Saturday, January 27, 2018

The fallacy - and imminent death - of excessive individualism

In my younger days, I was a staunch libertarian (both politically and socially) and believed strongly in the freedom to do what you want, with minimal interference from the government and society.   To a college student just spreading his wings as an independent adult and drinking from the Fountainhead of writers espousing such beliefs, it was a heady, addicting mix and catered perfectly to the ego of youth with a long, blank canvas ahead:  it offered the promise of being able to do whatever one wanted.

Except for one slight problem:  the idea of complete individualism is a load of nonsense, a hangover from the Hellenic days.

Let's take a look at pack behavior in animals.    A pack is successful when all members of the pack put their interests subordinate to the interest of the pack as a whole.  And the species that have succeeded as pack animals are the ones where this principle works.

Now, we humans seem to have this inexplicable belief that our sentience means that we are above the laws of nature under which we have evolved, and that our individual liberties supersede the needs of society as a whole.    

As long as there was room for growth, this was not really an issue.   Society expanded and the needs of the individual never clashed significantly with the needs of the society, except in isolated cases here or there.    However, now that is changing - there is no further room for expansion.  

Pack (tribal) identity involves shared values and beliefs - something that gives a sense of "Us".    Earlier, different packs could coexist because they had room to do so (physical as well as behavioral).   With population growth and the boom of the information era, that sense of space is disappearing.   And so matters are starting to come to a head, and there is a systemic conflict arising between these two elements.  

The impending environmental disaster towards which we are hurtling is a good example of this.   We know steps need to be taken to fix it.   However, as it currently stands, the short-term cost to each individual of taking drastic steps to curb this exceeds the benefits, which are long-term and likely to be reaped by future generations.   And so what happens?   Nothing.    

As an example - for a country like India, with a relatively smaller land mass and one of the highest population densities in the world, the best long-term solution would be to institute measures to reduce the population.    This would be for the benefit of the society and future generations - but not so good for the people who would be denied the ability to have children.     The cost to the individual is deemed too high, even though no one can argue that the long-term benefit to society would be undeniable.

[Note - I am not advocating this.  I am using this as an example of the cost/benefit analysis]

To an extent, I can understand why we believe in the primacy of individual rights:  the idea that you or I could be crushed under the guise of expedite necessity is a frightening thought.    Nor am I espousing that there are no individual rights, period - without any individual benefit to being in a society (be it shelter from predators, ability to hunt successfully or have access to social media), no individual of any species would ever be a part of the pack.    The benefits of being in a pack (aka, society) must exceed the costs of being in that pack.

And that brings us to my point - the two have to be in balance:  in some cases, society's requirements may take priority over the rights of an individual, and in other cases, it is the other way around.    The idea that individual rights automatically take precedence over society is a socially untenable construct.  

And this goes beyond just harming other people.    Society has implicit rules for behavior which go beyond "You cannot physically harm someone else".  

You cannot live in a society and realize all the benefits that come from this (technology, infrastructure, medical care, etc) and then say that you do not owe society anything beyond the bare minimum.   As i mentioned earlier, being a part of a pack or tribe goes beyond merely saying "I will not harm members of the pack".   It involves becoming a part of the shared values/beliefs of that pack.

As it stands - there are too many packs and the 'space' (physical or otherwise) to hold them is running out.     A study of animal behavior and history tells us that there are 2 potential solutions:

1)  Conflict, which will reduce the number of packs to a more sustainable number.  

2)  Aggregation of packs into larger ones, thereby reducing the scope of conflict - for this to happen, some of the differences in idealogy and beliefs between various packs will have to be subsumed in the interest on greater good.

Interestingly, the trend in society seems to bear this out.   Look at what is happening to individual privacy, one of the biggest foundations of individualism.    A hundred years ago, people had virtually full control over their privacy.   Then came computers and Citizen ID Cards, passports and social security numbers.   Then came Google & advanced computing (facial recognition, location tagging, data mining).   We gave up significant chunks of our privacy (and hence individualism) in order to stay relevant in a changing world.  

