (or audible) to you, but only to a third person, unlike music or art where the feedback is immediate. The only feedback is your own sense of form, which has to be assembled together by your awareness of what configuration the various parts of your body are in.

As one can imagine, relying on such inputs to create something beautiful while actively interpreting the music you hear cannot be easy (or beautiful!). What dance does reinforce is the recognition that humans are intensely visual and aural creatures, relying mainly on our sense of sight and hearing to help us navigate through the world. Dance uses a very different sense, which is known as proprioception which we use mainly unconsciously. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people who seem to be dancing atrociously without having any idea that they are doing so. It is also why dancers rely heavily on lingual inputs from their teachers and visual inputs from a mirror — they are using their dominant senses to train the others. In other words, you have to learn to ‘listen’ to your body, which is not something you commonly do.

Probably because dancers rely on a less dominant (and mostly unconscious) sense like proprioception, all dances emphasize heavily on form — the shape in which your body is at any given time. Tango is no different and though its formal aspects are not too many they will be repeated over and over in class. Hubert (my guru) calls them the ‘geometry’ of Tango — the structure of the embrace, the angle and distance between partners and how it changes over time, among other things. It is very easy to look terrible dancing Tango since the dance is mainly improvised. A choreographed  dance can be drilled into someone, but that is not the case here.

Since Tango involves two people, communicative aspects invariably enter the picture. How one can (should!) communicate without visual or audible signs is at the core of any dancer’s training. All communication requires a medium, and the Tango embrace provides this medium. It also requires a grammar, which in Tango is not very elaborate, making it possible to ‘express yourself’ quite early in your Tango classes. It also makes it easy to achieve the goal of being able to dance with anyone, anywhere. Of course, this is possible only if both partners know the grammar perfectly, and beginner’s Tango classes are a fascinating aid in trying to imagine a world where there does not exist any language. It would probably be a very angry and frustrated world!

A lot of Tango, especially in the Hollywood movies, emphasizes its spectacular and the erotic aspects out of all proportion. Thus, it will seem to the outsider that Tango has not really moved away from the brothels of Argentina. But anyone who attends a class will know that the focus of the dancer will be more on not kicking or getting kicked by their partner! More seriously, Tango is more of an intimate dance than an erotic one. The intimacy derives from various sources. One, the very fact that you are physically close to your partner (duh!). Two, the fact that you are touching your partner — touch is the most immediate of senses, along with taste. Three, the fact that you are communicating with another person without using sight or sound. It implies that you have to be ‘tuned in’ to your partner to a greater extent than usual, since listening to someone’s touch is not a part of everyday experience. In fact, it is not uncommon for partners to look confused or break out into a smile at the same time, without ever exchanging a word. Four, the fact that you are your partner are listening and trying to interpret the same bit of music. A particularly good interpretation will suddenly increase the ‘zing’ in the dance, for both.

It has been an interesting few classes, and I find Tango to be a particularly good way to learn more about myself, since your partner is like a mirror, showing you what don’t want to see!

The sense of entitlement

The primary focus of economic study is what you are entitled to, given what you have and what you are capable of doing with what you have. In short, economics can be called the study of entitlement, given endowment and capabilities. Of course, many economists will beg to differ, and say study of endowment and capabilities are as important (Amartya Sen and Karl Marx, two examples from different parts of the economics universe.)

The problem economics faces is that entitlement needs to be quantified to make the subject earn a (pseudo)-scientific status. Therefore, what you are entitled to is reduced to numbers or very detailed set of services. This to me pushes a lot of questions and intangibles under the carpet, as will be explicated below.

The best place to start will be the trains in India. When you reserve a ticket, all you are entitled to is your particular seat or berth on it. On a particularly crowded day, like during festivals, it is inevitable that people will crowd into the compartments reserved as well, and request or shove (depending on which part of India you come from) you for some place. Some oblige, some don’t, but always grumbling about how they have reserved this place and they are entitled to ‘better’. It is not uncommon to see people grumbling if people even stand inside a reserved compartment. Their sense of entitlement for a reservation goes beyond an assured seat to a comfortable, non-crowded, no standing people journey.

Most of the politics that happens is due this sense of entitlement that cannot be captured within economic frameworks easily. Reservation is such an issue. Those demanding reservation say they are entitled to justice for historical wrongs, whereas those opposing it speak a very ‘economics’ language of efficiency and meritocracy. It is not surprising that the debate normally goes nowhere. Reservation has economic implications, sure, but it does not stop at that. The same goes with the debate on climate change as well. Though we say big things about economics driving the world, there is little economics at the core of climate change debates, which talks about the entitlement of countries to pollute like the West did historically and continues to do.

This non-tangible part of what you think you are entitled to makes all the difference in your attitude toward other people in general. It is not uncommon to hear idiots trying to gain the upper hand in an argument by invoking their past and family and qualifications. They somehow feel that getting a Master’s or being a Manager in a company entitles them not to deal with ‘incompetents’, as they would put it. Similarly, someone dining in an expensive restaurant would be mortified if the waiter was not ultra-polite, unfolding napkins and capable of an intelligent conversation about their food and liquor range. They believe that their paying that ‘extra’ justifies having an attendant who just stops short of kissing their feet. You would give ugly stares at that neighboring table who just can’t keep their voices down, since of course you are also entitled to a certain etiquette from all the other customers in the restaurant. However, since none of this is printed on your bill, economics cannot really play any role in determining it.

The other extreme would be people who think they are entitled to very little, and take away from an economic transaction even lesser than what a traditional economic analysis or policy would put in your pocket. This is typical of how the poor are treated, which is well documented is the case of the MNREGA programme. Whatever they get is a blessing and nowhere is this better observed than in the general compartment of a train. 6 people on each seat, 6 on the luggage rack, 5 on the floor between the seats and a very large number on the aisle, it sometimes seems that the ticket they buy has no value at all. They seem to be entitled to only going from place A to B, without any consideration as to how. In fact, the more spectacular acts of kindness and generosity comes from the people in the general compartment, not those in the 2AC, which is strange since economics would say that only the rich can ‘afford’ to be generous and kind. This is simply due to the fact that each views what they are entitled to in a very different manner.

The rich get richer and poor, poorer. This is because those who have tend to overestimate what they are worth and those who don’t consistently underestimate the same. More than economics, culture and social norms play an important role in determining one’s sense of entitlement. However, one should not forget that this has important economic implications. An artist feels he is entitled to earn lakhs for a painting is indulging in the inexact science of translating those intangibles into a price, which is why there are so many poor artists for every one that makes it big. This inexact science depends on luck, where you live and who you know, none of which are economic variables.

In the long run, we are all dead. Can’t we take the opportunity to be kind and thoughtful without trying a rational analysis of our entitlements? Apparently not.

Sights in and around Ujire

Was again in Ujire to get some work done at SELCO Labs. Not much time to do normal wandering, but managed a couple of photographs nonetheless.

Sunrise from SDMIT campus
Same as above
Sunset at SELCO Labs
Moon through a tree at Anand's farm

After the cosmological phenomena, some terrestial phenomena…

Sam, a mechanical engineer from Cambridge, who is currently employed with the Labs
Tommy, an intern from the University of Glasgow
Frog, too petrified to escape macro shots ;)
Congregation of butterflies!
'Carrier' Ants!



Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow. — Some dude.