The creepiest man I ever met was a CIA officer turned academic scholar of terrorism. We sat across a table on a couple of occasions in the early 2000s; even his presence in the room was disturbing and every time he spoke, I felt a shiver passing down my spine.
It's not as if he was saying the most evil things; in fact, some of what he said was factual and much of the rest was reasonable, if on the conservative end of the spectrum. It's just the way he expressed his opinions – no scratch that – it was the way he carried himself in the world that was the problem. Like everyone and everything was suspect and it was his job to wring the truth out of the world. Quite different from a regular thug or a mafioso – there was no bullying – just a presumption that very bad things exist and it was his job to be worse in response.
I can still picture his way of smiling at the stupidity of others; it was a dementor’s sneer. The dementor is the bad guy on the good side – please don't ask me to define who is good and who isn't; that's beyond this essay's pay grade. But however you define it, and "good" is felt viscerally rather than intellectually, there's often a person or an institution whose job is to be bad in the service of that good.
What was once the province of the secret police has now become a standard function in our social network driven world – every Whatsapp group has its own dementor, a man (it’s always a man) who takes upon himself to channel the dark side.
Why do such dementors exist? Why are they (sometimes) celebrated?
First, a digression on knowledge, power and emotion.
Starting with the work of Foucault, social science scholarship focused on the intimate relationship between knowledge and power in the modern world – my favorite in the genre is Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance. Their argument was that modern societies gain legitimacy by exercising control over the processes of life (what Foucault calls biopower) through the collection of a certain kind of knowledge and the creation of new categories such as “population.”
For example, birth and death statistics are collected so that policies targeting population averages (public health policies for example) can be used to legitimize state power. Today’s breathless reporting about the Corona virus is a classic example of biopower and the Chinese state’s success & failure in exerting it. In other words the exercise of power demands certain knowledge regimes.
What’s happened in the last three decades is both an evolutionary growth of knowledge as power and a dramatic transition in its exercise. It’s no longer knowledge that’s being collected and categorized – it’s emotion as well. The technologies of surveillance can now directly access our limbic brain and don’t need to stop with rational categories such as population averages and GDP. Knowledge is often replaced by emotion because the technologies of control, surveillance etc have become more fine grained. The circling of information and emotion is subtler than the knowledge regimes of the past and can no longer be understood within what Foucault termed as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”
In short: emotion is more important than knowledge and populations are no longer the unit of control.
For example: while I (try to) make the entire Hindu population fearful of Muslims, I can also use Whatsapp messages that target this particular village to lynch that particular Muslim. That combination of emotion, information and chaotic control is rather new and it's spawning a demented style of politics.
What's the need for Dementors? Do they have a legitimate place in the world?
Of course I understand the strategic reason for having dementors on your side – the logic of every arms race forces all sides to acquire as big a weapon as possible, and dementors are powerful weapons. I get that. But are there are other reasons? Perhaps even more important ones?
For example: do dementors bring insights into the world that would otherwise not be available using "good" methods alone?
These arguments have several analogs. Let me recount two – one more innocent than the other:
Do critics perform an important function? Consider the poisonous reviewer who routinely makes directors quit their profession and become insurance salesmen. Is that person really necessary? What good comes into the world as a result? One obvious answer: sharp criticism raises the level of the art as a whole, and since that world is rife with subjective insider assessments, it's not a bad thing when someone raises a stink (assuming it's a fair stink). The world doesn't need any more bad movies than it already has.
Is torture ever justified? Let's say you catch a man who has smuggled a nuclear bomb into your country and has the key to turning it off but isn't divulging the key upon ordinary questioning. Is it OK to extract the information via torture? Most people – or so I suspect – will be fine with extracting the information via torture. But people under torture say anything to stop the pain – truth isn't their main concern. You really don't want the man telling you a falsehood that has you chasing the wrong corner of the city when the cloud goes up in the air. In any case, that information might be even more forthcoming if you drugged the man with a mind-loosener, so to speak. Torture as an instrument of knowledge strikes me as inherently flawed.
Nevertheless, from just war theory to pre-emptive strikes, there's a sense that not only is violence justified under certain circumstances, it is both prudent and ethical to invest in the means to conduct such violence. Iron fist within the velvet glove and all that.
My take: while the existence of bad people arguably justifies generals, it doesn't justify dementors. What's the point in a moral community having people who view their own community with suspicion, even malevolence? People who will reliably and routinely harm innocent citizens because they don't care who they hurt.
And yet, dementors are all too common. Sometimes the person at the very top is themselves a dementor but more likely than not, the dementor is an employee rather than a boss. My suspicion is that every large organization – whether country, company or political party – has a known dementor on its payroll; in some organizations, even a mid-level boss has their own dementor. Drug cartels come to mind. Every Don needs a Luca Brasi, if you know the reference; that person is usually the boss' man and travels (or dies) with the chief.
Secret police, assassins, enforcers – the list of dementors is long. I can think of only one reason why they need to exist: the world is a genuinely bad place, or at least parts of it are.
There's been an explosion of literature on the authoritarian mind of late. Not surprising, given the recent successes of authoritarian politics. Everybody agrees that authoritarians both cultivate a climate of fear and use that climate to amass power. But what are the origins of fear and suspicion – and especially – what if there's existential grounding to those feelings?
