Weekly Newsletter #2: 8th August, 2014. Unity in Diversity

I think it was Nehru who used the term “unity in diversity” in his book Discovery of Indiato describe India and it’s culture. Then, as now, India was an incredibly diverse country. No single language, religion, ethnicity or political persuasion unites the country as a whole; and yet it moves. It’s the opposite of the European nation state built around a common language and religion. India’s unity amidst diversity has always been contested — there are people who believe that India should be Hindu (though it’s not clear how that would solve the problem of diversity) or India should be a Hindi speaking country. Some people will always try to impose their monolithic vision on to India, but I believe it’s impossible to succeed. No centrifugal force triumphs in India for too long. I am gladdened by the irreducible diversity of India. It’s a fluid existence of identities that have multiple loyalties. Loyalties that refuse to be suborned to an overarching identity.

I have been thinking about the implications of fluid, mostly peaceful (and sometimes incredibly violent) coexistence for domains such as philosophy that are far removed from the passions of nationhood. I believe that philosophy, design and the arts should come closer than they’re now. Epistemology should be replaced by epistry.

Technology is rapidly changing the landscape of knowledge. We no longer hit the library for information. We might soon be going to the web for education as well — not that I expect physical learning spaces to disappear, but their role will change and new blended learning environments will emerge. Some of those environments will be dystopic, but others will help us imagine a better future.

This Week’s Links

Fluidity is a central design challenge: how can we create knowledge environments that let data and information stream through as we adapt to new situations. Fluidity doesn’t live in the abstract, it needs context and circumstance. This week’s links have something to do with fluidity of the phenomenon they seek to describe.

  1. The New York Times has a blog on contemporary philosophical matters called The Stone. Gary Gutting has a wonderful interview with Jonardon Ganeri, a well known Indian Philosopher (i.e., a philosopher who works on Indian philosophical texts rather than a philosopher of Indian origin) where Jonardon artfully parries questions about Hinduism. It’s a great read.
  2. Moving from philosophy to technology, I am sure many of you read this news report about MIT researchers recovering audio information from visual information, of figuring out what something sounds like from knowing what it looks like. You can imagine the possibilities for surveillance. Visual surveillance is relatively easy if you’re out in the open. On a clear day, you can be recorded from a satellite in orbit. Audio surveillance is hard. You need to be pretty close to the target. If speech is recoverable from sight, video becomes audio and you have no privacy in public. Your word really would be your bond, for someone could mine a public video of you making a promise and hold you to your word. I find that cool as well as troubling, but my real fascination isn’t with the technology. It’s with the idea that information itself is distributed across sensory domains. Think about this way: it feels very different to hear something than to see it. Red is a color, not a sound. Yet, we know that objects have shape and make a particular sound. We still don’t know what binds sight to sound. Perhaps information is the glue. That will be a huge advance in our understanding of mind and consciousness.
  3. While some people believe that we’ll be uploading our minds to google’s computers soon, other’s are not so sure about these reductive approaches to the mind. In what I call “the reduction of all reductions,” scientists are measuring brain activity during meditation and trying to arrive at a science of enlightenment.Read this interview with Evan Thompson to understand why that’s such a bad idea.
  4. Mindfulness is one of our modern mantras. Stressed? Meditate. Want a better job? Meditate even more. Meditation is fast becoming another commodity. There’s even an app for it. So is big data. Where an earlier generation fought for our rights, we seem to believe that social challenges can be solved, like a calculus 101 problem. I am of two minds about this. I do think data will help us address social challenges. At the same time, data isn’t a substitute for democracy.
  5. Finally, while some of us binging on twitter and facebook, others are OD’ing on MOOCs. Why take six courses a semester when you can take sixty? Is that really a productive way to learn? Would you hire a person who took a degree’s worth of MOOCs in one year and aced all those courses?

That’s it for this week. As usual, your comments are welcome. If you have any suggestions for great links, let me know.

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