Societal musings

1984 and Brave New World Revisited

In the foreword to Neil Postman’s highly relevant and rigorously constructed tome Amusing Ourselves to Death, Adam Postman argues that it’s not the Orwellian prophecy, but the Huxleyian prophecy that rang true. He writes, “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in 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 their technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

While this is largely true, I argue that both prophecies have come true. To see this, we need to recognize “Big Brother” in the context of the modern world. In the age of capitalism where the government has failed to solve the problems plaguing society, large corporations (mostly tech firms) have stepped in to fill the void. Much like the government, these tech firms promise consumers an easier life with minimal friction. Tech behemoths such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have come to occupy the role of Big Brother in Orwell’s world and often times deprive us of our “autonomy, maturity and history.” By hijacking our attention spans and brain space, they have struck at the epicenter of all reason and deprived us of our “capacities to think.”

But it’s not just external oppression. People too have come to love these technologies that numb their minds, thereby validating Huxley’s prophecy.

In other words, the “oppression” and “technologies” that Huxley refers to is modern day “Big Brother” or the “externally imposed oppression” as posited by Orwell.

“We have indeed been overcome by an externally imposed oppression by being slaves to our technologies but alas we have come to love their oppression in this age of no reason.” (Thomas Paine)

Societal musings

Biased Impressions and Energy Management

A work colleague mentioned “This bank presentation has the page numbers wrong on the table of contents. They can’t even do the little things right, can I trust them on the content?”

This is the typical way people judge other people’s work. For example, if your formatting does not look right, they may assume your work is wrong and start analyzing your work with a negative bias attached to their impressions. If you do not speak in a polished way, they will not pay attention to your content. If you are not dressed for the role, they will assume you are not the correct person for it.

But let’s analyze such behavior from the opposite lens.

Perhaps because you focus a lot on the difficult and important things that actually matter, you have no energy left to care about the mundane boring tasks such as getting page numbers correct? What if, because I have spent so much time and mental energy on the rationale of the points I want to articulate that I didn’t get a chance to think about the best ways to present my content? Something like this is pretty noticeable in a lot of smart people who spend so much time on the difficult work, that they don’t bother to care about their appearance. 

The other day a friend asked me this question, “Why am I good at tasks considered to be difficult and so bad at tasks that are considered easy?” It’s likely that my friend has no energy left to care for these easy tasks, which require less mental focus, and hence makes it easy to get distracted. After focusing on activities that require thinking, it is indeed boring to dedicate even a few minutes to menial tasks that don’t require much thinking.

So if you notice that someone got the little things wrong, might the content / underlying substance actually be very impressive? This hypothesis may or may not hold true, but all I’m saying is that forming your impressions based on the superficial matter is not correct. I do think presentation matters a lot, and it cannot be ignored completely at the expense of stellar content. It’s just not the first and only thing that matters. It should always (or in most situations) come after content / underlying work / underlying character.

Philosophy, Societal musings

Man’s Stages of Philosophy Formation

Shakespeare wrote about the acts of man during different stages of life. What about the process of formation of man’s philosophy during these stages? Here is my attempt at answering this question. (Disclosure: I am using the word man to reference homo sapiens)

Stage 1: Philosophy Imitation

  1. When we are children, we don’t have our own philosophy. We tend to adopt the world views of our parents and that of the different environments and people we are exposed to.
  2. During adolescence and through the time of our schooling, we imitate the cool peers and that’s who we want to be.
  3. As we grow older and enter the work force, we try to imitate and adopt the same philosophy of our career role models.
    1. It is during this stage that a lot of us perhaps face our first philosophy conflict
    2. We are exposed to this vast world in front of us. Post school, there is lack of structure and no real defined path. This, along with our past experiences with philosophy imitation, makes it difficult for us to know which philosophy to follow. We try to draw from past experiences but they may not be so relevant anymore. We imitate the ones above us (i.e. leaders at work) but now that we have some history with different philosophies, their philosophies may not resonate with us.

Stage 2: Philosophy Crisis and Search Process

  1. This is when we have a philosophy crisis and we begin a philosophy search process, if we are the type that thinks deeply and cares enough to figure themselves out (A lot of people don’t go on this search and follow the imitation game).
  2. This search could be a long, tedious and painful process. It requires deep thinking, reflection, drawing from memory and truly understanding yourself. It begins with testing different philosophies to see which one fits you best.

Stage 3: Crafting your own Philosophy

  1. After a painful search and testing process, things slowly begin to fall in place and this is the launch of the third stage.
  2. You now have a better understanding of yourself and have a draft of your own philosophy.
  3. This stage also involves testing your draft philosophy in different situations, adapting, modifying and challenging your draft philosophy.
  4. As you go through this process, you will begin to form a concrete version of your unique philosophy.

