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Money can’t buy me love

Cute piggy bank
Photographer: Fabian Blank | Source: Unsplash

Man is the measure of all things. So sayeth Protagoras, ancient scientist. If you’re the religious kind you might condemn Protagoras for idolatry, for only God has the measure of all things. Or if you’re William Blake, you might condemn Isaac Newton for succeeding at the task.

Newton By William Blake — The William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Before we get to Newton and Blake, let me make an important distinction between two kinds of measurements:

  1. Objective measurements. These are measurements of entities out there in the real world, where despite the possibility of error, there’s an underlying quantity being measured. My height is an example of an objective quantity; you will measure my height wrong if you have the wrong tape measure and I might add a couple of inches to it while creating a profile on a dating site, but we can all agree that there’s such a quantity as my height.
  2. Measurements of Exchange. Money is the best example. Let’s say I want to appear taller than I am and I go out to buy a pair of platform shoes. How much should you charge me? Should a man 5’4’’ pay the same amount of money to add 2’’ to his height as a 5’6′ tall man? If now, who should you charge more? Height’s objective, the increase in height is objective, but the money you charge for it isn’t objective. The measurement of exchange value is variable by design.

The measurement of objective quantities is closely tied to precision calculations and mechanization. I better measure the distance between my landing gear and the ground if I want my spaceship to land gently on the Moon’s surface instead of crashing into it. The flip side of precision is a dismissal of quantities that can’t be measured accurately.

Perhaps they don’t even exist!

In contrast, the measurement of exchangeable commodities is tied to assessments of value. Why does gold cost more than iron? Objective explanations only go so far. Is it scarcity? Not really, because my childhood drawings are scarcer and I bet you won’t pay any money for them. Is it because gold is hyper malleable and a good conductor? I am sure that plays a role, but advertisements have beautiful women wearing gold necklaces rather than highlighting the conductance of gold wires.

Exchange value can never be reduced to objective quantity.

That’s my reading of Blake, i.e., that measurement leaves out what’s most important about us. Perhaps, but there’s good reason to try measuring the most obdurate phenomena.

Most people living in modern societies work for money. How to value their labor? It’s a real challenge, for strictly speaking, we are trying to compare apples and oranges. Material inputs and labor go in and widgets come out. Labor is nothing like the widgets it produces, but yet there must be a way to turn widget numbers into wages for labor, for without that conversion, we have no way of keeping the factory going.

If our factory is a cooperative, we might say:

  • we produced X widgets that are sold at Y dollars each;
  • it cost us Z dollars to buy the inputs and maintain the equipment and we need to carry another W dollars for future investments, insurance etc.
  • Since there are A of us, we will each get (XY-Z-W)/A.

That seems relatively easy. But what if there’s one owner and A employees. How much should the owner get and how much should the employees? Should they be paid a fixed salary and let all the profits go to the owner? If so, why?

What’s the value of labor? What’s a fair wage? We don’t have unique answers to these questions because the measurement of exchange can’t be reduced to the measurement of objective quantities. However, we have to live with an uneasy merger of facts and values because the alternative is even worse. To understand why, let’s explore that age old question:

Can money buy me love?

One of the universal myths of the modern world is that subjective qualities, emotions in particular, are immeasurable in both senses of that term, i.e.,

  • there’s no objective way of getting to my feelings and
  • there’s no price to be put on them.

In fact, so powerful is the myth that love’s immeasurable that it sparked one of the most successful pricing campaigns in the history of modern advertising. Some relationships and feelings are beyond the reach of the accountant, but for everything else there’s:

The immeasurability of love reveals itself in all three sectors of human relationships:

  • Romantic love
  • Family relations
  • Friendships

Why does A fall in love with B? The myth comes with an answer: chemistry, “love at first sight.” Of course there’s something special about catching the eye of a person across a room and feeling a knot in your stomach when they look back with doubled energy. But who is likely to evoke that zing in the first place?

If you take romance novels as your guide, the answer is pretty clear: love on first sight is a lot easier if the other person is a born aristocrat with charming manners and the flawless skin that comes from a worry-less life. Money may not be able to buy love directly, but it sure tilts the scales in favor of the rich. In that, love is a lot like “merit,” where entrance to Ivy League schools is theoretically open to the deserving of all races and classes but in practice favors the graduates of Phillips Andover.

The romance of familial relations is equally suspect. A mother’s love is supposed to be infinite and unquantifiable but in practice it means that women labor long hours to keep a family going without compensation. How can you charge for the immeasurable?

Even friendship isn’t immune to the pressures of the market, for we treat friends differently based on how much money they have. There’s a reason why Drona was deeply offended when Drupada treated him like a servant. It’s much easier to raise money for my next startup if I am rich and my friends are rich and they know even richer people.

My point is that the lack of measurement often leads to injustices of value. Every parent of multiple children has been told at some point or the other that he loves child A more than child B. But what does more love mean exactly? If I say I love my children equally and you (i.e., one of my children) say that I love Jimmy more than I love you, how exactly can we resolve this problem? There isn’t a final answer to this question, but we can all agree it’s unfair if I will 80% of my wealth to Jimmy and only 20% to you for no other reason than I love him more.

Photographer: George Pagan III | Source: Unsplash

All of this would be moot if love simply can’t be measured, but this is where abstract philosophical and scientific questions about the theory of measurement meet changing technological resources.

Until recently, emotion measurement was a rare affair. I knew how you were feeling only when I saw you or heard about you from a common friend. Aggregate data didn’t exist — there was no way even the richest advertiser could have gauged the feelings of her customers on a daily basis.

All of that has changed dramatically. We reveal our emotional states to platform companies and governments several times a day, perhaps several hundred times a day. As a consequence, they have excellent models of our emotional state and wellbeing. Instagram and Snapchat probably knows when my daughter is going to have a fight with one of her friends even before she does.

That degree of access to emotions is clearly worth money and it’s reflected in the valuation of Facebook and other corporations. In fact, whether money buys love or not, it’s been able to buy hate at scale — and the electoral fortunes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi are testament to that success. The only way to counter that wave of hatred is if the measurement of love expands at a faster rate than the measurement of anger and if emotions more generally are made into a public resource rather than the property of private corporations.

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Introducing the Animal Left

Every year about a hundred billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Closer to home, India has become a major exporter of beef, mutton, poultry, and dairy by-products, despite political posturing about the welfare of animals. These animals are often reared in torturous conditions, transported to slaughter in alarming ways and killed in great pain. In addition, the use of animals in medical and cosmetic experimentation continues unabated with weak punitive measures, and deep cultural apathy. We would imagine that progressive groups would stand up against the suffering of fellow beings but for the most part the left hasn’t adopted animal rights as one of its signature demands. The lack of concern for nonhuman animals is especially true among the left in India, with our deep unease over the caste and communal dynamics of Hindutva-inflected “animal protection.” At Animal Left we aim to challenge the omission of animal rights from the progressive agenda, believing that it is morally, politically, and logically imperative to disentangle real questions of animal rights from the violent and purely symbolic politics of right-wing “cow protection.” In doing so we also want to create a unique left narrative on animal rights that recognizes co-suffering and oppression across human and non-human animals. In our understanding, the left, broadly construed, adopts three interrelated positions:

  1. Knowledge of the material and social processes that transform human-human and human-nonhuman relations.
  2. A keen eye for injustices that are created or sustained by these transformations.
  3. A political agenda for resisting these injustices.

It’s through these linked understandings that the left has argued for the dignity and equality of all human beings irrespective of gender, race, caste, sexuality or disability. That has led to striking advances across the world, making our mark on government policy, international agreements and checks on the behaviour of corporations. For example, the Indian constitution enshrines (some of) these principles.

