Thursday, September 21, 2017

Self-Colonialization of India

I came across the term, 'self-colonialization', in a news report on Arundhati Roy's recent speech in Berlin. She was speaking at the launch of her book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in German. The news report only mentions the term cursorily: Ms Roy was speaking about the violence the Indian state unleashes on its tribal and its poor and being on the front-line of the battles for the rights of tribal and villagers, such a characterisation of the Indian state is only natural for her. Besides, coming at a time when India has drowned a few hundred villages by making Sardar Sarovar Dam operational, and fighting mini-civil wars in Central India in the name of 'Development', 'self-colonialization' sounds like an appropriate term.

Surely, this would be greeted with derision in India as unnecessary bad-mouthing of India by one of the pet Hate Figures of the Indian establishment. But this has nothing to do with the validity of what Ms Roy is saying, and rather, this is about the peculiar adolescent self-concept of Indian Middle Class: Unsure of itself, it bristles in any criticism abroad. Particularly a person of Indian origin speaking anything critical about India is treated particularly harshly; after all, India only wants its expatriates' money, but none of their opinions. Ms Roy should be treated differently, as she is an Indian citizen living and working in India; but, rather peculiarly, her English writing and global fame makes her 'foreign', and the establishment commentators would both summarily dismissed her views as 'liberal-elitist' and harshly confront her conduct as 'trecherous'. Indeed, she is neither: She is closer to the ground than any of the foreign-educated Corporate Bosses or Upper Caste Babus would ever be; and, her commitment to action, her work with the poor, at the cost of a life of celebrity and fame which she could have otherwise lived, makes her anything but treacherous.

But I write this not to defend Ms Roy - she needs no such defence - but to reflect on the idea of 'self-colonialization', which resonated with me. For me, self-colonialization in India is more than just the obvious manifestations of State Violence - the uprooting of tribal, the unchecked army brutalities in Kashmir, the martial law regimes in North-Eastern states, the civil war in Central India - and includes the various acts of objective violence, the everyday intrusion of a bureaucratic state in the lives of people, its laws which are borrowed from the English and are still at odds with Indian ideas of culture and community, its ordering of economic lives through brute state diktats and its cynical manipulation of a vast number of repressed citizens through a combination of identity politics and hand-outs. The British colonialised Indian minds through various means other than the 'Hard' power of the Military - the number of British Officers and Personnel present in India was always very small - but by subtle manipulation of patronage and privilege, cloaked in the rhetoric of modernity and progress, which made a class of Indians foot-soldiers in the imperial project. Today's slogans of Development are direct derivatives of the Colonial scheme, the assumptions that villages exist to serve at the pleasure of the Cities is a carry-over of the Colonial mindset, and that the natural resources are there to be extracted and monetised is an unquestioned belief passed on from our Colonial masters.

One could argue that such repression is not new or novel, and it happens in every society, including the developed ones. However, there are distinctions to be made. The developed countries, take England or France for example, have come through several revolutions and war, experiences that shaped political consciousness from below and codified demands of the commoner in the laws of the land. India has had no such experience: Its moment of truth in Gandhian activism was enveloped in the broader Independence movement, and ended in bitter disappointment of Partition. Gandhi was assassinated just in time for his revolutionary credo to take hold, and the Gandhians since then remained on the margins of political action in India, as the figure of Gandhi himself was taken over by the Indian state. Gandhian cultural revolution remained unrealised, no one fasted in Delhi after his death, and the Colonial State was inherited and continued, in spirit as well as in letters, by successive generations of Delhi politicians, business bosses and the Babus of various kind. And, it is important to underscore that the Indian State models itself after the Colonial one - and not the British one - as the Home experience of the empire took a different trajectory. 

In that sense, Colonialisation is not foreign to India, but its very own. And, indeed, it is no surprise that the Independent Indian state did not try to establish a new capital, such as Washington DC, but rather conveniently continued the British Capital, complete with Lutyen's palaces. And, this continues: The current ascendancy of Hindu Nationalists, who are following the fascist playbook to effect a social revolution and erase out periods of Muslim domination from India's history (for them, this part of Indian history was ejected out to Pakistan, as one of them helpfully explained to me), is not trying to get rid of the Colonial past. Rather, they are reclaiming the Colonial instruments with its full power to impose a culture and a way of life from above through a powerful modern state. 

So, 'self-colonialization' is an useful concept for India today. This would have limited appeal, for sure, as this critique would not only be directed to just the Hindu Nationalists, but to the entire experience of Independent India. It would confront the claims of nationalism and progress, which underpins the idea of India as it existed since 1947; and indeed, this would open up the possibilities of new conversation which no one speaking English really wants to have. But it is an interesting possibility, and I would return to this when I get to write about the competing conceptions of India, which I shall do someday.

  


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Knowledge Or Skills?

It may seem a strange question, but this is one of the key debates in Education: Should Education be about acquiring knowledge or developing skills? 

One side of the debate are people like E D Hirsch, Michael Gove and advocates of Common Core; on the other a diverse group of business executives and left-leaning educators, from those who think education should be about skills business needs to those who think what goes on as knowledge is really the dominant culture and it discriminates those from poor or minority backgrounds. Yes, I generalise, and there are many shades of argument on both sides. At the core, however, is the debate about the purpose of education along the lines of knowledge versus skills.

It is important to remember in context that this is not an idle debate: The objective of both sides is to affect some sort of complete transformation of the education system. Besides, it will also be a mistake to think that both sides are starting from scratch and fighting it out in the realm of ideas. Rather, it is more like this: Both sides agree on the state of the education system, that it is not working. They also agree that the education processes have changed gradually over the last several decades to give primacy to Skills over acquisition of knowledge. The disagreements really centre around how to fix it: One side argues that too much emphasis of skills is a problem and we are creating disconnected individuals whose skills are fast outdated; the other side argues that we have not gone far enough in focusing on really key skills, and the baggage of mastering knowledge is holding us back.

