Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - III

Gandhi did not spring up fully formed like Athena from Zeus' head. His life can be classified into three phases. The first phase lasted up to 1893 when he tried to imitate the British gentleman. The second phase between 1893 to 1919 can be considered as a transition phase of his life in which he was in search of self identity. The third phase was the final phase when he lost faith in the British Empire and gave final shape to his own model of resistance. The shifts and changes in some beliefs and the strengthening of others are in the context of his experiences and his growing understanding of social situations. 

Nothing in the first half of his life suggested that he would turn out to be a colossus. It was a period of observing, reading, learning and revising his opinions, a process he maintained throughout his life. He once said, ’There can be, there ought to be, no uniformity in the actions of a man whose life undergoes a continual growth . . .’ In the beginning, he held the view that was common then of a hierarchy of civilizations - the Europeans on top, the Indians just below them, the Africans at the bottom. (Gandhi outgrew this tendency but many Indians still hold on to it. )

Over the two decades he spent in Africa, Gandhi's understanding of their ways of life and troubles steadily increased. Everyday life in Durban and Johannesburg alerted him to the many discriminations that Africans were subject to. Had Gandhi continued to live in India, he would not have met dissident Jews or non-conformist Christians. His stays abroad exposed him to the heterogeneity of Indian culture and languages, other faiths and ways of life. His lifestyle choices, his thinking on religion, economic matters, manual labor, caste, etc. developed over a period of time.  

After the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Gandhi, who was initially convinced that "India could achieve her complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire" (Autobiography), rejected British law. In 1921 he launched the non-cooperation movement with a call for the abandonment and rejection of British law courts. In his arrest and trial (March 1922) for the leadership of the movement, he explained his own trajectory "from a staunch loyalist and co-operator" to someone who had "become an uncompromising disaffectionist and non-co-operator". I came across a motto - 'If you are finished changing, you are finished.' Gandhi was never finished.

Towards the end of The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould has an essay where he discusses some of Darwin's racist views. Shall we then simply label Darwin as a constant racist and sexist all the way from youthful folly to mature reflection? Gould says no holding  (a defense that holds good for any great historical personality) that 'such a stiff-necked and uncharitable attitude will not help us if we wish to understand and seek enlightenment from our past.' He goes on:

  . . How can we castigate someone for repeating a standard assumption of his age, however much we may legitimately deplore that attitude today? . . I see no purpose in strong criticism for a largely passive acceptance of common wisdom. Let us rather analyze why  such potent and evil nonsense then passed for certain knowledge. 

If I choose to impose individual blame for all past social ills, there will be no one left to like in some of the most fascinating periods of our history. . . . Though I hold no shred of sympathy for active persecutors, I cannot excoriate individuals who acquiesced passively in a standard societal judgment. Rail instead against the judgment, and try to understand what motivates men of decent will.

The historical records place emphasis on his political activities but his long periods of absence from the political field due to his jail terms or engagement in social work, when he thought widely and deeply about many issues are more interesting. Tilak is famous for having said, Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it.' He used the word 'swaraj' for its traditional imagery but it meant just political independence. When Gandhi assumed leadership, the meaning changed. Nehru said in 1920 that when Gandhi spoke about swaraj, 'he was delightfully vague on the subject'. 

In the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin made an incisive statement while criticizing slavery, "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." He may not have heard of the statement but Gandhi's thoughts and actions seemed to be driven by this thought. To him freedom meant nothing at all if it was not accompanied by religious freedom, caste and gender equality, and the development of self-reliance among every Indian. 

The national movement led by Gandhi can be read as not so much an attempt to wrest control from the British as it was a movement for national reconstruction. He was not just interested in independence but he often spoke of creating a new society from the root upwards.  For him, swaraj was impossible if the social order was corrupt. The post-independence discourse speaks of Gandhi and Congress as a unified entity but it was in fact an uneasy and often contentious relationship between the two. 

Congress wanted Gandhi to concentrate on gaining political independence and held that social reforms can be undertaken after achieving it. But Gandhi thought that it would be a fatal mistake to wait to gain political power before undertaking vital social reform. He was willing to enter into the political arena on very restricted occasions when he saw  obvious moral issues at stake or when he saw the opportunity for forwarding his own vision of swaraj.  He realized that for a satyagrahi there were rarely any clear-cut moral choices and that he must weigh the greater good and the lesser evil in any particular situation. 

The nationalist elites were heavily invested in emulating British technology and mode of government, even as they sought independence from British rule. The only forms of self-modification that they were interested in were those that aided that emulation. Gandhi’s insistence on self-rule as a prerequisite for appropriate home rule thus ran counter to both aspects of this elite’s politics. His stand that modernity and its accomplishments were fundamentally flawed only intensified the strain, especially since the local nationalist elite already had major financial stakes in modern technological, economic, and political systems.

A huge amount of Gandhi’s writings and speeches are about non-political issues like removal of untouchability, revival of village industries, cleanliness, etc. As the world saw him increasingly as a rebel against the Raj, he increasingly saw himself as a social reformer. Following the success of the Salt Satyagraha in 1931, he said that his social reform was not less important than his political reform. ‘The fact is, that when I saw that to a certain extent my social work would be impossible without the help of my political work, I took to the latter and only to the extent it helped the former.’ 

Gandhi wanted conscience applied to political endeavors, as well as experiments in education, hygiene and cottage industries. Mutual improvement was the goal. In his view, the colonial power and the colonized land should both come out of the Indian independence struggle changed for the better, with no victim and vanquished, no vengeful murder of the loser in the struggle for power. Gandhi’s goal was that there should be true reconciliation and amicable parting of the ways. Not governments but methods and objectives interested him, not whether an Indian or an Englishman sat in the seat of power but whose deeds were more civilized. 

Congress adopted non-violence for the expected gains. Gandhi wanted non-violence irrespective of the fruits. He had to admit that Congress' views were the same as most of the intelligentia. Gandhi's critics complained that he would withdraw from a political battle when the opponent was under pressure and  success appeared imminent. But what success? His standards of success were moral and religious and not based on narrow utilitarian considerations. His goals were too high, his followers were too weak. He was bound to fail. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:

It was paradoxical that while none of Gandhi's ideas were more liberally endowed with traditional symbolism than swaraj and satyagraha, none were more thoroughly misunderstood, both by his party and his people. The Congress followed him, on the whole, for his political experience and insights; the masses revered him as a Mahatma. Gandhi wanted understanding and appreciation of his thought rather than the reverence either of a saint or a politician.

[SNIP]

One might worship Gandhi from afar as a Mahatma or - as the alternative that most Congressmen took - accept his judgement as 'policy' but not as a 'creed'. Neither path was that of the satyagrahi, nor could either lead to what Gandhi called swaraj. Indeed, each undermined Gandhi's thought and message for neither could give him support when the going became rough. At the very end, when it was indeed the roughest, Gandhi stood, tragically, alone. 

He then fully realized his failure to persuade both the Congress leadership and the Indian people of the central meaning of his philosophy. 'Intoxicated by my success in South Africa,' he admitted in 1947, 'I came to India. Here too the struggle bore fruit. But I have now realized that it was not based on nonviolence of the brave. If I had known so then, I would not have launched the struggle.' It is remarkable that an individual of Gandhi's insight did not appreciate this sooner. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - II

While reading Gandhi's writings it is important to remember that he was mostly addressing the poor people of India, not the sophisticated Western educated elites, so he writes in an idiom that his audience readily understood. The language, metaphors and symbols may not be readily understandable to us and if we read him him literally, we run the risk of not understanding his meaning and trivializing his intentions. By ridiculing his idea of making the village the center of the economy or his focus on spinning, we risk ignoring his concerns. He himself said that his general ideas are more important than his specific solutions which are contextual. 