More recently, the left has expanded its focus to include climate change — and ecology more broadly — as a key concern. In fact, the traditional concerns of the left have greatly benefited the climate movement as a whole, helping shift the focus away from a numerical assessment of emissions to the recognition that climate change is deeply intertwined with capitalist modes of production and exacerbates existing injustices since it threatens marginalised communities more than it does the wealthy. In return, the introduction of climate concerns has energised the left in many parts of the world, brought young people into the struggle and created ambitious policy agendas such as the Green New Deal in the United States.

The latest IPCC report on climate change and land makes it clear that reducing meat consumption is essential. But as the world moves one way, the Government of India sees the expansion of animal agriculture as a way to absolve their own responsibility towards sustainable livelihoods for farmers, and is working to move out of traditional plant agriculture altogether. The role of animals in the agrarian economy can’t be divorced from other material transformations affecting farmers, consumers of food, and residents of vulnerable landscapes across South Asia. For these reasons, we believe that the concerns of the traditional left and those of the animal rights movements are converging, both at the level of desirable actions (eating less meat, for example) and the realization that the crisis has arisen out of an interrelated series of causes.

That mutual strengthening of solidarity should be welcomed by those who work on animal rights and the traditional left in India and elsewhere. Industrialised factory farming — the colloquial term for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) — of animals has long been increasing in India. These farms cause immense suffering to animals, but they are also capitalist enterprises which take a lot of investment and consume more than their share of land, water and feedstock; they also leave a trail of environmental pollutants and poor labour safety. Those who work in the exploitative conditions of mega-slaughterhouses are likely to be poorer, lower-caste, and Muslim — not because these are “traditional” occupations, but because these are economically vulnerable populations. The ending of factory farming should be on every progressive’s plate.

Progressives should also look beyond the nexus of animals and meat, to consider animals in sport and entertainment; animals in experimentation; and the role of increased dairy consumption by upper-caste Indians in the exploitation of the “mother cow.”

For these reasons, we believe that it’s time for the left to embrace the rights of animals and create a new Animal Left. By bringing our moral concerns and intellectual tools together, we can create a more effective movement for justice at a time when there’s increasing pressure to conform to old hierarchies. In contrast, we believe in an intersectional movement for justice for all beings that transcends caste, gender, race, community and species.

We also recognize that India has a long tradition of concern for nonhuman beings, that Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions have long recognised the continuity between human and nonhuman beings and that these traditions of nonviolence influenced justice struggles in modern India, including the independence struggle. In short, we don’t conflate left with the west.

The Animal Left blog is our attempt to bring those who care about animal rights in conversation with those of us who come from the political left. We hope to cover a gamut of issues:

  • The scientific basis of sentience,
  • The dignity of nonhuman animals,
  • The gendered, sexualised and casted lives of animals in India and elsewhere,
  • Legal regimes that govern human and nonhuman lives, and policy frameworks to address and transform these regimes in progressive directions,
  • Platform for law and policy discussion on animal cruelty across the spectrum of companion and working animals.
  • Philosophical and religious traditions from India and elsewhere that might inform our understanding of human-nonhuman relations.

We invite participation — both constructive and critical — from those who share our concerns. We take a creative approach to the topic — we welcome artistic, literary and grassroots perspectives alongside academic and analytic analyses. This is just the beginning of a long journey towards the liberation of all beings.


Originally published at https://www.animaleft.com on August 14, 2019.

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The Great Game 2.0

Photographer: Anagha Varrier | Source: Unsplash

After the recent actions in Kashmir, I have read numerous comparisons between India and Israel, of turning Kashmir into Gaza. Not surprising, since both the Indian and the international left have historical sympathies with the Palestinian struggle and perhaps more importantly, know the Middle East well because of their personal and intellectual networks. I think they are looking for explanations where the light is shining rather than searching for the truth.

Look East towards China instead.

Photographer: simon sun | Source: Unsplash

What China is doing in Xinjiang is the model, both as explicit inspiration and for structural reasons. Let’s start with the latter — there are approximately as many Palestinians as Israeli Jews, i.e., a ratio of 1:1. The ration of Indians to Kashmiris is more like 1:200, similar to the ratio of Uighurs to Han Chinese. Demographics is destiny. And of course the Chinese system of surveillance and “re-education” has got to be an inspiration.

China’s occupation of Xinjiang is remarkably successful when looked at from the perspective of the nation state — blanket surveillance, neutralization of any capacity for mobilization, the use of overwhelming force with minimal lethal violence and so on. I can see the appeal to everyone else dealing with a wayward province.

16 Years
Photographer: Aidan Bartos | Source: Unsplash

The age of political violence by non-state actors is over, i.e., Islamic terrorism as a proxy strategy is done. Of course there will be attacks here and there and god forbid one of them gets hold of a nuclear weapon, but I don’t see these networks having international importance as they have for the last forty years. There are several reasons for the end of terror as a powerful force:

  • States are willing to be far more ferocious in their response than they were before. That newfound appetite for ruthlessness started with the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, continued with the end of the Arab Spring when Sisi came to power in Egypt and reached a new level in Syria and the Assad regime’s response to protest. Not yet the Mongol execution of every inhabitant of a city that resists, but much closer to that end of the spectrum than Kumbaya. The international system with the US at its head is much more willing to accept brutality.
  • Satellite based surveillance, monitoring of social networks and other forms of information warfare have made it much harder for non-state actors to organize. Just as the internet has centralized business power in the FAANG companies, it has greatly strengthened the state’s hand vis-a-vis its challengers.
  • Non-state violence thrives on attention and publicity; unfortunately, state actors are better at spectacle than they are. Trump and Modi suck attention out of the oxygen of terror. Isn’t that what happened with Pulwama, where the narrative of a traditional terror strike was replaced with the narrative of a nation state’s response? The media war is being won by nation states.

For these reasons, I believe the era that started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is ending with the US withdrawal from that country.

With the end of non-state political formations, we are back to great power rivalry. India rightly sees the “solution” of the Kashmir problem, or at least its containment, as table stakes for being considered a great power. After all, which great power will accept checks on its authority within its boundaries?

Seen this way, the bifurcation of J&K into two union territories is a clever move. It separates India’s problems with China from India’s problems with Pakistan and severely constrains Pakistan’s room for maneuver, since both of its patrons, i.e., the US and China are unlikely to support too much adventurism. The US wants an end to the Afghan crisis and China can hardly object to an Indian move that’s inspired by its own actions in Xinjiang. Who knows, India might even let the Taliban take power in Afghanistan as a face saving measure for Pakistan; or the converse, India may not be able to prevent the Taliban’s rise to power and the Kashmir occupation might be its tacit deal with the US (and Pakistan?) for not being invited to the Afghan table.

As part of asserting its great power status, India will want to consolidate its “one nation, one market, one law” narrative. There’s no guarantee that any of these has even the semblance of democracy; we have entered a zone in which the old rules don’t apply and new forms of democratic engagement are necessary to prevent the state-market combo from bulldozing all opposition.

Photographer: riya rohewal | Source: Unsplash

This is how I read the tacit, if not explicit, consensus within the Indian political elite, the bureaucracy, big business and the security establishment.

The great game has restarted. Nation states are unstable and deeply insecure creatures and we are approaching an era of conflict between them. The last time around, the great game ended in WWI and WWII. This time we have nuclear weapons and climate change.

Fasten your seat belts.

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The State of Algorithmic Politics

Emotional Truths

Why is it that at a time when the future of human existence is threatened by climate change, the future of work is threatened by automation and the future of every other living being is threatened by humans, why is it that we are increasingly electing regimes guaranteed to destroy life as we know it?

That question haunts me everyday.

There’s a frightening answer: that without careful design and collective struggle, our default state might be to increase authoritarianism, clamp down on dissent and erect new borders while strengthening existing ones. That technology, which was supposed to make our lives better, is making it worse.

I have no doubt that technology plays a big role in making the authoritarian camp stronger; the romantic in me thinks it will also play a big role in imagining a better future, but the current moment belongs to those fighting for their share of a shrinking pie. One way they’re able to take more than their fair share is by drawing our attention away from where it needs to be, shifting our gaze towards powerless victims instead of tackling the problems created by the powerful.