Surely the arguments as framed reflect the world-views of its proponents. Gaining knowledge as the purpose of education is a traditionalist argument, and those who pursue it often define 'knowledge' as one of national culture and heritage, as in Common Core, Michael Gove's reforms, or the ideas of curriculum change to reflect traditional Indian culture as being debated in India. On the other hand, the skills argument is promoted by the Corporate Globalists, who see the world as an integrated system unified around a single goal of prosperous life and a common value system of efficiency and commercial intent. 

It is easy to see the problem with the focus on acquisition of Knowledge: What knowledge? There is a prescriptive root of this idea - the existence of a canon, a body of knowledge, great books - and it inherently contradicts the current dynamic, contextualised knowledge. As a good politician, Michael Gove stands on the both sides of the argument as he is also the most iconic doubter of the idea of Expertise, which is currently in vogue. In more than one sense, the knowledge argument looks like hankering for a lost time which was perhaps never there, a celebration of an illusory and majoritarian culture, and a project of exclusion of diversity and dissent, which are the wellsprings of innovation and change.

Equally, the Skills argument is flawed, particularly as its proponents push for 'knowledge-free' skills. Their argument that the education process should concern itself with skills development as the acquisition of knowledge is a person, contextual and continuous process, misses the point that skills without knowledge may be meaningless. Can one be a good communicator without having good knowledge of language, cultural contexts or psychologies? Can one think critically without understanding the languages of the concepts? Can one negotiate well without insights of cultures and characters? Besides, the Skills argument is based on an assumption of globalisation apocalypse, that we are moving into - irreversibly - a flat world, something that was definitely negated over the last couple of years.

My point is a predictable one: Not only I think that Knowledge versus Skills is a false dichotomy, I also think the whole debate is misdirected. But, equally, most debates in education today are not really debates about ideas, but entitlements; it is not about being rational, but about taking a position; not about irrefutable arguments, but protection of interests. It is so in this debate too: The positions are taken up to direct public money, and battles are fought between different political positions. Even seemingly congruous concepts such as Knowledge and Skills become battle-cries of different camps, and the balance keeps shifting from one to the other. What one believes in, in this situation, becomes an act of faith, and a function of where the great chain of educational funding the person discovers himself to be.

 













 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sources of Education Innovation

Earlier, I claimed Ed-Tech is over-rated: It promises too much and delivers too little. Worse, the noise of EdTech obscures Education Innovation, which encompasses lot more than gadgets and apps. My point was that the Education Innovation happening away from the limelight of twenty-somethings, venture capital and conference circuits deserve attention. (See here)

The question is what innovation is really there in Education. Raphael's School of Athens makes a popular slide in Conferences, as the speakers often claim that the classrooms today look exactly as they were in Ancient Greece. That statement is symptomatic: It is instructive to pause at School of Athens and reflect on the claim - what counts and does not count as Innovation in the Conference Circuit.

Surely the classrooms do not look anything like Raphael had painted them. Raphael's school is an Open Portal, and don't have rows of chairs and tables, people seating in neat rows. There were no black, white or smart boards in Raphael's imagination. Jan Comenius created the textbook after Raphael's death. Besides, Raphael's school was also metaphorical (Virtual, we should say): He had philosophers from different ages all together in the same room. People were discussing, brooding, conversing, rather than listening to lectures or writing examinations, unlike a classroom of today. So, except for the fact that the School of Athens had people talking to each other, rather than staring at handheld devices, it is hard to understand what the Ed-Tech crusaders see and why Raphael makes the meme they love to hate.

Apart from pointing out a humourless cliché, my point is that education has changed and continue to change, and the best place to look for innovation is within the educators' practise. Even if we are to see innovation purely from a commercial vantage point, focusing on elements that can be commercially exploited rather than those that improves the engagement or outcome, the best place to find such innovations are within the educational institutions rather than outside. Just as a Historian can't hope to design the next CDO, the Financial whizkid is not best placed to design a better way to teach history. The art of education innovation needs more than plugging numbers on a spreadsheet, and the local innovation emerging out of practise from educators at the chalk-face needs to be taken into account - more, given priority - if we have to meet the educational challenges that we face.

This brings me to another myth - a rather obvious point in context - that Educators don't innovate. There is this stereotype of a bureaucrat when we think of a teacher. Some people will insist that educators don't want to change because they refused to buy into half-baked IT solutions or Online Assessment methods designed by someone who never ever stepped inside a classroom to teach, or because they advocated caution against schemes designed to turn students into lab-rats. But the teachers' insistence that education is a high-stake, human enterprise, has nothing in common with the bureaucrats' insistence on stability: One thing a teacher can never ever be is faceless. The risk-avoidance of a bureaucrat is utterly different from the care of a teacher. In fact, good teachers always know that education is about risk, as they inspire and motivate, push someone to their limits and challenge the learners to do more. For educators, the procedural limits are almost always the minimum, whereas the bureaucrats live their entire lives in holes of procedures.

And, finally, there is this pointless objection about scalability: That the innovations Educators do are too personal, not scalable. The point perhaps need repeating: Education is a personal enterprise. Education is not, as John Ruskin would say, about buckets to be filled - but rather about fires to be lit! If that very essence of education does not fit someone's business model, then the business model is wrong. But that does not mean innovation can not and does not happen.

Therefore, here is my unified theory of Education Innovation: We must engage with Educators' practise to find the new possibilities in Education. All meaningful innovation in Education will be practise-based and locally rooted, and will not be imposed top-down. Ed-Tech's noise will change very little, but technology, employed and tailored to purpose by educators, would indeed create new possibilities in the classroom. And, for investors, particularly after the current private valuation bubble bursts, the task will be to find educators who are changing the education, with vision, passion and commitment, even if they are older and even if they don't want to disrupt - only educate better!