Anxiety, paranoia, hate and other negative emotions are standard in all social networks. There's money to be made with those emotions and elections to be won. Plus, it's not only right wing nuts who use negative emotions as a lever: climate catastrophe and the fear it inspires is a standard tool in the progressive toolkit. Dementorship is a respected social role in today's world. It's the dementor's job to detect and amplify fear and suspicion as an existential mood, which is another way of saying the dementor is the yang to the authoritarian's yin.
Paranoia is common and spreading. If the success of right wing politics throughout the world is any sign, the public in many countries has been successfully convinced that they are surrounded by clear and imminent dangers. It's likely they trust the dementors more than the visionaries of a better future. There's every reason to believe the demented style of politics will find more takers as our system lurches from depression to climate collapse. All the more reason to identify the emotional core of the dementor's view of the world and find an antidote. But first, it has to be understood seriously and objectively.
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.
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:
We need to rethink the concepts of identity that inform political life, citizenship being a prime example.
Even more radically, we might have to rethink the concept of society itself.
Citizenship and Identity
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.
I have always wondered why the Buddha left his wife and child and went into the forest. The usual explanations are pretty patriarchal aren’t they, e.g.,
– that he was escaping from the bonds that tie us to this earthly life.
– Attachment brings suffering. etc.
Here’s how that story is told: A sensitive young man is brought up in the lap of luxury. He is the favored child of his father, who doesn’t want him to be exposed to the cruel ways of reality. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease, deprivation and death. What does he do? He goes back home, takes leave of his sleeping wife and child and heads off to the forest, to meditate and to end the cycle of suffering. Six hard years of practice and asceticism later, he becomes the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.
Something does not compute.
Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee upon seeing disease and deprivation? Why not stay and work for the welfare of his subjects? I know that his father was not a king but the tribal chief of a republic but still, Siddhartha had the mandate to change the world and not just study it.
Further, why did Siddhartha leave his family? No royal personage has ever had childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers? How many religions have been founded by women leaving their families behind?
Tennis on the Outside
There’s also the possibility he never went into the forest. My mother wanted me to play tennis. I wanted to play cricket. So I used to wear my tennis uniform every evening, walk around the corner and take a long detour to the park where my friends were putting bat to ball. Tennis on the outside, cricket on the inside. Everyone was happy.
Perhaps the Buddha also switched cricket for tennis, and went to study theater at the Pataliputra School of Arts and came back six years later with a dramatically better ability to deliver his lines. Or perhaps he was struggling to write a PhD thesis on Postvedic studies. Six years is about the time it takes to get a doctorate and it’s easy enough to confuse passing one’s defense for Nirvana.
We can’t really imagine what it’s like to escape civilization. Maybe there’s a place or two in the Amazon or the forests of Borneo where you can check out of Hotel California, but most of us can’t leave. Settler civilization is a world spanning enterprise.
In contrast, the Buddha’s world was still learning the ways of settler humanity. The forest started at the outskirts of the city, sometimes right in the middle. Which also means that alternatives to settlements were right there, requiring no more than an hour or two of walking.
We are taught the Buddhist path as a series of insights into the nature of reality: impermanence, dependent origination etc, but in human terms, the greatest achievement might have been the creation of the Sangha, the first major monastic tradition in the world.
What does it mean to create an institution around traveling monks?
It’s a strange combination. Large scale institution building is a settler thing; who else would agree upon the rules for coordinating actions of people who don’t see each other? But the early forest monks, including the Buddha, were unsettlers by definition. In combining the rule making of institutionalized life and the leave-taking of forest life, the Sangha created an interface between the settled world and the unsettled world, an existential Narasimha.
Zen takes that merger to the extreme – rigid discipline combined with koan practices of unsettling every belief. People create the most amazing things.
The sangha is an experiment in settled unsettling. But now that experiment has run its course. Capitalism, i.e., the supreme achievement of settler humanity, has absorbed all traditional forms of unsettling: creativity has become innovation, dhyan has become mindfulness.
The only real alternative to settler humanity in the last two hundred years has been politics and revolution, but even that dream is attached to the hip to the nation state, the second most important achievement of settler humanity.
How can we unsettle the state and the market? Which forest will teach us that trick?
If you read or watch any mainstream media source that deals with facts instead of imaginary threats, you will notice the constant invocation of two civilizational threats: automation and climate change. This is mainstream media btw, not leftie radical sources; you know we are in a genuine crisis when hunks on TV look you in the eye and say we are all going to die.
AI and climate change: one economic, the other ecologic. One taking our jobs and the other destroying our home. I believe the two are actually the same, the worldly reflection of the platonic duality between information and energy. Unfortunately, while the mainstream is beginning to recognize the seriousness of our situation, they aren’t willing to take the necessary steps to adapt and flourish in the new world that’s being born.
The threat is recognized by the radicals knocking on the mainstream’s door: it’s increasingly common to say we need systems change. But who is going to do it and what skills are needed to do so? I find that even the most trenchant critic of the current system has conventional views on how it needs to be transformed: they say we need a radical transformation of our societies, but they assume that we already have the skills to do so; we only need powerful obstacles to get out of the way and let the innate intelligence of people, especially young people, to emerge out of the shadows.
