Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Biological vs Cultural evolution

August 14, 2013

Our biological evolution will always lag eons behind our cultural & technological evolution, barring any dramatic advance in genetic engineering. So it’s a clarion call to reign in our obsession with the ‘magical’ tech tools that have become an integral part of our daily habits–nay, a dominant fact of our lives. Not easy to wean ourselves away from these temptations & seductions. As the well-worn cliché goes: Get a life. Before you buy a tool & make it a toy.

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Nostalgia & Sentiment

September 20, 2011

The idea behind nostalgia is not just a yearning for a more congenial & favorable past, but to bring some of the glory & values from that past into the present. Becoming nostalgic, or going ‘retro’ in the modern lingo, is a sentiment that affirms the human impulse in us, and should not be dismissed as a sign of weakness or vulnerability or backwardness. After all, we all have a memory, don’t we? There’s obviously much about the present that is not right, that makes us discontented. A focus on the present & future will not cure us of nostalgia, which can be a productive sentiment–history often has lessons we need to heed.

However, I quote two insightful passages from Steven Pinker’s recent piece on why we should resist singing praises of the past & berating, bemoaning or generally underming the present:

“In 1777 David Hume wrote, “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature.” A century before him, Thomas Hobbes identified its source: “Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead.” People also blame the present out of historical ignorance and statistical illiteracy, and because they mistake changes in themselves—the responsibilities of adulthood, the vigilance of parenthood, the diminishments of ageing—with changes in the world.

“Regardless of its causes, thoughtlessly blaming the present is a weakness which, even if it is never outlawed, ought to be resisted. Though commonly flaunted as a sign of sophistication, it can be an opportunity for one-upmanship and an excuse for misanthropy, especially against the young. And it corrodes an appreciation of the institutions of modernity such as democracy, science, and cosmopolitanism which have made our lives so much richer and safer.”

Pinker insists that “We should stop idealizing the past and appreciate the present.”


									

America in retreat?

February 17, 2011
Revolution gave nascent America its political & economic freedom, and also vast virgin resources (to be wrested from the Native Indians—who would be dealt with  in due course). This new world went from strength to strength, capitalizing on these resources & freedom to create unprecedented wealth, not to mention an extravagant lifestyle. And that to me was its weakness: it grew a powerful military force to secure that lifestyle by setting up bases all over the world & also engaging in military adventures to prop up foreign govts that were favorable to them—a win-win situation as those rulers succumbed to their temptations in the form of lavish contracts & benefits; and in return America got cheap oil and thus cheap energy to run its industrial enterprises. Hence the relatively low cost of goods & sevices for the average American. This can go on for only so long before the chickens come home to roost. America believes in its exceptionalism by resting on its laurels of high achievement in every sphere, but at what cost to the world as a whole? Its high standard of living is skewed and thus distorting. If the world were levelled in terms of GNP/capita, we’d probably settle on Greece or Turkey as having the world’s average standard of living.
India is too big & varied to be compared with any nation, except perhaps China, which is of comparable size & complexity. Both are also classical civilizations with ancient histories. But India is a free, liberal, secular democracy that practices free market economics, whereas China is an authoritarian state that practices market capitalism; we could call it a peculiar form of Communist Capitalism. China’s people lack political freedom, and have instead a kind of regulated capitalism that frees up the bureaucratic bottlenecks & endless deliberation that plague India. So even here the comparison doesn’t seem apt. And so India gets compared to America, the oldest, and reasonably populous, democracy driven by its legendary free market instincts, in spite of its entirely different cultural history; yet it has similarities with America in terms of its freedoms & cultural diversity, though with palpably different antecedents.

America in a time-warp?