 






Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Nature of Education Innovation

I hope some people will agree with me if I say EdTech is over-rated. It's a nifty term, much broader than the older, nerdy, E-Learning; it is also a conscious claim to affinity with its famous and richer cousin, FinTech. What one gets to hear in the EdTech conference circuit is boasts about how many millions companies are raising, which is really meaningless in a world of loose monetary policy and inflated private valuations. The other most common refrain is how Educators don't get EdTech, which really means that this may be a set of characters in search of a play. Most of its boldest claims - Clouds of Schools, Self-directed Learners, Universal Access - remain forever in future, and only companies dealing with boring stuff - compliance training, video content, Learning Management System etc - make any money. 

However, the overselling of EdTech creates bigger problems than sub-prime investment and pointless conferences. It crowds out the conversation about Education Innovation. There are a lot of things that need to change in Education - Institutional Formats, Curriculum, Pedagogy, Credentials and Methods of Financing among them - and there are different things happening in each of these areas. But the noise surrounding EdTech drowns the other conversations. Besides, the other types of experimentation are often happening at the unsexy corners of the education ecosystem, in village schools, in university departments and education research institutions, in the works of offbeat educators, away from the conference circuit. These are being led by experienced educators - not the twenty-something types that venture world toasts - and are based on traditional methods of observation and data, rather than the bold and blundering method of spreadsheet assumptions and scatter-fire implementation (we have a name: Pivot). 

Moreover, this other innovation raises questions of the type that the EdTech entrepreneurs loath to face: What happens if the method is wrong and a person is wrongly educated? In the bite-size world of EdTech, the learner is a consumer, and learning is like a meal at a restaurant: If it's no good, you move on. The slowness of educators, who tend to treat the learners as human beings and education as a life-event never to be repeated, infuriates the EdTechers (the pun, if noticed, is intended). They see the learners as share-croppers and lab-rats, those who will try out untested methods and generate data, give out their time and perhaps their own chance of education, creating value in the digital and financial universe. The pesky ethics questions are distractions, to be steam-rolled by the boasts of disruption, justified by the inbred multiplication of valuation. No wonder that this creates little value in the real world and such little impact on the way education is done.

And, yet, education is changing. Government policy has finally caught up with the centrality of education in economic development, and huge money is being poured in. Bureaucrats in their own blundering way shaping a twenty-first century education that touches more people than ever before. Companies, forced by rapid technological change and ebbs and flows of globalisation, are leading the search for new methods, new medium and new credentials. Education entrepreneurs are pouring over ideas of education that stood the tests of time and building new institutions. Education researchers, not slavishly reverent of technology nor selfishly motivated by promises of 'exit', are questioning the use of technology, critically and constructively. Innovation is happening in education away from the hype and without the hyperbole.

And, this will continue even after the hype-cycle of EdTech has come to an end. The new, shorter credentials - microdegrees, nanodegrees, employer-led awards - that create a whole new educational model, will continue to change the world of awarding organisations and universities: One big, omnibus degrees will give away to portfolio of evidences. Examinations to demonstrate acquired knowledge would continue to give way of continuous and in-work assessments, demonstrating a wider range of skills and abilities, including behavioural ones. Newer designs of learning spaces would emerge, and devices would find their appropriate space in the quest for education. The teachers will find more ways to connect. Governments will find more ways to pay for education, harnessing all the innovations in Finance and Credit that changed our world in last 40 years. And, education will emerge beyond its nationally defined character, and embed greater global thinking and social connections going beyond the spatial limits.

This is, I shall argue, the right way to think about Education Innovation. It is not about making apps and selling the snake oil of prediction of success. It is at once more than that, and less. It is about making education relevant, not just to the emerging world of work but for the new ways to live. It is less, because many of those would happen in quieter corners of education, not disrupting but improving, in quantum leaps (remember quanta is small) rather than as a leap in the dark. And, this innovation would be about the learner as a whole person, not as an impersonal carrier of skills. And, this innovation will appear tentatively and happen continuously, rather than being one big bang event.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Kolkata 4.0: How To Change A Culture?

It is easy to overestimate the potential impact of urban development initiatives, public or private. Because as high level concepts, we delve in a culture-free world, assuming that everyone will do what makes best economic sense; or, more accurately, we treat those who wouldn't pursue economic prosperity as outliers - oddballs - and keep them outside our calculations. But this is where culture gets in the way of our best intentions. More so, if a City needs regeneration, at the heart of the problem there is, more often than not, a 'culture trap', a negative feedback cycle of despair and denial. Any effort of new thinking must acknowledge the cultural challenges first and foremost.

But while culture is important, it is also hard to change. A culture emerges and solidifies over time, and it is inherent in assumptions and behaviours of a given people, hard to scrub out with a few conferences here and there. This is the other mistake well-meaning initiatives often make - they acknowledge the cultural challenge but undermine the true extent of it - perhaps because the alternative, accepting that culture can change only very slowly, makes the initiative itself look meaningless.

For a regeneration of Kolkata, 'culture' makes a particularly interesting topic. First of all, 'culture', as it understood in the context, is seen as a strength and not a weakness. And, even if we use the term in its broader, behavioural, sense, the lack of 'money-mindedness' (or business culture) can be seen as essential to the creative energies of the city. Those economists and researchers who study innovation know that outcome-orientedness hinders, rather than fostering, innovation. Many of the greatest leaps of civilisation have come from hobbyists, and at the core of creativity remains playfulness. And, in fact, the culture of playfulness and creativity may be of greater importance now than ever before.

The point is not to deny the importance of culture but assess clearly the difficulty both of defining what is desirable and of effecting real change. In fact, in an urban regeneration project, we have to be forward-looking, which makes the task more complex: One has to define what will be desirable several years hence, and look for ways to promote that.

From that perspective, we perhaps know what may be needed in Kolkata. One has to leverage the strengths of playfulness and creativity, but break the dichotomy of work and play, creativity and career. The sphere of work for Bengali middle class is narrowly defined: The early beneficiaries of English Education can not just let go the comforts of a Babu-life, even after the Raj has long disappeared. The minds of the generation of Patriarchs of today are shaped by that heritage, as well as promises and prospects of middle class life of the pre-liberalisation India; its memories, of predictable careers and genteel work, are still afresh. The new work - that of Brand-You, Continuous Learning and thrills and terrors of continuous change - has to be understood and celebrated; its promises need to be embraced and combined with the creative and generative spirits of the young and the curious.