That’s a romantic thought but a false one. We need to cultivate a form of subversive intelligence that is attuned to the changing conditions. That cultivation needs conscious, collective effort.
What form should that subversive intelligence take?
I have some thoughts on that matter and I have even written about it on other occasions though it’s only today that I am using the term “subversive intelligence” to describe the mindsets we need to cultivate. Here are a couple:
Take those writings and readings with a grain of salt though; chances are much of what we read today will be flawed in its presentation of the world to come, just as the writers of the early industrial era couldn’t have predicted our capacity to order a computer from China with a click or two.
Take that uber-pinko Karl Marx. He started writing his famous book in the early days of capitalism. According to that canonical source of truth, i.e., Wikipedia, James Watt’s steam engine was invented between 1763 and 1775. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. In other words, somewhere between 85 and 73 years after the steam engine. Meanwhile, the first functioning electronic computer, i.e., ENIAC, was first completed in 1945, so we are 73 years past the deployment of that technology. Why am I saying this? When Marx and Engels wrote their pamphlet, industrial capitalism was just beginning to show its impact on England and Europe. 1848 was also the year of the social unrest across Europe but it was a long ways away from two worlds wars, several revolutions, decolonization and all the other consequences of the mechanical age. Nevertheless, they were right in pointing out that industrial capitalism was a really big deal and that it would change the world.
Similarly, we are at a relatively early stage in the development of intelligent capitalism, i.e., capitalism powered by information and machine learning. Not so coincidentally, we are also at an early stage of panic over climate change and ecological collapse more broadly. The two go together. We may or may not agree with Marx’s vision, but he was absolutely right (and he wasn’t alone in saying so) in pointing out that the real impact of industrial capitalism wasn’t in the new gadgets and gizmos that enter our lives but in the social relations transformed through this influx. Global capitalist society is nothing like the pre-industrial societies it has replaced.
Intelligent capital will cause an equally dramatic shift in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even as individual gadgets come and go. Some of the symptoms of this shift are already upon us: we know surveillance is going to be big, automation bigger and climate change is going to be huge.
For one, it’s not just social relations that will change in this time. Natural relations, i.e., the relationship between humans and other beings on earth and also the relations between the other beings themselves will also change. Actually, natural relations have already changed. What else do we mean by the anthropocene? What does it mean when the majority of the world’s land area is being used for agriculture?
I think it’s only a matter of time before we consider all earthly activities as part of the human system, which is to say that the earth system and the human system are increasingly going to merge. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Before we rush to judgment, let’s first try to understand the levers that control these systemic changes.
Really. I have resolutely left-wing sympathies, but the honest thing is to understand this new condition before passing judgment, especially if our long-term goal is to shine a crystal ball on the future and in doing so, unleash genuinely transformative forces. But that’s a ways away.
Some more snippets:
– Life in knowledge societies is mediated by flows of information and the networks that host those flows. It’s impossible to imagine making a simple widget without information mediation, let alone a complex product like a phone or an airplane. It’s equally impossible to imagine life without constant sharing of personal data and constant surveillance by corporations and nation states. Information technologies are technologies of living par excellence.
– In fact, no Stalinist state has ever had the level of intrusion in people’s lives that we see today being willingly shared and aggregated via social media. Informational life spawns many worries such as:
The Future of Work: some are worried that robots will take our jobs. Others are worried that capitalists will use the threat of automation to reduce wages in the few jobs that remain.
Full Spectrum Surveillance: that our lives are monitored and monetized second by second and further, surveillance fragments our working lives so that we can work for Uber in the morning and Walmart in the afternoon.
Inequality Amplification: we are less likely to have data about the needs of underprivileged and marginal communities and people in those communities are even less likely to have the skills to make use of that data. Data poverty threatens to combine with larger concerns over automation to increase inequality.
Let’s not forget the utopian imaginations of abundance, of a life devoted to creation and enjoyment as machines perform all the drudgery. We can’t discount the power of this artificial city on the hill. If AI and Data spawn apocalyptic and utopian visions, we need a liberation theology to bring that vision to the people. That’s the driving ambition of subversive intelligence.
I have written a few hundred essays over the last five years, with a year and a half in the middle being devoted to a single text, the Mahabharata. I might start the Jayary again this fall, prompted by a seminar I am organizing this semester.
The Mahabharata is unique in that it starts with a post-apocalyptic scenario: a great war has ended, killing everyone except for seven survivors, a death toll of millions. There’s recognition that the old order has ended, that it was unsustainable and that its end came despite the societies of that time being led by people considered “good” by the standards of the time.
Perhaps we too are such a society, led by regimes with some legitimacy but collectively heading towards a transition that we can’t plan for or avoid. What form will that transition take? What will be washed away? Those are the questions that I keep returning to, provoking a meandering journey through the forty two gates of knowledge.
To put it simply, there’s an itch I want to scratch, but each time I scratch one spot, it starts itching in another. I don’t want the itch to go away, but I would like to know the source of the irritation.
Mission accomplished last week: I found the source. I bet you’re itching to learn what I found. Here’s a clue:
Elrond: “This peril belongs to all Middle-Earth. They must decide now how to end it.”
Elrond: “The time of the Elves is over — my people are leaving these shores. Who will you look to when we’ve gone? The Dwarves?
Gandalf: “It is in Men that we must place our hope.”