Part of the reason why Gandhi is unpopular is because of the behavior of some later Gandhians who practiced what Gandhi did not preach. They were self-righteous disciplinarians who imposed discipline on others in unattractive ways. For Gandhi, discipline was internal to the individual and was something a person achieved after a long struggle with one’s own passions. For these Gandhians however, discipline often meant using the state’s coercive apparatus to impose it on people. Whereas Gandhi’s discipline was accompanied by strong sense of compassion, humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor, many of these Gandhians seemed to be doing social work for personal moral salvation than because of genuine concern for the poor.

In Gandhi in His Time and Ours, David Hardiman gives the example of one such Gandhian, Morarji Desai. He wrote an autobiography similar in style to that by Gandhi with the exception that he seemed blind to the possibility that he could ever have been in error. He describes proudly how as Home Minister of Bombay, he worked hard to discipline the masses. He undertook measures like posting police to create the right atmosphere of ‘discipline’ and censoring films ‘which could lead society astray’. As PM, during a conversation with the rebel Naga leader Z.A. Phizo, he was heard saying, ‘I will exterminate the Nagas without compunction.’ 

Another of these self-righteous Gandhians who never seemed aware of his mistakes was Vinobha Bhave. He supported the emergency, one of its slogans being that discipline is the need of the hour. He wanted discipline to be imposed from above rather than each individual cultivating it himself as Gandhi desired. There were others who adopted Gandhi's ideals of simplicity and high morals but made such a mockery of it that it imperiled the ideals. All ideals are corroded by time. Even in his own lifetime khadi became a livery of hypocrisy and opportunism.  What he had conceived of as cloth to be woven by the poor for  their own use making use of locally available materials is now marketed as fashion apparel worn by bored celebrities.

Gandhi was given to 'thinking in public', taking seriously the questions put to him and trying to answer them to the best of his ability. Unlike present-day politicians, he didn't read from a manuscript carefully prepared by somebody else according to the results of rigorous market research. In 1942, Louis Fisher stayed for a week in Gandhi's ashram and interviewed him on a variety of topics. He gives his impression of the interactions in Mahatma Gandhi – His Life & Times

He had great charm. He was a remarkable natural phenomenon, quiet and insidiously overwhelming. Intellectual contact with him was a delight because he opened his mind and allowed one to see how the machine worked. He did not attempt to express his ideas in finished form. He thought aloud; he revealed each step in his thinking. 

You heard not only words but also his thoughts. You could therefore follow him as he moved to a conclusion. This prevented him from talking like a propagandist; he talked like a friend. He was interested in an exchange of views, but much more in the establishment of a personal relationship.

Even when evasive Gandhi was frank. I was asking him about his dreams of the post-independence India. He argued back and forth. 'You want to force me into an admission,' he said, 'that we would need rapid industrialization. I will not be forced into such an admission. Our first problem is to get rid of British rule. Then we will be free, without restraints from the outside, to do what India requires. The British have seen fit to allow us to have some factories and also to prohibit other factories. No, for me the paramount problem is the ending of British domination.'

That, obviously, was what he wanted to talk about; he did not conceal his desire. His brain had no blue pencil. He said, for instance, that he would go to Japan to try to end the war. He knew, and immediately added, that he would never get an opportunity to go and, if he went, Japan would not make peace. He knew too that his statement would be misinterpreted. Then why did he make it? Because he thought it.

Gandhi asserted that a federal administration would be unnecessary in an independent India. I pointed out the difficulties that would arise in the absence of a federal administration. He was not convinced. I was baffled. Finally he said, 'I know that despite my personal views there will be a central government.' This was a characteristic Gandhi cycle: he enunciated a principle, defended it, then admitted with a laugh that it was unworkable. 

In negotiation, this faculty could be extremely irritating and time-wasting. In personal conversation, it was attractive and even exciting. He himself was sometimes surprised at the things he said. His thinking was fluid. Most persons like to be proved right. So did Gandhi. But frequently he snatched a victory out of an error by admitting it.

This type of thinking and answering would be a handicap in today's world of social media. Bits and pieces of his answers would be taken out of context and distorted and travel far and wide in the blink of an eye. The internet is full of such misrepresentations of his writings. In addition, the politician of today must give short and snappy answers and must feign certainty where he can give only probabilities. Also, he should never admit his error. Gandhi does not fit the bill in any of these criteria. 

George Orwell thought that a Big Brother with a 'Ministry of Truth' would be required to make history disappear. But in Aldous Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Judging by what most people, especially the educated, city-based, modernized Indians, think of Gandhi, Huxley was right.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - I

 (I heard that Richard Nixon once started a speech by saying, ‘Before I begin my speech, I want to tell you something.’ Similarly, before I begin my post, I want to tell you something. This is the longest series by far that I have attempted or is likely to attempt in future. I hope I have a couple of readers left at the end of the series. 

It may be that some may confuse their incomprehension of my flowery language with novelty and profundity. Perish the thought. I have taken the material from various books and articles that have been available for years. I have only edited, sliced and diced them to suit my purposes. I lay no claim to originality or to exhaustive knowledge of the topic. But as Thomas Henry Huxley said, "If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,  is there anyone who knows so much as to be out of danger?")

"The fact that I have affected the thought and practice of our times does not make me fit to give expression to the philosophy that may lie behind it.  To give a philosophical interpretation of the phenomenon must be reserved for men like you." - Gandhi to S. Radhakrishnan, 16 September 1934

The most famous text from Ambedkar's collected volumes is called "Annihilation of Caste", a long essay that is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Indian society. It is freely available on the internet. Ambedkar wrote Annihilation of Caste as a speech on the invitation of an anti-caste group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore. The group found the text of the speech offensive, particularly the parts where he criticized Hindu sacred texts such as the Vedas. They wanted some changes in the text which Ambedkar refused to make and he said that this would be his last address as a Hindu. As a result, it decided to cancel the event. Ambedkar then printed 1,500 copies of the speech himself and distributed them. 

Arundhati Roy came out with an annotated version of the text with the same title. The first half of the book is a long essay by her titled "The Doctor and the Saint" . Most of this essay is about Gandhi rather than Ambedkar which distracts one's attention from Ambedkar's hard-hitting undelivered speech. She deliberately tries to put Gandhi into a frame ( i.e., misogynist, casteist and favoring capitalists) by using some facts (which are true indeed) without mentioning the big picture. Gandhi had his foibles and fads, and had his own peculiar ideas on celibacy, diet and health but the simplistic analysis leaves you with a misleading picture about Gandhi's aims and intentions. 

