Categories
Geocracy

The Demented Style of Politics

Photographer: TETrebbien | Source: Unsplash

Dementors

The creepiest man I ever met was a CIA officer turned academic scholar of terrorism. We sat across a table on a couple of occasions in the early 2000s; even his presence in the room was disturbing and every time he spoke, I felt a shiver passing down my spine.

It's not as if he was saying the most evil things; in fact, some of what he said was factual and much of the rest was reasonable, if on the conservative end of the spectrum. It's just the way he expressed his opinions – no scratch that – it was the way he carried himself in the world that was the problem. Like everyone and everything was suspect and it was his job to wring the truth out of the world. Quite different from a regular thug or a mafioso – there was no bullying – just a presumption that very bad things exist and it was his job to be worse in response.

I can still picture his way of smiling at the stupidity of others; it was a dementor’s sneer. The dementor is the bad guy on the good side – please don't ask me to define who is good and who isn't; that's beyond this essay's pay grade. But however you define it, and "good" is felt viscerally rather than intellectually, there's often a person or an institution whose job is to be bad in the service of that good.

What was once the province of the secret police has now become a standard function in our social network driven world – every Whatsapp group has its own dementor, a man (it’s always a man) who takes upon himself to channel the dark side.

Why do such dementors exist? Why are they (sometimes) celebrated?

My friend was very ill, he called me and said: it’s enough to sit and do nothing, let’s do something at least. The main motivator was my friend, who saw in me the potential that I do not use. He was forbidden to go out into the cold, but he took the all  medicines in his fist, drank and said: Photography is more important than illness!
Photographer: Elijah O'Donnell | Source: Unsplash

Public Emotions

First, a digression on knowledge, power and emotion.

Starting with the work of Foucault, social science scholarship focused on the intimate relationship between knowledge and power in the modern world – my favorite in the genre is Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance. Their argument was that modern societies gain legitimacy by exercising control over the processes of life (what Foucault calls biopower) through the collection of a certain kind of knowledge and the creation of new categories such as “population.”

For example, birth and death statistics are collected so that policies targeting population averages (public health policies for example) can be used to legitimize state power. Today’s breathless reporting about the Corona virus is a classic example of biopower and the Chinese state’s success & failure in exerting it. In other words the exercise of power demands certain knowledge regimes.

What’s happened in the last three decades is both an evolutionary growth of knowledge as power and a dramatic transition in its exercise. It’s no longer knowledge that’s being collected and categorized – it’s emotion as well. The technologies of surveillance can now directly access our limbic brain and don’t need to stop with rational categories such as population averages and GDP. Knowledge is often replaced by emotion because the technologies of control, surveillance etc have become more fine grained. The circling of information and emotion is subtler than the knowledge regimes of the past and can no longer be understood within what Foucault termed as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”

In short: emotion is more important than knowledge and populations are no longer the unit of control.

For example: while I (try to) make the entire Hindu population fearful of Muslims, I can also use Whatsapp messages that target this particular village to lynch that particular Muslim. That combination of emotion, information and chaotic control is rather new and it's spawning a demented style of politics.

Photographer: William Krause | Source: Unsplash

What's the need for Dementors? Do they have a legitimate place in the world?

Of course I understand the strategic reason for having dementors on your side – the logic of every arms race forces all sides to acquire as big a weapon as possible, and dementors are powerful weapons. I get that. But are there are other reasons? Perhaps even more important ones?

For example: do dementors bring insights into the world that would otherwise not be available using "good" methods alone?

These arguments have several analogs. Let me recount two – one more innocent than the other:

  1. Do critics perform an important function? Consider the poisonous reviewer who routinely makes directors quit their profession and become insurance salesmen. Is that person really necessary? What good comes into the world as a result? One obvious answer: sharp criticism raises the level of the art as a whole, and since that world is rife with subjective insider assessments, it's not a bad thing when someone raises a stink (assuming it's a fair stink). The world doesn't need any more bad movies than it already has.
  2. Is torture ever justified? Let's say you catch a man who has smuggled a nuclear bomb into your country and has the key to turning it off but isn't divulging the key upon ordinary questioning. Is it OK to extract the information via torture?
    Most people – or so I suspect – will be fine with extracting the information via torture. But people under torture say anything to stop the pain – truth isn't their main concern. You really don't want the man telling you a falsehood that has you chasing the wrong corner of the city when the cloud goes up in the air. In any case, that information might be even more forthcoming if you drugged the man with a mind-loosener, so to speak. Torture as an instrument of knowledge strikes me as inherently flawed.

Nevertheless, from just war theory to pre-emptive strikes, there's a sense that not only is violence justified under certain circumstances, it is both prudent and ethical to invest in the means to conduct such violence. Iron fist within the velvet glove and all that.

My take: while the existence of bad people arguably justifies generals, it doesn't justify dementors. What's the point in a moral community having people who view their own community with suspicion, even malevolence? People who will reliably and routinely harm innocent citizens because they don't care who they hurt.

And yet, dementors are all too common. Sometimes the person at the very top is themselves a dementor but more likely than not, the dementor is an employee rather than a boss. My suspicion is that every large organization – whether country, company or political party – has a known dementor on its payroll; in some organizations, even a mid-level boss has their own dementor. Drug cartels come to mind. Every Don needs a Luca Brasi, if you know the reference; that person is usually the boss' man and travels (or dies) with the chief.

Secret police, assassins, enforcers – the list of dementors is long. I can think of only one reason why they need to exist: the world is a genuinely bad place, or at least parts of it are.

There's been an explosion of literature on the authoritarian mind of late. Not surprising, given the recent successes of authoritarian politics. Everybody agrees that authoritarians both cultivate a climate of fear and use that climate to amass power. But what are the origins of fear and suspicion – and especially – what if there's existential grounding to those feelings?

Anxiety, paranoia, hate and other negative emotions are standard in all social networks. There's money to be made with those emotions and elections to be won. Plus, it's not only right wing nuts who use negative emotions as a lever: climate catastrophe and the fear it inspires is a standard tool in the progressive toolkit. Dementorship is a respected social role in today's world. It's the dementor's job to detect and amplify fear and suspicion as an existential mood, which is another way of saying the dementor is the yang to the authoritarian's yin.

Paranoia is common and spreading. If the success of right wing politics throughout the world is any sign, the public in many countries has been successfully convinced that they are surrounded by clear and imminent dangers. It's likely they trust the dementors more than the visionaries of a better future. There's every reason to believe the demented style of politics will find more takers as our system lurches from depression to climate collapse. All the more reason to identify the emotional core of the dementor's view of the world and find an antidote. But first, it has to be understood seriously and objectively.