February 11, 2011

America in a time-warp? All societies are in one time warp or other: they traverse different historical trajectories, high end & low end, and everything in between. They’re at different stages of human & material development. America has for long had the good fortune to be at the higher end, with unprecedented material progress; but it’s now in a sort of decline owing to its own profligacy, born of that fortune. Yet it still remains a magnet for many other less fortunate societies. Why? For several reasons: quality higher education, greater economic & political freedom–that alone makes it the stuff of people’s dreams. But they achieved & sustained such a high standard of living also by external factors: cheap oil whose sources they secured by offering military security abroad, cheap labor in poor countries, propping up and doing business with authoritarian regimes, etc. In doing so America reached the very zenith of prosperity, unknown or unrealizable to most of mankind. But perhaps its time is up. China is muscling in, taking advantage of arbitrage & the weakness of Americans for a lifestyle to which most of its citizens have become accustomed. China’s/India’s currency is export-favorable & its people tend to save their money. There’s the rub: they can live much more modestly than Americans, who want cheap goods but extravagant lifestyles. That icon of ruthless, hard-nosed business, Donald Trump says China’s playing unfair by dominating U.S. markets through their cheap currency. What does he suggest? Slap on a tariff of say 25% on all goods entering the U.S. What would that do?–make goods more expensive, thus further raising wages & making jobs scarce. The fact is, Americans must learn some austerity in the way they live, cutting down on all sorts of consumption to conserve non-renewable resources; how else can they compete with those societies who’ve made sacrifices for centuries? Indians & the Chinese must also realize that the arbitrage they enjoy due to outsourcing may not last in the long-term. They need to build the strong institutions that attracted them to the U.S. in the first place. So you see, it all comes full circle. Different historical trajectories are now beginning to converge–we don’t really have a fair & humane globalized society yet; there are too many unresolved tensions, and a host of challenges concerning the kind of future men dream of.

Ancients & Moderns thinking of each other

February 11, 2011

Ever wonder how the ancients must’ve wondered what the world–our world–would be like centuries on? We now wonder what theirs was like since we have no records. Through the technology of sound & images we now have at best a pretty good record of at least the past century.

the VIRTUAL billionaires

February 11, 2011

Would anyone, even as late as 1990, have dreamed that the internet would spawn ‘virtual’ businesses that would eventually make billions for their owners? Peddling sites whose content was a combination of sound, text & images?…where the other senses by which we also live and experience the world, namely smell, touch & taste are ‘virtually’ absent?…where the tangible has no currency?
Larry Page & Sergei Brin of Google are worth billions based on the ‘virtual’ world, but most would agree that this wealth, according to free market principles, is not ‘virtual’ but real.

As it is, these nouveau riche, virtual players have capitalized on our obsession with recording, documenting, communicating & sharing all sorts of trivia with like-minded folks. Putting this obsession between us & real flesh-and-blood people whom we may never have met is a triumph for these new buccaneers. We communicate through multimedia, and place less and less importance on meeting & talking in person, where the power of language, replete with gesture, is at its zenith. ‘Live’ in the conventional sense is now replaced with ‘simultaneous’ experience in cyberspace, which creates the illusion of participation. The media have taken over any experience we may have had on the street, on a human scale. The internet makes everything global, immediate & impersonal, though confessing & sharing the private in public makes it all seem as though we’re interacting on a personal level. We have communities communicating all the time,  but without any commitment or empathy. Even social concern borders on the abstract. The Net’s real power is speed in communicating data/information in times of crisis in a way that mobilizes certain resources. But what about all the other serious shortcomings that matter to individuals, or even living communities & entire societies?

the Web & Social Networking–facebook et al

February 18, 2010

The word ‘facebook’ is intriguing–and amenable to punning. You come face to face with your friends, and yet leave yourself wide open to being ‘de-faced’ in the most humiliating way.  The mantra is to be out there, naked and exposed, if you want something badly enough: information, contacts, publicity, fame (or infamy?), perhaps fortune. It’s all for the taking, if you’re willing to be taken first!

My post of Feb 16 went on about the mobile. The mobile is a device, the Web is an idea. Many are obsessed with both, treating them as tools as well as ends in themselves. The mobile–in tandem with the Web–has become a roaming accessory, an accoutrement, even a fetish. And a fashion statement for snobs if it’s expensive and comes with all the bells and whistles to impress the ignorant.