Philosophy imitation -> Philosophy conflict -> Philosophy search -> Draft of own philosophy -> Philosophy testing, modifying, adapting (constant process) -> Concrete version of unique philosophy 

Now, another problem begins. We have formed a more final version of our philosophy. Every time we encounter someone who has a different philosophy (worldview), we automatically feel more distant from this person and throw this person out of our circle. This may be fine, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is wrong. In fact your goals may be the same (or similar), but your approach (philosophy) to getting there and viewing the world may be different. It’s these people who share different philosophies who start to become strangers. This is why we hang out with people who are like us. This is why it becomes harder to change our minds as we grow older — we have formed a concrete version of our philosophy and we cement it further by hanging out with people like us.

Have your own philosophy but be open to interacting with those who have different ones and see where they come from. Be open to perhaps modifying your philosophy. We stop this modification process as we get older but it’s important to be nimble and at the same time not forget yourself.

Education, Global Problems, India

Could a Liberal Arts Education be the Solution to India’s Problems?

With a wave of political and societal changes engulfing India, a combination of factors could usher in a golden era of growth in the country. India’s demographic advantage and growing enterprise culture favor its rise. However, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Center for Policy Research in India, argues that “whether India takes full advantage of these propitious conditions will depend upon the policy choices it makes.” In describing the Indian electorate, P. Mehta aptly points out that “the impact of policies on well-being is judged less by aggregate future expectations of the impact.” Could this narrow focus on the present spell the very doom for India despite favorable conditions? Could a growth in liberal arts education enable India to look beyond the present and save the country from the perils of climate change and job displacement due to automation?

While climate change and automation are not problems unique to India, they will disproportionately impact India. If this massive population is to save itself, it must become liberally educated.

David Wallace-Well’s book The Uninhabitable Earth notes that climate change will hit India the hardest. India’s equatorial position and large river system schedule the country to receive ~29% of the economic suffering. Not only will people be dying due to heat stroke, but they will also lose their farming jobs as sea levels rise. India is still largely an agricultural society; lacking the technological skills needed to survive in the modern economy, farmers will be entering poverty in drones.

As the exuberance around the startup India campaign launched by Prime Minister Modi wanes, numbers reveal that funding for startups is still lacking. 90% of Indian startups fail in the first 5 years due to lack of creativity beyond emulating business models from the United States. Moreover, ~30% of the country’s population is employed in low-skilled IT services jobs which mostly serve companies in the United States. Now, with cost pressure faced by U.S. firms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) replacing mundane call-center duties, Indian IT workers are no longer in high demand. As of 2017, the World Bank estimated that ~69% of India’s workforce is threatened by automation.

Is India’s population destined to fail? How can education provide workers with the creativity and high skills needed to help the country flourish? India’s current education system focuses on rote learning and memorization, but with these challenges at its doorstep, Indian students need to learn critical thinking skills and develop knowledge in the social sciences. Author Yuval Harrari argues that in the age of AI, creative jobs will be impacted last. India should develop its non-existent creative services fields.

A liberal arts education equips students with reasoning capabilities. It is imperative that future leaders have a good grasp of history, politics and social sciences and develop empathy and judgement to combat the issues plaguing India. Universities such as Ashoka and Flame are pioneers in bringing this education to India’s masses and more such institutions could not only save India from destruction but could also help it achieve dominance in global affairs.

With the proliferation of the Internet and the rise in over-the-top (OTT) in India, the country needs to pick up Neil Postman’s book The End of Education to be aware of the benefits of reading and critical thinking. The burgeoning middle class needs to channel its money towards a liberal arts education for their children.

The sole focus on technical skills will “shackle it (Indian mind) to the technicalities with which it has become so familiar, and disable it from taking enlarged and comprehensive views even of topics falling within its compass.” (George Sharswood)

Recommended Book: The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman

Fiction, Global Problems

Taliban Brainwashing Children

The officer dragged Khaled into a tent. The unwelcome grim faces of the tent inmates afforded him a mere glance before going back to the dreariness of their minds. Terrified, Khaled found a corner to huddle up.

“Welcome to the dark world, my son,” exclaimed the man sitting next to him. Afraid to break any protocols, Khaled decided it was best to befriend silence. In any case, his shivering body wouldn’t allow him to speak coherently, or for that matter, speak at all.

The man questioned Khaled, “So, where are you from?”

“Ka-Kabul,” Khaled managed to meekly respond. It was only then that the dryness of his mouth became apparent to him. Perhaps risking his life, he asked the man, “Can I get some water?”

The man shook with laughter, which only drove Khaled to cower even more. “Son, this is not your home,” he responded curtly.

Weary and on the brink of fainting, Khaled wasn’t quite sure when sleep drew him in. “Will I ever see my mother again? Who are these people around me? Can I play? Where could Hassan be? Where am I even? Stop! Try to sleep! No more questions, Khaled.”

—-x—-

The bright light of the torch shone on Khaled’s face. The officer’s face stared down at him. “Wake up, it’s time for your first lesson.”

Terrified and afraid of being beaten up, Khaled sat upright in an instant. The ground beneath his feet seemed to be shaking as he stepped outside the tent and onto the barren terrains outside. No, it wasn’t the ground, it was his legs that quivered as he drew upon his last resources of energy to quietly follow the officer. His mind felt like a blank slate — he was too delirious to construct any thoughts at all.