Categories
Geocracy

Political Thought(s)

1ZWI Poetry Jam is a Christian Spoken Word event! The name translates to One Voice! Thusly, it’s a gathering of poets with one objective - to be one voice! What voice right? The notion behind this movement is to model a youthful culture in Zimbabwe of poetry and spoken word! A young people whose actions are a mere manifest of the Word Of God! Thusly 1ZWI then becomes a community of young people that meet every fortnight at different locations in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Photographer: Trust "Tru" Katsande | Source: Unsplash

Three Models of Philosophy: Bureaucracy, Catalysis and Poetry

Much philosophy today is the bureaucracy of the mind; checking to see if scholars and laypeople are following the rules of reason, punishing them when they trespass the boundaries, cleaning up academic disciplines and making sure their concepts are well defined and deployed with the rigor appropriate to the discipline. Philosophy performs a policing function, regulating how concepts should be 'correctly' deployed in the sciences and the humanities.

Nothing wrong with being a babu, but kind of boring.

Then there's philosophy as catalysis, a model that goes all the way back to Socrates, who said he was the midwife of wisdom, i.e., not wise himself but capable of evoking wisdom in others through the process of Socratic inquiry. Collective catalysis is a particularly urgent need today to rid ourselves of mass superstitions and worse. I have much to say about philosophy as a catalyst for change but that's for another time and place.

Finally, let's come to philosophy as poetry.

Poetry is the crucible of language, drizzling new sensibilities into the river of words. Shakespeare alone is responsible for a substantial percentage of the English language, or what's more likely, he 'borrowed' those phrases from his forgotten contemporaries.

What poetry is to language, philosophy is to thought, a craft that brings new concepts and ways of thinking into the scholarly disciplines. That's the optimistic version; too many poets on the streets often attract the attention of the police, as we are finding in India today.

Don't get me wrong, there's reason to maintain law and order on the streets and in the classroom, but when the conditions of the world change, the regime's idea of order is felt by everyone else as oppression. That's when poets and philosophers should be ready to introduce new forms into the world.

Political Cognition

Sanjeev Yadav ,DiplomatTesterMan

I have been thinking these thoughts because conditions in India are changing faster than what anyone might have thought even a few months ago.

There's a widely told story about the shift: that the RSS and its right wing family never bought into the idea of India as a constitutional democracy for all people. Instead they want a Hindu nation in which all other communities live at the sufferance of their majoritarian masters.

The street has other ideas. Muslim women and men, students, activists and liberal Hindus are marching on the streets with the Indian flag in one hand and a copy of the constitution in the other. That solidarity gives us all hope.

Nevertheless, there's reason to believe that conditions have changed for good, that constitutional democracy may be in a state of crisis. We know that authoritarians aren't interested in securing everyone's flourishing, but is it possible that constitutional democracy is also in terminal decline? Last week, I wrote about three keystone crises: authoritarianism, climate change and extinction. Can constitutional democracy combined with neoliberal capitalism tackle any of these crises?

I am skeptical.

We need new political thoughts. We need new ecological thoughts. We need new planetary thoughts. For example:

  1. We need to rethink the concepts of identity that inform political life, citizenship being a prime example.
  2. Even more radically, we might have to rethink the concept of society itself.

Citizenship and Identity

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

Let's start with the first claim. A famous question in political philosophy asks: what's a just society?

Liberal democracies used to feel they've figured out a reasonably good answer to that question; after the Soviet Union fell, everyone agreed that liberal capitalism offers a universal framework for a just society with some quirks differentiating the Indian version from the Australian version. We are still stuck being human and have to go through the cycle of birth and death, but while we are alive, it sure seems like a life in Sweden or New Zealand is a good life.

Once liberal democracy is entrenched, it's a self-correcting mechanism. Today's injustices are corrected by expanding the circle of justice, which is how – the story goes – slavery ended, women were given the franchise, gay marriage was legalized and perhaps one day, animals will also have rights. The claim is that a liberal society will constantly try to erase inequalities between its citizens, or at least keep them within acceptable boundaries. In its self-correcting and self-healing capacity, liberal democracy resembles nothing more than the practice of science, which too (slowly) rejects faulty hypotheses and embraces a larger, more general view of the universe.

Clean air, clean streets, two cars and a nice house: the material basis for this assertion are clear enough, but what's the theoretical basis for this confidence?

The philosopher John Rawls suggested an answer by conducting a famous thought experiment that he called the veil of ignorance. He said imagine a society in which everyone wears a veil preventing them from knowing their own conditions: they could be rich or poor, female or male, Dalit or Brahmin but they have no way of knowing their fate.

Suppose you're wearing the veil and are asked to distribute 100 rupees amongst the population where you have the choice of distributing some subset to Dalits and the rest to Brahmins.

How will you do it?

The obvious answer is: equal division amongst everyone, for while wearing the veil you don't know whether you're Dalit or Brahmin.

Rawls suggests that while we don't wear veils in the real world, we formulate laws and policies as if we are doing so. Such idealization is common in the sciences too – we imagine planets and atoms as perfectly round balls even though they aren’t in practice. Veiled thinking is a form of political cognition. It doesn't work all the time, but it's a useful posture while designing a political system. Just as Galileo invites us to imagine dropping a heavy iron ball and a feather in the vacuum and asks us: "do they fall at the same rate?", Rawls asks us to wear a veil while thinking political thoughts.

In the Rawlsian system, the society is in equilibrium, e.g., a nation with fixed boundaries, a well established political and legal system whose edicts are enforceable by the state. Equilibrium doesn't mean the society is static – it could be a highly dynamic society with new technologies coming into being all the time. Nevertheless, the assumption is that the political and social rules of the game are well established and accepted by everyone. The veil of ignorance helps model the just society in equilibrium as a closed system with perfect symmetry between its citizens.

The 'society in equilibrium' is one style of political thought. Are there others?

No real world system realizes the Rawlsian ideal, but the western liberal democracies have come closest to doing so. Increasingly, even in those societies, there's a widespread worry that the 'equilibrium society' is a poor assumption.

The first problem with equilibrium is that we can get stuck in a sub-optimal equilibrium before we arrive at the just equilibrium. Some entrenched divisions have proven harder to remove than the self-correcting character of liberal democracy might imply. The treatment of minorities and oppressed populations is a good example. The United States started with genocide and slavery and continues to treat its minority populations atrociously, suggesting that social institutions aren't able to implement principled changes (such as the veil of ignorance) as they might desire. Assuming they desire so.

It's all well and good when technology helps you replace your current computer with one twice as good every two years, but what happens when after ten years, the 32 times better computer can perform your job better than you? What happens when all the toxins from billions of thrown away computers start poisoning your water? What happens when the owners of computer companies use surveillance based on the data they collect to prevent you from agitating for equal treatment? Instead of constantly progressing towards a just equilibrium, the dynamics of the liberal system might lead to entrenched power structures that prevent further progress.