Nevertheless, the authoritarians get it right in one respect: they articulate a world in crisis better than anyone else; their atmosphere of fear is more believable than the liberal intelligentsia’s vague pronouncements of universal humanity. It’s only when that fear congeals in the form of immigrants and traitors rather than corporations and the 1% that a falsehood is perpetrated. Whatever its problems with facts and reason, the right wing understands emotion better than progressives.

Not all progressives though — the school kids who are on strike saying “You will die of old age, we will die of climate change” are getting the emotional register exactly right, which is why their movement is spreading without having any money or power or central leadership. Unfortunately, having money and power makes it easier to spread your emotional register; recent events in India being a good case in point.

When we visited Utö, the most outer island of this beautiful archipelago in the place we call Finland, I allowed myself to be guided by the incredible energy of  Inca, the daughter of the family we were visiting there. She took me to a series of abandoned bunkers from the times this island was a military strategic point and there I found this graffiti that represent very well  the feeling of all that has to do with military, war, conflict and drama. With love from Korpo.
Photographer: Aarón Blanco Tejedor | Source: Unsplash

Algorithmic Politics in Kashmir

If you’re from my part of the world, you know that the Modi regime has changed the equation between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the central government. I don’t have anything original to say about the politics of the event — read Srinath’s piece if you want a deeply informed overview — but instead, I want to direct your attention at how the event was managed.

The press has been talking about how the announcement was preceded by the cancelling of the Amarnath yatra, airlifting thousands of soldiers and the house arrest of the entire Kashmiri political class. All true, but they miss an important element whose consequences might be even longer term — the entire internet was shut down in Kashmir and remains so. You can’t Whatsapp your friends, you can’t send them videos on Tik-Tok or Snapchat, you can’t use messaging to organize protests or rallies.

In case you didn’t know it, India leads the world in temporary shut-downs of the internet. From local bureaucrats to the Home minister, government officials cite public security as a reason to suspend what’s become the normal mode of communication for most Indians. Since the medium is the message, the politics of free speech is the politics of the internet. The shut down of whatsapp, however temporary, is how the government controls people’s minds.

Moreover, the shut down is temporary by design.

Attention being the scarcest resource today, the way to control our minds is done by controlling our attention, whether by making us focus where businesses and governments want us to (let’s call those white holes) or by creating black holes of information where they would rather we didn’t look. There’s absolutely no advantage in making that black hole permanent because attention is fickle and it keeps shifting from one spectacle to the next. Smart governments and businesses are constantly creating and destroying white holes and black holes. From managing expectations about jobs to creating new images about anti-nationals, every modern state is in the business of constant focusing and refocusing of our attentions. Incidentally, the Chinese version of attention management during crises is subtler than the Indian version — instead of shutting down the internet, they have hundreds of thousands of people whose only job is to deflect attention away from the crisis by flooding social media and bulletin boards with innocuous posts.

The decision to shut down the internet in any district or state is an impromptu decision by some official who is handling many different pressures. Which is why I am skeptical of conspiracy based causal explanations: that there’s a hyper-intelligent cabal of scheming businessmen and politicians who are directing our minds as they see fit. Instead, I am more likely to believe that the rapid shifts of collective attention are systemic properties that can’t be ascribed to individual manipulators. The human visual system saccades every 300 milliseconds without any underlying motive or purpose. The winners at algorithmic politics are those who understand the inherently complex nature of the underlying system, just as the control systems in our brains that direct intentional visual search are built upon a layer of random saccadic movements.

In hindsight, it’s clear that print and broadcast media — newspapers, radio, TV etc — created new forms of democratic politics as well as new forms of authoritarianism. Why would it be any different with algorithmic media? Of course we are going to see new forms of politics — both the Arab spring and the Kashmir crisis are political responses to a new technological condition.

Question: Is resistance futile?

Answer: yes unless the treehuggers figure out how to capture and manage attention as well the treecutters, and in order to do so, they have to grasp how the attention economy differs from ideology and propaganda.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesseattle/32204594560/

Attention Management

Now I come to the central point of this essay: the algorithmic management of attention is substantially different from what we used to call propaganda, just as paying money to Google to rank highly on certain keywords is substantially different from launching a traditional print ad campaign. Yes, both are forms of advertising but there’s a world of difference in how the ads are placed in front of a customer and what the customer does with the ad when they are attracted to its message. Similarly, political advertising is also much more targeted today. Propaganda identifies a uniform, faceless threat. It’s the Jew, the communist, the Muslim. In contrast, the ideal algorithmic violence is personalized, localized and context dependent.

It’s about identifying a specific yet random individual who carries an unwanted identity. Specific in that it’s a particular black or Muslim or LGBT person who happens to be in your vicinity. Random in that the perpetrators of violence couldn’t care less about that person’s individuality as long as they belong to a certain target identity. Specific yet random is the logic of “personalized” attention in the age of machine learning. When someone says personalized medicine is coming, they don’t mean that doctors will learn who you are as an individual and prescribe medicines accordingly. Instead, they will use patterns of genetic data, dietary habits and life history to prescribe medicines. That personalization will work reasonably well for another person whose genetic patterns are close enough to yours.

Similarly when Google shows ads based on your browsing history, it uses your statistical footprint as the input to its predictive engine, without caring whether you are a real person or a robot. The statistical person is often a reasonable proxy to a living, breathing individual but important principles are lost in translation.

Specific randomness is the underlying model of the gig economy. When I order a cab on Ola or Uber, I am getting a specific driver, an actual human being who sits behind the wheel. At the same time, I don’t care much about him besides the fact that he’s a qualified and licensed driver and that the car is reasonably neat and functional. He can be replaced by another person without any loss of customer experience. To the extent that the gig economy is the future of employment, specific randomness tells us where jobs are going until they are all replaced by robots.

In any case, the widespread availability of the specific randomness is impacting politics as much as business. That’s one reason why we are seeing new forms of political violence emerge as a result of algorithmic media — in India, we see it in the eclipse of the riot and the emergence of lynching as the chief instrument of street violence. In the US you’re seeing increasing numbers of mass shootings. In both cases, it’s as if a machine learning algorithm infected the brain of a lynch mob or a gun toting avenger and turned his mind to violence. In propaganda there’s a strong connection between the official party line and the violence on the street. Intellectuals were murdered during the cultural revolution because Mao said so. In contrast, there’s a tenuous link — if any — between the pronouncements of Trump and the shooter in the street.

We don’t know how deep learning algorithms identify the features that make them good at identifying cats in videos. As Judea Pearl keeps saying, causality is a hard problem for the AI that drives machine learning. I believe that understanding the causes of spontaneous violence is an equally hard problem for algorithmic politics. For the same reasons. And it’s obviously more important to understand the emotional causes of algorithmic politics than the causal structure of cat videos.

Google doesn’t care whether they understand the causality behind their models as they are predictive. Every once in a while their algorithms will make obvious mistakes or contribute to racial profiling but that’s the price of doing business. In contrast, progressive politics of any kind will have to care about real people (or real animals if you’re an animal rights person like me) and therefore, questions of causality are crucial.

Let me end this essay with a provocative possibility: that the future of politics isn’t between left and right, but between predictors and explainers. Predictors use data to drive people’s emotions in the direction they want without care about who is hurt and how. Their target is the specific yet random person. Predictive politics is the political equivalent of Google’s ad words. In contrast, explainers care about the actual people behind their statistical signatures. Progressive politics should privilege explanations over predictions. It’s harder in every sense of that term.

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Why is Liberalism in Trouble?

New York lights
Photographer: Pedro Lastra | Source: Unsplash

One of the characteristics of the modern era is the importance of politics. We expect it to give us freedom and equality, prosperity and progress, and in a dystopian mode, fear and destruction. It’s a heavy lift, combining the job of religion and community with generous servings of science and technology.