We should be well-aware that there is no quick win here. And, besides, the path to cultural change is often oblique. It is more about building awareness and creating models. That soft cultural narrative that goes with Kolkata is only part of the story: In fact, it crowds out the other narratives and possibilities, like Kolkata's manufacturing tradition, the enterprise of Bengalis and Non-Bengalis of Kolkata, stories of migration of its people, not just to other Indian cities but world over. Making these stories mainstream, side by side with the cultural and educational achievements in the glory days of Bengal Awakening, would be an important step in the process.

And, indeed, one would have to go beyond this, though the limited scope of Kolkata 4.0 can cover this is debatable. Some possibilities we have discussed is creating a Leadership Boot-camp for school kids, and Industry 4.0 Camps in schools, which may be part of K4.0 or an independent business by itself. The change of culture starts with conversations and commitments: K4.0 would surely kick-start the conversation and create a platform where such developments can take place.

 


Monday, August 28, 2017

Kolkata 4.0: What's The Point?

Kolkata needs a fresh start. 

One of the first mega-cities in Asia, and $150 Billion economy, has fallen from grace, somewhat. It is no way a 'dying city' as Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, called it, but it has decisively lost its urban glory. The seat of a brilliant creative 'awakening' in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century, now the city loses its aspirational young people as they migrate to other cities in search of educational and economic opportunities. 

Once the home of many of India's largest corporations and many of the big multinational corporations, the City experienced an exodus of business and talent in its dark days in the mid-seventies, something that never came back. 

Steeped in dreams of changing the world, this City lived through its street-fighting years of the late Sixties, something that was brutally crushed by the authoritarian Central Government of Indira Gandhi; the end of dreams meant degeneration, as the best and the brightest fled to exile, or joined the servile middle classes, ceding the political space to the lumpen and the demagogues. Once the cosmopolitan, creative heart of India, it swung to the opposite extreme - a commodity economy beholden to a few moneyed men who greased the wheels of politics.

This, along with the dated ideology of the Communist government that ruled Bengal for more than three decades, meant that the state - and the city - was governed by an 'extractive' approach to development: A closed-economy paradigm that is terribly out of place in a regional economy, the tax-and-spend indulgences, and an uninformed fear of technology and globalisation, that continued for much longer than the rest of India. While the rest of the country spoke about 'Knowledge Economy' (however meaningless the term can be), the politicians in Kolkata treated colleges more as recruiting grounds for cadres and hooligans, insisted that English language should be kept out of State School syllabuses for as long as they could, and blocked the expansion of the education system when new colleges were going up everywhere else. 

Kolkata missed the post-liberalisation transformation of India almost by design and intent. Even as its young people left for the private Engineering colleges and IT Jobs in Bangalore and elsewhere, the Bengal policy-makers - ironically for a State proud for its imagination and creativity - suffered a paralysis of imagination. Missing the Global Back-Office Economy, they created a Backwater economy, dependent on minerals and real estate, with attendant corruption and lack of opportunity. 

But it is still not a Dying city, because of its people, the very thing that the policy-makers decided to overlook for so long. The embers of the Bengal Awakening are still alive and warm. The city still has some of the best schools in the Country, and some of its best institutions. Its tradition of creativity lived on, and the flight - despite its disastrous immediate impact - gave Kolkata a global diaspora that holds the key for a fresh start. Its manufacturing expertise survived the onslaught of over-regulation. Closer and warmer relationship with Bangladesh meant the creative industries in Kolkata could prosper again, accessing the larger Bengali-speaking markets for its creative output. 

These things count, just as the post-Liberalisation economic model - that fuelled by the easy globalisation dominated by IT services industries - reaches a crossroad. Protectionism, automation, new economic configurations with China at the heart of the world economy, demand a new approach. The failures of the earlier era become less of a handicap when the doors of the new opportunities arise - it is open season again for economic imagination.

Kolkata 4.0, a private initiative, is aimed at harnessing the City's strengths for this brave new world, aims at harnessing the city's strengths, enabling the ecosystems, and aiming for the new opportunities. Yet, its ambitions are limited: Politics may have played a major role in shaping the City's economic fortunes (and it continues to be important) and some possibilities of changing the city remains in the realm of politics (like a special relationship with Bangladesh, and allowing Bangladeshi businesses favourable treatments in setting up businesses in Bengal), but Kolkata 4.0 is engaged in policy conversations only in a very limited way. Rather, our aim is to connect and foster individual initiatives, working in the realms of entrepreneurship, education and exchange of ideas and people. 

This may all sound very wonderfully naive, a Garden Party initiative true to the tradition of Bengali Bamboozle. However, here is the central thesis - that Kolkata's decline is primarily due to the disconnection of its professional elite and reconnecting them back is a necessary first step of a refresh. There is also, right now, an opportunity - a moment of breaking of the old models of globalisation, a wave of global politics of identity that makes the footloose Professional Elite reassess their assumptions, a stagnation of commodity and real estate making other opportunities appear attractive etc. - and creating cross-border and cross-functional conversations is more potent than ever.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Why I Love Bureaucracy?

Don't be perplexed. I know you may be wondering how on earth can someone love bureaucracy, which stands for all the bad things - slowness, indifference, complexity, lethargy - but I argue back: If we don't love bureaucracy, how does it persist?If we hate it, why the first thing when we start a business is to draw an org chart? Why, when things go wrong, we want to see a manager? Or, better still, why most of us want to be managers? Why we want a job description? Why we fill so many forms and want to fill some more? Why we love emails and calendars, show off our smartphones and smart watches, want to prove how busy we are?