Roy's quotes are not new or fresh discoveries. Gandhi wrote down everything he felt. The nearly 100 volumes that make up his collected works have enough material to ridicule and label him in unflattering ways. His critics reveal known facts as new findings to knock him down from the pedestal that he never claimed to inhabit. Roy says, 'To cherry pickers, he offers such a bewildering variety of cherries that you have to wonder if there was something the matter with the tree.' She seems to be blissfully unaware that she herself is one of those cherry pickers. Without actually knowing what Gandhi tried, and experienced and accomplished, many despise the caricature of Gandhi that they have created in their minds. Hannah Arendt says in "The Origins Of Totalitarianism":

Plato, in his famous fight against the ancient Sophists, discovered that their "universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments" had nothing to do with truth but aimed at opinions which by their very nature are changing, and which are valid only "at the time of the agreement and as long as the agreement lasts". 

He also discovered the very insecure position of truth in the world, for from "opinions comes persuasion and not from truth". The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality. 

In other words, one destroyed the dignity of human thought whereas the others destroy the dignity of human action. The old manipulators of logic were the concern of the philosopher, whereas the modern manipulators of facts stand in the way of the historian. For history itself is destroyed . . . whenever facts are no longer held to be part and parcel of the past and present world, and are misused to prove this or that opinion. 

Leftist and Western thinkers and philosophers, Roy and we all (educated Indians) included who are taught western morals and ideology often second-guess Gandhi and his intentions. Educated Indians have difficulty in understanding a politician who wore a loin cloth, heard 'inner voices' and used fasts to solve political problems. In India and elsewhere Gandhi has been criticized for being “anti-modern”, a hardline traditionalist, a blackmailer who used fasting as a means of getting his way; on the left he is seen as the “mascot of the bourgeoisie” and anti-working class. Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the leading lights of the Indian freedom movement said of this culture block that

such of Gandhi's contemporaries as have drunk deep from the foundations of European History and European politics, and who have developed a deep love for European manners and European culture, neither understand nor like him. In their eyes, he is a barbarian, and a visionary and a dreamer. He has probably something of all these qualities because he is nearest to the verities of life and can look at things with plain eyes without the glasses of civilization and sophistry.

Gandhi has been more appreciated, read and practiced seriously outside India than among the last two generations of Indians. A person who inspired leaders of the 20th century such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel to fight against injustice and discrimination and for equality would surely have had something extraordinary in him. These are people who have been there and done that and know what it takes to struggle against a brutal regime. Personally speaking, I have no hesitation in saying that Gandhi is several levels above any other political leader that India has produced before or since his time (keeping in mind that his political, social and religious activities cannot be neatly separated). I guess I am not as 'advanced' as most educated, middle-class Indians.

In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. I am more interested in the civilizational Gandhi, especially his critique of modernity which many find queer. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of his critique. He was an original thinker  who did not accept conventional wisdom and approached many familiar issues from surprising angles. (For an analysis of the inconsistencies of the historical Gandhi see Gandhi and his Critics by B.R.Nanda and The Good Boatman by Rajmohan Gandhi.)

The question underlying any study of Gandhi’s life is the relevance it has for the present day and the future. I have used various comments by Roy as a hook to write mostly about the civilizational Gandhi rather than the historical Gandhi. But it is to be  remembered that the convictions of the former self guided the actions of the latter self. Gandhi did not systematize his ideas but one should not be misled into believing that his actions were random unsupported by vision or thought. He had made it clear that `Thought is never complete unless it finds expression in action and action limits your thought.' In his life, precept and practice went hand in hand. That is why he said with confidence: `My life is my message.' As Ashis Nandy writes in an article Gandhi after Gandhi:

Gandhi could not live up to his principles partly because he was a practical politician, and the job of politics is to dilute ideological and moral purism. To use my favorite expression, borrowed from the obituary written on him by Arnold Toynbee, Gandhi was one prophet who was willing to live in the slum of politics. He could not afford to be a perfect Gandhian. It is a tribute to his memory when one calls him an imperfect Gandhian.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Control through triviality - VI

It would be wrong to think that nobody noticed that we were drowning in distraction. Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman was published in 1985, a world that was not yet invaded by the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds, DVDs,  blogs, flat-screens, HDTV, and iPods, downloading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), etc. It discusses the once-urgent premonitions about the deep-seated perils of television.  He says that TV has turned all public life into entertainment. He warns that we'll be overwhelmed by "information glut" until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we've lost as long as we're being amused. 

He rues the fact that there is no reflection time in the world anymore. Today TV no longer dominates the media landscape. "Screen time" also means hours spent in front of the computer, video monitor, cell phone, and hand-held. Silence has been replaced by background noise. Things have gotten much, much worse since he published the book. The book discusses two frightening visions of the future. One was in 1984 by George Orwell. The other was in the lesser known Brave New World by  Aldous Huxley. Postman writes that Brave New World and not 1984 is the book to focus on. 

The Party of 1984 maintained control of the people by keeping them under constant surveillance, whereas the government of Brave New World kept the citizens so happy, they never felt threatened enough to put up a fight. For Huxley, oppression came in a very different form from what Orwell imagined. Orwell’s Oceania keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. In Huxley's dystopian World State, all the inhabitants merely live for pleasure. The elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Postman wrote that  hard surveillance societies are not the ones to be wary of but societies that are bored by stimulation, dazed by constant distraction. 

As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for people would be so infatuated by various technological narcotics that there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be not find the needle in the haystack. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.  Neil Postman writes: 

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy. Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. 

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. 

In an article, My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985, Andrew Postman writes that everyone had mistakenly feared and obsessed over an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state while his father had warned about a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble. The environment is one in which people were ‘being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based.’ “An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

In a letter to Orwell, Huxley stated that instead of the  ‘boot-on-the-face’ policy described by him, rulers are more likely to ‘find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.’ He wrote, ‘Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.’ And he thought that this change will be brought about as a result of ‘a felt need for increased efficiency’.

In an essay he wrote called Brave New World Revisited, Huxley described the society of Brave New World as one ‘where perfect efficiency left no room for freedom or personal initiative’. He said the changed circumstances since Orwell wrote his novel seemed to indicate that the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984 because Orwell ‘failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In Brave New World on the other hand, ‘non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature  . . . are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation’. He wrote:

The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly "not of this world." Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx's phrase, "the opium of the people" and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. 

A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but some­where else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it. 

It is not a simple dichotomy that says that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong. The internet has strengthened propaganda and surveillance and Orwell did write about prolefeed - the deliberately superficial entertainment including literature, movies and music that keep the  masses content and prevent them from becoming too knowledgeable. It is just that Huxley's dystopia has played a much bigger role in strengthening authoritarian regimes than is appreciated. The world today is a hybrid of the dystopias presented in three books - 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by  Aldous Huxley and  Player Piano  by Kurt Vonnegut. (In Player Piano, there is a permanently unemployed working class, dispossessed by managerial engineers and automation.)

All these fears reflect Gandhi's concerns about modernity. What makes modernity especially dangerous according to Gandhi is that it comes with a surface gloss which makes people blind to the costs that they are obliged to pay.  He wrote, 'Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief’. For Gandhi, people have to wage two types of struggle to gain autonomy - one external and one internal. The external struggle is waged against institutional practices which lead to their degradation. The internal struggle is against one's own senses and passions. For Gandhi, people who always give in to temptations are not autonomous. He thinks that we can be slaves to our own passions and desires and not just to other people.  He believed that they who have failed to attain swaraj within themselves must lose it in the outside world too. He felt that modernity increased the difficulty of both struggles. 