Which is why I am skeptical when someone says we have found the answer to the question of politics. It’s like a physicist saying they found the theory of everything and now it’s only a matter of dotting the i’s. Chances are they overlooked an important parameter, a fact when discovered will overturn whatever conception we have about the universe.

Fukuyama and his fans thought that liberalism was the final political state of humanity, that political liberalism combined with economic globalization will make us all converge towards some form of market democracy the world over.

Physical reality is somewhat harmless. The universe might end in a heat death in a few billion years but it’s not going to prevent my startup from going public or save me from the barbarian hordes when they come knocking. Political reality is more immediate; I better cover my ass or be ready to be bitten if I am not looking out. That what happened with liberalism didn’t it?

One of the great puzzles of modern times is how liberalism went from unquestioned success to abject failure in the span of thirty years. The first George Bush was the president of the US when the Soviet Union disbanded; a Republican but liberal by today’s standards. He was soon followed by Bill Clinton, a liberal (though conservative by most objective metrics) who had two terms and after the second Bush — also a liberal by today’s standards — two more terms of Obama, the great hope of the world. Whatever their other faults — and there were many — they were not illiberals in the way Putin, Trump, Xi, Modi, Bolsonaro and Erdogan are.

How did the liberal empire fail so fast?

If this was a rhetorical question, there would a simple answer along the lines of:

The liberals turned out to be imperialists ruining Russia as it transitioned away from Communism, invading Afghanistan and Iraq and fomenting civil wars in Libya and Syria. In their infinite wisdom they sucked money away from the poor and the middle classes and handed it over to the rich, whose greed caused a depression. The liberals are no liberals.

My political sympathies are such that I want to believe that answer. However, I am not asking a rhetorical question. I am not going to string you along for a few hundred words and spring an answer at the end. I know that I don’t know. I also doubt there’s a simple answer.

Political Religion

What I can confidently say is that politics has won even if liberal politics has lost. Every aspect of our lives is visible to the political gaze; from one’s love for animals to hate for strangers, to be is to be political. What’s the answer to any problem: make it political. You want to combat climate change: fight for a green new deal. You want to keep immigrants out: pass legislation to build a wall. Right or left, everyone agrees the most important venue for success is the political arena.

To be is to be political

Religion is the biggest loser. Intellectuals complain about the ongoing struggle between science and religion over truth, but that’s a sideshow. A few people get bent out of shape if you tell them they are bipedal apes but for the most part, everyone pops the same pills as you and I do and forward their alternate facts on the same social networks.

Politics has swallowed religion

I can’t speak with assurance about other religious traditions, but based on my limited understanding, a substantial chunk of Hinduism has been reduced (or is it transformed?) to a political ideology: Hindutva. It’s not that Hindutva Hindus don’t go to temples or they have stopped celebrating festivals. They might do both with even more fervor than their non-Hindutva counterparts, but those rituals are now part of their political identity. That’s why festivals are loudly celebrated in public.

Shubhi Shrivastava from Pune, India — Palkhi — 2012,CC BY 2.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41696679 द्वारे

Contrary to the liberal belief that religion is entering the political sphere, what’s happened is the exact opposite: politics has colonized religion which has to speak the language of politics in order to thrive. Consider this tweet from Pakistan:

I bet there’s an identical bhakt tweet with Muslims replacing Hindus as the oppressed minority. My social media feeds are full of posts that carry the same message:

  1. Liberals think so and so.
  2. But look at how they butcher my religion/ look how they underestimate my generosity.
  3. Liberals are shit.
  4. Vote for my guy.

With barely a gesture towards the faith of the majority or the minority. Theological questions are secondary to this debate; what’s important is scoring political points. In this scheme, religion is just another factory of political identity, competing with caste, region and class for attention.

How much more secular can we get?

Liberal troubles

Most of the illiberal heroes wear the the cloak of religion. Putin: Russian Orthodox; Bolsonaro: Evangelical Christianity; Modi: Hinduism; Erdogan: Sunni Islam. Xi can’t profess a religion since he’s still nominally communist and Trump is Trump but they are exceptions rather than the rule.

What’s clear is that religion is central to illiberal identity politics. I want to understand why. Putin gives us a clue:

The Russian leader detects a shift in the political balance of power from traditional western liberalism to national populism, fuelled by public resentment about immigration, multiculturalism and secular values at the expense of religion.

The crucial phrase in this passage is “fuelled by public resentment.” “Public” is a political category — there’s no public without a nation or some other political formation. The illiberal hero Putin recognizes that the real battle is over the hearts and heads of the public, with religion playing a role today but that’s a strategic rather than a principled stance. His Chinese counterpart can’t use religion so he doubles down on nationalism instead.

politics is a debate about who a) the public is, b) what it wants and c) who gets to shape those wants.

In the liberal imagination, the public is all of humanity with some concession to national boundaries, its wants are primarily material and those wants are best shaped by market forces.

It turns out the liberal imagination is both too small and too big.

Too small because it excludes the entirety of the nonhuman world, and the rising oceans are registering their complaint. Too big because the identities it seeks to erase or subsume — religion and nation in particular — aren’t amenable to erasure. Both are systemic failures: of underestimating the external complexity of our dependence on the nonhuman world and underestimating the internal complexity of the dynamics of social systems.

That poverty of the imagination gives us an entry into understanding the liberal’s predicament: that liberalism is only one of many possible political visions and instead of settling down into comfortable adulthood, we are at the beginning of a great political debate, one in which carbon and oceans and trees and cows and tribes and faiths and markets will all compete for our allegiance.

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Every Utopia becomes a Dystopia

A Map of Utopia

I remember Reagan saying to Gorbachev “Tear down this wall.” Sorry, that’s fake news. Or at least white lie news. There’s no way I could have heard a live conference in West Berlin in 1987. It was probably past my bedtime in Delhi. I also have a memory of reading it in some magazine or the other. Perhaps Time. Perhaps Newsweek. Or because it was international news, I might have even read it in an Indian magazine like India Today. Frankly, since the news conference has posthumous fame — after the wall actually fell — there’s a good chance that all my memories are from reading about the event years later. When I say “I remember Reagan saying…,” I mean that the perceived importance of the event combined with my imagination has created a vivid “memory” of an event.

Well, most memory is like that. We don’t store the facts as is; instead we compress and transform every event to suit our needs. Selective understanding is crucial to living a sane life today, when we are deluged with information 24/7.

So what is a true memory?

There’s a famous thought experiment in epistemology called the Gettier paradox. Here’s a version I like:

Imagine you’re watching the 1984 Wimbledon finals with McEnroe facing Connors. Unfortunately, the broadcaster has lost contact with his TV van and doesn’t have a live feed anymore. Someone has a clever idea: why not broadcast a recording of the 1982 final instead which had the same cast?

So you’re watching the 1982 final while thinking you’re watching the 1984 final. In this version Connors wins. You go to sleep thinking Connors has won. Let’s say that Connors won the 1984 final (actually, McEnroe won in 1984; for the record, I supported Connors) and when you open the newspaper in the morning, you read the headline “Connors defeats McEnroe again.”

Your belief that Connors has won is a true belief despite being arrived at via a flawed route. Something is wrong when you can arrive at true beliefs through mistaken means isn’t it? Of course, Gettier’s thought experiment is a contrived situation. How likely is it that exactly the same type of prior event is available as a substitute for an actual one?

Tennis match twins might be hard to find but the use of memories as evidence is all too common — in testimony, in arguments between spouses, in story telling. When I tell the jury that I saw that man pull the trigger, what if never saw him shoot the victim. What if I am combining the knowledge that the man is a known hoodlum, the actual experience of shots being fired and reading headlines in the local newspaper?

Here’s the question: even if the man was the murderer, is my testimony valid? Further, if much testimony is confabulation, is any testimony valid? Especially in a murder trial where the jury is one color and the defendant another? And the final dystopian possibility — what if our social media feeds are full of posts that prime our memories to be one way rather than another. Can we trust our own minds?

