Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- V

Modern society is an expert society since functional specialization is a prominent feature. Nobody dares to tread into the periphery of the other’s job since everyone has been trained in a specific way. The training of doctors, lawyers, academicians, politicians, spiritual teachers and others makes them know more and more about less and less. In an article he wrote for the New York Times in 1952, Einstein compared any person instructed only in “specialized knowledge” to a “well-trained dog.” Modern men are very circumscribed men who have become very dependant on others. Their rationality has become an instrument of their self-degradation. They all are seeing life in parts.

Gandhi had a problem with the narrow and limited nature of these professions. He says in Ethical Religion, 'It is our task to analyze and explore the body, the brain and the mind of man separately; but if we stop here, we derive no benefit despite our scientific knowledge. It is necessary to know about the evil effects of injustice, wickedness, vanity and the like, and the disaster they spell where the three are found together. And mere knowledge is not enough, it should be followed by appropriate action.' Ronald Terchek says in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
Today, we do not talk much about wisdom or even knowledge but rather about information. For someone like Gandhi, this last term epitomizes much of what is wrong today. He sees people eagerly acquiring fragments of information, as kings once collected conscripts, and in each case the purpose is much the same: to master new territory.
Take the institution of law. For Gandhi it is only an external institution to settle the dispute but the ultimate aim is to change the heart. The modern legal system has done little to develop and mobilize man’s moral sensibilities and capacities for reflection and introspection. Instead, it requires him to transfer them to a central agency telling him how to run his life and conduct his relations with others, including his own neighbours, wife, and children. Gandhi found it surprising that the modern man, who talked so much about his self-respect and dignity, did not find all this deeply humiliating.

Functional specialization makes it easier to replace humans with computer algorithms. Ancient hunter-gatherers had to master a large variety of skills and getting algorithms to perform them is not easy. But as humans became more specialized, they no longer required most human skills to perform their jobs. An algorithm now only had to perform a bit better the narrow spectrum of human skills required for a job for humans to be replaced. So now algorithms can invade territories occupied by taxi drivers, lawyers, doctors, etc.

Some months ago, Arun Jaitley brushed aside a report that suggested a four-decade high in unemployment rate under the Narendra Modi government. He stated a few numbers to drive home his point. "If 7.5% is the real growth in Gross Domestic Product, and inflation is at 3-4%, the nominal growth needs to be around 11-12%. It would be absurd to say that there are no jobs in such a scenario.' It is telling that a Finance Minister thinks that economic growth automatically translates into job creation. Some call this the 'growth paradox'.

Nitin Gadkari said in an interview that BJP didn't create unemployment, it's been a problem since 1947. (Apparently it wasn't a problem before 1947!) A Gandhian reading of the report would suggest that there is nothing surprising about the report and there is no 'growth paradox'. It is along expected lines and the long term trend will get worse. Gandhi said in Harijan, 4-1-1935, 'Whatever the machine age may do, it will never give employment to the millions whom the wholesale introduction of power machinery must displace.' He said in Young India, 13-11-1924:
What I object to, is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on 'saving labour', till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. 
The opposition parties made a lot of noise suggesting that the job situation will be better if they were in power but that is hot air. For an industrialist the ideal situation is a completely automated factory with no labour. Then he will not have to worry about absenteeism, strikes, training costs, poaching of employees by competitors, providing facilities like canteen and creche, people getting sick, demanding respect, fretting about the terrible working conditions and other such messy human issues. Then predictability, efficiency and productivity will be very high. So long as this is the logic that informs industrialists, 'rationalisation' of the workforce will continue. (Like the permanently unemployed working class, dispossessed by managerial engineers and automation in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano.). For the most glaring example of technological innovation ‘creating’ jobs, take Amazon.

In The Four, Scot Galloway writes that you will see very few pictures of the inside of an Amazon warehouse.  Why? This is because you will find robots and not people inside. When asked about the destruction of jobs, Jeff Bezos suggested a universal income guarantee or a negative income tax so that every citizen has a guaranteed income for staying above the poverty line. People will say that he is a great man who cares for the little guy. The fact is that he knows that this ‘creative destruction’ will create jobs for robots and drones and destroy jobs for humans. Galloway writes, 'Entrepreneurs create jobs, right? No, they don't. Most entrepreneurs, at least in tech, leverage processing power and bandwidth to destroy jobs by offering more for less.'

Modi said that the 4th Industrial revolution will create jobs. It will, but only at the higher end for highly educated people, the engineers, the software programmers. People had been transferred from agriculture to industry and then from industry to service. With the takeover of service industries by automation, there are simply no further transfers possible.No area is safe from automation, not even writing or music. Even a 40 year old lawyer or doctor who loses his job because of automation will not be able to reinvent himself as a software programmer and stay relevant in the new job market. So there will be nett job losses. But one has to sympathize a bit with the politicians - they have to keep making outlandish promises in order to win elections. Nobody has the guts to speak the truth and take the consequences.