I love bureaucracy because it's everywhere. Call it any name, but our lives are bureaucratic. Every morning, when I plan the day and write down my to-do list, I am bowing to bureaucracy. As I run for meetings, cut short conversations, skip lunch or feel guilty about not responding to a message, I am celebrating it. There is no escape. The only way I can avoid being bureaucratic is by using an euphemism: Managing my life, I say.

I also love Bureaucracy because, with this, you can rise to your highest level of incompetence. Yes, this is the Peter Principle, which I discovered in my youth, showed it to my boss for a laugh and got censured. The idea is simple: If you are promoted to the next level for doing a job well, you will only stop when you have reached a job level which you don't do well. Common sense, but indeed problematic for all bosses.

Also, as I watched bureaucracies, I discovered a law. Okay, I did not discover it entirely - I only derived it from another, better known law. I am referring to Parkinson's Law - that of Work expanding to fill the available time! Here is my Second Law of Bureaucracy (after Peter's): Bureaucracy expands to spend every available dollar, and then some more. Imagine a world where this is not true - we can't create the need for that extra consultant - and you will know how bereft a place the world will be without all these bureaucratic hangovers.

But I love bureaucracy not just because it's everywhere, but because of its wonderful capacity of keeping busy with useless work. We live in a world of activities without outcome: That's the point of Capitalism, in fact. Imagine asking the Reality TV stars, including the one in White House, what they actually do. The point of work, particularly those with lots of money, is not to work. Earning without a sweat is the pinnacle of success: After all, that is a bureaucratic idea.

And, if you are against bureaucracy, think what that would really mean. 

That will mean that we would have to live without a job description - not just the one in the workplace, but also in the society and at home - where we have to constantly figure out what is the right thing to do without a set of instructions and stereotypes. 

This will mean that we have to think about the consequences of our actions, particularly about those sticky issues about how those will affect people we don't know. It would mean that we would not be able to hide behind our titles - whether that is President, Accountant or Husband - and would have to be answerable for what we do. 

There will be no experts and lots of questions; less rules and more compassion; less would be reducible to technology and more would be open to understanding. 

Life would be worse off as we will have less things and more time, and yet have to care more for others and less about our own statuses.

If you thought bureaucracy is a bad word, what do you think of being whimsical? If slow is bad, how about unpredictable? If complex repels you, how about a world without many rules? If you want to rid of lethargy, would you want to live without Facebook? Even being oneself - that of status updates, photos of touristy places you have been to, along with kitschy food photos and cliché quotes - is the expression of our bureaucratic selves, the one that lives by the rules of success and wants to be a little bit like that incredibly powerful, incredibly powerful person we all secretly wish to be. 

I love bureaucracy because life would be so meaningless without it.







Friday, August 18, 2017

Education and Automation

Working in Education, I have to confront the conversations about Automation all the time: Are there enough jobs there for us to educate so many people?

As with other things in life, there are 'Many Sides' in this debate too.

One side of the argument is that there are enough jobs, and the unemployment is resulting from a skills mismatch. As evidence, one can cite simply the number of unfilled positions that the companies report, or the poor applicant-to-job offers ratio. 

The other side of the argument is that the jobs are really shrinking and many jobs are being automated, and we should be preparing for a future when most people would not find work. There is strong evidence for this as well: It is possible to show that the job numbers, when compared like-for-like (without counting the new positions created by new companies or sectors), are often decreasing, not only in the developed countries but also in supposedly high growth areas such as manufacturing in China. Also, despite all the talk of unfilled positions and skills mismatch, most wages are stagnant or decreasing in real terms. 

This is just a snapshot of the arguments, but one could perhaps see even in this that the debate is ideological in nature. One could look at the same piece of data - the stagnation of wages - and can draw very different conclusions. And, therefore, most data give no definitive answer about what is going to happen to jobs. One may write a book with a title like 'The Inevitable', as Kevin Kelly has done, but it is sobering to note that the Robots will take at least until 2020 to fold the laundry properly. 

Besides, almost all the predictions about human obsolesce do not take into two significant factors. 

First, most of these predictions are based, at least loosely, on Moore's Law, or the ability to double the processing capability of machines every 18 months or so. Such a pattern has held since the 60s, but assuming that the future will be the kind of thing we are told to guard against. Indeed, there is no guarantee such a trend will continue, and the Robots may indeed stop at folding laundry before taking the next leap only very slowly.

Second, we completely overlook that whether we develop technology in one direction or another is actually a decision we make. And, in fact, it is a political decision. For example, it was known for a long time that the women can do more than folding laundries, but it took us a while to accept them as equals in the scientific community. At a time when overpaid Google execs are writing memos based only on convenient facts, and an American President sees provocation in White Supremacist violence but finds none in case of Islamic terrorism, we should stop pretending that politics does not matter in the decisions we make.

My point here is that the automation and human obsolesce is not a secular, technological event, but it is a choice we are actively making. This is not about computer chips going beyond a certain threshold of capability - that still lies in the future, and is probabilistic - but has more to do with the climate of opinions today. Getting back to the dictum - Future is not going to be like the Past - we may argue that this does not only mean greater automation, but may equally stand for different priorities. And, this position may actually be Optimistic rather than Pessimistic: I am arguing that, in the near future, it may appear to us that finding cures for diseases like Ebola, which kills poor Africans at this time and are therefore considered unimportant, is more worthwhile than developing driverless cars. In summary, automation is an investment decision, made within a certain context, which may change rapidly.

Also, something needs to be said about what goes for Optimism these days. That we have wrong priorities - the point I made above - is taken as unscientific, anti-progress and pessimistic. Instead, the current prophets of artificial intelligence claim that automation will not only destroy jobs, but will create new ones: As evidence, they point to the track record of industrial revolution, and how it destroyed labour jobs but created new ones instead. In fact, that it managed to create the new jobs undermined the doomsday predictions of the contemporary observers, Karl Marx included. We should think whether or not this can continue.