I want to explore that internal dystopia in future essays. For example:

can technology help us certify memories? what would a process of certification look like? let’s say it takes the form of “bitcoin meets the brain.” Is that a techno-utopia or a techno-dystopia?

But we aren’t there yet. I am still a few decades behind that brave new world. But it does seem as if every utopia becomes a dystopia sooner or later. And then replaced by the next utopia. Let’s start with 1945. The second world war had just ended. Hundreds of millions dead, entire populations genocided, atom bombs burst.

The Soviet Flag over Berlin

Never again they said. Let’s form the United Nations and give a seat at the table to everyone. Some more prominently than others, i.e., those who were on the winning side of WWII. Decolonization started in earnest; India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, though that utopian moment happened in parallel with its own dystopian partition whose effects we feel to this day.

Anyway, the European powers who brought us two world wars lay defeated; even the victors. In their stead were two confident new powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Each had its theory of progress, of delivering material prosperity to its citizens and eventually the world. When he said energy will become too cheap to meter we believed him. Unfortunately, that energy can flow smoothly out of an outlet or burn the sky. Even more so if you have ten thousand of them. That’s what led to:

US and Soviet tanks face off

I can’t believe how close the US and the USSR brought us to the end of times, but we were lucky; the nuclear winter never came despite several close runs. And then Reagan came to Berlin and asked that the wall come down. And it did, a couple of years after he asked!

When I first came to the US in the nineties it was an unrivaled power. For twenty plus years, it ruled the world, the most powerful country that has ever existed. It expanded market capitalism everywhere, most prominently in China but also in India. Globalization as we know it is a product of American power. I owe the writing of this essay in a cafe in Bangalore to the fall of the Berlin wall. Yes Brandenburg Gate, No Foxconn.

When 9/11 happened, the headlines across the world were “we are all Americans.” While that headline was meant as a mark of solidarity, it was truer than we think. The world of startups and markets, of Hollywood storytelling. The possibility of progress backed by global networks of influence and immense military power — who doesn’t want that in some form?

Fukuyama’s flawed masterpiece

So much so that it became possible to write a book called “The End of History” which claimed that market driven liberal democracy is the final solution to the problem of political order. In this reading, human history is a series of attempts at prosperity that collapse in violence (Rome, Han China, Gupta India) and we continue to look for a solution that combines peace and power in a manner acceptable to most.

Fukuyama thought that solution was found in 1989. Let’s call it EOH (End of History) liberalism. That we can all ride into the sunset in our Cadillacs.

Who would have thought in 1992 that the most powerful nation in history would elect Trump in 2016, that EOH liberalism would be replaced by ethno-nationalism in every major country in the world? That it would be possible for Vladimir Putin to declare in a recent interview that liberalism has “become obsolete.”

Why did that happen? Is there an intrinsic tendency for a utopian bubble to be succeeded by a dystopian abyss?

I don’t know if there’s a universal principle of that kind, but I believe it’s important to understand the internal and external contradictions that are bursting the EOH bubble. Of which two are the most important:

  1. EOH Liberalism was deployed on networks — of goods and information — and these networks became instruments of concentration and inequality instead of decentralization and democratization that we were promised. Why?
  2. EOH Liberalism hastened the exploitation of the nonhuman world that supports all human life and economic activity. If I may say so, it is a UX designed for easy extraction.

Could we have predicted the two? Yes, and many did, but they weren’t heard loudly enough. Perhaps because we didn’t want to hear what they were saying or perhaps because they weren’t saying it the right way.

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The Collector of Dystopias

Photographer: Pawel Janiak | Source: Unsplash

Star Wars and Scotch Tape

I am a technophile; always was and always will be. It doesn’t prevent me from agreeing with Gandhi’s critique of technological modernity. Instead, we can have fun asking such questions as: What would a charkha computer look like? One thought:

Ok, I am not sure the great man will approve of typing away on a Mac, but what would a charkha computer look like? What problems will it solve? Is it impossible to imagine computing as an instrument of civil disobedience?

I would think not.

Technophilia is usually caught in childhood and comes in at least two forms. There are those who blow up their parents’ basement after mixing the wrong chemicals and there are those who blow up galaxies after reading the wrong science fiction novel. James Watts is an icon of the first. Karl Marx of the second.

Aside: What’s with the “hand in the jacket pocket” pose? Is it a Napoleonic thing or was there some history of posing that way predating the French revolution?

I am definitely in the avengers of the galaxy camp but the mad scientist has its appeal too. Another way of thinking about these two lineages is through two ancient technologies: writing and pottery. Those who want to write the world go the Star Trek route and those who want to shape the world invent a better mousetrap.

Information technology merges the two: it allows us to write and shape the world. We still don’t know what that means, which is why our imagination of computing oscillates between two poles:

  1. The foundations of computing (say via Turing Machines) which boils computing down to the simplest form of writing (0s and 1s).
  2. Robotics, with the ongoing fear of super-intelligent beings that will take our jobs first and then eat our brains next.

One is minimal, the other maximal. There’s got to be a hybrid imagination, a better abstraction that’s about pointing and pushing. The simultaneous reinvention of writing and making will be the biggest thing ever if we can survive the century.

Enough with the good news. One of the best things about technophilia is how it makes bad news enjoyable.

Many Dystopias

The growth of technology also expands the means through which it imagines its own demise. We can:

  1. die because of nuclear weapons, climate change, bird flu, flesh eating viruses, nano-ooze, alien invasions, asteroid impacts. Or,
  2. we can be enslaved by the matrix, aliens (once again, there’s a pattern here), robots, mutant turtles.

Compared to the past, when the world ended (but how?) in a flash followed by a quick day of judgment, we have a million ways in which things can go wrong. Just as there’s an app for every need, there’s a dystopia for every distress. This week has been a good one for dystopians. Trump almost started a war with Iran after they shot down a $200 million drone that was designed to avoid the very missiles that shot it down.

Oops.

We are lucky that the vehicle was unmanned, unlike the U2 plane that was shot down with Gary Powers in it. Or the Indian version with Wing Commander Abhinandan. Seeing as no one was killed in this game of chicken, Trump cited the disproportionate loss of life while countermanding the order to attack Iran. Can you imagine the consequences of an American spy plane shot down over Iran with actual people in it?

Credits: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds

Computational Camouflage

While the current drawdown is a cause for celebration, it doesn’t take much reflection to question the drone version of war. I can think of several dystopian scenarios off the top of my head:

Let’s say Iran recommences its nuclear weapons program and a drone is dispatched to monitor the nuclear sites. Chances are it has a computer vision program designed to detect differences on the ground. Sooner or later, the Iranians will learn how to confuse those systems. Black box attacks against neural networks are remarkably easy, i.e., image modifications that don’t look any different to us but makes the neural network think a cat is guacamole.

So what happens when a nuclear weapons plant is mis-recognized as a field of daffodils? Doh! That’s what a human operator is for. If the drone finds petals where it’s looking for plutonium it can route the feed to a bank of human operators in California (can’t outsource that tech support problem, can you?). But human operators aren’t that hard to fool either. What’s preventing the Iranians from creating a doubly camouflaged plant — one that looks like a petroleum refinery to humans and a field of flowers to a drone?

Easy peasy: any site that looks like flowers to one eye and petrol to the other is fake. Whatever else it might be, it’s not what it seems. Unfortunately, going from what it’s not to what it is is a hard problem. We launched our $200 million toy with a question: is it a uranium enrichment facility? Is it? Undercutting the human-drone nexus casts doubt on the entire surveillance enterprise.

That’s the whole point of fake news isn’t it?

The long term effect of gaslighting isn’t to replace belief A (it’s a field of flowers) with belief B (it’s a uranium refinery) but to overwhelm our belief generating capacity. Which can be replaced by the emotions — usually negative — your favorite propagandist wants you to experience.

The world isn’t as it seems

Photographer: Mikhail Vasilyev | Source: Unsplash

What’s the lesson here — that the world isn’t as it seems? If so, it’s a tired lesson, since the gap between appearance and reality is one of the oldest puzzles in philosophy. Every culture I know has a version of that problem.