In fact, as the ongoing protests in India show, these entrenched power structures might try to redefine the idea of citizenship itself. In a liberal society, citizenship is an attribute of individuals, i.e., a direct relationship between the individual and the state, but illiberal societies might say that citizenship is defined by membership in a community, so that Muslims are lesser citizens than Hindus in India ( and the opposite in Pakistan). In other words, social changes can lead to disputes over features that were considered fixed i.e., in equilibrium.

Second, externalities to the system – i.e., processes that aren't accounted for in our imagination of the political system (or of society as a whole) – might become too large and disrupt the system as a whole. Carbon molecules weren't part of anyone's idea of justice, but here we are, climate change induced bushfires threatening the existence of one of the wealthiest societies on the planet.

Which brings me to the second point: even society might be too restricted a political category for the future. Once carbon molecules and flu viruses become constant presences in our political sphere, we need to account for them somewhere in our calculus. The idea of society doesn't have the resources to deal with these agencies knocking on our door.

What comes after society?

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Uncategorized

Two Thoughts for 2019

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Every old man thinks the world was a better place when they were young. The colors were brighter, the smiles were warmer and every child had a village growing it to perfection. Sometimes the old man is right; the colors were indeed brighter and the smiles were truly warmer, but sometimes we project our fading energies on to the world.

I am not an old man yet, but I act like one, imagining a better world everywhere besides the one I am in. Not that evidence is lacking for my complaints – tinpot dictators are being elected everywhere, the oceans are swelling with plastic and their rising waters grab another inch of land every day. Still, it should be possible to survey the turmoil of our times without getting preachy. It’s hard for me to get off the pulpit, but I have been trying to set aside my biases and get my grips on the state of the world. After a year of digging here and poking there, two things stand out for me:

  1. We have (almost) reached peak settler humanity. However you count it – number of people, land area given over to cultivation, control of energy flows, nitrogen fixation, you name it, we are close to peaking as a settler species. The future may be catastrophic or transformational, but it doesn’t belong to settler humanity. That’s the true meaning of the term “The End of History” for history is nothing but the chronicles of settler humanity.
  2. The universe is giving way to the world, or to put it another way, the god’s eye view of reality is beginning to be replaced by the worm’s eye view of reality. In fact, even when it takes the form of science, the theological view is as anthropocentric as the divine revelation it supplanted; belief in the universe is an unstated article of faith for settler humanity. The world has no place for theology. That, in turn, poses a question close to my heart: if philosophy discloses the universe (I am discounting religion) then what is philosophy’s wormly, worldly avatar?
Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

My goal over the next few months:

  1. Silence for the rest of 2019.
  2. Begin the new year by (re)reading what I have written in 2019 in the light of insights 1 & 2 above,
  3. Summarize the second round of rereading by March of 2020
  4. Take a break of a few months ~ April-June of 2020,
  5. Begin round three no later than July 2020 – this time it will be a book rather than a blog.

There, I said it. I have been told that stating one’s intentions in public is the best way to fulfill them.

Categories
Geocracy

Terrestrial Science

Ocean clouds seen from space
Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

Buddha before Theology

If you have read some of my other writing, you know that the Buddha fascinates me. I am not the first person to be so fascinated; after all, Buddhism was the first organized religion and until the mid-twentieth century, it was the world's largest religious tradition. That's almost two thousand years of spreading the Dharma in a mostly non-violent manner.

But it's not the Buddha as the Buddha who fascinates me as much as the Buddha as Siddhartha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who found the ANSWER. Siddhartha was the sensitive prince who left a comfortable life in search for answers. The Tathagatha worshipped by billions is cool, but not available in any creative sense. I mean, how can you draw inspiration from a semi-divinity? Like Jesus as Christ, it's possible to admire the son of god but it's harder to see how a human being could model her or his life on the one being who's both human and divine.

I am going to stick with the fully human pre-divinity instead. Looking at the afflictions of our age, I don't ask: what would the Buddha do. Instead, I ask: what would Siddhartha do? He was a clever guy, channeling the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time into a coherent view, and creating a social structure – the famous Sangha – that replicated his insights over generations.

Also, he wasn't a theist. He created a religion without belief in god. I got to say, the idea of a divine being separate from his creation doesn't appeal to me. In fact, the idea of a divine being doesn't appeal to me. Before we get all excited:

  1. That doesn't make me into an atheist. Atheism is structured around the refutation of the existence of divine beings, while I find divinity irrelevant to questions of religion. Strange, right?
  2. I am not an agnostic either, for an agnostic either ignores the question of divinity or is undecided about its merits.

What's left?

We can't stop asking ultimate questions, but we don't have to invoke a deity (or demolish one) in order to answer them. Isn't that what the Buddha did, charting a middle way between agreement and denial? If Siddhartha were to be born today, he would reject the pursuit of theology in both its religious and its scientific versions.

For much of the last two thousand years, theology was considered to be the first science, for the study of the divine being precedes the study of all his creations.

That was then.

Theology had a good run, first as religion and then its science (see below) but it has reached a creative dead end.

Why so? Read on….

Theological Science

All human societies are knowledge societies and our modern society is no different, but you have to be careful about how you count knowledge. Here's a common philosophical definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

Some beliefs are more justifiable than others. Open any science 1o1 book and it will tell you that the earth rotating around the sun is justifiable true belief while the sun going around the earth is not, even if it might have been the status quo for centuries. The Copernican shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism is considered to be the defining mark of the scientific revolution, with science replacing religion as the definitive source of knowledge.

I have a slightly different take: instead of marking the division between science and religion, the Copernican shift marks the division between Theological science and Theological religion.

Q: Isn't theology associated with religion by default? A: Yes, but I am playing with words, so humor me.

I am using 'theology' in a metaphysical manner, as a way of knowing ultimate and absolute truths. In this scheme, theological religion hypothesizes the divine as the ultimate basis of reality; theological science hypothesizes natural principles as the ultimate basis of reality. In other words, theology places itself at the roots of the tree of knowledge – god in religion, fundamental principles in science – and says everything else is an outgrowth of what's at the bottom.

But there are trees and there are trees. What if the tree of knowledge is a Banyan tree?

In contrast, there's everyday religion where a community might worship local deities and spirits without attributing any ultimate significance to those deities and spirits. Similarly, in everyday science I might investigate the medicinal value of a local herb without attributing ultimate significance to that herb.

Historically, Euclid's Elements is the archetype of theological science, since it develops geometry from a few self-evident principles. Never mind that one of those principles turns out to be not-so-evident, leading to the explosion of non-Euclidean geometries, and a theological style of writing that was copied by Newton in his Principia, Spinoza in his Ethics and even leaves its traces in the American Declaration of Independence which starts with "We hold these truths to be self-evident," about as Euclidean a framing as one might imagine.