This is actually one of the key features of capitalism: That it can create new jobs which has no immediate productive benefit. The magic machine of capitalism is not the more powerful computer, but advertising, the ability to manufacture desire and create new social expectations. If you think of the millionaire reality TV stars - or, even better, a reality TV President - you would see what I am referring to. In fact, celebrity culture and advertising is a self-generating loop ad infinitum, and this has kept the job machine going.

This may happen again, but there is one caveat. Someone has to pay: So far, we made the next generation pay for the earlier ones. I don't know about you, and I have this terrible feeling that we are that payback generation: The judgement day seems too close for comfort. This is indeed what all the austerity messages mean. And, when one sees two contradictory messages coming out - that the party must end and yet we have a magic machine to create jobs and prosperity endlessly - coming from the inhabitants of perhaps the most important street in the world, one must pay attention and pause to think.

So, in summary, we may have to readjust our priorities, because both our technological capability and our ability to pay for creating jobs, may not last forever. Universal Basic Income has been mooted as a solution, though this found no favours in quarters where the 'celebrities' are happily paid millions. And, this should perhaps tell us what we do with technology is political, and Education - rather than a passive producer of people for jobs - should be the shaper of these priorities and conversations. 





Sunday, August 13, 2017

Brexit: The Remaining Problem

As Brexit starts to bite, the politics of it has come alive again. 

There are some clear signs that the British economy has started cooling. In a way, the experts were right: We have started paying the costs of Brexit. Indeed, they were wrong at the same time - the effects are slowly beginning to emerge, rather than appearing as a morning-after apocalypse. But it is inescapable that a long winter is around the corner.

This makes the politics of Brexit come alive again. The Remainers suddenly see a light, as the Leavers' claims are exposed as hoaxes and lies, and the economic effects of Brexit become clearer. Their moods are a combination of 'I-Told-You-So' and denial, as the weak and unstable government proves itself to be clueless about how to deal with Brexit. Suddenly, leaders who bailed out - David Miliband, for example - are back in conversation, urging the MPs to push for a second referendum; there is talk of leadership changes, and even of a new party of Remainers emerging. Liberal Democrats, a write-off after 2015, suddenly found themselves a purpose, and believe that they can be that party of Remainers. In summary, Brexit has made British politics interesting again.

Except one thing: Where are the Remainers?

All those people who voted to Remain in June 2016, yours truly included, have come to accept Brexit as a fact of life. They have not suddenly become xenophobic or protectionist, but the intervening months gave them more perspective than the simplistic referendum question David Cameron put forth. In a way, the Remainers have become Post-Brexit, and have come to question whether Remaining or Leaving the EU was actually the most important question.

I can, and shall, speak for myself, but I think these views are shared: Many Remainers no longer think that the Brexit was about some disgruntled voters breaking with the establishment, but that there are real issues we should think more deeply about. We have watched, in the meantime, the surreal Presidency of Trump, and another General Election, all of which indicated the end of politics as usual. We have realised that Cosmopolitanism, a nice, cosy ideal, has a downside: Globalisation's losers, obscured from view, have claimed the centre-stage and forced us to rethink what openness really means. The Brexiters' dislike for Syrian refugees was disgusting, but what came to light since is that the Remainers forgot their own backyard. 

This soft underbelly of the Liberal Internationalism now lay exposed. The Liberal Elite and the Professional Left have mixed up the Internationalism - the common cause of the working class - with the global flow of International Capital and pursuit of economic efficiency. This did not come from nowhere: The Liberal faith in progress, the Marxist assumption of Capitalism's forward march, the European belief of cultural superiority, blended together in this new slogan of unity of the world's elite. This has made the conservatives the keepers of the social, the religious leaders the last refuge of the dispossessed, and the nationalists the champion of the cultural. It needed the jarring experiences of a Brexit, and the rise of a Trump, for the illusion of openness in the Liberal edifice to break down.

In a classic role reversal now, the Remainers now find themselves not on the side of sympathy, but selfishness; enlisted not for the cause of openness - as they set out to do - but opportunism. The champions of the new remain - Blair, Miliband, the Lib Dems - are pushing an old envelop and asking a question - whether or not to remain in EU - that has been asked, and answered, already. They have not confronted the brave new Post-Brexit, Post-Trump questions, which will require new answers. Their arguments have no new ideas about how to address the challenges of deprivation and disaffection, no commitment to make globalisation work for everyone.The only thing they offer is a path back to a Golden Age that none of us can remember living in.

This is indeed the Remaining problem. One may not subscribe to the xenophobia and small-mindedness that Theresa May offers, but the opposite cause is equally bankrupt. The offer of 'Making Brexit work for everyone', the somewhat less sexy Corbyn slogan, may have more to it than we see. Indeed, the idealistic 'Making Globalisation work for everyone' is not on offer - at least, not from the current bunch of politicians.  So, despite all the talk, except for a few people worrying about visa queues (having lived most of my life with an Indian passport, this does not bother me much), the Remainers don't have much to go for them. That is, not until they get back to basics, and start asking the questions they should have confronted a long time ago.


 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Training to Teach in Global Higher Education: Ideas For A Qualification

The idea came to me from various conversations in China and India: That teacher training in Higher Education is an urgent need and a significant opportunity.

This is counter-intuitive. Most Western institutions of Higher Education, autonomous as they are, train their own teachers. For Continuing Professional Development, the emphasis here is on Research, and an established network of Conferences exist to foster the community. Teacher training is for schools, where the volume and turnover of teachers are high, and it needs constant refreshing.

However, the expansion of Higher Education in the last decade in China, India and elsewhere brings into play a different reality altogether. 

First, the Higher Education institutions created in these countries in the last decade are different from research-led institutions in the West: They are teaching institutions operating at a mass scale. The focus is on teaching at scale, and the appropriate teacher training is therefore of great importance.

Second, these institutions face an acute talent shortage and high turnover. Teaching in Higher Education is not well remunerated, and few opportunities exist for professional development. Faculty members are recruited directly after completion of their education, and often lack perspectives and skills required to be a successful university teacher. A training solution for the new teachers are in demand among institutions that want to retain its faculty and develop their skills.