No, what’s new isn’t the wholesale version of appearance and reality in which we are either trapped in the matrix or we are completely free, but a retail version, in which one corner of our mental field is taken over by appearance but the rest is still reality.

When one spot on the screen is either a field of flowers or a petroleum refinery or a uranium refinery and it’s surrounded by people going about their usual lives -farming, selling soap or subprime loans — that’s when we reach peak confusion. If the whole thing is a sham, we don’t have to worry since there’s nothing to ground our beliefs. If the whole thing is real, we don’t have to worry since our beliefs are well grounded. In contrast, our truth-seeking capacities are overwhelmed when every act, every decision and every message is a potential fake.

Information surrounds us at every turn; therefore, attention is the scarcest resource. When attention is potentially fooled at every step, we either become hyper-vigilant — a paranoid existence that was once restricted to spies and dissidents and now everyone’s fate — or give up and watch cat videos while doubt gnaws at our innards. Anxiety provoking isn’t it?

That’s the new dystopia.

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The Form of the World

A glimpse in Korea
Photographer: Heather Lo | Source: Unsplash

Configurations

India has a renewed government with a few new faces, the most unusual of whom is the new minister for external affairs, Subramanyam Jaishankar, a career diplomat who is now in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which instantly makes him one of the most powerful people in the country.

He’s known to be an incisive thinker, an important quality at a time when India faces many external challenges — from the vagaries of the Trump era to the rise of China to international negotiations on Climate Change. It’s a tough neighborhood that’s only going to get more complicated.

I was reading an article about the challenges the new MEA faces when I ran into:

China sees Modi as a decisive leader and supported him by throwing him two pre-election lifelines. First, a day before the commencement of the Second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on April 25–27, China removed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of India from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) map on its website. New Delhi has boycotted the forum since China launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which New Delhi says violates India’s territorial integrity.
Second, China reversed its decision to oppose the designation of Masood Azhar as a global sponsor of terror, which is an emotional issue for Indian voters. Azhar, the founder and leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been active mainly in the Pakistani-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir.

I am not a fan of the current Indian PM, or of Xi Jinping, but the Chinese “adjustments” reinforced my belief that the 2019 election was an international event. If you set aside specific governmental structures — multiparty (authoritarian?) democracy in India and single-party authoritarian rule in China, what I see is a return to the historical norm where the Eurasian landmass is governed by one of four civilizational configurations: China, India, the Middle East and Western Europe. If you add Russia as a distinct configuration different from Western Europe (being Orthodox rather than Catholic-Protestant) you get five.

Surely each configuration has its theory of statecraft; both the formal institutions that guide the configuration (constitutions, parties, elections etc) and the day to day intuitions through which decisions are made. Should we make a deal with the protestors on the street or send men in tanks to shoot them? History matters while making these choices. Of course, configurational influences are only one among many — the psychology of individual leaders matters, who they trust matter. The configurational culture is just one among many influences.

Whatever happens in one of these configurations impacts the others. Russia, China and India straddle the old and the new — they are civilizational configurations that also happen to be nation states. Western Europe was inching towards that goal for a while but recent events are working against increasing political unity. Like every other aspect of the networked era, size matters when it comes to geopolitics. It’s not clear that the nation state is a viable political unit in the long run, but to the extent it is, India, China and Russia have an advantage over the other two in that they have the political heft to resist the vagaries of globalization and climate change.

A configuration is a loose unity: its parts come and go. They are also porous — both historically and contemporaneously — and by marking these distinctions, we aren’t committing ourselves to a clash of civilizations thesis. Nevertheless, each configuration gives us access to distinct perspectives on the pursuit of life and liberation. I believe the keystone concepts of every configuration are of importance to the others. Equally importantly, every configuration can use its engagement with other configurations to develop and transform its keystone concepts. Kautilya would have learned a lot by reading Aristotle. Aristotle would have learned a lot by reading Kautilya.

We can learn a lot by reading both of them. Like Gandhi said:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.

He also ended that quote with

But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any

We will ignore that ending; it’s OK to be blown off our feet every once in while. But not at gun point and not for five hundred years. European domination saw certain keystone concepts such as democracy and capitalism spread across the world. Has the time come for keystone concepts and ideas from other configurations to travel the world? If so, which ones?

I am keeping my eye on two Indian concepts circumnavigating the earth:

  1. Dharma.
  2. Samsara.

Perhaps I should say: navigating the world once again, since both of them are central to Buddhadharma and have inspired poets, philosophers and yogis from India to Japan for a couple of thousand years. We can learn a lot from that era of globalization of Indian ideas when Buddhadharma was transformed in China and Japan.

Photographer: Ray Hennessy | Source: Unsplash

Beginner’s Mind

It’s a pity that Indians don’t know much about China. We keep looking west. I wasn’t exposed to Chinese ideas or literatures growing up: no Romance of the Three Kingdoms, no Dream of the Red Chamber, not even Journey to the West, despite it being a mythologized version of Xuanxang’s (Hiuen Tsang) trip to India way back when. I had a vague impression that Vikram Seth had translated Chinese poetry and that the beat poets were inspired by Zen, but that was the extent of my understanding.

I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sometime in the mid nineties, a couple of years after I left India for graduate school. It blew my mind. Here was a book written in precise, modern language talking about ideas originating in my part of the world, ideas that I had imbibed as a child but didn’t know how to articulate as an adult. Suzuki Roshi taught me that Dharma has a way of transcending its spatial and temporal boundaries. Since then Zen has been replaced by Tibetan Buddhism in the march of Buddhadharma in the modern world. While I deeply appreciate Tsongkhapa, I like the beginner’s mind even more.

ZMBM also introduced me to an East Asian sensibility, the cultural watershed of Chinese civilization. That aesthetic has a long shadow from literature to painting to the design of the Mac. I am particularly attached to classical Chinese poetry. These lines of Tu Fu (in David Hinton’s flowing translation here):

So different from the images in classical Indian texts, spare rather than flowery, minimalist design a millennium before the Mac. Buddhadharma’s encounter with China birthed a subtle beauty. Makes me think it’s smart to use another tradition’s classics to clean my glasses than to wipe the dust on my own.

But you need a lineage worth reorganizing first. I am fortunate in having two. From my grandmother I inherited India, faith and stories. From my grandfather — numbers, bookkeeping and argument. They were both obsessed with form: the shape of things, sitting up straight and when to eat a ripe mango. More than enough material even after the dust is removed.

I believe philosophy is created in the street, in the hustle of ideas. Some of those ideas make their way into the tower where they are bottled and sold to the whole world. Makes money for some but boring for the rest of us. Indian philosophy has spent too many years in the tower. It needs to travel to China and America, not to Harvard and Tsinghua but the streets of Shanghai and San Francisco.

Curveture
Photographer: Ismael Paramo | Source: Unsplash

Samsara

Inherited words bite you young and recruit your brain into singing their tune. The womb precedes the street. I have a couple of those: Dharma is one, Samsara is another. More may be lying dormant, waiting for the right moment to capture a brain area.

Samsara is an interesting term. It’s simultaneously concrete and abstract. Concrete because it’s a word for the world around us, the world of heart breaks and passion and dew drops reflecting the morning sun. Abstract because the word comes packaged inside a theory that claims a cyclical pattern of existence trapping us for eternity.

Why was I born human in this lifetime? Now that I am here, what will make me thrive?

Those are some questions about Samsara people from my part of the world have asked over the years. They are natural questions; questions about our fate, about the human condition. You may not be interested in multiple lifetimes. Fine, stick with this one. Still: why the human birth? What makes the ape go nuts?

saguaro iii
Photographer: Karl Magnuson | Source: Unsplash

Which is why Samsara is eminently suited to replace the universe as the object of intellectual concern.

