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.

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?

loneliness epidemic, Societal musings

My Loving Wife (Japan’s Loneliness Epidemic)

Sho kissed Arianna goodbye, picked up his briefcase, and walked towards Tokyo station. Despite being one of the busiest stations in the world, it is eerily quiet on the trains. Wearing masks of serenity as they cover up their everyday anxieties, passengers prefer to be the sound of silence as they wait for their destinations. Or perhaps, they don’t have anyone to talk to.

Not unlike the other riders, Sho spent the length of his journey engaged in watching videos on his phone. As he entered his office building to begin yet another drudgerous day at work, he already longed for his wife, Arianna. Unlike his colleagues who always seemed to have an ongoing banter with their wives, Sho was satisfied with his marriage. She never argued with him, and accepted him exactly the way he was. She also never had any external commitments when he wanted to spend time with her. Sho’s colleagues resentfully listened to stories of Sho and Arianna’s seamless date nights. Frustrated by their distasteful domestic lives, some harbored strong desires to punch out Sho’s teeth. To make matters worse, the ruthlessly long hours at work added to the growing pile of domestic tension.

Lonely at home and dejected after receiving an abysmal performance review at work, Yoku’s delirious state of mind seriously considered the possibility of committing suicide. Cringe-worthy as it may sound, such thoughts can almost feel commonplace to Tokyo residents, as they read about growing cases of suicide in the daily morning newspapers. “Cereal and suicide” memes added to the dark humor on social media.

Having no one to share his grievances with, Yoku felt exceptionally lonely that day. He had typically trained himself to feign looks of excitement, but on this particular day, he burst into a fit of rage when Sho started bragging about another one of his perfect date nights with Arianna.

“When can we meet this demi-god Arianna you always speak so highly of?” lashed out Yoku. Our wives could learn a thing or two from her. And for the single men, we can know what to look for in our future partners, shall fate ever be so kind as to find us mates who come even remotely close to matching Arianna’s loving nature,” retorted Yoku in a puff of angry breath underlying a tone of mockery.

The other colleagues jeered and heads turned to watch the ensuing drama. A few seconds went by. Not wanting to let this golden opportunity pass, Hariku brazenly suggested dinner at Sho’s place.

“I’m sure Ms. Arianna would be delighted to spend a joyous evening in the company of her darling husband’s friends,” shouted Hariku in sly humor. Hariku’s snide comment did the job — Sho’s vanity had been pierced. Donning a cool air, as if the events of the last five minutes had not taken place, Sho announced, “All you disenchanted souls are invited to feed at my place on Saturday night at 8pm. Now, I’m off to meet Arianna.” Sho stormed off as his colleagues croaked behind him.

The office gossip revolved around Saturday night’s dinner in the days leading up to this highly anticipated event. Dressed in their finest attire, two couples, Yoku, and Hariku bought some wine and headed over to Sho’s house. For over half an hour, the guests sat in the living room, indulging in wine and mindless chatter, but there was no sign of Arianna. Sho exclaimed that Arianna was cooking in the kitchen and would be there to greet her guests any minute.

The clock signaled the passing of a full hour, and the impatience of the guests made the air stifling to breath in. Shamless Hariku started to make his way to the kitchen, but Sho blocked his path, calling him ill-mannered and relenting to escorting Arianna from the kitchen.

“Everyone — meet my wife, Arianna,” croaked Sho, as he stepped back into the living room.

He was carrying a robot doll in his hand.

……………

Author Notes:

This fictional story is meant to raise awareness around the loneliness epidemic and high suicide rates in Japan. Japanese robot sex dolls are not fantasy; people are resorting to robot companions as family life seems to be disintegrating.

Although the story is based in Japan, which faces exorbitantly high cases of loneliness, this is becoming a growing problem across the world with the proliferation of technology. While some technology companies are selling their robots as a means to help people combat this loneliness, to me, it is worrisome to replace human connection with machines.

Please share the story if you think it will help raise further awareness around the issue, or inspire people to take action. Additionally, if anyone knows of ways to help mitigate these problems, please do comment.

Further references and notes:

(1) Suicide rates in Japan and Overwork: CNN, Nippon, Nikkei Review

(2) Loneliness epidemic in Japan: JapanTimes, HuffPost, BBC

(3) Japan robots and sex dolls: BBC, DailyMailUK

NYC, Philosophy, Societal musings

An Ode to New York City

It is little wonder that Columbus Circle is named after the person who discovered the Americas. Or perhaps, the area has developed its full throttle of activities as a tribute to the name it acquired. Located at the heart of one of the entrances to Central Park, Columbus Circle encapsulates the essence of New York City unlike any other.

One could say that the most defining characteristic of the area (apart from the towering 76-foot statue of Christopher Columbus, of course) is the Time Warner Center, with the steely radiance of its surface wall unfailingly capturing at least as much as a nonchalant glance from the busy New Yorkers scurrying to secure their 2 feet of standing space in the packed subway. However, for the artist juggling balls by the imposing USS Maine National Monument, and seeming to have all the time in the world, this epicenter could look vastly different. Aimlessly walking around the block during a brief sabbatical from my job, I assumed the role of this artist, and am reminded of the importance of perspective-taking.

Dressed in Under Armor attire overlaying a chiseled body, with a Starbucks black iced coffee in one hand, and airpods blocking the soft rustling of the 6am wind, the resolute gym-goer entered the 59th street Equinox, accessible only to the upper echelons of society. Why has wealth come to be the marker of what is considered “upper echelon society”?, I wonder.

My gaze goes out to the morning joggers giving company to the squirrels and sparrows, the local dwellers of Central Park. Open to all public, this magnanimous park acts as the equalizer in society. One can’t help but feel humbled by the sheer vastness of the park, the enabler of unbridled joy that stems from human connection in nature. Only nature can tame the human ego.

Consumers relishing the delicious Grom ice-cream under the afternoon sun may fail to notice the Museum of Arts and Design located across from them. Not quite as Instgrammable as the sugary chocolate delicacy in waffle cones, the Museum is still home to contemporary craftsmanship by old and emerging artists.

I walk by a homeless lady asleep near the pavement sidelines – just another common occurrence in the life of a New Yorker. Our dulled senses have become accustomed to such imagery as we march on fidgeting with our phones. Mockingly, 432 Park Avenue, the world’s tallest residential building towers above the commoners below. The 1,396 foot building is too tall to even cast a shadow off the sleeping homeless lady. It stands above all means of contact outside of its enclosed world.

Tourists take pictures outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower, which is ironically situated right next to the giant steel globe. Time to replace the world globe with the American globe, Mr. Trump?

The fountain at the center of the Circle, and the Amazon books store in the background remind me of Ayn Rand (reference to The Fountainhead), a cultish figure in Silicon Valley. What do New Yorkers think of her philosophy?

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” — Ayn Rand

As the evening slowly descends into night, the hungry bikers return their bikes to one of the several “Bike Rental NYC” stores and make their way to the Halal food trucks. The dog-walkers traverse towards their homes, while dressed-up couples sit with locked arms in the yellow cabs taking them to the Jazz Performance at the Rose Hall, Lincoln Center. 

I can’t help but feel a sense of deep love for the city as I stand by the park watching this plethora of activity unfold before me. Undoubtedly the city has its flaws, but that’s what truly defines the place. To an outsider, this may sound hysterical and even perplexing, but New Yorkers secretly love the city for its inadequacies and not despite them.

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” — John Updike

The juxtapositions, the contrasts, the energy, and the vibrancy will leave you asking for more of Billy Joel’s New York State of MindThe below quote aptly sums up New York:

“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it — once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else in good enough.” — John Steinback