Aside for another occasion: What is self-evidence?

In the modern era, physics is the theological science par excellence and the Copernican revolution followed by Kepler, Galileo and Newton firmly established the science of mechanics as the theological science of ultimate reality – the physicist's dream being the complete "theory of everything" that explains all natural phenomena as being the outcome of a few physical principles.

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth to see the night sky. Boy where we in for a surprise, with no clouds and sub-zero temperatures, the milky way just seemed to pop like I have never seen it before.
Photographer: Graham Holtshausen | Source: Unsplash

Theological religion is a faded carpet. Yes, there still are people writing books about the divine nature of reality but to a substantial extent, theological religion has lost its hold upon our sense of the ultimate. Especially among the elites who have always dominated theological activity, whether in science or in religion.

I wouldn't weep too much – theological religion had a long run; several thousand years in several civilizations. Not too shabby. What happened with religion is now happening with science. In my view, theological science is entering a period of terminal decline. Some signs of why the dark ages are imminent:

  • if the physicists arrive at a string-theoretic theory of everything the quest will end – no more work left to be done.
  • if the current debacle of "fundamental physics" continues the field will lose interest and funding.

Meanwhile, a terrestrial science is emerging as an alternate articulation of our deepest knowledge needs. Its conception of knowledge isn't justified true belief.

Brown and green fields
Photographer: elizabeth lies | Source: Unsplash

Terrestrial Science

Very few of us practice theological science or theological religion. They have always been a specialized fields of expertise. If you take theological investigation as your model of knowledge seeking, you will condemn most human activity as being inferior, or in Rutherford's infamous words "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By way of comparison, almost everyone practices everyday science, seeking answers to questions that range from "how do I make money by playing the stock market" to "what do I need to do lower my plastic consumption." These are practical questions with practical answers that can make you rich one day and ruin your retirement the next.

Until recently, these practices of everyday science were local: the herb that cures fevers in my village isn't the same as the root that cures fevers in yours. What's happened over the last two hundred years is the integration of these local practices into a global system of knowledge that's the beginning of terrestrial science.

The process by which local knowledges have been integrated into a global system goes by many names, but I will use the most provocative: capitalism. That name may not cover every mechanism through which knowledge is integrated (what would you call Wikipedia for example?) but it covers the most important cases and illuminates the underlying means of knowledge production and accumulation.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there's been a continuing process of capitalist integration through which local knowledge practices are absorbed within the capitalist system so that local Indian strains of rice become globalized and one Chinese breed of banana becomes the de-facto fruit everywhere in the world. As Branko Milanovic says in his important new book "Capitalism Alone," we now have a universal system of knowledge driven production with the only variations between liberal capitalist models of which the US is the most important exemplar and authoritarian capitalist models of which China is the most important exemplar.

Unlike the theological tree of knowledge that aims to be a pine, the capitalist tree of knowledge is a banyan tree, taking root in multiple places and bringing them into the orbit of the tree as a whole. No wonder, many people think capitalism is the ultimate answer to the questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. State socialism certainly appears to be less efficient than market capitalism in providing those benefits. Of the various problems with state socialism, let me point out one: the Soviet Union was an exceptionally inefficient emitter of carbon, with its emissions per capita of GDP much greater than those of the US. The same pattern is replicated in China since state enterprises don't have the same incentive to be efficient as private enterprises.

From: https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/6-graphs-explain-world-s-top-10-emitters

I am reluctant to nominate capitalist modernity as the end of history. We make a mistake in thinking state socialism or socialism of any sort is the real challenger to capitalism as the most important system of terrestrial knowledge. The real challenge comes from ecology, not from economy. To give just one example: the mania for growth built into capitalism isn't compatible with the steady state nature of ecological systems as a whole.

The conflict between economy and ecology is a symptom of a bigger problem: capitalism is an anthropocentric discipline at its core. It's only concerned with human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, humans aren't a divine abstraction unconcerned with the other beings on this planet – we are entangled with all of them.

Capitalism is fast approaching its Copernican moment: just as theological science replaced theological religion by rejecting geocentrism, I believe that a true terrestrial science will start with replacing anthropocentric capital with something else. For example, consider the rushing development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is likely to be one of the dominant forms of knowledge production in the near to middle term: what's the current "Holy Grail" of AI? It's Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, i.e., a robot that's intelligent in the ways we are.

Isn't that anthropocentric? Why is intelligence synonymous with certain kinds of human cleverness?

This child was delighted when a butterfly landed in her hands.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Instead, let's also note that AI might help us inhabit the minds of other creatures way better than we have been able to so far. In the famous Turing test, the Computer Science and AI pioneer Alan Turing imagined a world in which we won't be able to differentiate humans from computers if we only had access to their behaviors.

Instead, imagine a world in which we won't be able to tell the difference between a monarch butterfly and an artificial butterfly based on their behaviors. Even better, imagine a world in which monarch butterflies aren't able to tell the difference between other monarch butterflies and a robotic butterfly.

Popular Buddhism spread through stories as much as high minded philosophical doctrines. The Jatakas recount the previous lives of the Buddha. It's amazing how often that prior birth is as an animal; the literature of that time was keenly aware how human beings are deeply entangled with other creatures. What would a modern day Jataka look like? How can we travel in and out of the minds of other creatures? This strikes me as a pre-eminent problem for terrestrial science.


Of course, emulating the minds of other creatures will be one of many future challenges. Much more effort will be spent on ensuring the viability of the various ecologies that currently support life on earth and are increasingly under threat because of climate change and general ecological collapse. Also, the Turing test is too low a bar. We are easily convinced by seemingly trivial displays of intelligence. There's no reason why monarch butterflies are better than us: perhaps they too will be easily fooled into treating a robot as a conspecific, a fellow butterfly.

Those problems lie in the future – for now, let's just acknowledge that we need to imagine a new terrestrial science that embraces all the beings on this planet and launch a million speculations on what it's like to go beyond the human world.

Categories
Samsara

Settled Unsettling

Leave taking

I have always wondered why the Buddha left his wife and child and went into the forest. The usual explanations are pretty patriarchal aren’t they, e.g.,
– that he was escaping from the bonds that tie us to this earthly life.
– Attachment brings suffering. etc.

Here’s how that story is told: A sensitive young man is brought up in the lap of luxury. He is the favored child of his father, who doesn’t want him to be exposed to the cruel ways of reality. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease, deprivation and death. What does he do? He goes back home, takes leave of his sleeping wife and child and heads off to the forest, to meditate and to end the cycle of suffering. Six hard years of practice and asceticism later, he becomes the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.

Something does not compute.

Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee upon seeing disease and deprivation? Why not stay and work for the welfare of his subjects? I know that his father was not a king but the tribal chief of a republic but still, Siddhartha had the mandate to change the world and not just study it.

Further, why did Siddhartha leave his family? No royal personage has ever had childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers? How many religions have been founded by women leaving their families behind?

Tennis on the Outside

There’s also the possibility he never went into the forest. My mother wanted me to play tennis. I wanted to play cricket. So I used to wear my tennis uniform every evening, walk around the corner and take a long detour to the park where my friends were putting bat to ball. Tennis on the outside, cricket on the inside. Everyone was happy.

Perhaps the Buddha also switched cricket for tennis, and went to study theater at the Pataliputra School of Arts and came back six years later with a dramatically better ability to deliver his lines. Or perhaps he was struggling to write a PhD thesis on Postvedic studies. Six years is about the time it takes to get a doctorate and it’s easy enough to confuse passing one’s defense for Nirvana.

Settled Unsettling

We can’t really imagine what it’s like to escape civilization. Maybe there’s a place or two in the Amazon or the forests of Borneo where you can check out of Hotel California, but most of us can’t leave. Settler civilization is a world spanning enterprise.

In contrast, the Buddha’s world was still learning the ways of settler humanity. The forest started at the outskirts of the city, sometimes right in the middle. Which also means that alternatives to settlements were right there, requiring no more than an hour or two of walking.

We are taught the Buddhist path as a series of insights into the nature of reality: impermanence, dependent origination etc, but in human terms, the greatest achievement might have been the creation of the Sangha, the first major monastic tradition in the world.

What does it mean to create an institution around traveling monks?

It’s a strange combination. Large scale institution building is a settler thing; who else would agree upon the rules for coordinating actions of people who don’t see each other? But the early forest monks, including the Buddha, were unsettlers by definition. In combining the rule making of institutionalized life and the leave-taking of forest life, the Sangha created an interface between the settled world and the unsettled world, an existential Narasimha.

Zen takes that merger to the extreme – rigid discipline combined with koan practices of unsettling every belief. People create the most amazing things.

The sangha is an experiment in settled unsettling. But now that experiment has run its course. Capitalism, i.e., the supreme achievement of settler humanity, has absorbed all traditional forms of unsettling: creativity has become innovation, dhyan has become mindfulness.

The only real alternative to settler humanity in the last two hundred years has been politics and revolution, but even that dream is attached to the hip to the nation state, the second most important achievement of settler humanity.

How can we unsettle the state and the market? Which forest will teach us that trick?

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Samsara

A Good Death

D

One of my college classmates was an excellent hockey player and a true sportsman. The cricket grounds where I spent my evenings abutted the hockey field. D* and I spent many hours chatting on the sidelines and in the evenings after practice. One evening as we were musing about the purpose of life, D told me the story of his grandmother.

D’s grandmother lived in a mid-size town in Rajasthan. She had lost her husband many years ago. Despite the tragedy, which could spell disaster in a largely patriarchal society, D’s dadi and her family thrived, producing several successful professionals. D was the last son of dadi’s last son. She must have been in her late sixties by the time D was born; she had great grandchildren who were older than D. By the time D went to college dadi was in her late eighties.

D was close to his dadi, as youngest grandchildren often are to their grandparents. He had a hard time being away from his family and the close knit world of small town Rajasthan. Those days we didn’t have phones, so communication was conducted by letter. One day D received a letter from his grandmother – probably written by someone else, since she was illiterate – asking him to come home as soon as possible.

D left immediately, suspecting the worst. When he reached home, D was surprised when dadi greeted him at the door, looking as fit as an eighty seven year old could look. The house was clearly in disarray. A tent was hoisted in the backyard with provisions for cooking and serving guests. Family members, retainers and laborers were going in and out, as if in preparation for a large event.

D asked his dadi if a special event was being planned. Dadi replied nonchalantly “yes, it’s my going away party. I have decided to die.” D, understandably, was a little taken aback. Dadi explained herself while he stood in front of her with his pupils dilated.

She said:

I have lived a long life. I have raised many children and grandchildren. My family is well respected in this town. By God’s grace, I am still healthy and strong. I am not a burden on anyone, but that could change anytime at my age. I want to leave this world while I am still loved by the people around me.

I am throwing this feast as a mark of my going away. The house, the farmland and all my valuables have all been apportioned among my children. I know it’s time for me to go.

D was taken aback by dadi’s declaration but something in him understood her rationale. He threw himself into the preparations for the feast. The day of the feast, dadi wore her best sari and decked herself in her wedding jewelry. She greeted every guest individually as they came into the tent. Everyone had a wonderful time; there was no trace of morbidity or sniggering. After the feast, the family met in the house to discuss the division of property. D went back to college. A week later, dadi passed away in her sleep.

Limits to Wellbeing

What makes a person believe that they have lived long enough? Can we live without burdening others, both as individuals and as a species? How can the good life end with a good death? These are some of the questions raised by dadi’s story.

We know that wellbeing is different from mere accumulation of money, fame and power. Beyond a point, these don’t add to our wellbeing. It’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to decry the accumulation of wealth. The sharing economy would have us believe that true flourishing lies in good health, deep human relations, communion with nature and satisfying work.

However, all these ideas about “soft currency” sidestep the primal fear of death. Human beings are conscious of their mortality. A time comes in every one’s life when they actively think about their own absence. Consider the profession most concerned with wellbeing, the medical profession. It has two main concerns: returning the body to it’s homeostatic condition after an illness or injury and the prevention of death. We have developed an intricate system of acute care so that we don’t die on the street when run over by a car or die of infections. From vaccines to emergency care, much of the miracle of modern medicine is it’s success in preventing morbidity.

Citizens of the developed world have a tacit belief in the “right to immortality,” that human life must be prolonged under all circumstances. That tacit belief is seen in three institutionalized responses to the fear of death:

1. Prevention of morbidity – broadly, reducing the risk of death through accidents, infections and other illnesses.
2. Lifespan expansion: choices, technologies and institutions devoted to making us live an ever longer life.
3. Prolonged death: infrastructure devoted to extending the lives of those who have entered the dying process.

Can that be taken too far? Is the human right to life paramount?

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Uncategorized

Presearch

Photographer: Federico Pompei | Source: Unsplash

 

One of my favorite phrases these days is “adjacent possible,” coined by Stuart Kauffman while exploring the origins of biological complexity. It’s like moving one seat over in a movie theater so that another couple can also sit next to each other. Or Amazon muscling into the movie market after mastering the art of selling books. Or bacteria that used to gobble soap also discovering a taste for bees and causing the end of civilization. In other words, what isn’t real yet but can become so by making a plausible shift.

As they say in Kannada “solpa adjust maadi.”