One of my (many) favorite lines in the Lord of the Rings, describing a world that’s about to pass. If you haven’t read the books, here’s the premise: the dark lord has emerged from his hideout and is gathering his forces. If he wins, game over: everyone’s dead or his slave. If the good guys manage to defeat him, the dharma of the elves is fulfilled and they have to fade away.
Either way, one yuga is over and another is about to begin.
Fast forward a few thousand (or is it million?) years and we are at a crossroads once again. Just as the elves had to fade away after Sauron’s defeat, we might have to fade away too: except that we are the good guys and the bad guys, so if our bad guys win, we are all done for and if our good guys win, we will have to make away for something else.
What I don’t know is whether the future will transform the world we have created over the last seventy five years after the end of the second world war, or the world we have created as a settled species over the last ten thousand years. I tend towards the latter, hence the sensationalist headline:
The age of men is ending.
Whether it’s a rejection of the last 75 years or of the last 7500, we are in for a great unsettling.
Let’s get rid of the Sauron scenario first: I am not thinking apocalyptically. Major violence is almost certain, but I am skeptical about futures lacking in humanity altogether.
Let’s say all of Eurasia outside Siberia becomes uninhabitable because of climate change and Russia refuses to change its immigration policy in response, leading to pitched battles over migration and settlement. How many people do you think will die? A few hundred million? A billion? It would still be a smaller loss, relative to population, than what happened in China over the 13th century after the Mongol invasions, when a population of 120 million collapsed to 60 million over six decades.
Even if we are left with a human population of 4 billion in 2100 — undoubtedly the outcome of the greatest disasters in the history of humanity — it will still leave enough humans that the species is not threatened. In other words, whatever happens, there are going to be people left on earth. Lots of people.
The real question is: who will they be and how will they live?
For most of human history, we were a mobile species. It’s only with settled agriculture sometime in the last ten thousand odd years that we became “rooted.” It’s fair to say that what we call history is nothing but the chronicles of settler humanity; even when they were conquered by nomadic tribes — the Mongol invasions for example — it was in order to loot or skim off the wealth created by settler humanity.
In fact, the concept of wealth is a settler concept; a mobile species has no reason to accumulate.
Settler humanity has won to such a large extent that for most people including me, the only ways of life are rural or urban, i.e., agricultural settler humanity and industrial/post-industrial settler humanity. Non-settler humanities — often captured by the blanket term “indigenous peoples” — are barely 5% of the human population and every single one of them lives at the mercy of settlers.
I will not recall the long and torturous expansion of settler humanity across the globe, the waxing and waning of agrarian and industrial civilizations. We can say that all of that came to a head in the second world war, at the end of which were two “final settlements” that vied for support across the world: communist society and liberal democracy.
In the history we have written so far, one of them won and the other lost. I am thinking that’s that not the final verdict for they were both heading towards the wrong finish line.
When the Soviet Union fell, scholars such as Fukuyama thought we had arrived at a secular, this-worldly end of all times. In that moment of triumph, liberal capitalist democracy represented the end of history, a city on the hill that approximates the universal ideals of settler humanity. Which is to say that after an agonizing journey filled with disease and violence and predatory social relations that extracted wealth from the majority of toiling humans, we had created the institutional framework that made most people happy most of the time.
I think Fukuyama was right, in that all that toil and struggle produced a brief period under US hegemony when it seemed like a global settler human will become the universal ideal. Unfortunately, that ride into the sunset turned out to be a short stroll to the edge of the abyss. Instead of a final settlement, we are the beginning of a great unsettling, where every idea, ideal and institution of ours will be questioned, rejected, transformed or destroyed.
To give just one example: do you think we can continue to live in a world of sovereign nation states when hundreds of millions of people are desperate to migrate with their lands running out of water and their oceans frosting their fields with salt?
I have a hard time believing in that settled future.
There are many many other unsettlings waiting to happen and I hope to chronicle some of them. While there are many objects that catch my fancy, ultimately, my essays are a dairy of the great unsettling. And when I turn to the Mahabharata, I read another era’s retelling of their great unsettling and the painful recreation of a world worth living. That’s the source of my itch.
There’s still uncertainty over what will be unsettled: will it be the post-world war liberal order or will it be all of human history? I tend towards the latter, which is what I mean by the claim “the age of men is ending,” but even a rejection of the last seventy five years will be a great unsettling.
Caveat: Dramatic claims need extraordinary evidence. I am not arrogant enough to think one essay is enough evidence in the court of the cosmos. I am arrogant enough to think that an essay can make that claim vivid enough that further evidence will make it plausible and ninety three volumes later, lay the foundation of a cult in my name.
Meanwhile, as an educator, the great unsettling prompts some questions about learning to live through the shift –
how to imagine life as we enter that phase?
what skills will help us navigate its uncertainties?
and most importantly for me professionally — how will the world of knowledge be unsettled?
I will leave you with a diagram that captures my answer to that question.
I have a firm leg in the doom and gloom camp. My friends alternate between sending images of the burning Amazon and pictures of Amazon — the company, not the lungs of the planet — replacing all jobs with robots. Not that I mind; all that misery gives my optimist brain something to push against.
So when someone asks me if startups can save the world, my first response is: of course. Five seconds later, I change my mind to: you must be kidding! Back and forth, here’s how I argue with myself:
Me: How can startups change the world? They are tiny and the world’s problems are huge!
