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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.
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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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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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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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Many Mes

faces
Photographer: Andrew Seaman | Source: Unsplash

MeMe and YouMe

The Buddha, peace be unto him, is famous for declaring there’s no self. Strictly speaking, he denied the existence of an abiding, permanent self, especially the metaphysical Atman of Brahmanical Hinduism. We are born, we grow into adulthood and then we pass away. Some think we restart that process in the next life. The Buddha says: one life or many, there’s no rock to tether the ship of existence.

The Buddha left out space in his calculations. Sure, there’s no single self over time, but what about having the same self in space? Are we the same person in every direction?

Perhaps not.

Every one of us experiences ourselves from the inside-out. We refer to ourselves as “I.” It’s commonly believed that we have unique access to that self, an experience of being me that no one else has, that there’s an inner door to a secret chamber that can only be opened by one key. Who else can tell me that I am in pain besides myself?

But there’s another self (or many selves) of which I am only partially aware. That’s the self others see and experience. Why do we assume these two selves to be the same? When my daughter asks me not to be upset with her, and I reply that I am not upset at all, is it possible that both are right? Is it possible there’s a MeMe that’s fully transparent to me and a YouMe that’s fully transparent to others and the two aren’t the same Me’s?

It’s much more likely that the two are somewhat consistent but far from being identical. Which poses a problem for any autobiographical effort because a recounting of MeMe can’t pass off as a recounting of Me in general. The rich and the powerful have always had alternatives — they can hire people to write about their YouMe or even better, if they are famous enough, others want to write about them of their own volition.

The rest of us have to try hard to get others to talk to us for a few minutes, let alone writing praises. But even the most avid biographer doesn’t have the access to my daily routine. In fact, I am too absorbed or distracted to fully grasp what I am doing. The wake of my passage is invisible to me. Fortunately, that data is being scooped up by our friendly neighborhood tech giant. If my data across various websites, social media properties and calendars is aggregated and made available to an automated story generation system such as Narrative Science, I might receive a half decent autobiography in the mail every morning.

“Rajesh left home early yesterday morning. He caught the first train to South Station where he waited for the Acela for a full thirty minutes during which he flipped between his kindle and his phone. On the train he worked on the Acme report for the third time in so many days, changing most of the ten pages that he had written the day before.”

More suspense than my real life for sure. I might even pay for that service. But why stick to the real world. Why not probe lives I have never lived and don’t plan on doing so? Technology comes to the rescue once again. After all, most of my online explorations are funded by personalized ads trying to sell a future different me. The same as every advertisement in the history of marketing but personalization brings new opportunities to the creative autobiographer.

Paths not taken

Forking forest path
Photographer: Jens Lelie | Source: Unsplash

Who does Facebook think I am?

In an attempt to understand myself through the eyes of Skynet, I have decided to take a screenshot of the first ad that Facebook inserts into my newsfeed every time I log in.

Hypothesis: If I take a screenshot every day for a hundred days I will learn more about who I am than a hundred years of Vipassana.

Just kidding, but I bet I will learn something. Don’t ask me what though, I am only on day 2.

Day 1: Today’s ad wants me to read like a CEO. Which is to say, not read at all but to get my staff to summarize it for me. Hey, at least I am better than Trump who doesn’t even read his summaries.

Sadly, I am going to pass. No $7 a month summary of business books for me. But the exercise frees up the imagination. Who is this CEO Rajesh? I’m thinking he wears a black suit everyday. Except for Saturday when he changes into a silk kurta to celebrate his pride for Mother India.

Day 2: Life is a roller coaster. Having rejected the offer to have summaries of business successes sent to my inbox, I must have missed a major opportunity while my competitors were making detailed notes. End result: I have been fired and my wife has left me.

Not to worry: DreamBuilder is here to rescue me from the jaws of failure.

It turns out that one in five men is utterly alone, without a friend in the world. Am I one of them? Facebook thinks so, at least today. How can I fulfill my dreams if I don’t have a warm community? Dreamers of the world unite.

The story is still being written. Facebook is going to help me discover myself. And me_2, me_3 and every self that could be me.

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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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The Tyranny of Experience

Photographer: v2osk | Source: Unsplash

There’s no greater tyranny in my world than that of experience, by which I mean the ever more sophisticated versions of the claim “seeing is believing.” We are skeptical by nature, demanding evidence and proof and subjecting claims to all kinds of tests before we believe them. Experience produces facts, in principle if not in practice. Which is why even the alt-rightist has to adopt the experientalist’s strategy: he casts doubt on facts that bother him and produces alt-facts where there are none.