Photographer: Adam Sherez | Source: Unsplash

 

Design makes the adjacent possible in the worlds of engineering and commerce and that, over time, leads to substantially new patterns of behavior. Consider how web pages were first designed to replicate the physical page but once scrolling became an accepted and intuitive gesture, designers started creating websites with infinite scrolling. Which can never happen in the physical world.

I find it revealing that the business world supports several professional classes – various types of designers, architects etc – that look for the adjacent possible as a matter of course. In contrast, academia has a very unprofessional approach to the adjacent. Not only is there no academic cadre of professional “knowledge designers,” the people tasked with doing research are rarely taught how to arrive at new research questions and ideas – neither too outlandish to be unacceptable nor too similar to be boring. There’s no knowledge studio in which more experienced researchers critique the creative ideas of students. Consider how research seminars critique the rigor of experimental design and test whether alternative hypotheses might explain a phenomenon. But there’s never a research seminar that subjects the ideas themselves to an evaluation of novelty.

What kind of innovation is it where the innovations aren’t systematically judged for their innovativeness?

Perhaps you think my emphasis on novelty is itself a sign of capitalist indoctrination. Who cares about novelty besides tenure seeking professors? School teachers aren’t expected to be novel, and aren’t they the most common face of knowledge? Yes and No. School teachers are the visible face of the industrial approach to knowledge, but as an institution, the profession of teaching isn’t really geared for the knowledge economy.

Meanwhile, the “higher knowledge” industries still pretend as if they are artisanal traditions. Which is why it’s possible for professors to rail against the evils of capitalism while belonging to organizations that are 75% adjunct, i.e., the profession with the largest percentage of precarious labor. We live in a knowledge society but we don’t have a universal class of knowledge professionals and we certainly lack the further distinction between knowledge designers and knowledge engineers.

Photographer: Sven Mieke | Source: Unsplash

 

What I am looking for is a new creative profession, comparable to architecture and design.

Every profession deemed universal is represented throughout society. Doctors ply their wares in rural clinics, small town hospitals and the Harvard Medical School. Lawyers occupy the White House every four years. Engineers and architects work for the department of transport, the local real estate contractor and Google. There’s a teacher in every village.

The only knowledge professionals we have are found in universities, where they’re typically called professors. Even there, professors aren’t certified as knowledge professionals but as bearers of some specialized body of knowledge. There’s nothing that makes a professor into a professor; there are only professors of history and chemistry. That’s strange, for lawyers can’t be lawyers without passing the bar, engineers need to be certified and teachers need a degree in education. We mark our respect for a profession by declaring a badge that certifies entry into that profession.

That certificate also universalizes the profession, so that it can take root in every nook and corner of modern society. You might say that a PhD is the certificate for professors. It’s partly true, but most PhD’s aren’t professors and will never be one. Most PhD’s leave the profession of professing, or worse, languish as adjunct faculty. If the certification is a signal of respectable livelihood, then a PhD is a very poor guarantee. Imagine the heartburn that would ensue if 70% of those with a law or medical degree had a position that paid close to minimum wage and no hope of getting a better job.Every startup has a CEO, a CTO and a COO. They don’t have CKOs. The ivory tower has prestige, but intellectually, it’s as much a ghetto as it’s a beacon.

In any case, a PhD is a certification of specialized knowledge, not of knowledge as such. A knowledge bearer should be closer to a philosopher, a practical philosopher, than a possessor of arcane information. Socrates thought his role was to be the midwife of wisdom. I believe that role is far more important today than it was in Athens in 399 BCE. We are deluged by information on the one hand and plagued by uncertainty about the future on the other. The information deluge and uncertainty aren’t unrelated; the world is changing quickly, which leads to more information — both signal and noise — and more uncertainty.

In times of knowledge scarcity, knowledge professions are gate keepers to access — which is why we have priesthoods and ivory towers. We have moved far from those times. Knowledge is no longer about access but about value: what trends are important and what are fads? What’s worth learning and why? In the future, every individual, every company and every society will rise or fall on the basis of its understanding of value. We need a new category of professionals who will act as weather vanes for the new winds that are blowing; people who understand data making and meaning making.

Photographer: Hal Gatewood | Source: Unsplash

 

Back to the adjacent possible. I have been thinking that what research needs is an adjacent possible I am going to call presearch, a design wing next to the engineering floor. I am inspired by initiatives such as the near future laboratory and the push towards “design fiction,” i.e., the creation of speculative documents and artifacts that don’t exist today but could exist in the near future. In other words, the adjacent possible of design.

I really enjoyed reading “Speculative Everything,” one of the founding documents of the design fiction movement. Its byline: “how to use design as a tool to create not only things but ideas, to speculate about possible futures.” As designers, the authors of Speculative Everything embody their ideas in artifacts, but there’s nothing stopping us from expanding that repertoire to imagine speculative theories and experiments and knowledge traditions, i.e., the full panoply of knowledge production. So let me end with a definition:

Presearch is the use of design as a tool to create ideas, theories and more generally, to prototype instruments of knowledge.

Which brings me to a final question:

What do we need to presearch? What are our most pressing knowledge needs?

Here’s an obvious one for me:

The primary task of presearch in the anthropocene is to figure out how to run the earth. Just as economics (more generally, political economy) arose as the discipline that inquired into the wealth and poverty of nations, we need a new discipline that inquires into the flourishing of the planet as a whole.

Like every good beginning, the governance of the earth starts with naming the task ahead. I have one: Geocracy.

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Uncategorized

Smelly Science

What do I smell?
Photographer: Tadeusz Lakota | Source: Unsplash

Philosophy has a vision bias. The Sanskrit name for philosophical activity, ‘Darsana’ means ‘vision.’ Intriguingly, across Indo-European cultures, knowledge at a distance is closely related to blindness. Homer was supposedly blind and the great war in the Mahabharata was relayed to a blind king by an assistant given divine vision for that very purpose. One might say long distance vision leads to short distance blindness.

Perhaps God is blind seeing as he has the longest of long distance visions. Would explain a lot.

Coming back to philosophy, consider the classic treatment of illusions where someone mistakes a rope for a snake or an iPhone for an Android. It’s a visual illusion that serves double duty as a metaphor for all of knowledge. When the Vedantins argue that all of our perception is like that, they are saying that every rope you seem to be seeing is Brahman in disguise, which is the only true predicate of our perceptions. In contrast, the enlightened being sees Brahman everywhere. A subtler (even more enlightened?) view might involve seeing the rope as Brahman while also seeing how it might seen as a rope if you aren’t enlightened.

Many scientific paradigm shifts have a rope and snake quality to them. For example — the most important scientific shift of all, the Copernican revolution, was about missing the heliocentric rope for a geocentric shake. Or several hundred years later, Einstein saw the relativistic rope being mistaken for the Newtonian snake and corrected our distance vision.