  • Why eminently suited? Because it is a collective term for all the beings who occupy a portion of our reality.
  • Why replace? Because the universe is the world seen through the eye of god, the view from nowhere. The universe belongs to no one. Samsara, on the other hand, is our world. It belongs to all of us.

Here’s this rather wild idea I have: why not study the form of the world, i.e., the contours of Samsara just as scientists have studied the forms of the universe, especially through mathematization?

It’s not an outlandish idea if I may say so myself. I can even think of a couple of reasons why it’s an idea worth exploring. . A line from the Heart Sutra ( Prajnaparamitahrdya Sutra in Sanskrit) says:

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form.

Let me offer a quick pointer as to why I find this phrase an important entry into the form of the world. Consider how “form” is used in two important modern knowledge systems:

  1. Form as in formal, as in the formal sciences such as logic and mathematics.
  2. Form as in information.

In both of these uses, form denotes a way of “capturing” the world, or what’s known as carving the world at its joints. In formalizing the world, we believe we have distilled its essence. That’s the dream behind the physicist’s “theory of everything” isn’t it, of a small set of laws that captures everything there is. It’s the human version of god, who doesn’t need laws because he can see the whole universe. We get the second best experience: as his chosen species, humans are allowed to grasp the code of creation.

But emptiness in the Buddhist usage of that term points to an entirely different insight: that there’s no possibility, even in principle, of capturing everything. It says that nothing exists on its own; it’s always dependent on something else. Combining emptiness and form leads to a radical claim: not only is it impossible to capture everything in a single law or set of laws, it’s in the very nature of form to be elusive.

Finding my roots
Photographer: Jeremy Bishop | Source: Unsplash

The formal sciences fail at the task of capturing the world not because they have reached their limits but because form resists capture at its core. And form eludes capture because the world eludes capture — the view from nowhere can never succeed. The Buddha used that argument to deny the existence of the self. We can use a variation of the same argument to undercut the foundations of the formal sciences and venturing further, to undercut the foundations of all science.

I find that interesting.

The first sign that forms might be empty is noticing how many there are. In Darwin’s famous words:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Traditionally, biology is a science of form, of which there are many even as all organisms share a genetic code. Why are there are so many forms? What makes some thrive and others disappear? How does a form of life fit its circumstances? This is the question of Samsara in evolutionary disguise. As far as I know, there are two deep, scientifically grounded approaches to these questions:

  1. Statics. The approach favored by D’Arcy Thompson in his monumental “On Growth and Form.” Thompson’s approach is to explain the form of an organism (say, the shape of an Amoeba) as an equilibrium of forces that impinge upon the organism. The static theory is centered on matter and forces.
  2. Dynamics. This if of course the far more famous answer, the one initiated by Darwin in his Origin of Species. Darwin focuses on change, i.e., how does one type of organism arise from another? In the gene centric view, the theory of change is primarily one of information and how it’s transmitted.

So there you go: two theories of form, one privileging matter, the other privileging information. Can the two be combined? If so, how? That’s the question.

The architecture and interior design of Shanghai Baoye Center are both designed by LYCS Architecture. The interior design shares its architectural clue, which penetrates both its content and context, interweaves with its spatial logic. The inherent beauty of architecture is deliberately planted in its interior space as one of the most significant interior elements.
Photographer: LYCS Architecture | Source: Unsplash

Forms show up in the social sphere too, where they manifest as new institutional structures: startups, networks, companies, platforms and variations on those themes.

If anything, we underestimate the diversity of social forms, confusing labels for the underlying structure. Consider the all too common question: why do some companies thrive while others fail? Why did Microsoft beat IBM? Why did Google beat Microsoft? And so on. The assumption being that all companies have the same form, like teams playing a cricket match.

Is asking “Why did Microsoft beat IBM?” the same as asking “Why did CSK beat KKR?” Of course not. Sports teams are constrained to having the same form. We don’t have eleven member cricket teams playing twenty one member cricket teams. Companies aren’t like that; neither are organisms. They differ in size, shape and structure. Amazon is a company, Walmart is a company and Costco is a company but one is a platform while the other two are not.

What happens when two forms collide? Who wins? Is it possible for multiple forms of social organization to thrive simultaneously?

Wooden path to the beach
Photographer: Aleksandra Boguslawska | Source: Unsplash

The Road Ahead

That’s it for today’s tour of endless forms most beautiful. I am not interested in finding the one form that rules them all; much better to sketch the forms of the world and trace their connections with a light pencil.

Sorry if it meandered from one topic to another and even more sorry if it introduced abstract arguments without substantiating them. There’s a method behind the madness. Imagine phenomenology if it arose in Gaya instead of Gottingen and you are halfway there.

I wanted to give you sense for the landscape I am going to cover over the next few months — future essays won’t be as scattered. I also expect to add a podcast at some point.

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Bits of India 2: The Secularism of the RSS

Lost in the Wilderness
Photographer: Aashish R Gautam | Source: Unsplash

Buyer beware: this essay has a higher than usual ratio of speculation to explanation. I am playing with two central ideas (illustrated in the flowchart below):

  1. What? The modern system — with the state and the market being its standout institutions — destabilizes traditional categories, breaks them apart, swallows the pieces and finally assimilates tradition within its schemes. As I will argue below, that’s what’s happening with religion in India. The ascent of the Sangh Parivar isn’t a sign of a premodern tradition winning over liberalism, but of the modern system assimilating “Hindu ways of life,” whatever that might mean.
  2. How? The merger of space and code (geometry and programming) is the best available language to understand the dynamics of the modern system.

One line summary of this essay: the information geometry of secularism. Thankfully, I am burying that pompous phrase here instead of elevating it into a title or subtitle.

The Secular Socialist Democratic Republic

The Idea of India is over. Way back when we used to be a Secular Socialist Democratic Republic. It’s been a while since we have been socialist; the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent liberalization ended that dream. With this election, we can conclude that secularism is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before we stop being a democracy and become a theocracy.

That’s what I am reading.

Not a day goes by before some well known academic or writer pens a eulogy for an India that’s no longer to be seen. Here’s one that’s being widely circulated. Here’s another. Then there are the whispers saying we can still revive that Idea if we play our cards right (Rajeev Bhargava’s article in the Hindu, for example). The world hasn’t ended yet. Cheer up!

Is secularism dead? Is it alive? Is it on life support? Is it worth supporting? Some answers to these questions arrive while reading an article by Faisal Devji, which has an important line:

“unlike Islam in Pakistan, there is nothing theological about Hindu nationalism. It is a secular movement (my emphasis) for which religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.”

Devji is right. Hindutva is a secular movement and most of the Sangh Parivar, including the RSS consists of secular organizations. But in order to understand that, we need to interrogate secularism first.

What is Secularism?

Secularism is usually understood as one of three things:

  1. The Euro-American version which demands the separation of Church and State. Usually understood to mean that the Church shouldn’t interfere in state affairs.
  2. The Indian version in which the State shouldn’t favor one Church over another. All Churches are equal in the eyes of the state.
  3. I guess for sake of completeness I should include the Communist version: there’s no Church.

Note: I use the term Church in the most generic sense as any organized system of religious practice and/or belief.

There are (at least) two dimensions in which the Church and State intersect with each other:

  • Belief: As in what we think is true or valuable and who gets to regulate those truth and value assertions. Does the sun go around the earth or the earth around the sun? Who gets to decide what’s taught to our children? In a liberal secular society, you’re theoretically allowed to believe whatever you want in private while your public beliefs are supposed to conform to reason and facts. Of course, we know that the reality is much more complex; modern societies have overseen an enormous expansion of beliefs. Some of them are scientific or rational, but most of them are effervescent; beliefs about what’s cool, what’s hot, what’s trending and so on, that are mediated by advertising more than science. In other words, neither is our private sphere free, nor is the public sphere shaped by reason, but it’s a mark of secularism that we pretend that it’s so.
  • Power: Like any other institution, the state wants to maximize its power and doesn’t want the Church around as a competitor. The state has a native advantage — it has a monopoly over violence. As Stalin once said about the Pope “How many divisions does he have?” One of the signs of secularization is that we no longer accept the Pope’s claim to power. To be honest, he can’t compete. The world of nuclear bombs and predator drones is beyond his pay grade. Much better to sit in his ivory tower and tell the world to behave. Gently. If you notice, there’s already a tacit shift in power between the Euro-American and the Indian versions of secularism. While Euro-American secularism treats the Church as a potential rival that needs to be kept out, the Indian version treats religions as supplicants. It’s the state that’s the prize, not the Church. The communist version doesn’t even let the Church supplicate.