The external struggle is against the Orwellian dystopia. The internal struggle is against the Huxleyan dystopia. The hidden hand of the market can be almost as potent an instrument of control as the iron fist of the state. His struggle against industrial civilization was because of his fear of it leading to Vonngut's dystopia. He argued that modern economic life reduced men to its helpless and passive victim and represented a new form of slavery, more comfortable and insidious and hence more dangerous than the earlier ones. Others have raised some of these issues before and after his time but he was the only mass leader who could move millions of people who consistently raised them. As Nelson Mandela says in this article:

Gandhi remains today the only complete critique of advanced industrial society. Others have criticized its totalitarianism but not its productive apparatus. He is not against science and technology, but he places priority on the right to work and opposes mechanization to the extent that it usurps this right. Large-scale machinery, he holds, concentrates wealth in the hands of one man who tyrannizes the rest. He favors the small machine; he seeks to keep the individual in control of his tools . . . 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Control through triviality - V

“There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users': illegal drugs and software. " — Edward Tufte

Many persuasive and motivational techniques are used to keep users returning to gaming and social media sites. These include “scarcity” (a snap or status is only temporarily available, encouraging you to get online quickly); “social proof” many people retweeted an article so you should go online and read it); “personalization” (your news feed is designed to filter and display news based on your interest); and “reciprocity” (invite more friends to get extra points, and once your friends are part of the network it becomes much more difficult for you or them to leave).

A fear of missing out, commonly known as FoMO, is at the heart of many features of social media design. Groups and forums in social media promote active participation. Notifications and “presence features” keep people notified of each others’ availability and activities in real-time so that some start to become compulsive checkers. This keeps us “friended” to people with whom we haven’t spoken in ages (“what if I miss something important from them?”). This feeling of “1% chance you could be missing something important” keeps us subscribed to newsletters even after they haven’t delivered recent benefits (“what if I miss a future announcement?”) . This keeps us using social media (“what if I miss that important news story or fall behind what my friends are talking about?”)

One of the ways tech companies capture attention  is to use social awareness cues which exploit  our need for social approval. The need to belong, to be approved or appreciated by our peers is among the highest human motivations. But now our social approval is in the hands of tech companies. When I get tagged by a friend, I imagine him making a conscious choice to tag me. But I don’t see how a company like Facebook has orchestrated his action. Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat can manipulate how often people get tagged in photos by automatically suggesting all the faces people should tag (e.g. by showing a box with a 1-click confirmation). Through design choices like this, Facebook controls how often millions of people experience their social approval online.

Another way to keep people engaged is to exploit the idea of social reciprocity. If you do me a favor, I start feeling that I owe you one next time. You say, “thank you” — I have to say “you’re welcome.” You send me an email — it’s rude not to get back to you. You follow me — it’s rude not to follow you back. (especially for teenagers). As Kurt Vonnegut said, 'If somebody says 'I love you' to me, I feel as though I had a pistol pointed at my head. What can anybody reply under such conditions but that which the pistol holder requires? 'I love you, too'. 

We are vulnerable to needing to reciprocate others’ gestures and tech companies now manipulate how often we experience it. It’s in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it (“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) This includes “two ticks” on instant messaging tools, such as Whatsapp. 

Like Facebook, LinkedIn exploits an asymmetry in perception. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn’s list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns your unconscious impulses (to “add” a person) into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it.

Another way to hijack people is to keep them consuming things, even when they aren’t hungry anymore. Games, music, podcasts and hundreds of other diversions of life are carefully designed to make us come back for more. This is done by converting an experience that has a definite end and turn it into a bottomless flow that keeps going. So for eg., News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave. Mr Raskin, the person who designed infinite scroll, says, "If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling." He said the innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary.

It’s also why video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook autoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice (in case you won’t). A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing. The continuous nature of the feeds leave no natural stopping points where it would make sense to just quit using the application. When you get one recommendation after another that you like, you may keep watching without being aware of how much time has gone by. 

Tik Tok, which is akin to the hugely popular site musical.ly, displays short video performances. (Tik Tok is banned now but clones will appear; the idea will not go away.) Users promote a variety of talents online, including application of makeup, magic acts, cooking or standup comedy. The app has a function to make footage look fancier, which attracts users from other apps. It  can gauge users’ tastes according to their browsing history and recommend other clips they will probably like which keeps them hooked. 

Tech companies often claim that “we’re just making it easier for users to see the video they want to watch” when they are actually serving their business interests. Increasing “time spent” is the currency they compete for. Hundreds of engineers' job every day in tech companies around the world is to invent new ways to keep you hooked. In Automate This, a Harvard-educated mathematician Jeffrey Hammerbacher, tells Steiner,  "The best minds of my generations [sic] are thinking about how to make people click on ads. That sucks."  Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? Instead of staring at the shadows on the wall, we’re all staring at Facebook, Instagram or watching endlessly our favorite series due to machinations of smart people who lull us into thinking that we made the choice ourselves. Never have so many been manipulated so much by so few.

Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook's Like button, said she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of "likes" she had. "When I need validation - I go to check Facebook," she said. Tristan Harris, who was design ethicist at Google, says that he is addicted to e-mails. Even though he knows the tricks that Google uses to make people come back to check e-mails, he says that he is not able to control his urge. 

What could be the harm if people are checking their phones all the time, posting pictures of themselves on Instagram, and getting addicted to online games? Many people could get killed or injured as a result of distracted driving caused by texting messages. It’s easy to say that people should not text and drive, But the design problem, the “error-provocative” aspect of the technology is ignored. There is also an increase in lifestyle diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle and lack of interaction with people. Problems like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, along with higher rates of depression and anxiety, suggest that digital entertainment is not the best way to spend leisure time. 

India is the world capital for selfie deaths accounting for 50% of worldwide selfie deaths. Even mundane and everyday spots such as railways and shopping centres are the scenes of tragic accidents. Some of these incidents are macabre. In a case that garnered worldwide headlines, a group of bystanders took selfies in front of three men were who were dying on a road after being involved in a crash. No one called an ambulance or helped the victims, who were covered in blood and writhing in pain.

Technology is becoming more and more integrated into every aspect of our lives. Meanwhile, the life span of devices is getting shorter — many products will be thrown away once their batteries die, to be replaced with new devices. Companies intentionally plan the obsolescence of their goods by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models. The discarded computers, cell phones, printers, televisions etc. create huge amounts of e-waste. 

Electronic devices contain toxic heavy metals, polluting PVC plastic, and hazardous chemicals which can harm human health and the environment. Developed countries ship a lot of their e-wastes to developing countries where workers usually do not wear protective equipment and lack any awareness that they are handling dangerous materials. Research has found that inhaling toxic chemicals and direct contact with hazardous e-waste materials result in increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, premature births, reduced birth weights, mutations, congenital malformations, etc. Moreover, e-waste toxins contaminate the air, soil and groundwater.

As games get even more immersive, with augmented reality and virtual reality features, combined with monetized incentives and built-in conditioning, the addictive aspects seem likely to increase in the years ahead. Given the choice between a walk  or meeting friends face to face and twenty minutes on Facebook, the better choice for both mental and physical health would be the the former alternatives. But the current pandemic has ensured that Tech. companies will keep benefiting even more than they imagined.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Control through triviality - IV

In today's world, the most scarce quality is attention. Advertising companies have fought for decades to capture peoples' attention and convince them that various useless products are crucial for existence. With the information explosion following the advent of the internet, capturing and retaining attention became more crucial. The Nobel prize winning economist Herbert Simon said that ‘a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention’.