To cut a long story short, we have become good at mapping the errors of the visual system on to the furniture of the universe. Fantastic, but we are missing out on all the other senses. What happens to science if vision is replaced by other sensory modes?

Take smell for example. Let’s try to imagine an intellectual history in which smell replaces vision as the most important sense, which would have been the history of science if dogs ran labs. What would a paradigm shift look like in smelly science? What are the chances of a Canine Copernicus? It’s hard for me to imagine, let alone convince another person that my imagination is on the right track.

Dark purple to red to orange gradient
Photographer: Luke Chesser | Source: Unsplash

The first thing that strikes me is that smell doesn’t lend itself to the rope and the snake. Sure, I can mistake a sprayed on perfume for a flower, but is that an illusion of smell or is it a conceptual illusion that happens to be clothed in smell. For example, not every visual act of subterfuge is an illusion. I can fake your signature and withdraw money from your bank account but that isn’t a visual illusion is it? It’s a social illusion with a visual signature. Literally 🙂 What’s interesting about sight is that there are illusions internal to vision itself, where it feels like both the illusion and its removal are part of the inner workings of the sense organ. The rope looks like a snake but then reveals itself to be a rope when you peer closer.

What’s the counterpart in the realm of smells? I am not sure if there’s any. Or at least any for the human smeller; it’s quite possible that dogs have smelly ropes and smelly snakes. Part of the puzzle is that smell is fundamentally a continuous sense. While we are used to seeing the world in terms of discrete objects — ropes and snakes and cars and trees — smells shade off into each other, like colors. In fact, the phrase “furniture of the universe” is well suited for visual philosophy but doesn’t quite make as much sense as smelly science. Smells aren’t spatially localized in the way shapes are. The table in front of me ends abruptly at its edges. The smell from the cup of coffee on the table isn’t as digital — I can smell it well from a foot away but I can sense its aroma from across the room. Let’s say that I inverted the relationship between the visual object and its accompanying smell so that it was a cloud of coffee-smell with a cup in the middle. What kind of object is it? What will it be like to live one’s life by smelling things that way?

Anthias are pretty fish which school in large numbers over tropical coral reefs.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Smelly science will have to comfortable with much more ambiguity than visual science. Which might be a real problem for the doctrinaire (visual) scientist, for what is science without precision? But think about it another way: if deep sea fishes were scientists, they would have to be smelly scientists, since there’s no light at the bottom of the ocean. I bet they create a smellscape worth understanding and in order for us to do so, we too will have to recreate some of its imprecisions.

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The Skin of the World

A Philodendron climbs up the trunks of a Rubber tree, Ficus elastica.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

I am taking a step back from writing about contentious topics — authoritarian politics, climate change, approaching extinction and animal rights. Not for ever, but for a few weeks. It feels like every conversation about those topics increases the fear and anxiety of everyone in the room and tilts the scales in favor of those who traffic in fear and anxiety, i.e., the very people we should be opposing. Therefore silence until I learn how to talk about our common future with imagination.

That frees me to write about a much older problem:

Why does the tree look just so? What’s the nature of experience? Why does the world appear the way it does?

Thinking about such questions is a relief after disputations about democracy and capitalism, for they are purer questions, in both senses of that term, i.e.,

  1. Pure rather than applied in the sense of pure mathematics versus applied mathematics, so that one can consider it abstractly. A metaphysical problem.
  2. Pure rather than impure in the sense of being free of politics and therefore amenable to unbiased inquiry.

Unlike some other pure problems, this one is easy to understand. Some scientific questions take a lot of technical preparation — if you were to ask a layperson why gravity isn’t reconciled with quantum mechanics, they wouldn’t know where to begin. The nature of experience and the appearance of the world are at the other extreme of familiarity. Every single one of us has intimate acquaintance with the matter under discussion, and if you haven’t been corrupted by texts that question your basic instincts, your gut’s likely telling you:

There’s a world out there of which you’re a part; it exists whether you believe in it or not; sometimes it hits you on the head but mostly it helps you get what you want.

The world just is. We can take the world for granted. Even those who question the solidity of the world for a living — scientists, philosophers, priests and poets- still conduct their lives as if it’s just there. Even questioning the world assumes a stable reality, so we are left with this intriguing question:

How do we probe an entity that’s presupposed by the probe?

I don’t have an answer to that query and it’s not a question that can be addressed directly like a nutcracker approaching a nut. Instead, we need to circle the question like a mountain peak along a hundred different trails, picking up insights along the way and hoping that immersion in the problem enables a shift in perspective.

Which is what many have done over the centuries. In the Indic sphere, both Vedantic and Buddhist traditions pay a lot of attention to the nature of experience. Then there’s the modern philosophical school that calls itself Phenomenology with a capital P. I am inspired by bearded men East and West, but I also want to keep my distance. For one, these traditions tend to be anthropocentric while I want a method that works for Octopi as it does for people. The second is that I don’t want to be responsible for being “true” to these traditions — if a reading of some dead man is mistaken, so be it; what’s more important is whether that reading illuminates a problem we care about.

Photographer: K. Mitch Hodge | Source: Unsplash

The First Trail

Let’s start at the surface, the skin, which is both an organ and the organ. All of us have a skin. It’s the interface between the outside world and us, the spatial marker of things that are mostly me, even if some of those things are on the way out such as breath and excrement, and things that are mostly not me, even if some of those are on the way in — breath and food. Sensation also begins with the skin. Every sensory receptor we have is part of the skin. Some of these receptors are mechanical, others are photosensitive, but there’s nothing that comes into our minds that isn’t mediated by the skin.

But my skin isn’t alone in the world, for it is one surface among many. As you walk around a room, what do you perceive?

  • You see a view of the world that consists of surfaces arrayed in space.
  • You hear the vibrations of surfaces.
  • You touch the texture of surfaces.

And so on, I hope you get my point. We live in a layout of surfaces. The surfaces we perceive are not abstract geometric surfaces. These are physical surfaces, with texture and toughness. These surfaces also have solidity, which takes us towards their mass, but should be distinguished from it. From our organismic perspective, mass, temperature, shape etc don’t really exist. Those quantities are useful surrogates, but they are not really real.

The layout of the world is mediated by the skin. We don’t have access to the world except through the receptors in our skin. The topography of the world — its layout — is mapped on to the topography of the skin and then transformed.

Is the unity of the experience due to the continuity of the skin?

If so, without the skin, the world would be a bumbling buzzing confusion, but because the skin is continuous and because the different senses are naturally integrated in the skin and the registration on the skin proceeds naturally from one sense to another, we have a seed that helps integrate the world.