At this point, most arguments for privacy (eg, Aadhar) are pretty much exercises in intellectual masturbation - the same people who decry this also submit their biometric data for passports and visas, provide their entire personal history to Google and accept that their earnings and spendings are being recorded for tax purposes - regardless of whether you like this or not, it is something that cannot be avoided.

To someone from a hundred years in the past, today's society is going to be frighteningly close to an Orwellian nightmare, where the government and private corporations have access to frightening amounts of personal data (did you know that Google's analytics are so advanced that, for shared household computers, they can tell who is using the computer based on their browsing habits?).      Yet for the new generation, this is pretty much how things have been.

Does anyone really think things will get better from here?  

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Great Diwali Circlejerk

Every year, Diwali comes around and as is new and fashionable these days, the usual chorus of "ban firecrackers" starts.    It stresses dogs, they say.   It is bad for the environment, they say.   It is noise pollution, they say.

Before we start, let me make it clear that I actually do not like loud firecrackers and personally would be very happy with them being banned.      However, let me tell you about Mr Gonzalez, my math teacher in school.   He would grade even a correct answer as "wrong" unless we showed that the answer was derived using sound principles;  and if the principles were correct, but we made a mistake in the calculations, he would give us partial credit.  

(That sums up the nature of this post, and this blog, incidentally.   This is not about changing your opinion about whether firecrackers should be banned or not, or whatever.   That's your belief, you are welcome to it.   This is about making the thinking a little more rigorous in the possibly-vain hope that someday, atleast a few people will start first assessing facts and then forming an opinion, as opposed to the other way around).

Anyway, back to Diwali.  Let's examine the reasons people have for opposing the firecracker ban

The environment / air quality

Ok, that seems legit, right?  Except that if we were in some sort of environmental triage chamber, this would be the area that everyone would rightly ignore, seeing as how minor it is compared to other, more significant issues.      In Delhi, the air quality is well above toxic for most of the year and spikes a little more during Diwali (although crop burning actually causes a bigger spike).     So is the solution to address the issues that cause the air to be toxic for most of the year, or is the solution to address the one day surge where it becomes a little more toxic?

"Yeah but it is a start" is a common rejoinder, and I for one, Do Not Buy That.   It is not a start.  A start implies that after this, more action will be taken.   If that was the case, I would be all for it.  But we all know that is not going to happen.    This is the entirety of the effort to improve air quality and is so very typical for India:   find some low-hanging fruit and use that to make a token gesture, and use that as evidence of action to appease the public.

All the well-meaning Social Justice Warriors feel that they have accomplished something and thus, all the outrage - which could have been used to actually drive constructive change - gets grounded and neutralised this pathetic, pointless and ineffective gesture.    And they continue to drive everywhere, live in aircon, use plastic disposables, etc.  Token gestures are so much easier to do than actually, you know, fix the fucking air quality of the city.

So no.   This is not "a start".   This is a diversion, and all the sheeple who are preening at the HC ban on the sale of fire crackers in Delhi:  congrats.   You all have just been pacified by a meaningless gesture.   Your air quality is still going to be toxic for the rest of the 364 days and you have just ejaculated your outrage prematurely over something meaningless.

Now imagine what might have happened had you lot had put this much effort into asking the government to actually follow up on the earlier promises to clean up the air.   But after an equally symbolic-but-meaningless 'even/odd' cars thing, everyone forgot about it, didn't they?

Think about the animals

Ok, I love dogs.   I have 3.    And I usually spend my Diwalis with them, keeping them company as they hide under the bed.      So again, personally, I quite like the idea of a ban on loud firecrackers.

But you know what is worse for animals than firecrackers?    Being bred in squalid, inhumane conditions and being killed in horrendous ways so that you can have meat.    Pigs are as smart and as capable of emotional bonds as dogs, and yet are brutalized for their entire lives.     If dogs were treated the same way, you would be on the streets in outrage.    So what gives?    If you care about animal rights, focus on the former first - not the latter.        That would be intellectually consistent and also logical - go after the highest priority first.

Of course, doing so would require personal sacrifice - you would have to give up or cut down on meat (and I love meat as much as the next one).   It is also not easy:  who do you call to address this? Can it even be done?      So of course, it is easier to go for the low-hanging fruit.     And you can always rationalize it with those 3 intellectually lazy words, "It's a start".   But is it?