Social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. They deceive their users by manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. The business model of social media companies is based on advertising.  Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue. The more time users spend on the platform, the more valuable they become to the companies.

The attention merchants of Silicon Valley earn billions of dollars a year from our data. By posting, searching and liking, we perform the free labor that powers one of the most profitable sectors of the economy. The ethicist James Williams said, “Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.” Technology is persuading millions of people in ways they don’t see. It steers what 2 billion people are thinking and believing every day. Big platforms like Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram etc. suck us into their products and take time that we may later wish we had not wasted. 

Systems are getting better and better at steering what people are paying attention to and what people do with their time than ever before. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. Many defend their right to make “free” choices but ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn’t choose in the first place. Tech companies give people the illusion of free choice while designing the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. 

Technology can undermine the autonomy of consumers or users because addiction is built into the apps. For example, many games and online platforms are designed to make users want to come back for more. In order to get the next round of funding or to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up and then that attention is sold to advertisers. Many designers are thus under pressure to create addictive app features that engage you and suck as much time out of your life as possible. In Antisocial Media, Siva Vaidyanathan writes: 

Google and to a lesser extent Facebook help us manage the torrent of information around us by doing the work of deciding whats valuable or interesting to us.  . . Google and Facebook have cornered the market on [capturing attention]. 

Monetizing our captured attention pays for the labor and technology that enable Google and Facebook to filter the flood of information so effectively. And while those two companies are far from the the only players in the attention economy, they are the best at it. 

A cartoon character said, 'We have seen the enemy and it is us.' Captology is the study of computers as persuasive technologies. There is a Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University that studies various  techniques to automate persuasion. (Captology is derived from an acronym: Computers As Persuasive Technologies.) This includes the design, research, ethics and analysis of interactive computing products (computers, mobile phones, websites, wireless technologies, mobile applications, video games, etc.) created for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes or behaviors. Every day more computing products, including websites and mobile apps, are designed to change what people think and do. People have been fed the propaganda for decades that  they make their own choices so it is easy to manipulate them because they won’t think that their feelings are being produced and manipulated by some external system.

In Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products, Nir Eyal  discusses his Hook Model. The Hook is a habit forming product design (a habit being an activity done with little or no conscious thought). The Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hooks happen every time you interact with the product. Frequent engagement with a service over a short period of time increases the likelihood of a person sticking to that behavior. The 4 steps of the hook are trigger, action, reward, and investment. 

  • Trigger – These can be external triggers like push notifications, or internal ones that are informed through an association or memory in our minds. The most frequent internal triggers are negative emotions. For example, depressed people check their email more.  
  • Action – This is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. The ease of performing an action increases the chance that it happens. Make the trigger visible and extremely easy to use. Every time the user has to think, they’re taking on cognitive load. The rule around forming habits is to reduce cognitive load to make doing easier than thinking. 
  • Reward – Rewards reinforce the motivation for performing an action and increase the likelihood of that action being repeated. Predictable rewards don't create desire. Variability in a reward really gets us hooked. A part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens becomes active when we crave something. It becomes most active in anticipation of a reward and less active when we get the reward. 
  • Investment – It occurs when the user puts something into the product or service such as time, data, effort, social capital or money. Inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, etc are all investments. They increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook. 

What’s interesting is that while all physical products depreciate, habit forming technology appreciates! For example, the more content you have on Google Drive or the more followers you have on Twitter, the less likely you’ll be to leave those services. That’s often true even if a better competing service comes along. Over time, the number of people who remember life before the internet will be fewer and fewer, and eventually, no one will know what life was like without constant access to the internet and social media. 

Having a quiet dinner with one's family with associated chit chat or going out to play with friends will become rarer. There will be less face to face interactions among people. (Even before the virus pandemic, neighbours were meeting more often on Whatsapp.) No one will remember what it was like to eat dinner without taking a picture of it and posting it on Facebook. Used to the creep of technology into our lives, this comes to seem completely normal. All of this “disruption” is driven by technologies purposely designed to be addictive.  

Max Frisch once once remarked that “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” An early investor in Facebook, Sean Parker said he has become a “conscientious objector” to social media, and that Facebook and others had succeeded by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” A former product manager at the company, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them. The games developer Ian Bogost has said these addictive technologies are the 'cigarette of this century'.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Taking a swipe at the wider online ecosystem, he said,  “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth". 


Monday, September 21, 2020

Control through triviality - III

Many authoritarian governments have found that providing online entertainment, especially if spiced up with porn keeps people distracted from politics. The Chinese initially cracked down on many porn sites but then changed course. Evgeny Morozov quotes a Chinese internet expert as saying that it was a strategic move by the government who probably reasoned that if internet users are kept busy watching porn, they will be less interested in politics. In Vietnam, censorship targets political users while leaving pornographic sites unblocked. The most popular blogger in Russia runs contests to find out the woman with the most beautiful breasts. 

In Belarus, some ISPs provide illegal music and movies free to their customers. The government can easily crack down on them but choose to look the other way. There was an experiment in which some computer users in democratic countries donated some bandwidth to people in countries where there is internet censorship using a special software so that the latter can read about the horrors happening in their countries. But it was found that people were more interested in looking at nude photographs of celebrities. Morozov writes in The Net Delusion, ' . . .we may well end up with an army of people who are free to connect, but all they want to connect to is potential lovers, pornography and celebrity gossip.'

A games developer, Ian Bogost showed how easy it is to seduce people into playing pointless games. Zynga, the company that created Farmville, claimed that its games were all about bringing friends closer together but  they carried a whiff of exploitation. FarmVille, Zynga's flagship franchise, encouraged people to publicize their every action on Facebook newsfeeds and pester their friends to join them. It kept players coming back by setting onerous time limits — return in 16 hours to harvest your rhubarb or your fields would be riddled with withered stalks. And it compelled them to pay money if they wanted to avoid mindless tasks or lengthy delays. Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker as a critique of Facebook games and was intended to embody the worst aspects of the modern gaming industry. 

Taking his cue from FarmVille, which encourages players to personalize their homestead with special crops and equipment, he drew a series of cows for his players to buy with virtual "mooney" or real money. The rules were simple to the point of absurdity. A leaderboard tracked the game's most prodigious clickers. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement — "I'm clicking a cow" — appeared on their Facebook newsfeed. As a play experience, it was nothing more than a collection of cheap ruses, blatantly designed to get players to keep coming back, exploit their friends, and part with their money. "I didn't set out to make it fun," Bogost says. "Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do."

Bogost watched with surprise as a game that was supposed to be a satire became popular with many playing it seriously. Bogost kept his players hooked by introducing new cows for them to purchase using virtual currency that he called mooney or real money. The players were like rats in a Skinner box, hitting a button to get a jolt of reinforcement. Bogost coined the term Cowclickification, "the application of cow-clicking mechanics to non-cow-clicking applications." He said, '"Businesses can employ new cow-clicking mechanics such as clicking a cow to distract customers from the vapid pointlessness of their products and services." He created My First Cow Clicker, a "repetitive cow-clicking drill cleverly disguised as an entertaining videogame" that promised to teach kids "how to click a cow effectively" for the low, low price of $1.99. (He sold dozens of them.)