Sometimes those facts are more interesting than what we normally believe them to be. Consider the great fact that supposedly marks the transition from superstition to science: the denial of the claim that the earth is the center of the universe. We think the claim was refuted by Copernicus, who offered the counter claim that the earth goes around the sun. But there’s no direct experience of that fact is there? Certainly not in the 15th century. Copernicus had the better theory, but can’t say that he had a better fact.

Galileo

Instead, it was Galileo observing the moons of Jupiter and letting the pope view those moons that was the first experience of a heavenly body that revolved around something else besides the earth. Galileo’s observations make the Copernican theory more plausible — if the moon goes around the earth and Jupiter’s moons go around Jupiter, what’s preventing the Earth and Jupiter going around the sun?

Many years later when the pope was no longer a friend and the blind old man was facing the inquisition, Galileo recanted his belief in the Copernican view in public but supposedly said under his breath “and yet it moves.” Such is the power of experience. It generates both doubt (I need to see in order to believe) and faith (once you see you gotta believe).

Which is why skepticism is coupled with righteous anger when someone sees but doesn’t believe. For example: those climate deniers — how can they question the vast mounds of data collected by scientists from all over the world? They must be idiots right? Or worse, idiots manipulated by scheming tycoons who don’t want us to believe what we see and pay minions bucketloads of cash to replace facts with alt-facts.

Disgusting. Terrible. We are going back to the dark ages. Or so we think. I will come to the structural blindness of experience seeking in a moment; let’s first ask what lies beyond experience.

  1. God, divinity, the creator of the universe etc etc. If experience reveals beings, the stones and birds that appear in front of us, then what about the Being that underlies all beings? Is he completely transcendent? Some think so and claim that all of creation is evidence of his existence. Not a very convincing argument if you ask me. That’s why you need a Jesus who is a spectacular if singular piece of evidence that God can wormhole himself into creation. But how can J be evidence for G? What about J makes us believe that he could only be so and so through partaking the substance of God? In an anthropocentric culture it’s possible to believe that the spectacular qualities of a human being follows from their proximity to divinity, but in a world where humans aren’t that central, a gifted human being is only a gifted human being. Nothing more. Makes us doubt J, G and everything in between.
  2. Mathematics. Numbers aren’t experienced and yet some of us believe in their existence. How’s that possible? Experience only reveals objects with shape and form but numbers have neither. What form of existence can a shapeless formless entity have and how is such an entity revealed to us? Then there’s the fortunate circumstance that math seems to work. It helps us design satellites and nuclear bombs and other nice things that help us rule the earth and stalk the heavens. We can’t deny math in the way we can deny god(s), but mathematical entities aren’t experiencable. Or are they?

In Galileo’s time planetary experiences were rare and sensational. Today they are common but unequally distributed, which is a problem in a knowledge society. Who gets to go to Kenya for an internship in their junior year of college? Who has mentors telling them whether all eukaryotes are descended from a branch of archaea? When knowledge isn’t the preserve of the scholarly community but the engine of the economy as a whole (which is the underlying premise of a knowledge society), the scales of success are in favor of those who have easy access to experience. Even worse, since experiential elites are surrounded by others in the same class, marrying each other, starting companies with each other, the experiential hierarchy turns into a class hierarchy very quickly.

Then there are experiences we can’t acquire, however hard we might try. In his famous paper “What is it like to be a bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that whatever it’s like to be a bat is opaque to us. We can capture and preserve bats in jars for centuries, study their genes for millennia and yet have no clue as to what experiences accrue to a bat as it flies around a cave using sonar for echolocation. Why bats? It’s not clear if I can experience what you’re undergoing as you’re reading this essay. Experience seems simultaneously expansive — capable of producing facts that confirm the state of the universe just as it was being created — and incredibly narrow, potentially confined to our own consciousness and at best reaching out to beings a lot like us.

What’s the big deal? We are a finite creature with evolved capacities for understanding the world around us in certain ways. Of course there are limits to our experience and we should be humble enough not to claim knowledge we can’t possess.

There are many problems with that claim; let me stop with one. Let’s say birds, bats and octopi have experiences (if not stones and bacteria) but we believe we can’t access their ways of being. That isn’t stopping us from exploiting these creatures — farming them for food, caging them for entertainment and so on. In saying their experiences are opaque to us, we are denying any possibility for empathy across the species divide. How can I put myself in your shoes if they don’t fit? The objective sciences have greatly increased our technologies of control but that’s also brought us to the brink of killing off most life on this planet.

Knowing what it’s like to be a bat is the first step away from technologies of control towards technologies of care and for that to happen, we have to question the tyranny of experience, set aside the limits we have imposed upon ourselves, limits that are justified as humility but are really a mask for self-interest.