Third, the quality of Conferences and opportunities to develop Professional networks are often quite limited too. The Conference ecosystem is springing up as a response to the expansion in the number of teachers, but the conferences, modelled after the Western ones, are research-centric and at odds with the requirements of teaching focused institutions. 

Besides these, the teaching in Higher Education is also rapidly changing. Globalisation is a persistent reality, both in terms of access to talent (and lack of it, as trained faculty often migrate abroad) and student preferences (more global institutions are preferred by students). Technological change is also making an impact, and its possibilities are instantly understood in the context of requirements in countries like China and India, though the solutions available are often immature and poorly implemented. Finally, appreciation and understanding of outcomes, always a challenge in Higher Education sector, are critical in resource-poor, outcome-hungry developing countries, and this imposes a new set of demands on teachers.

What ideally is needed is a qualification and community for Higher Education teachers (in the broad sense, and including people teaching in Technical schools) that is geared to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century. The demand for this is understood in countries such as China, where the state actively encourages faculty development and global exposure; it is also obvious in countries like India, though, generally speaking, it suffers from a greater level of 'not-invented-here' syndrome and actively resists change. However, even in countries like India, the allure of a foreign qualification for teachers is irresistible, and there is a strong business case to develop something to offer to Indian teachers as well.

Despite the apparent opportunity, however, most Western Teacher Training institutions and qualification bodies are wholly unprepared to provide a solution. Apart from the fact that teacher training in Western nations is primarily a K12 focused affair, Education as a whole remains a very nationally-oriented area of research and conversation. 'Transnational' in Education often has imperial undertones - this means local practises being spread globally - and supplanting teaching models from a Western nation is hardly the solution the rapidly expanding mass Higher Education sector in China and India needs.

Globalisation of Finance and Business has hardly reached the academia, and while Western Universities attracted millions of students, they attributed this success, perhaps rightly, to maintaining their British, American or Australian roots, rather than on their ability to understand and solve problems in the developing countries. That this creates a curious duality - they claim education is a public good and try hard to protect public funding, while at the same time, encouraging and serving the International students' private needs and aspirations as faithfully as ever - but the Western University sector is completely oblivious to such inconvenient questions.

There is also a deep distrust of technology! Good teaching and deployment of learning technologies are seen as oppositional activities. This is not necessarily so in the Developing World, where teachers bother less about having to write emails after work and more about the struggle to find even the basic research papers or learning materials. Their commute to the classroom are often more troublesome and sweatier than the pleasant drive through Middle England, and they are therefore happier to explore how to teach online. And, besides, for a teacher in Indian Higher Ed, mastering the technology is a desirable advantage, not a self-defeating distraction.

And, finally, the outcome-centricity is seen by most people in Western Higher Education as a sign of creeping managerialism (which it is). Higher Education institutions, with its public roots and ecclesiastical pretencions,  do not want to be accountable for short-term and measurable results. There is inherent contradiction between this and the pursuit of private advantage which Higher Education mostly represents, but this is one thing Western academics feel very strongly about. There is no such luxury in India and China, where hierarchy and accountability are facts of life. Surely, the practises there need a 21st Century update - often the people in Higher Education are being accountable for wrong things - but outcome-centricity would not come as a surprise to someone teaching in Higher and Professional education in developing countries.

In conclusion, I see a clear gap and a significant demand. I am well aware of the challenges of building a never-before solution in Education, particularly Higher Education: In a regulated industry, regulatory compliance replaces excellence, and a service that may make perfect sense under the logic of competitive markets, may find few takers unless it is a regulatory requirement. I have applied my market-based logic to regulated sectors before and am well-aware of the perils of such an approach. In planning Teacher Training, therefore, I am not just planning a programme to be launched under a private label, but rather with the right credentials and hopefully with blessings of regulators in certain target countries. This may indeed be my next big project, and I am all excited about it.

 






Friday, August 11, 2017

On Being A Hindu

I remember this awkward dinner conversation. I was with my colleague in Northern Ireland, and a friend of his joined our table. After we were introduced, he wondered at my name and asked me what religion I belong to. I went for the simpler answer and kept my doubts aside: "I am Hindu", I said. That made him even more confused. "What's a Hindu?" he said, "Is that some kind of Muslim?"

When I tell this story to my friends in India, they are usually outraged. What an ignorant person, they would say. Particularly treating Hinduism as a branch of Islam, when Hindus love to believe that everyone was originally a Hindu, upsets them. I have also reflected upon this conversation later. It may indeed be that he did not know. He was particularly ignorant, just as ignorant as the lady, who, standing inside the Irish Bar at Mumbai's ITC Grand Central hotel, asked my colleague - the same person as it happened to be - where Ireland was. But the confusion about Hinduism is more common than one may think. The 800 million Hindus live in one geographic corner of the world. This may make many people, who live their lives contentedly within the region, feel Hinduism engulfs the world, but the reality is just the opposite: Most people live in blissful ignorance of something called the Hindus (the same people indeed wish they could ignore Islam as well).
For me, I had to go through several cycles of finding my identity. Like any Indian, I had several layers, and knowing what to describe myself as has mostly been an act of negotiation. An Indian, I would most commonly say, despite my citizenship, because I defined myself by the Post-Imperial Republicanism that made India. This meant at once rising above my Hindu identity and being deeply into it, as the flavour of Hinduism I grew up with was, despite all the rituals and festivals, universalist. It fitted nicely with the idea of India then fashionable - with its emphasis on private faith, tolerance of other ideas and acceptance of the world as it is. There was casteism, but not in its virulent form of exclusion and violence; there was superstition, but in its comical manifestation in doing or not doing something on a particular day; but overall, this was a flexible, personalised religion, allowing me to pick and choose. 