Me: Yes, but when they become bigger, they are no different from the other Death Star corporations sucking the life out of the planet.
Myself: but we can invent a new type of startup that’s less Death Star and more Jedi Knight. Startups don’t have to be about profits any more than factories have to manufacture cloth and nothing else.
and so it goes.
There’s something about how startups harness psychological energy and navigate uncertainty that appeals to me, and increasingly, we have data that tells us what works when people come together for a common purpose. Why not use it to make the world a better place?
To paraphrase a man who first gave me hope and then disappointed me: yes we can.
It’s never been easier to go from idea to implementation to turn a profit. Everything from Y-Combinator to my neighborhood angel investor are waiting to turn blood, sweat and tears into 💵. Unfortunately, saving the world is mostly not a matter of 💵. It’s about putting people and planet before profits. Here are three of my favorite world-savers:
Not a single businessman in that panorama. They were all politicians. That’s cuz politics is the most important method through which we have saved the world in the last two hundred years — both liberators and dictators have been politicians.
Note: none of them is a woman. I apologize for that snub to half the earth’s population. Patriarchy inserts itself into the STW business.
While the US doesn’t encourage political startups, i.e., new political parties, it’s common in other parts of the world for parties to be formed. Especially when there are classes of people whose needs aren’t being met by any of their current choices. Sometimes those new parties win elections and become political corporations and even one party states. Political monopolies suck even more than business monopolies.
The good news is there are more forms of political entrepreneurship than we can imagine, so why only political parties, why not other political startups? What about international political associations around global topics such as climate change — do we really think such wicked problems can be solved by middle aged women and men sitting in the U.N General Assembly? If you believe so, I have a couple of bridges I want to sell you.
I will tell you why like startups. They are the most robust institution we have devised for collective action amidst uncertainty. Corporations and governments are good at delivering solutions that work, but only startups are good at finding out what works in the first place. How will Indian farmers handle shorter, more intense monsoons? I don’t know, but I bet there’s a startup somewhere that will come up with a good idea.
Please stop thinking a startup is only about money.
We should divorce the idea of the startup from its capitalist origins, just as factories arose in the capitalist world but spread to societies where the government ran all forms of production. I am not saying one’s better than the other, just that startups and factories are flexible institutions capable of doing any number of different things.
I am a 100% certain that the future of the human species is bursting with uncertainty — pun intended. We have to become adept at navigating chaos and for that “Startup thinking” is an essential quality. Only if it combines politics, engineering and design though.
I went to an engineering school but I didn’t study engineering. In fact, I have stayed away from engineering my entire life despite being a geek. Cooking, yes. Sports, yes. Maker spaces: of course. But not engineering.
That’s because engineering struck me — perhaps wrongly — as being focused on the small picture, of making this widget in front of me work without caring about its connection to the wider world and damn the consequences. It wasn’t a discipline that encouraged a philosophical bent of mind. Engineering has undoubtedly changed the world, but it has done so without taking responsibility for that change.
In contrast, politics always struck me as being closely tied to philosophy: or to paraphrase Marx: we don’t want to study the world, but to change it. And there’s no shortage of political writing as to why we should change the world this way rather than that way. Politics, however disagreeable, takes responsibility for changing the world, which is why the metaphorical levers of politics were better suited to my theory of change than the mechanical levers of engineering.
Of late, I have been feeling that the division between politics and engineering is disappearing. Both are technologies that create human artifacts in response to individual and collective needs. Until recently, it was easier to encode big-picture goals in political technology than in engineering technology. For example:
Do you think democracies should have a separation of powers those creating policy and those enacting it? Solution: create separate institutions for the two purposes.
Today, similar decisions are being made in engineering technology: if you want to create a platform in which the platform owner doesn’t have an undue advantage vis-a-vis other participants? Make sure their business development wing only has access to the same data as any other business using the site. API design can encode ethical features and value judgments in a manner unthinkable fifty years ago.
The reason politics and engineering are coming together is code — and I use that computing phrase in the broadest sense of the term. Political technology has always been based on text: constitutions, policy briefs, white papers and such. Engineering technology has been based on things:steam engines and marble tiles. Code functions both as text and as thing. That’s a huge transition in how we change the world. We are just scratching the surface of that revolution.
That realization got me thinking about problems that should be solved simultaneously as engineering products and political policy, with solutions exhibiting a combination of good design, good data and deep concern for social implications. Technology that pays attention to the forest and the trees. I am on the lookout for such “forestrees.”
Here’s the first.
Halfway through the first game of the season on Saturday, my daughter took a soccer ball to the face. She continued playing for a couple more minutes before her nose started bleeding when she had to leave the field and couldn’t play the rest of the game. This being the United States, a trainer checked her out and suggested she might have the mildest of concussions, which meant no more games that weekend. Fortunately, she was fine the next morning and ended up playing on Sunday.
I love my daughter more than anything in the universe but this essay isn’t about her. It’s about how she was assessed for a potential concussion. She was checked by trainers three times on Saturday and Sunday. I noticed that on all three occasions, the trainer whipped out her phone and used the phone camera to make an assessment.