—-x—-

The officer and Khaled entered a small cement house where Khaled was joined by a group of 20 boys, who reminded him of his classmates back home. Three middle-aged men in white overalls marched into the room and motioned for the group of 10-12 year old boys to sit down on the floor. Abdas, second in command to Kharoof, the leader of the Taliwat group, began addressing the boys.

“Children, it is time for you to rejoice. God has chosen you as the lucky ones to carry out his tasks on Earth. You are God’s disciples and God has entrusted us to show you the path to reach him.”

For the group of 20 boys, the following 6 months were marked by a strict regimen of waking up at the crack of dawn, reading the Koran for hours, and engaging in rigorous physical training. Three times a week, Kharoof would come and address the children, “God wants you to go out there and kill those souls who don’t abide by the principles set forth in the holy book. In the process you will sacrifice your lives as well, but it is to fulfill the wishes of God. For those of you who carry out his noble tasks in a dutiful manner, God will have sweet rewards for you in Heaven — delicious feasts, princesses, and endless joy and merrymaking. Now, which of you is a fool to not desire such an afterlife?”

No hand would be raised. The children had come to exalt Kharoof as God’s messenger whose words signified pure and untainted truth.

—-xx—-

Khaled woke up even before dawn; today was not like the other days. After nearly an entire year of schooling, it was time for him to join some of his former classmates in Heaven. Wearing his finest white kurta, he braced himself for the task ahead of him, and met Abdas and Kharoof outside the mosque. The three of them silently walked in and practiced Namaaz (prayer to God). After, Kharoof placed his hands on Khaled’s shoulders, looked him straight in the eyes and with a pleased tone underlying his words, he exclaimed in a deep voice, “You know what you have to do. God is waiting for you. He will be proud.”

Khaled took his place in the back seat of the truck that transported him to Baluchistan, an area in Pakistan. It was 12:15pm by the time he reached the bustling city center thronging with people meandering around the shops, restaurants, and food carts. The fiery sensation in his belly got aggravated as he pressed the button in his right hand.

—-x—-

Breaking News: “20 killed and several injured as bomb goes off in City Center district of Baluchistan. Police reported to investigate. Taliwat suspected behind attack.”

Khaled lay in a pool of blood. With his last remaining breaths, he looked around the chaos he had caused. His gaze rested on the dead face lying near him — he was staring right into his Babajaan’s (father’s) lifeless eyes. A final thought crossed his head, “What have I done? Perhaps this is not what God wanted from me.”

Father and son lay dead next to each other.

—-x—-

Author’s Note: This is a fictional story that talks about the problem of the Taliban grooming children suicide bombers and brainwashing young minds. You can help raise awareness around this grave issue by sharing the story. If you have further ideas, I would love to hear from you.

Further Reading:

How the Taliban groom child suicide bombers

Afghanistan is trying to save its child bombers

Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges

Ted Talks:

Inside a School for Suicide Bombers

How Cults rewire the brain

Societal musings

Political Correctness and Polarization

We are living in a world where people are becoming increasingly scared to voice their real thoughts and opinions. We better be politically correct unless we want to be maligned by society, half of which may honestly agree with you secretly. Just never openly for fear of unintended consequences. As a result, a lot of people prefer to simply remain quiet on important matters.

Given that human emotions always get involved when people with opposing viewpoints are talking, it becomes challenging to remain rational and listen to the other side of the argument. Not only is this extremely harmful to not hash out differences, but it leads to outbursts in the long-run. Suppressing small differences now leads to big blowups later.

Ben Shapiro pointed out how utterly ridiculous it is for us to be digging up people’s online and offline past from years ago and use those arguments against them. People change and their thinking changes. Holding people accountable for arguments made in the past simply instills a fear in society where everybody is trying to portray a perfect side or at least ensure that their words wouldn’t be able to stir even the slightest of arguments. This is fundamentally so wrong since we all have our differences and each one has a dark side.

It is impossible to fathom that we can come even remotely close to reconciling our issues if we can’t have rational debates.

P.S. I know some people may disagree with certain points I’ve made in this post and it can come across as not being politically correct. But I think it is important for me to voice my thoughts and I am very open to hearing opposing viewpoints, and changing my mind as well.

Societal musings

Instagram Glitter

Neil Postman’s slim and highly provocative book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pens down universal ideas around the medium of communication serving as the primary inroad into the culture of society.

He harps on how the underlying truth lies far beneath the artificial imagery overlaying the truth. The imagery merely conjures up dramatic images and entertains the increasingly fickle human mind. How has the medium of communication changed over time? What is the primary medium of communication in today’s world? Perhaps Instagram.

With its emphasis on pictures, no other medium till date has glorified the use of superficial imagery to convey what is grossly mistaken for the truth. Could Instagram be responsible for why people place so much emphasis on how we dress up, since this is the age we live in? It’s about outside beauty. This is why branding has become so important. Show has become more important than substance.

With its universal library of pictures, has Instagram fueled a revolution focused on glitter? Don’t forget: All that glitters is not gold.

Recommended Book: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business?