Is this ban on firecrackers going to lead to better conditions for cattles and pigs on meat farms?   Or is this a salve that soothes the guilt of eating an animal that has lived its entire existence in misery just so the animal lovers can have a nice bacon sandwich?

And this isn't "whatabouttism".    These aren't unrelated issues and the sad reality is that even though it shouldn't be, it has become a this-or-that type of situation.   The impetus to improve animal conditions can and should be channeled to an area where it is sorely needed - and yet it is once again wasted on a token gesture and neutralized.   Sound familiar?

Noise Pollution

Honestly, if people just said "ban firecrackers, they are noisy and they bother me", that would be awesome.    Mainly because this would be logically consistent and honest - and I do not have any issues with positions like that.

Of course, it would be nice if this was also extended to music blaring from temples/mosques and to cars blaring their horns.    Personally, I'd rather live with 364 days of peace and 1 day of noise than the other way around, but I'll take what i can get - and with this argument, I do not disagree.

 Parting Thoughts

There is another aspect to consider.     Social cohesion is a big part of any society - we have not evolved to the point that we can get rid of our tendency to form tribes.   And every tribe has its rituals and symbols that are important to it (be it an anthem, a flag, a turban, a pendant, a book or whatever). Respecting them is a large part of maintaining that social cohesion - especially in times of change, when people want to hold on to things that are familiar as a part of maintaining their tribal identity.

That does not mean these symbols are always sacrosanct.    If there is a good reason to buldoze them, by all means do so.     But there is a cost to doing so - and we need to see if the benefits are worth it.   I have argued above that the benefits are mostly symbolic and not even worth the cost of losing all that precious outrage, which could have been channeled into more constructive areas -  and that is without factoring in the social costs.  

For so many people leading very utilitarian/subsistence-driven lives, this is the one day of celebration they all look forward to, and that is been yanked out from them under the guise of... something (even I dont know what:  social media posturing, maybe?).     And guess what that leads to?  

Yup:   a sense of being attacked and an instinct to circle the wagons against the Other.      And you are already seeing that.   The  calls against firecrackers have already been turned into an attack on religion, and a Hindu-vs-Muslim thing.    Does that sound ridiculous to you?    It does to me as well.   Of course there is no such thing intended.

But do you think the average person in the country is going to delve into the distinctions of why this is so?   No.   To the guy who was looking forward to Diwali, the only thing that he will parse is that HIS cultural expression is being constrained, while others are not.     And thus, another unnecessary wedge is driven into cultural relations by well-meaning elites living in their ivory towers.

You can correctly argue that it was not intended, and that the responsibility for interpreting it in this manner lies with the people who do so, and that "doing the right thing" should not be mitigated by "what will people say".   I agree with that in principle.   But I will also say that people who purportedly speak from a higher intellectual ground should also apply the same higher standards to themselves, and, at the very least, should take into account the ramifications of their actions.     Just because you can justifiably say something doesn't mean you always should.    While there is nothing wrong with NOT taking the high road, doing so is actually admirable.

In short:  my issue isn't with the focus on banning firecrackers:  it is with the opportunity cost associated with it, and what could have been.   We had a chance to use that outrage for something that could have made a difference, and we wasted it.  Tomorrow, we are back to the same toxic air and same noise pollution and the animals that we eat are still living and dying in misery.    

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Yes, yes, feel the rage

We are in the middle of a revolution, and we dont even know it.     That revolution is in the amount of information is presented to us, its method of delivery and how we react (or more appropriately, cope) with it.

Structurally, the change is in two areas:

1)   The amount of information we receive now is much larger - earlier, it was limited to one or two newspapers, and perhaps a couple of news shows.    Now, we get information everywhere:  news on our phone, 24 hours news channels, news on social media, links to news posted by friends, etc.

2)   Online media makes it easy for us to be broadcasters, and not just receivers.   Every idiot with an internet connection can start a blog with an assumed name, and actively share his opinions with the world around them (oh wait...).    So in addition to information, you are also getting opinions.

That's pretty minor, and quite obvious, right?  However, the impact of this is phenomenal.

