Thursday, May 3, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VIII

I keep hearing from people from large cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc., that there are more roads and flyovers but traffic jams are the same or worse. This is to be expected because of a  concept called induced demand, which is an economist's jargon for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people will use it more. Even with more and better public transport, if more roads are built, traffic congestion doesn’t ease.

What’s interesting is that the effect works in reverse too. Whenever some city proposes taking lanes away from a road, residents scream that they’re going to create  huge traffic jams. But nothing truly terrible happens. The amount of traffic on the road simply re-adjusts and overall congestion doesn’t really increase. Cities like Paris, San Fransisco and Seoul have tried it. Traffic didn’t get worse and many other things, including pollution, got better. Some people take public transport, some people drive less and a new equilibrium is reached whose conditions are not very different from that of the old equilibrium.

A lot of effort is made for promoting 'spiritual tourism' by beautifying and improving facilities at pilgrimage sites. But improving accessibility to and conveniences at holy places reduces their sanctity. Gandhi saw the problem over a century ago when he said in Hind Swaraj, 'The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with very great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only the real devotees visited such places. Nowadays rogues visit them in order to practise their roguery.' (It is to be noted that while calling himself a true Hindu, Gandhi never visited temples for praying in his adult life nor did he construct any temples in his ashrams.)

I heard about a program called 'transforming India' organized by Niti Aayog which would no doubt have come up with rosy projections about the distant future. In  The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the penchant for making long-term projections came about because of MS Excel. Earlier, people had to make tedious calculations manually so they did not make projections beyond a year or two. Now they can just pull the table to the right and you get 10 year projections in a second. The more into the future you predict, the less they will conform to reality. As a quote variously attributed to Yogi Berra, Neils Bohr or Mark Twain says, 'It's Hard To make predictions, especially about the future.' The easier you make some things, the more hot air you get.

A similar problem happens due to cashless transactions. The easier you make it to pay, the more the tendency to make impulse purchases and you end up buying things you don't really need - good news for manufactures, not such good news for consumers (although it is marketed as being beneficial to the latter). Moreover, encouraging use of credit cards makes you more indebted making you more dependent on your job and thereby making you a 'better' slave. Making it easy to write and publish ends up producing what a school-teacher told me was 'a diarrhoea of words and a constipation of thought'. (What was that,once again? I haven't changed, is it? Hmm.) Again, Gandhi saw this when he wrote in Hind Swaraj, ‘Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds.’

There is a naive faith that technology will solve all problems, that machines will give objective, unbiased outputs. This contention ignores the biases of the persons making the algorithms thus making their moral delusions institutionalized. By overvaluing algorithms, we can easily undervalue people and the non-human living world. In The Black Box Society, Frank Pasquale says about such ‘black boxes’ (complex automated calculation algorithms of which MS Excel is only one tool), ‘…attraction of the black box isn’t hard to understand. It promotes “automation bias,” an assumption that a machine- driven, software- enabled system is going to offer better results than human judgment. And when the stakes are high enough, automation bias can degenerate into wishful thinking or worse: opportunistic misuse of models to validate sharp business practises.’   Gandhi was very much aware of how concentration of power in the hands of experts perpetuates existing indignities and sought to resist it.

The problem with making things easy is also seen in the educational system. (I had written about this earlier.) Making question papers easy and correction lenient only encourages mediocrity. Any conscientious teacher knows that these are not the mechanical exercises they are sought to be made into and that a certain amount of subjectivity is required. As John Dryden wrote, 'errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; / He who would search for pearls must dive below.' One can understand why such changes are made - try to eliminate bias and favouritism. It again brings to mind why Gandhi was dismissive of the idea of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good. Systems are just external manifestations of a person's inner convictions.

Ogden Nash said, ‘The cow is of the bovine ilk;/  One end is moo, the other, milk.‘ In India, it is a bit more than that. Whenever there is some controversy over beef eating, RSS/BJP will say that Gandhi also wanted to protect the cow thereby implying that their actions are in tune with Gandh's thinking. Gandhi has made objectionable statements on certain issues but it is always better to check what exactly he said and how his views changed over time. (All 100 volumes of 'The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi' are online.) As Georg Christoph Lichtenberg said, 'The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.'

He was not an admirer of consistency and said so a few times. He said in 1930, 'I ...endorse Emerson's saying that 'Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'' Young India in 1931: 'Seeming consistency may really be sheer obstinacy.' Sept 1939: 'At the time of writing I never think of what I have said before. My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth". He would have liked the remark of Keynes who, when accused of having made a U-turn about something, said: ’When I find that I’ve been mistaken I change my mind: what do you do?’

Gandhi said on January 17, 1933, 'My language is aphoristic, it lacks precision. It is therefore open to several interpretations.' Take, for example, his speech on cow protection in Bettiah about Oct. 9, 1917, (as per the Collected Works),  when he was invited to lay the foundation-stone of a cow-shed. He began by saying, ‘ For the Hindus, this is sacred work. Protection of the cow is a primary duty for every Indian.’ But then, he went on to criticize how it was being done which was leading to riots and loss of property. Then he says:

Those who want to stop others from sinning must be free from sin themselves. Hindu society has been inflicting terrible cruelty on the cow and her progeny. The present condition of our cows is a direct proof of this. My heart bleeds when I see thousands of bullocks with no blood and flesh on them, their bones plainly visible beneath their skin, ill-nourished and made to carry excessive burdens, while the driver twists their tails and goads them on. I shudder when I see all this and ask myself how we can say anything to our Muslim friends so long as we do not refrain from such terrible violence...

No comments:

Post a Comment