Finally Bogost decided to end the game and the image of a cow was replaced with an image of an empty patch of grass. Players can still click on the grass, still generate points for doing so, but there are no new cows to buy, no mooing to celebrate their action. But months after the end, Adam Scriven, an enthusiastic player from British Columbia, hasn't accepted that invitation. He is still clicking the space where his cow used to be. After the ending of the game, Bogost added a feature — a diamond cowbell, which could be earned by reaching 1 million clicks. It was intended as a joke; it would probably take 10 years of steady clicking to garner that many points. But Scriven says he might go for it. "It is very interesting, clicking nothing," Scriven says. "But then, we were clicking nothing the whole time. It just looked like we were clicking cows."

According to Zynga, Cow Clicker probably demonstrates the opposite of what it set out to prove and that social games, no matter how cynically designed, can still provide meaningful experiences. They still allow players to connect with one another and express themselves. Bogost replied in a blog essay called Shit Crayons in which he compared Cow Clicker players to the imprisoned Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who composed poems from his cell using whatever writing material he could find. Bogost writes that social games are akin to the Nigerian prison, trapping players in a barren environment. The fact that people are able to exercise creativity despite the cruel limitations of the game — to craft crayons out of shit — is a sign of the indomitable human spirit but no reflection whatsoever on the merits of Cow Clicker. "Even if creativity comes from constraint, there's constraint and there's incarceration," he writes. "A despot in a sorcerer's hat does not deserve praise for inciting desperate resilience."

A psychologist said, "The scary thing about Cow Clicker is that it's just an incredibly clear Skinner box. What does that say about the human psyche and how easy it is to seduce us?" The World Health Organization is to include “gaming disorder”, the inability to stop gaming, into the International Classification of Diseases. As Tagore said, ‘The inertness of mind, which is the basis of all slavery, cannot be got rid of by a docile submission to being hoodwinked nor by going through the motions of a wound-up mechanical doll.’ 


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Control through triviality - II

The Streisand Effect is a phenomenon in which attempting to suppress information attracts even more unwanted attention, thereby increasing its magnitude of exposure. It applies when one tries to hide something, or tries to defend oneself from seemingly menial remarks. If the original act had been ignored, it might have gone unnoticed. It is only after the attempt to hide, that the matter is blown out of proportion. In the Age of the Internet the Streisand effect has found a permanent place, thanks to people who underestimate it. The entire public itself tries to uncover something that someone doesn't want you to see.

Why this particular name? A photographer was asked to take photos of the California coastline for signs of coastal erosion. One of the thousands of photos happened to be the Malibu beach house of Barbara Streisand. Her lawyers found out about the photo and immediately sent a cease-and-desist letter to the respective office and ordered them to take the photo off their site. The site refused, and Barbara sued. The court dismissed the case, but the issue became instantly popular, and now everyone wanted to see the photograph. Before the case, the image had been downloaded from that site a mere six times. After the lawsuit the photograph was viewed by more than 420,000 visitors. 

Although the name the Streisand effect was given only in 2003, the psychological phenomenon has been known ever since the birth of mass communication. Indeed, one of the oldest known ones was when the Vatican banned Copernicus' book, 'De revolutionibus orbium coelestium' in 1616, and instantly a reprinted version was issued. Some people even try to manipulate the results of the Streisand effect, trying to achieve defamation by higher peers and the consequent attention. The internet has made it difficult to ban anything. But the more interesting phenomenon is that internet has made it unnecessary to ban  anything. 

It may be thought that the arrival of the internet has made it easier to organize a protest, learn about human rights violations of their own governments etc. But such people are in the minority. For the vast majority of Internet users increased access to information by itself may not always be liberating. In fact, it may only undermine their commitment to political dissent. The endless supply of online entertainment may be making people disengaged from political issues. Every new technology has empowered the strong against and the weak and inspite of all the propaganda about it being a democratizing tool, the internet may also be doing the same. 

The Net gives writers new tools but they may find that the public that they are trying to influence may be diverted by other attractions. The Web has simultaneously made it easy to write and easy for their efforts to be ignored. They can produce serious content but find that their target audience is seduced by cheap entertainment. The anaesthetizing effects of perpetual amusement on the Web and TV have the risk of making people blind to the vital issues of the day. The internet has increased the opportunities for the masses to find pleasing diversions to a level that no one had previously imagined possible.  

In The Net Delusion, Evegeny Morozov cites the effect of TV to explain why it may be naïve to think that the internet will boost political knowledge among people. He says that in the early days of TV, Americans were better informed politically, more likely to participate in politics and were less likely to be partisan than today. They watched political news not because they liked it but because the was nothing else to watch.   Then came cable TV and they got a wider choice. The result was that most people preferred to watch entertainment and gradually got disengaged from politics. The drive for entertainment outweighs the drive for political information. He quotes Phillip Roth writing in 1990 addressing Chechzs:

I can guarantee you that no defiant crowds will rally in Wenseslas Square to overthrow its tyranny nor will any playwrite-intellectual be elevated by the outraged masses to redeem the national soul from the fatuity into which this adversary reduces virtually all of human discourse. 

I am speaking about that trivializer of everything, commercial television - not a handful of channels of boring cliched television that nobody wants to watch because it is controlled by an oafish state censor, but a dozen or two channels of boring, cliched television that almost everybody watches all the time because it is entertaining.

He cites the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 'Democratic' means it was communist) which could receive Western broadcasting for most of its existence. Thus one would tend to assume that among the communist countries, GDR would have had the most politically informed citizens. But a study revealed that this assumption was incorrect. GDR's geography is such that most of the country received Western signals except some counties along the Western border. This area that did not receive the signals was sarcastically referred to as 'The Valley of the Clueless'

It was found that people in GDR were more interested in watching soft news and entertainment than in political news. American shows like Dallas, Dynasty, Miami Vice and Sesame Street were very popular. When East Germans were asked what changes they would like to see in their country's TV programing, they chose more entertainment and less politics. The local communist officials in an East German town said that the people in their community were more satisfied with the regime since the introduction of West German TV. GDR's propaganda officials learned that they get the most viewership when they scheduled their propaganda programs when West German TV was running news programs because people found the latter uninteresting. 

Officials in GDR had conducted surveys among youth, workers, etc. to determine their attitudes. These survey results were declassified after German reunification. After studying the data, two researchers published their findings in a report titled 'Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Stabilizes Authoritarian Regimes'. They concluded that in the parts of the GDR where Western TV was available, the population was more supportive of the regime and in the parts where Western TV was not available ('the Valley of the Clueless'), the people were more critical of the regime. The researchers concluded that Western TV was 'the opium of the masses', a role that Marx had attributed to religion in capitalist societies. Morozov writes:

They described the process as 'escapism': 'West German Television allowed East Germans to vicariously escape life under communism at least for a couple of hours each night, making their lives more bearable and the East  German regime more tolerable . . . West German television exposure resulted in a net increase in regime support.'

Friday, August 28, 2020

Control Through Triviality - I

To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man's requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions...so it is not surprising that, instead of freedom, they lapse into slavery, that, instead of promoting unity and brotherhood, they encourage division and isolation...”  -  Fyodor Dostoevsky 

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the panopticon, an idea proposed by the utilitarian philosopher Bentham. The basic setup of Bentham’s panopticon is this: there is a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation. 