There are a couple of concussion assessment apps in the iOS app store but none of them are fancy — they are just a list of protocols to follow, including making the player stand on one foot, move their arms in set patterns and so on. Looks quite crude if you ask me, though arguably optimized for assessment by a young person with little experience.
I asked myself if we have better signals for concussion.
What about eye movements or other neuromuscular signatures? A quick google search lead me to this paper which says that disconjugate eye movements (i.e., when the two eyes don’t move in synchrony) are present in more than 90% of concussion and blast victims. I am not sure if trainers have the medical training to detect disconjugate eyes, especially if lighting conditions aren’t good. Disconjucation detection (DCD for short) might be too hard for untrained human beings.
But we are forgetting that camera. It seems underutilized — I saw the trainers shining it into my daughter’s eyes one eye at a time. DCD needs to process the signal from both eyes at once for it to work — after all, we want to find out if they moving in unison.
Let’s eliminate what I think of as the easy case — in the case of severe concussion, the two eyes are more likely to be completely out of sync. A severe concussion is likely to be a result of a major collision either on a sports field or in an automobile. Those aren’t the obvious cases I am thinking about, since they will be referred to emergency care right away. Concussions from a minor incident on a children’s playground or from an elderly person falling in a bathroom are harder problems to solve, and the solution has to be be in your pocket.
Phone is all we got.
An optical problem has to be solved first, a robust method for detecting eye movements from both eyes. There has to be a way of sweeping a phone camera in front of someone’s eyes so that it picks up the eye movement signals from both eyes at once. It’s a technical challenge because the signal is masked by an enormous amount of noise: jitter because of shaky hands, changing reflection patterns because of blinking eyes and head movements, changes in light sources if clouds block the sun and so on.
Fortunately, we have a clean separation of movements:
There’s the relatively smooth movement of my arm as I scan the camera in front of your eyes. Assuming that the light source from my phone camera is the only light that’s changing in intensity — ambient light from the sun or artificial lighting being assumed constant — the light reflected back from your eyes is going to be a smooth function of my hand movements. Further, smartphones now have motion sensors so we can use hardware to detect and filter out movements initiated by the person holding the camera.
There’s the jerky movement of your eyes as they saccade and change focus, and every time that happens, there’s a sharp change in light intensity. There’s are also the jerky movements of my eyes blinking, but that happens at a slower rate than eye movements and is an up and down movement while saccades have two degrees of freedom.
I am betting on a relatively clean separation of signal (eye movements) from noise (the camera movement, her head movements, blinks etc). In short, while there are genuine technical difficulties, I am reasonably confident that the signal detection problem can be solved. But once we have the two channel signal — one channel for each eye — we are left with an inference problem: how do I know when a signal indicates concussion?
The simplest kind of processing that can be done on the two channel signal is a summary statistic, such as the correlation between the two channels. Disconjugate eyes will have lower correlation between the two channels than normal ones. If we are happy with a simple diagnostic, this is all we need to do: set a concussion threshold and slot anyone who meets that threshold for medical intervention.
That, by the way, is the nature of most medical interventions based on bodily indicators. If I go to my doctor’s office with a test result and if my blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol is above a certain threshold, they will likely talk to me about further testing. If the statistic is in a band that’s not too low or or too high, they will talk to me about my diet and exercise regime and suggest changes if necessary. Otherwise, the machine’s working as it should and I go home happy.
But we can do better than that today, can’t we?
There are several problems with the simple diagnostic. Let me mention three:
It’s not personalized: My body might disconjunct at a lower contact threshold than yours. Even if there’s momentary disconjunction, your body might recover more quickly from it than mine. If disconjunction is a transient signal, how do we know when it’s a reliable indicator of concussion?
More generally, signs of concussion might be hidden in higher-order statistics instead of simple correlations. If so, noise will prevent us from extracting those higher-order statistics from a single observation.
The alternative is to go for a top-down approach based on extensive data collection. If I collect my eye movement data over time, the system will learn the typical conjunction between my eyes and how that changes with exertion, time of the day and other variables. With a robust data set like that in the background, we can be much more confident about when a genuine concussion is the cause of disjunction. Instead of creating a simple summary statistic and basing our diagnosis on just that alone, we can create a Bayesian concussion detector that answers the question:
How likely is it that X has a concussion based on the record of her eye-movements?
Detection accuracy will obviously improve if the system has access to eye movement data of thousands of soccer playing children. Having that data in the background will also help diagnose whether my child’s post-concussion recovery is on track.
Where is her disconjunction one week post concussion relative to the population average?
Should we be looking at a more intensive check-up?
Every trip to the emergency room costs money and leads to higher insurance premiums. We want to base any decision to send a child to an emergency room on the most robust data we have on hand. Longitudinal data is better than sporadic data.
Not that you need convincing, but there’s no shortage of advances in health and wellbeing that need repositories of biological data, from eye-movements to cholesterol levels. But, and there’s a HUGE but: the possibility of exploitation, control and oppression is so much greater when data are collected and made available to corporations and governments. In order to avoid big brother, platform design should encode a “fair use” policy with respect to all the data hosted on their premises.
To put in crude terms, whose data is it?
First: who will create such a data set and if I create that set, do I own it? Let’s start with the latter — that the creator of the data set is the owner, which is the current default. Since data is supposedly the new oil, it’s no surprise there’s a rush to capture as many valuable data sets in your hands as possible, leading to all kinds of problems. Search monopolies are bad enough, but we certainly don’t want health data monopolies.
