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 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.'