Due to fear of losing their jobs, people will be more willing to do what their superiors tell them to do. The conduct certificate is a good way to keep people in check. If anyone dissents, he can be dubbed a deviant, a trouble maker, get a black mark on his conduct certificate and find it difficult to get another job in the industry. Unquestioned obedience had its ultimate expression in Adolf Eichmann for whom industrial scale murder was a problem in logistics, violence transformed into a question of productivity and technique. For Gandhi, fascism and Nazism were not evil aberrations but natural consequences of modernity's unquestioned acceptance of Enlightenment values. From Aldous Huxley's essay Brave New World Revisited, I got this quote by Hitler's Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer at his trial after the Second World War:
Hitler's dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. It was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and the loud-speaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. 
It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man. . . . Earlier dictators needed highly qualified assistants even at the lowest level -- men who could think and act independently. The totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with such men; thanks to modern methods of communication, it is possible to mechanize the lower leadership. As a result of this there has arisen the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders. 
When faced with the charge of crimes against humanity, Eichmann argued that he had no part in the formulation of Nazi political or sociological theory; he dealt only with the technical problems of moving vast numbers of people from one place to another. Why they were being moved and what would happen to them when they arrived at their destination were not relevant to his job. Eichmann-like responses are common in any organization, public or private. The worker is encouraged to consider the implications of a decision only to the extent that it will affect the efficient operations of the firm, and takes no responsibility for its human consequences.

The myth that humans are biased while machines are unbiased has been spread by technocrats. People are encouraged to surrender their individual judgments to the outputs of systems, processes and machines. It is hard to disagree with Neil Postman in Technopoly, ‘We cannot dismiss the possibility that, if Adolf Eichmann had been able to say that it was not he but a battery of computers that directed the Jews to the appropriate crematoria, he might never have been asked to answer for his actions.‘

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- IV

Rationalism, the organizing principle of modernity, has a tendency to universalize i.e. it set up identical ideals for all human beings, held up only one kind of life as the highest or truly human, and expected all to conform to more or less the same norms of conduct. Gandhi believed that rationalism was a false and pernicious doctrine. He thought that each individual had his own distinct identity, and was rooted in a specific cultural tradition. What was good for others was not necessarily good for him. Gandhi  was against such a centralized tendency which not only kills an individual’s  initiative to do something new in a different manner, but it also enhances the tendency of centralization and hegemony. 

In some areas of human experience such as morality and politics, reason was inherently inadequate and needed to be guided by wisdom, tradition, conscience, intuition, and moral insight. Rationalism constructs a realm of Reason purged from empirical contingency. It constructs a reality based on abstract generalizations from which all particulars are removed. In this formal logic, thought is indifferent toward its objects. They become subject to the same general laws of organization, calculation, and conclusion. As Herbert Marcus says in One Dimensional Man, 'This general quality (quantitative quality) is the precondition of law and order — in logic as well as in society — the price of universal control.'

Gandhi criticized the universalizing tendency of modernism which he sees as anti-plurality. In their search for general rules, distant, neutral strangers seek to identify relevant characteristics and discards superfluous ones that cannot be verified as unimportant. All are living a similar kind of life-style and they cannot keep their individuality, their uniqueness alive as it will not be welcomed.  An example of such a universalizing tendency is the realization now that most psychological studies have been done on a population of WIERDs - their participants are overwhelmingly Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.

WEIRD subjects, from countries that represent only about 12 percent of the world’s population, differ from other populations in moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, etc. This is because a lot of these behaviors and perceptions are culturally inherited. Not only are the subjects  WEIRD, they are overwhelmingly college students in the United States participating in studies for class credit. Western college students are not the best representatives of human emotion, behavior, and sexuality. It also means that many subjects are teens whose behaviour differs from that of adults.

Almost everything experimental psychologists believe about the human mind comes from studies of the Weird. Behavioral science (including the behavioral sub-fields in economics) overly focused on WEIRD subjects to the detriment of a broader understanding of human behavior. These study subjects are not only unrepresentative of humans as a species, but on many measures they’re outliers. Yet while the study samples have been consistently particular, the inferences made from these studies typically strive for universality.

Another common universalizing tendency is to apply in developing countries economic models that have been successful in developed countries.  There are massive international and domestic pressures on them to follow those paths of development that have been traversed by the developed world. The choice of parameters, major interactions and feedback loops, the use of global averages and the non-probabilistic nature of predictions, etc., are all made from the vantage points of the developed world. To impose one centralized formula over others meant ignoring what is distinctive in each country. Gandhi consistently criticized such a 'one size fits all' policy that ignores local conditions:
Young India, 6-8-1925 - European writers are handicapped for want of experience and accurate information. They cannot guide us beyond a certain measure if they have to generalize from European examples which cannot be on all fours with Indian conditions, because in Europe they have nothing like the conditions of India, not even excluding Russia. What may be, therefore, true of Europe is not necessarily true of India. We know, too, that each nation has its own characteristics and individuality. India has her own; and if we are to find out a true solution for her many ills, we shall have to take all the idiosyncrasies of her constitution into account, and then prescribe a remedy. I claim that to industrialize India in the same sense as Europe is to attempt the impossible.
Young India, 2-7-1931 - Western observers hastily argue from Western conditions that what may be true of them must be true of India where conditions are different in so many material respects. Application of the laws of economics must vary with varying conditions.
Harijan, 11-5-1935 - There is a difference between the civilization of the East . . .and that of the West. . . . Our geography is different, our history is different and our ways of living are different. . .the economics and civilization of a country where the pressure of population on land is greatest are and must be different from those of a country where the pressure is least.
Young India, 25-7-1929 - The Western civilization is urban. Small countries like England or Italy may afford to urbanize their systems. A big country like America with a very sparse population, perhaps, cannot do otherwise. But one would think that a big country, with a teeming population . . must not copy the Western model. What is good for one nation situated in one condition is not necessarily good enough for another differently situated. One man's food is often another man's poison. Physical geography of a country has a predominant share in determining its culture.