Let’s say Startup A raises a ton of VC money and creates a comprehensive eye-movement database whose API used by Startup B for concussion detection and Startup C for dyslexia monitoring. Two years down the road, Startup A enters its own concussion detection app, competing directly with Startup B. What’s B to do? How does an application company compete with a platform company?
There might be a programmatic solution — as I had mentioned in the introduction, we can design APIs that prevent the business development side of Startup A from having access to data that the users (Startups B and C in this case) have access to. But can API modularity be enforced without regulation?
I doubt it.
Also, platforms keep evolving. Imagine that Startup A discovers that while the market for concussion and dyslexia apps is individual parents and teams, hospitals and HMOs are an ideal market for the platform as a whole. What does A do? Make an offer to B and C that they can’t refuse? Enter into a complicated revenue sharing model?
Platform monopolies are even more entrenched than widget monopolies — the dominance of the FAANG platforms being a case in point. Despite the popular slogan, data isn’t oil; it’s not a resource that disappears after being used once. Instead, it gets more valuable with time and accretes more uses.
Which makes data prone to platform monopolies since platforms are designed for current as well as future uses — once you list all the books in the world, you can sell them yourself, offer space for others to sell, convert them into ebooks sold by your company or direct the customer to a competing book that has a higher rating on your own system of ratings. I can’t see a future in which privatized data is good for anyone besides the monopolist.
How will that work out in healthcare? If we want to avoid monopolization, we should keep the data open, say through the creation of a platform commons. That leads to another challenge: who is going to pay for such a platform? It’s not like creating an open database of cat videos — the regulatory demands of collecting and storing biological data will make their platforms prohibitively expensive for your typical non-profit.
Is the only financially and politically viable solution is to socialize the data? Which is to say, governments pay for the creation and maintenance of health data repositories and own the platform. Governments having ultimate ownership has its own challenges, especially in countries where citizens don’t have political control over what happens to their data. Which, to be honest, is the case in most liberal democracies let alone authoritarian regimes.
Plus, what do you think are the chances of a government creating a high-quality platform? Might be possible in a small and rich country like Sweden, but the U.S health care debacle suggests that creating universal health data systems in a large and diverse nation is an incredibly hard problem to solve.
What is to be done?
I have a utopian answer: data should be a universal resource like time. Clocks became important after the industrial revolution and transcontinental railroads, but there were thousands of time-measures in the early days of mechanical time-keeping. As this article says,
When the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad formed the Pacific Railroad, later called the transcontinental railroad, more than 8,000 towns were using their own local time and over 53,000 miles of track had been laid across the United States. Railroad managers and supervisors well understood the problems caused by so many discrepancies in time keeping.
There could have been many ways of solving the problem of time standardization:
Let railroad mergers dictate time mergers so that at the end of the process there are a few private time companies in the world that own my time and your time.
Let the government own the time — and tax you for owning a watch😏
Create an international standard for time that no one owns or even thinks of owning.
Aren’t we glad we chose the third option — can you imagine time being owned by Acme corp instead of being an international standard? Why can’t we do that with data? Why can’t we have universal, secure data systems that aren’t owned by anyone and enable any number of products?
One international data standard that stores and maintains all the important data in the world. Cue photos of smiling children and dogs playing in the sunshine.
You may not agree with my solution — feel free to leave yours in the comments, but I hope you’re convinced that:
It’s hard to design platforms that serve our needs today and in the future.
We need both engineering and political technologies to design such platforms.
Now for the philosophical climax of today’s program…
I can’t end an essay about creating data driven systems without a nod to data dystopias. There are the obvious dangers: hackers stealing your medical records and blackmailing you, insurers refusing service because of genetic predispositions, governments denying treatment to political dissidents and so on. While they are important worries — it would be a disaster if a hacker changed your baseline heart rate during a cardiac treatment — but in my view they are problems of the past, based on the model of the “all-seeing eye” or the panopticon.
There’s a difference between the world of meager data and the world of rich data.
A world of meager data is one where I don’t know what’s going on in your head. We are atomic individuals separated by infinite mental space. The all seeing eye assumes a uniform space occupied by atomic souls who are mostly like each other. In that world, the panopticon appears either as a blessing or as a nightmare — blessing if you’re the religious type and like the idea of a divinity knowing every thought that crosses your mind, and a nightmare because you’re the cynical type that doesn’t want god or the government having access to your desires.
Note how both the blessings and the curses arise from the act of being “truly seen.”
In response, we created liberal democracies where the government knows some things about you but not too much, where insurance companies write policies based on the normal individual and where you have to be in prison or a totalitarian state to be completely exposed to the authorities. To summarize: meager data, health insurance and liberal democracy are a package that pleases many people much of the time.
I believe the world of rich data will be substantially different. It’s prime worry (or blessing!) will not be whether I am being truly seen, but whether there’s an I at all. There’s no reason why the Snapchat self and the iHealth self and the iVote self are the same self or even feel like being the same person. What if the experienced of a unified self is an artifact of history?
What if the reason you feel that you vote, you work and you play is because you live in a time when you have privileged access to your internal states — as Descartes famously thought — while others have limited and indirect access to those states?