Foucault used the panopticon as a way to illustrate the tendency of disciplinary societies to subjugate its citizens. The inmate polices himself for fear of punishment. The prisoners who are not sure they are being watced became more compliant than prisoners who know they were being watched. The uncertainty is what kept them in check. In many ways, the watchtower at the heart of the panopticon is a precursor to the cameras fastened to our buildings – purposely visible machines with human eyes hidden from view. But every coin has two sides, and in the age of technology not only do the few watch the many, as in the panopticon, but now, the many watch the few. Introducing the age of The Synopticon.

In his essay on the politics of obedience, Etienne La Boétie (1530-1563) asks a fundamental question: How come that the majority of a people let itself be ruled by a minority? How is it possible that people permit a small group of men to torture, exploit, and abuse the majority? Would it not be natural to be nobody’s servant and not the slave of someone else? La Boétie’s answer to this question is that the cause of human servitude cannot be coercion only. No tyrant has so many eyes that he could monitor a whole nation. The answer is obedience. Tyranny is caused not by coercion but by  “voluntary servitude” i.e. voluntary submission by the people. 

One reason for servitude is resignation and diversion. When concerns other than freedom occupy the mind, it makes people tranquil in their resignation. The rulers know that and provide the diversions of bread and circus, of gluttony and playfulness. The happy exhaustion that comes with the diversions that the mass culture delivers makes people accept their servitude quietly. Herein comes the idea of the Synopticon which is operational today, a process that is opposite to that of the Panopticon.

The mass media, especially television and the internet, which today bring the many — literally hundreds of millions of people at the same time — to see and admire the few. In contrast to Foucault's panoptical process, the latter process is referred to as synoptical. In a highly visual society, not only do the few see the many (Panopticon), but also, the many see the few (Synopticon). In this way, the Synopticon contributes to the internalisation of dominant discourses and the lack of critical reflection, directing, controlling and disciplining our consciousness

Through social media, we are able to watch others and share personal data online in a way, which was not possible before. We follow the twitter feeds, Facebook pages and TV appearances of a few politicians and celebrities and copy their outlooks and styles. I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! With such valus being promoted, it is not a surprise that the level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries  out, 'My life will be ruined!' 

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'être of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialization of life. I am willing to sell my soul.'

It is standard to use the sporting success of a few as a narrative around which to provide individuals with information and role models on how to live their lives. A sporting event provides a synoptic enclosure in which millions of people are, at the same time, compelled to view specified events, people, and spaces in complex modern societies. In one program, a senior executive of IPL was asked whether there was too much cricket. He replied, 'There is never too much of cricket.' As Upton Sinclair said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'

And now that many sports have IPL-style matches, it will keep everyone busy all year with the menfolk watching sport and the women watching serials. In sporting events, there will be a 'Twitter battle' where the most inane questions will be asked eg., 'Will KKR score more than 50 runs in power play?' A humorous old man told me that he had stopped going to people's houses after 6 p.m. because they will be glued to the idiot box. He said that beneath their welcoming smiles they may be thinking, 'What a time for this old man to come and pester us!' 

Another example of a synoptical process is Bigg Boss, an Indian reality television game show. The contestants called "housemates" live together in a specially constructed house that is isolated from the outside world. During their stay in the house, contestants are continuously monitored by live television cameras as well as personal audio microphones. The program relies on techniques such as evictions, weekly tasks and competitions and the "Confession Room" where housemates convey their private thoughts to the camera. The last person remaining is declared the winner. Millions of people love watching the habits, thoughts and antics of these contestants, mostly celebrities.

If you ask network executives, they will say, 'That is what people want.' Apparently, many newspapers have only one rural correspondent but 50 correspondents will cover a fashion show. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them.  Books are not looked at as another source of enjoyment. They are rather viewed as part of studies and therefore avoided. I grew up before  satellite TV, Internet  and mobile phones came on the scene (I assure you there was such a time) so books were always a major pass time for me. I will often be asked, '"What were you 'studying' today"? 


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Neil Postman's Graduation speech

 The chief guest for my graduation day at IIMA was P.V.Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister. I don't remember a word of what he spoke. The speakers on graduation day are generally dreary, the students are least interested in listening to him, but there is a speaker nevertheless. I think it would be a better idea if someone with a good voice reads out the graduation speech that Neil Postman wrote. 

Neil Postman (1931- 2003) was one of the most prolific and influential American intellectuals of the 20th century. A professor at NYU, Postman authored 18 books and more than 200 articles in the nation’s top magazines and newspapers, such as The Atlantic, Time magazine, and Harper’s Magazine. His writings tended to focus on all the things that were not working in modern culture: eg. the misuse of the English language or all the ways he saw technology making our species dumber. His most famous books are Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Postman wrote his graduation speech before he was ever asked to give one. The reason he gave for composing an unasked for graduation speech was, “Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches [he was a professor at New York University], I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. . . . Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.” 

He prepared some remarks that he planned to use if ever given the opportunity. In typical Postman fashion he provides it as a true open source document: “If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation.” He did get a chance later to deliver a graduation speech where he apparently delivered more or less the same comments. 

Members of the faculty, parents, guests, and graduates, have no fear. I am well aware that on a day of such high excitement, what you require, first and foremost, of any speaker is brevity. I shall not fail you in this respect. There are exactly eighty-five sentences in my speech, four of which you have just heard. It will take me about twelve minutes to speak all of them and I must tell you that such economy was not easy for me to arrange, because I have chosen as my topic the complex subject of your ancestors.

Not, of course, your biological ancestors, about whom I know nothing, but your spiritual ancestors, about whom I know a little. To be specific, I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. 

They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them — Democritus by name — conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist.

They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology.

About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear. But not what they had created. Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago.

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders — ruthless and brutal. 

Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.

Like the Athenians, the Visigoths also disappeared, but not before they had ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages. It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from the Visigoths.

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us — in this hall, in this community, in our city — there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. 

I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question — these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind’s most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth’s language aspires to nothing higher than the cliche.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. 

The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. 

And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. 

On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. 

And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

And so, whether you were aware of it or not, the purpose of your having been at this university was to give you a glimpse of the Athenian way, to interest you in the Athenian way. We cannot know on this day how many of you will choose that way and how many will not. 

You are young and it is not given to us to see your future. But I will tell you this, with which I will close: I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

Thank you, and congratulations.

Gandhi thought that modernity does nothing to rein in the dark side of humans which always lurks beneath the surface even in best of human beings. His objection to modern civilization was that it does not provide any 'inducement to morality'. It came in a beautiful garb but it had huge hidden costs and made people morally numb. He 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. Gandhi wrote in Harijan, 31-1-'35:

Man must choose either of the two courses, the upward or the downward; but as he has the brute in him, he will more easily choose the downward course than the upward, especially when the downward course is presented to him in a beautiful garb. Man easily capitulates when sin is presented in the garb of virtue.

That being the the case (and I have no reason to dispute the observations), it will be a rare class that ends up with Athenians heavily outnumbering Visigoths. 

PS: Before people start checking whether all the facts that Postman stated about the two group of people are historically accurate, it is important to realise that they are used as metaphors. The ideas the metaphors convey are far more important than the historical facts. 


Monday, August 3, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - X

 The looming inter connectivity between objects in our homes, cars and cities, generally referred to as the internet of things, will change digital surveillance substantially. With the advent of wider networked systems, everything from washing machines to coffee makers will soon be able to communicate, creating a vast amount of data about our lives. And this deluge of data won’t only be passed back and forth between objects but will most likely wind its way towards corporate and government reservoirs.