Combining these two threads, we arrive at a higher-order understanding of secularism as a process than as a feature: the process of secularization is the steady privileging of this worldly needs and values over absolute or transcendental needs and values. When scholars talk about truth, they are asserting transcendental values. In contrast, when governments direct science funding towards monetizable research and hand out promotions based on impact factors, they are asserting this-worldly values. Secularization in the domain of belief says truth doesn’t have cash value while innovation does.

Note how this concept of secularization in the domain of belief covers a much wider territory than the relation between the Church and the State; it recognizes that beliefs proliferate in modern society and that the real battle is over the regulatory ideals (truth versus success) that govern which beliefs receive state or market support.

Similarly, the secularization of power means that traditional sources of religious authority are destabilized in favor of new political identities. As Devji says “religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.” We need to read this statement at two levels:

  1. After the process of secularization, only those beliefs that possess political meaning have a chance of flourishing. I may believe in 330 crore gods. You may believe there’s only one. We might even come to blows on that account if we had an argument about the correct numerical measure of godliness. However, neither of us is going to go viral on Whatsapp. Theological disputes don’t have direct access to political meaning. Of course, as the Shia-Sunni dispute shows, it’s possible to channel theology into politics, but that always requires a this-worldly feature (inheritance and lineage in the case of the Shia-Sunni conflict).
  2. Religion’s usefulness is only restricted to those elements that manifest as cultural identity. What’s left unsaid but is crucial for secularization: identity can be mobilized for political purposes while truth or faith can’t.

So to ask whether some seemingly religious entity is secular, we need to ask: does its politics dictate its theology or the other way around? The answer in the case of the RSS is clear: it’s only theology is a political theology and therefore it’s an archetypal secular organization.

Who does the RSS worship?

Traditionally, RSS shakhas had only one deity: Bharat Mata, a picture of Mother India. None of the other Indian deities had a place in the room; no Krishna or Rama, no Lakshmi or Durga. The only deity was a representation of the nation.

It’s not that there isn’t religious precedence for making the nation sacred. In Hindu societies, every village and locality has its own deity, a local guardian who represents that place. In the divine economy, deities make places as much as the place marks the deities’ influence. The Vaisnava tradition has the 108 Divya Desams, temples that mark pilgrimage spots across Indian subcontinent.

So place and geography have a prior association with divinity, but the Sangh act of turning India itself into a deity is an interesting move, simultaneously investing the nation with sacred values and making it possible for the secular to dominate the sacred.

Why so?

Answer: because the (re)production of space is one of the key acts through which the State supplants the Church. The Church has only symbolic control over a territory while the State has both material and symbolic control. The Church can only mark some spots as Divya Desams but it can’t build the roads that connect the Divya Desams. In contrast, the state can lay the roads and dot the highway with statues of dead politicians.

spatialization favors secularization.

Don’t believe me: consider an analogy to the other major institution of the modern world: the market. Let’s say there’s a village in which people barter goods with each other and no cash is ever exchanged. Then modernity arrives in the form of a market selling widgets from across the world. Unfortunately, the market sellers don’t accept offers in kind; you got to pay cash in order to acquire the goods on offer. So the villagers decide to switch.

No more barter. For a while it works well — they continue bartering with each other but use the market for goods that can’t be sourced internally. Makes sense right?

As the villagers get accustomed to the joys of buying and selling, the market goes from a sporadic affair to a permanent presence in the village. One day the market has a new seller. He’s got fertilizer at rock bottom prices, because he can afford to purchase fertilizers at scale from China. Can the local fertilizer supplier — the cowherd — compete with the new entrant? Not a chance. The new space — the market village — systematically favors the cash player over the barterer.

New spaces = new relations. The nation as a space inherently favors the state and makes it possible for the state to swallow religion.

Let’s say you are with me so far, that you agree that space favors the state and those who nationalize religion are state actors in saffron. You might still wonder: what’s the mechanism through which the state surrounds religion and then swallows it?

The answer my friend is coding in the wind. The algorithmic machines of the 21st century are very good at tapping into emotional networks that were once deployed in acts of faith, remapping their connections and redeploying those emotions in the service of political acts.

The computer is key to the commodification of religion.

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Bits of India: Introduction

Photographer: Ron Hansen | Source: Unsplash

The big news from my part of the world is that India organized the biggest, most expansive (and perhaps most expensive) elections ever conducted. Narendra Modi and the BJP were the clear winners. Not the outcome I desired, but that’s not the point of this series. Instead, let me start you out with three observations:

  1. The elections and the electoral campaigns were among the most complex social exercises in all of human history: 900 million voters spread over two months and the constant ground game and media strategy needed to manage a national campaign. In comparison, running a state campaign is much easier; the complexity of the national elections scales nonlinearly with the number of states you’re competing in. That’s as true of state campaigns: running a state-wide campaign is nonlinearly harder than running a campaign in one constituency. In other words, running a campaign is a systems challenge and so successful political actors need to learn how to manage systems well.
  2. Information systems — news media, social media of course, but also old fashioned campaigning — were central to this campaign. As we all know, politics is as much about emotion as it’s about self-interest. Voters are swayed by sentiments such as: who truly represents me? who makes me proud? in whom can I see my future? Therefore, a technology that helps commoditize emotions and sentiments, i.e., social media, is a key differentiator in elections across the world and it should also not be a surprise that “populists” have mastered these technologies better than their aristocratic predecessors. Let’s remember that the great mass leaders of the twentieth century — Lenin, Gandhi, Hitler, Roosevelt, Mao — were also masters of media; they too were populists. Populism is arguably nothing more than the use of a new technological form to create and reach collectives that didn’t exist before. Those who can do so have a competitive political advantage.
  3. These were the first globalized Indian elections in that they were consistently reported in the Western media as a world-historical event whose impact will be felt outside the borders of the Indian nation. It’s no longer a surprise that the same kind of right wing social media driven campaign has made a difference in the success of Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and now Modi. Globalization has come to politics and India is at its centre.

All of these developments point to politics at a scale that’s not been seen before. The public debate about this election, especially amongst the so-called intellectual class I belong to, was about ideology: Hindutva, liberalism, secularism etc. Of course that’s important, but it doesn’t win elections. Not on its own anyway.

We forget so easily that elections are primarily mechanisms for the continuation and transfer of power, and therefore, the entities that are responsible for fighting elections — political parties of course, but also ancillary entities such as surveying companies, media etc- orient themselves around the demands of power.

Consider the following analogy: companies are in the business of profit making and while some leaven that with design (Apple) and others with reliability (Volvo), the bottom line is money isn’t it? Not just money in this moment, but also money in the future and what one has to do to prevent others from stealing the money that’s currently lining my pocket. The most successful companies in the last twenty years have been those that have built systems: Amazon, Apple, Google come to mind, and even beyond the Silicon Valley bubble, there’s a deep relationship between mastery over information systems and economic success.

Why should politics be any different?

Shouldn’t we expect political success to be a function of mastery over information systems, especially those systems that can help commoditize emotions at scale? Behind these questions are troubling possibilities: what if certain emotions are easier to spread than others? What if anger and resentment are more contagious than empathy?

That’s the premise of this series: that it’s worthwhile to understand Indian politics through the lens of computing, i.e., to import terms like “stack,” “platform,” “data” etc not just as technical tools but as metaphors for the game of politics as it’s being played today.