A useful way of thinking about technology is as an extension of our mental apparatus. Glasses are extensions of our visual system, hearing aids of the auditory system and equations of our conceptual capacities. But none of these do much computing. Imagine instead a third prosthetic arm that has as much computing as your peripheral nervous system — what do you think it will do your experience of the world? Or, for that matter, when data platforms are as good at predicting what you will do next as you can.
In that world we might feel less like human beings of the past and more like Octopi with eight arms, each one of whom has a mind of its own. Those arms usually act in unison but they don’t have to. Sometimes they clearly don’t. I don’t know what it feels like when arm 7 and arm 3 go to war against each other and I have no way of stopping the fight. I certainly don’t know what it’s like when arm 6 votes for Trump and arm 1 votes for Hillary.
Let me leave you with a final question: what will it be like to build a global society around a multiple selved creature?
I am not sure if there’s a startup creating the Octopus empire, but there should be one.
The nation state is the most successful and important social institution in the world. Anything larger — the EU for example — tends to be a technocratic exercise without emotional pull. Anything smaller lives at the mercy of the nation; Kashmir being this week’s illustration of that general principle. For most of us, a world map is a map of countries.
What else could it be?
Yet, the nation state is a relative newcomer in the history of the world. There were only 77 sovereign states in 1900 while there are 195 today. Most of the new entrants came during the era of decolonization with a few more thrown in when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed.
As far as I can tell, there’s no general principle that answers the question: “what’s the basis for creating a state?” Geographical continuity is a major plus (Pakistan at independence and the US today being prominent exceptions) but it’s not a sufficient condition for most national boundaries are between neighbors. Religion and language also help, but not always. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that linguistic concepts were often family resemblance categories. His famous example was that of games: some are competitive, some are team sports and some are board games. There’s no single definition that covers all games.
The concept of nationhood is also a family resemblance category, except that it’s not just a concept. It’s out there in the world and with real consequences. Close to the Wagah border, it’s not clear to me if I should draw the boundary between India and Pakistan — the current situation — or between Punjab and non-Punjab (which is how some people might want it). Identities aren’t etched in stone even if national boundaries are.
Despite these philosophical conundrums, the list of states is relatively stable. We haven’t added many in the last few decades except for those that took on a sovereign identity after the Soviet collapse. In fact, the stability of nation states is so important that even when foreign powers meddle in their affairs, they don’t change territorial boundaries. Coups yes, Operation Iraqi Freedom yes, but don’t redraw the map please.
Stable boundaries are a good thing I suppose, especially when there’s a global consensus that we don’t use violence to change those boundaries. Unfortunately, this rigid designator is inadequate for many of our challenges.
Some challenges arise at the sub-national level, where the national identity has a hard time co-existing with sub-national identities. I don’t mean the liberal complaint that the nation can’t handle multiple identities, that I can’t be Tamil and Indian at the same time (yes, I can!). That challenge also exists but I am thinking of a different problem: the violence of the state and/or its citizens when they detect what they believe to be a betrayal of national loyalty. Why can’t we be better about juggling allegiances? Why can’t I be Indian while cheering on another country’s cricket team? There’s a strange residue of monotheism in the way we calculate national loyalties.
Consider Kashmir. I am betraying no confidence when I say that most valley Kashmiris want out of India while most of their Ladakhi and Jammu counterparts want to stay. It seems like the only way to “solve” that problem is by breaking the state apart and intensifying the military presence in the valley.
Nation states being what they are today, there’s no chance that India will allow the creation of an independent Kashmiri nation. But why is independence the only option? Or unending repression? We don’t have good models for the sharing of power, of multiple sovereignties.
Then there are the problems that arise at the supranational level because the reach of the sovereign nation is partial. While people have to be content with a primary sovereign, capital has no such allegiance. I have to apply for a visa to go to China, but my money can go there in a few seconds and come back a few weeks later as a computer. That works for me as a consumer, but creates real challenges for me as a worker doesn’t it? I can’t switch jobs from one country to another while my employer can switch factories far more easily: Bangladesh today, Vietnam tomorrow and back to the US only when protectionist sentiment is high.
The mobility of capital (and the capitalist) vis-a-vis the immobility of labor is both a cause of the close relationship between the lords of industry and political elites across the world and caused by that relationship. Those cozy relationships at the top are the basis of a global cybernetic system in which finance plays the role of a controller (in the way that switches and steering wheels are controllers in a mechanical system) that sends signals to a labor that in turn moves matter from place A to place B upon receiving the controlling signals.
Which leads to another problem. The further matter moves, the more energy it consumes. It doesn’t take me any more effort to click a button and buy a widget from China rather than the town next door, but the carbon footprint of the former is so much greater. Here the nation state conveniently plays exactly the opposite role that it plays in the labor-capital nexus. It enables the liberation and movement of carbon but prevents signals opposing that movement (international pressure, for example) from coming in. As the Amazon burns, the Brazilian government claims its sovereign right to do what it pleases with the lungs of the earth while criticizing international NGOs for creating trouble.
I am not saying the state will go away or even that it should, but it sure looks incapable of being the institutional form in which the wickedest problems of the times will be solved.
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.
Before we get to Newton and Blake, let me make an important distinction between two kinds of measurements:
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.
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:
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 morelove 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.