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the panopticon, an idea proposed by the utilitarian philosopher Bentham. The basic setup of Bentham’s panopticon is this: there is a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation.

How government bodies conduct surveillance today is different from this basic model suggested by Bentham. In the panopticon the occupants are constantly aware of the threat of being watched – this is the whole point – but state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no camera lens staring at you every time you enter a URL. With Bentham’s panopticon, there is a physical sense of exposure in the face of authority. But typing on a computer at home makes you feel anonymous and emboldens you to share more of your data. My data, however, is under surveillance, not only by my government but also by corporations that make enormous amounts of money capitalizing on it.

The practice of surveillance justifies itself through the discourse of “safety”, “security” and “transparency”. Most people seem to have accepted such surveillance as necessary to 'enhance' the quality of their lives. From shops to schools, from housing societies to office corridors, and from the living rooms to the elevators in high rise buildings — the all-pervading presence of CCTV cameras proves one thing: We love to be controlled, observed, normalized and disciplined. We want what psychologists call 'the locus of control' to be located in outside agencies and devices. Control of people works best when the process is invisible so governments peddle various stories to hide the social costs of the technologies they employ. As Frank Pasquale writes in The Black Box Society:
An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular danger, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny.   
That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behavior.
Tagore said  that all the skills in the world were useless, even baneful, if not wielded by a cultivated imagination and refined critical faculties. But now the pressure of the market has ensured that only the economic value of a person is emphasized. This means that engineers and MBAs are encouraged and there are no takers for the humanities and the arts. In this article, Martha Nussbaum describes a visit to a Swaminarayan temple. She was given a tour by a young man who told her that whenever the leader of his sect speaks, one is to regard it as the direct voice of God and obey without question. She continues:
At that point, with a beatific smile, the young man pointed up to the elaborate marble ceiling and asked, "Do you know why this ceiling glows the way it does?" I said I didn't, and I confidently expected an explanation invoking the spiritual powers of Pramukh Swami. My guide smiled even more broadly. "Fiber-optic cables," he told me. "We are the first ones to put this technology into a temple."  
There you see what can easily wreck democracy: a combination of technological sophistication with utter docility. I fear that many democracies around the world, including our own, are going down that road, through a lack of emphasis on the humanities and arts and an unbalanced emphasis on profitable skills. 
Books like The Net Delusion,To Save Everything, Click HereWeapons of Math Destruction, World Without Mind, The Googlisation of Everything etc., warn of entrusting our future to internet companies. Another book of this genre, The Black Box Society, tells of a fiction genre known as the “self-preventing prophecy” to which these books belong. 'An author imagines a dystopia, plausibly extrapolating to the future some of the worst trends of the present. If enough readers are shaken from their complacency, they start to make the changes that can prevent the prophecy. The author then avoids the fate of Cassandra, the prophetess of Greek myth whose warnings were fated to be disregarded. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World could both be understood in this way, helping to mobilize resistance to the totalitarian futures they described.'

Saturday, July 25, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - IX

According to the prophets, the arrival of the internet was going to be the biggest thing to happen to democracy since the invention of the ballot box. Nothing like the Rwandan genocide could ever happen again, the former British PM Gordon Brown insisted, 'because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken’. The message was: large doses of information and communications technology are bound to prove lethal to the most repressive of regimes. What the cyber-utopians failed to grasp was that the internet can just as easily be used to control people as it can be used to educate them.

There were massive protests in Iran in 2009 because of suspicions of a fraudulent election. The protests were thought to be fueled by tweets and cyber-utopians lost no time in claiming that the Internet will spell the doom of dictators everywhere and that a liberal democracy was the only game in town. So much so that 'the Internet' was one of the nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. What they failed to realize was that tweets don't topple government, people do. A real revolution sooner or later demands sacrifices from the population, not just typing on computers.

After the failed uprising in Iran, the government hunted down dissidents online, tracking them through their emails and using face-recognition technology to identify people from pictures taken on mobile phones. The authorities used technology for their own benefit by sending messages warning Iranians to stay away from street protests. The police searched for personal details like Facebook profiles and email addresses of Iranians living abroad and threatened them not to incite protests unless they wanted to hurt their relatives back home. Governments use social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters, seeding their own propaganda online.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harrari says that many fear AI algorithms because they think that they will not remain obedient to us. But the problem with algorithms is exactly the opposite - they will always do what they will be ordered to do. If algorithms and robots are in benign hands, they will produce tremendous benefits. However, if countries of the “Axis of evil” embrace new technologies, people might end up in a complete surveillance regime where all actions and utterances are followed and controlled by the future Big Brother and humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.” Eventually, the population of digital dictatorships, because of extensive propaganda and constant fear of being marked as a dissenter, will come to unconditionally obey the Big Brother. From “1984" by George Orwell:
We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.
An example of of such a digital dictatorship is what is being implemented in China called the 'Social Credit System' (SCS). Every citizen in China would be given a score that will be available for all to see. This citizen score comes from monitoring an individual’s social behavior — from their spending habits and how regularly they pay bills, to their social interactions — and it’ll become the basis of that person’s trustworthiness, which would also be publicly ranked. What people can and can't do, like the kinds of jobs or mortgages they can get, and what schools their children qualify for will depend on how high their "citizen score" is.

There already are agencies that trace the timely manner in which we pay our debts, giving us a score that's used by lenders and mortgage providers. There is on eBay a rating on shipping times and communication, while Uber drivers and passengers both rate each other; if your score falls too far, you're in trouble. China's social credit system expands that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens' behavior and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don't pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket. If it is implemented overtly, it doesn't mean that the idea is new or that it doesn't exist elsewhere in more skeletal form.

Supporters of the SCS see this as an opportunity to improve on some of the state’s services. Some argue that this would give Chinese citizens much-needed access to financial services. It's all about building trust, says the Chinese government. The 2014 document describing the government's plans note that as "trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low." Any technology doesn't come only with benefits; it also comes with costs which its champions would play down. It could paint a very inaccurate and incomplete picture of a person.

People do many different things for many different reasons, and if the context is not appreciated it can be misconstrued. This is what happens when algorithms compute correlations from large amounts of data. Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, could be considered an idle person.  But the reason he was playing games could be because he is a games developer who was testing a new product. A person who is looking at various terrorist organizations could be designated by an algorithm as a person to be watched by security agencies. In reality, he may just be a journalist doing his job. The system can also be used to enforce vague laws like endangering national security or unity.

China has developed advanced facial recognition systems that are able to follow people across entire cities. In a show of power at the end of 2017, Chinese officials working in co-operation with BBC News showed how it could track down and find one of the organisation's reporters within seven minutes. Ultimately, the problem is that “socially acceptable behavior” will be defined by the Chinese government, not a democratic process since it now will have a way of monitoring virtually all aspects of citizens’ lives.

The system the Chinese are putting in place is just an expanded version of what is already in existence in many democratic countries. Police and intelligence agencies are using the databases created by the private sector to revolutionize their own role in society. The government will say that you don’t have to worry if you have nothing to hide. But if your political activities or interests deviate even slightly out of the mainstream, you do. Thousands of people are being caught in data-driven dragnets for being activists, or just belonging to a suspect “identity” group. Careful protection of the boundary between crime and dissent is not a high priority of the intelligence apparatus. FBI director Robert Mueller said way back in 2002, that “there is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act.”