Mobile: the ubiquitous 21st century addiction

February 16, 2010

Remember how we took the Landline phone of old for granted, not obsessing over or becoming addicted to it? We took it in stride, using it mostly when needed, and not as a fetish in itself. Just think back. Since its invention the landline phone basically didn’t change in its functions or in its actual use for decades on end. What changed was the efficiency of the telephone exchanges and the phone set got better with time. Otherwise it became a rather unremarkable part of our lives. Then along came the pocket-sized MOBILE, and everything changed. Why? Because the phone became an end in itself, with manufacturers and technologists competing, constantly adding newer and newer features, and service providers introducing more and more tempting and cheaper ways to keep using the phone, whether the use was essential or not. All the more reason for the gullible to obsess over the mobile set. It now beckons as an integrated, multimedia, multipurpose gadget crammed with inexhaustible possibilities, whatever you choose to do–and wherever you do it. Little wonder that so many have become not mere users but addicts! These are arguably the evils of an ever-changing, ever-tempting technology: it exerts control over your life, and before you know it you’ve wasted all the valuable or quality time you think you had.  The ubiquitous and demanding mobile is the bait, and many have bitten it at great expense. Indeed, more people are addicted to the mobile than to the laptop, another portable gadget that can be used as a phone, though clumsily. The mobile has the power to make us indepedent, but excessive dependence on such a gadget has killed other kinds of independence, not to mention loss of the privacy and security we once cherished. The problem is us, not the gadget, some will say: a technology can both liberate and enslave you–the choice is ours. The downside as I see it: not only has the mobile shrunk our attention spans, and thus made many incapable of serious thinking about serious issues–that is a real cause for concern. Technologies are born of the material, and to an extent are divorced from the spiritual side of our lives. Yet certain aspects of our lives have moved from the physical world to cyberspace, a virtual world–an interesting paradox, where the material symbolizes the abstract and untouchable: the very idea of communicating information, sharing things and ‘meeting’ via bits & bytes, and not in the flesh.

In societies and cultures that have endured privation for decades, the people are especially vulnerable to the lure of such ‘magical’ technologies, and are mesmerized by the wonder of it all. Their obsession knows no bounds–newer and more complex products have them panting; they can’t get enough, and the mobile is a symbol of status and modernity, a leapfrogging technology that obviates the need for the older, out-of-fashion landline phone.

Without doubt the mobile is a boon in impoverished countries. But what about the empowerment it is supposed to confer on individuals? The new avatar of communication is powered by a technology so pervasive and sophisticated that it can be potentially all-inclusive on the one hand. That is the upside. On the other, it can exclude the poor, uneducated and socially im-mobile as though they were pariahs or lepers. That is the downside. Global can also mean a global elite that marginalizes the weak and deprived. Cyberspace is in principle universal and democratic, but in practice there’s a hierarchy that excludes the ‘have-nots’ because the technology has not trickled down enough wherever poor governance and low productivity cannot deliver.

And so we come back to the Mobile: it is the most democratic and affordable device to emerge fom competing technologies. It facilitates commerce for the common man, and empowers him to some extent. Never mind that he doesn’t belong to the higher echelons of e-commerce, nor that he is on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder. He feels like he’s on top of the world.

Obama Overexposed?

March 27, 2009

Excuse me? The man has been ‘out’ there for so long that one can hardly expect him to stay put ‘in’ there (White House) and tend to the business of the nation. I mean, he’s a hugely popular figure who won the popular vote. Why shouldn’t he go out there and stump for his policies, drawing on the innate strength of the people who elected him? Being popular also means being a bit show-bizzy–the man is alive, and wants to keep his nation alive. How else will he reflect the interests and spirit of his people?

Obama gets lambasted for being too public. Here in India the PM, Manmohan Singh gets brickbats for being too private, ensconced in his cocoon, and only occasionally giving tired, monotonic speeches that put people to sleep–no fire, no passion, no energy: this gets translated into no concern for his policies or his people.

Obama installed & fighting on

March 15, 2009
Just thought I’d indulge in a bit of wordplay, now that Obama & Biden are finally in the White House:
we must now abide by the words of Ob-iden…
 
warm wishes to every Obaman, Obamite, Obamaniac…go ahead, coin your own Ob-hybrid!
 
You may already have read it, but in case you haven’t, here’s an article that appeared in the NYT–by Henry Louis Gates Jr & John Stauffer–where the authors speculate on what Lincoln would’ve thought of Obama. Quite revealing:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/19/opinion/19gates.html?th=&emc=th&pagewanted=all
 
I often feel that most American presidents have been ordinary men–their ambition and determination apart–that have stepped into an extraordinary position with extraordinary, almost inhuman, powers. As Sartre said, “…a man is after all just a man…”