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Photographer: Mehendi Training Center | Source: Unsplash

Normally, we think of the brain as the mediator, the place where sensation is transformed into perception and cognition. That may be, though there are reasons to disbelieve such a simple story. But the point I am trying to make is that whatever the brain does, whether that’s information processing or just registration, is in the service of the skin. It’s the skin’s view of the world that’s important to us.

The most important consequence of the skin’s view of the world: we see the skin of the world, not its volume. It’s surfaces that matter, not the interior. No wonder we see and hear and touch surfaces while the volumes bounded by those surfaces are rather more mysterious entities. For example, looking at the person sitting across the table from me, I notice the succession of emotions fleeting across his face, but what is he really thinking? It seems as if my neighbor’s mind is hidden beneath the skin, his intentions opaque to the observer.

What if the most fundamental distinction of all was between skin and body?

Before heaven and earth, before idealism and materialism, is there a primordial distinction between skin and body? When I said earlier that our gut instinct is to trust the world out there, that trust is felt on the surface of our bodies. If I say the world is unreal and you take a stone and crack my head open with it to show how reality intrudes on my illusion, the demonstration assumes the bleeding skin is the boundary of the real interior.

Yet, all of virtual reality depends on that bleeding skin being successfully faked by the impact of a virtual stone. So what happens when that circle of trust is broken, where the skin is no longer an indicator of the underlying body? To put another way:

If “normal” reality assumes a tight link between the skin and the body, what happens when that link is severed?

And we come to a deep cut:

  1. Either the skin is separate from the body and one is no indicator of the other. I can transport myself from skin to skin without affecting the body. Or as the Buddhist might say, there’s no body at all and I am transported from one empty skin to another.
  2. Or, there’s a deep and intrinsic relationship between the skin and the body. I am trapped in one because I am trapped in the other.

Which one of the two is it?

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Navigating Higher Education

Note: this is the first post in a series that looks at how higher education needs to change in response to the wicked problems we face in the 21st century.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I think a lot about my daughter’s prospects. Her generation will inherit some of the greatest challenges that humanity has ever faced. Climate change. Economic turmoil. Flesh eating robots. OK, maybe not the third. Are we preparing her for these challenges? Is our system even capable of doing so? Where do we even look for an answer?

If you are like me, you think education is an important pathway to solving the world’s wicked problems. Education isn’t a panacea, but it sure creates opportunities for the enterprising and the diligent amongst us. As a student, I led a student group that funded primary schools in the most underprivileged areas of India. As a faculty, I have helped start several educational initiatives. When MOOCs and digital learning arrived on the scene, I jumped on their possibilities on day one.

Now I think my assumptions were flawed. Not because education can’t change the world, but because we don’t understand what education is and what it needs to be. Especially not for the problems that will dominate the news in the decades to come.

Audience

This post is the first in a series devoted to a systemic engagement with the future of learning. My main audience is the experienced professional — someone who’s been out of school for a decade or more; Who has seen first hand where their formal education helped them succeed and where it hindered their progress.

I believe this group is the most under-served market for higher education, both in its traditional and its digital avatars. If you are younger, you’re in school or considering going back for graduate school. If you’re older and retired, you can reawaken dormant interests, but what if you’re at the height of your capabilities and:

  • Want to keep abreast of emerging ideas and techniques but can’t go back to school?
  • See the potential for a new technology in your domain but don’t have the expertise?
  • Want to shift into a career that aligns your head and your heart? A career that makes the world a better place?

If so, there isn’t much for you out there. University career offices don’t care for alums ten years into their post-college lives. Online education platforms, like their physical ancestors, cater to the beginning student. I have met several professionals who want something different, but don’t know where to go. These notes are a response to that need.

Where are we today?

Higher education has come under severe criticism in the United States and elsewhere. The criticisms mostly fall under one of three camps:

  1. It’s too expensive, burdening students and their families with unsustainable debt.
  2. It’s not useful, i.e., not leading toward gainful employment.
  3. It’s not enough, an education that ends at 21 isn’t useful at 51.

There’s truth to all three. Surely college fees have outstripped inflation for most of the last three decades, but so has the lack of federal and state support for higher education. As for gainful employment, it’s not clear if increasing the number of STEM graduates will improve employment statistics. If anything, it might depress wages for those who have a STEM background. The fifty-one year old isn’t looking for the same education as the twenty-one year old. The system isn’t designed to educate older people.

What is to be done?

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Higher education keeps getting costlier and more and more people feel it’s not useful. Despite those problems, most people assume that the Harvards and MITs provide the right education; if only their teachings were available to everyone and any time.

Wasn’t that the premise behind the MOOC revolution?

The MOOC party claimed that streaming knowledge from the great institutions of higher learning will unleash the genius of underprivileged and/or remote students everywhere in the world. Several years into the revolution it’s clear that it has ended with a whimper. There have been many criticisms of the MOOC platforms, such as:

  1. Completion rates are low.
  2. They are only for the already rich and well-connected.
  3. Too focused on narrow skills.

Again, these are valid criticisms, but they miss a fundamental philosophical question:

What is the purpose of education?

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

There’s no general answer, but let me answer that question with a hypothetical 30–50 something person in mind. Someone trained in a discipline and with experience under their belt. For that person, the value of further education is to serve as a navigator, i.e.,

To reveal where the world is going, to give access to the tools and techniques that will help you get there and to (re)embed you in a community where that knowledge has value.

Does a MOOC help you navigate?

Answer: Only indirectly, if you skim through a hundred MOOCs you might get a sense for where the field is going.

For example, consider a hot new field such as data science. While a twenty something might consider training as a data scientist, a forty something is unlikely to do so. Yet, they need to understand how data driven techniques will change their work and where (or whom) they need to look to add that capability into their own workflows.

While MOOCs are available to the forty something, they don’t address her needs — they’re abstract presentations of general purpose material rather than the knowledge tied to contexts and circumstances that interest the older learner.

Situated Learning

The current state of digital education mimics the state of Artificial Intelligence in 1965. At that time, people thought when a computer gets smart, it will play chess better than grandmasters. Chess turned out to the easy problem; teaching computers how to see is by far the harder challenge.

Chess is an abstraction; it doesn’t depend on the shape of the pieces or the size of the board. Sight is the exact opposite — it depends entirely on the shape and size of objects.

Learning data science in graduate school is like the computer playing chess — it’s very useful, especially if it leads to high paying jobs — but it’s not the same as knowing how to apply those concepts in a newsroom or classroom. Instead of chess, the experienced learner needs the counterpart of the computer vision system, the techniques that will help them see their own world with new eyes.

Both the chess playing machine and the mechanical learner are throwbacks to an industrial era that continues to this day. That era will culminate with humans being replaced by machines (or worse, with humans becoming machines). We don’t want humans to become machines; we want machines to help augment our capacities. That can only happen when situated learning and digital technology come together.