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Computing Climate Change

Photographer: Markus Spiske | Source: Unsplash

In my previous essay, I arrived at an unoriginal idea: that the computer is a mental telescope through which we can view the world. I didn’t say the universe is a computer because that would be really unoriginal but more importantly, because I am not interested in the universe. I am interested in the world, or more accurately, worlds, the personal and collective realities experienced by humans and other creatures.

To be honest, my love for the world can be traced to the German word for it: umwelt. If you tell someone you are interested in the world, they are likely to look at you funny but if you tell them you’re a weltist, and suddenly you are halfway important. I make worlds for a living, what about you?

Back to the mental telescope: now that I have a hammer, I am looking for nails.

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

I am reading Paul Edwards’ wonderful book on the role of computer models in the creation of climate science. There are many many things to say about the book. If I have the time, I might review the book in detail one day, but for now, let me stick to the main insight I gleaned from reading the tome: all the structures of modern climate science are products of the computer era. Obviously true for the data collected in observatories and sensors across the world and the computer models that crunch that data, but less obviously so for the international organizations created to make sense of that data and the political controversies surrounding the impact of global warming.

Don’t believe me? Consider two pieces of evidence:

  1. The IPCC report.
  2. The main line of criticism: climate change is “only a theory.”

The White Space of Truth

Click on the link to the IPCC report, check out the summary for policy makers and if you’re feeling really masochistic, download the PDF and read it. And then step back and ask yourself: how come I am able to access years of work by a network of scientists across the world with a click of a button? Do you think any of this would have been possible without the internet?

Computing via design has also changed our perception of reliability and truthfulness. This is what the IPCC website used to look like:

IPCC website October 2018

I am not talking about 1995. This is what the website looked like in October 2018 when the IPCC released the blockbuster 1.5° C report. It’s as if the scientists intoned to themselves: “we are in the business of producing the truth and we don’t care how it looks.” When I first downloaded the 1.5° C report, the document was clearly a PDFed word document. Yes, the future of the planet depends on the design sensibilities of Bill Gates.

Here’s how the website looks like today:

IPCC website April 2019

They must have hired a UX consultant: clean layout, lot’s of white space, readable fonts. The new design sensibility is reflected in the report as well; it’ no longer a PDFed word document. Bill Gates has morphed into Steve Jobs.

What’s my point?

The IPCC report is an artifact of the computer era: its manufacture and distribution follows the patterns of knowledge production in the 21st century. Truth needs the facts, but it also needs a feeling: in the age of alternative facts, any vehicle of the truth should feel trustworthy and accessible. White space and clean lines promote trustworthiness and accessibility. The shift in design sensibilities reflects a new awareness of the terrain the report inhabits: that it’s inherently a political document and therefore must seduce its readers as much as it conveys the facts.

It’s Only a Theory

The US right wing pioneered a line of critique that one might call “it’s only a theory,” first to dispute evolution and then to cast doubt on anything that endangered the bottomline of their capitalist masters: smoking, pollution, climate change. The doubters recognize that everyone believes two things:

  1. Math
  2. Facts

If a claim is deductively true (or appears close to being so) everyone believes it. If a claim can be directly verified, everyone believes it. This is not the place to ask about the meaning of “deductively,” “verify” and “belief.” I will pretend as if these are terms that you may not be able to define but you know a case of deduction, verification or belief when you see it.

Magical science happens when 1 and 2 above combine seamlessly. Physics manages to make that happen every once in a while. The General Theory of Relativity is a good example: Einstein himself proposed three tests of the theory that followed directly from his theoretical principles and in 1919 the bending of light was directly verified to Einstein’s everlasting fame. Theoretical physics of the Einsteinian variety is a priestly science: rational magic that dazzles the faithful.

In comparison, climate science is a proletarian discipline, grounded in thousands of data collection efforts and an even larger number of computer models. Unlike General Relativity which sprung unaided from the mind of a genius, climate science exposes its innards to the world. Like other entrails, the sight isn’t pretty. The data sets are noisy. They are in different, incompatible formats. Ocean acidity measurements collect one kind of data. Air temperature readings collect another kind of data. Historical records are full of gaps. Similarly, the computer models have to simplify the real world in order to be tractable. You need higher order models to calculate whether the simplifications of the lower order models omit important parameters. The edifice is laid one brick at a time. Infinite regress looms on the horizon. Both the facts and the models are manufactured with great effort.

Climate Science is an archetype of the late twentieth century-early twenty first century knowledge economy where the widget is manufactured via the labor of thousands (if not millions) of unknown workers, mediated by computing devices and managed by large multinational institutions that not only have a marketing and sales budget, marketing and sales may be as important as manufacture.

It’s not romantic science but it’s eminently useful and eminently political. That’s a big part of what the computer is doing to knowledge.

No different from Google.