As the amount of information grows, the nature of how it is presented has also changed.   Earlier, when you had one newspaper to read, you tended to take your time and read it in detail.    Now, the competition for your time has increased.   So information is being presented in a way that stands out and makes you want to absorb it.    As you are faced with more and more things to absorb, the time that you can devote to any single bit of information is reduced.   And that means information providers need to 'hook' you quickly.  

Add to this the fact that the line between 'information' and 'opinion' is being blurred - as more and more erstwhile receivers start broadcasting their beliefs, you get exposed to all sorts of ideas:  "sensible" ideas (which are, of course, ones you agree with), ideas which you disagree with and ideas which you find crazy.

You cannot help being exposed to this conversation in some shape or form, and it is very hard to avoid getting drawn in.   So what happens now?     Maybe the first time you hear a friend express an opinion you disagree with, you write a reasoned rejoinder.    A few others chime in and you have a long discussion, which - as anyone who has ever had late night discussions on this topic in college will tell you - dont really go anywhere.       The second time too, you have a reasoned discussion on this   And the third.  And the fourth.

What happens when you come across the same topic for the twentieth or fortieth time?    Are you still going to have the discussion?     No, you are going to suffer from what i called Discussion Fatigue, and you will resort to shorter, more dismissive answers.     Impatience will make those answers more acerbic and more adversarial.     And this goes both ways - you will be on the receiving end of similar, short answers as well (the anonymous nature of the internet makes this too easy, as well).

An interesting point about human nature - the more often you argue in favor of something, the more strongly you start believing in it.     Even if you had moderate views on something, and the first few discussions were a variation of the Socratic method of discussion, the more you debate in favor of something, the more strongly you are going to get wedded to that belief.    And the internet gives you PLENTY of options to debate.

So where does that leave us?  Let's recap:
- you are getting bombarded by information of all types, which is increasingly trying to get your attention
- you are becoming more and more dogmatic in your beliefs by virtue of arguing about them all the time
- you feel the need to defend your beliefs against the 'siege' of differing viewpoints.

So you end up with a bunker mentality and go down the road of confirmation bias.   You tend to focus on information that supports your point of view, and ignore information that doesnt and modify reality to ensure your beliefs remain valid (I call it the Lance Armstrong phenomenon* - more on that below).   And guess what?   The information providers realize this and adapt - they provide that information in increasingly small-sized bites calculated to get your attention.   The headline becomes the information, veracity and nuance get the chop.     

So the nature of the information that is being presented is also increasingly polarized and extreme, to match the increasingly polarized viewpoints that people hold.    And what is the outcome of this?   Complex issues with shades of grey get reduced to "either-or" dichotomies in stark black and white, and people fall over themselves to get on their respective side of the battle lines.   And they start "transmitting" their own more extreme position, creating a correspondingly stronger opposing response.     In other words, we are now in a vicious cycle of greater polarization of beliefs. 

And because people lack the intellectual objectivity to rationally analyze their own beliefs, only facts that fit their beliefs are considered and the rest rejected.   So now opinion trumps reality, and there is no shortage of informational sources to support whatever far-fetched opinion you want to have.    After all, we live in an era where freedom to have an opinion has somehow transformed into a belief that all opinions are valid.

In other words, the idiots are driving things.    If you have a working brain (and the fact that you have read all the way to this end implies that you do), this should really piss you off.   It sure annoys me.   

That's why i have started this blog.    And yes, the irony isn't lost on me.   

*The Lance Armstrong effect is a classic example of people change their value system/reality rather than face up to the fact that their beliefs were wrong:    so many people worshipped Uniball as a great hero.     Credible doping allegations against him existed pretty much after his first couple of Tour wins, but no one believed them because he wrote a book where he said he didnt dope.   Others cheated, not him.    When he was busted, these same people changed their tune and said the bust was incorrect/he was innocent/it was all circumstantial/etc - in other words, the overwhelming evidence was wrong and Pharmstrong was clean.   And then when he actually admitted to doping, the narrative changed to "but everyone else dopes/he has done so much work for cancer".   People tied themselves into knots trying to find excuses and changing the parameters of reality (ie, doping is cheating) rather than just accept that their beliefs were wrong.