This may sound paradoxical for those who haven't had a similar experience. But, an apocryphal story, which I first heard from Shashi Tharoor, an Indian statesman, captures the spirit. Mr Tharoor tells the story of a young man who had doubts and approached his father to know about Hindu religion. The father said he was too young and perhaps they should have a discussion when he grew up. A few years later, the father offered to induct his son into Hinduism, but the son refused, stating he had already lost his faith. "Welcome to the atheist branch of Hindu religion", his father said.

A Hindu would perhaps appreciate the story, but it is harder for others. Confirming that religion makes awkward dinner conversations, I must talk about another dinner, this time in Salt Lake City, Utah, when I was asked the same question. By then, things changed for me: The extreme form of Hinduism that took over India made me question my own prejudices and superstitions, and lose my faith, as much as someone born a Hindu can possibly do. I said, "I am an atheist", perhaps smug in comfort of belonging to the atheist branch of the Hindu religion. This stopped all conversations around the table - Salt Lake City is indeed a more religious place than most others on earth - and everyone looking at me with some kind of incomprehension. Finally, someone rode to my rescue:"You are not an atheist! You don't go around telling people not to believe in God. You may say you are agnostic, but not Atheist." I am certain this wonderful specificity of English language and Christianity would be mostly lost on my Hindu brethren, but apart from the insight about religion's place on dinner table, there is not much to be learnt from this.

But I must also perhaps explain why I started questioning my faith. The universalist, tolerant ideas that I grew up with dissipated rather quickly. What we have now instead is a different version - intolerant, ignorant and ritualistic - an opportunistic amalgamation of politics and religion that sanctions everything and yet controls everything, makes hatred its centrepiece and claims a pre-scientific heritage of universal truth. WhatsApp groups in London Suburbs now discuss the merits of sprinkling cow urine on one's head, the Prime Minister of India straight-facedly claims that Lord Ganesha - the Hindu elephant god - was the first case of plastic surgery (taking the idea that Ancient Egyptians knew some techniques of skin grafting to its absurd maximum) and people in India are regularly lynched for being suspected of eating beef. At the same time, elaborate rituals are now performed in offices and businesses, consuming beef has become a public offence in some parts of India and campaigns against Muslim actors and artists are now acceptable nationalist indulgence. The astrologers are having a great time: Recently, one applicant told me that he delayed sending his CV by two weeks - this cost him the opportunity - because the times were not favourable. The animistic, ritualistic religion that we thought we left behind has arisen from the ashes as the only true faith: There is no longer any branch of Atheists in Hinduism.

Indeed, the torch-bearers of new Hinduism recoil at Max Weber's categorisation of Hinduism as a Non-rational, Inactive religion (in Weber's world, Christianity was Rational and Active, and trumped the Rational but Inactive Confucianism and Active but Irrational Islam), but fate is back in business. Samkara's dictum that Vedic rituals are for the ignorant have been totally forgotten, and Gita's insight that Inaction may destroy one's humanity, something Max Weber completely missed, has been erased out of consciousness as well (The more famous part of the verse says, "You have a right to action, but never to its fruits", but the later part, "Never desire the ends, and never indulge in idleness", is rather forgotten). This new Hinduism, fashioned as a pure faith, is built around elements borrowed from proselytising religions: It is ritualistic and with provisions for conversion (which one can't technically do in Hinduism, therefore the assumption that everyone was once a Hindu and conversions are merely purification rituals), and it is based on rejection of the very universalistic, tolerant faith that I knew as Hinduism.

In a way, therefore, this is the best and the worst of the time to be a Hindu. Suddenly, a third possibility - between the Ritualistic Hinduism and desolate Agnosticism - opened up for people like me. It is essentially an invitation to rediscover a civilisation that lasted for thousands of years, and despite being run over by invaders and moulded by many outside influence, which maintained its essence of faith - in humanity, above all else. One could perhaps see that my aversion of the Evangelical Hinduism has finally inspired me to get back to the basics - read Gita which I should have done long time ago - and find again the essential, rational, civilisation that is founded on the idea of tolerance. My wanderings took me to the American pragmatists and my foundational belief became - "Ideas should not become Ideologies" - and yet, my journey home to Hindu texts reveals essentially the same idea, an acceptance of the world as it is, with all its imperfections, diversities, redundancies and beauties.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

India in 2017: The Coordination of The Bihar State

I am now in India, after a gap of several months. A lot has changed in the few months since I was last here. Most visibly, the money has changed - the Rs. 1000 notes have vanished and the ubiquitous Rs. 500 notes have a new look, and there is a strange purple-pink Rs 2000 note in circulation, which very few people want to accept. It is one of the signs of the great experiment that is now underway in India, where even the most fundamental things can change overnight.

One such event in the few days I have spent here was the coordination of the Bihar state. Bihar, which is one of the most populous states in Eastern India, has a large lower caste population, and have consistently rejected the upper caste Hinduvta politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). True, BJP had participated in the Government in coalition with one of the other 'caste' parties in the past, but they were never the senior partner. And, in fact, Bihar electorate dealt a severe blow to Mr Modi's ambitions in 2016, when BJP was defeated rather decisively in the state elections, by a coalition of parties that included Indian National Congress, the main opposition, and Janata Dal (United), BJP's erstwhile partners who broke ranks citing Mr Modi's communal past.

And, yet, this week, Mr Modi appeared triumphant again, as the Chief Minister of the State, Mr Nitish Kumar, kept his scruples about BJP's communalism aside and dumped his electoral allies. The excuse was the corruption cases against one of his coalition partners, but that is as filmsy as it can get: The corruption charges were old and well-known. It was as if Mr Kumar seemed to have discovered a new scruple as it discarded his old one about communalism.

In the world of Bihar politics, such U-turns are unsurprising. Mr Kumar is a known opportunist, and the only thing his latest move means is that he has given up on his Prime Ministerial ambitions, which was perhaps the real reason why he did not like the elevation of Mr Modi in 2014 and deserted the BJP.  But this latest turn has more significance than his vanity, and even the disarray in opposition. Mr Modi's demonetisation, which has caused enormous difficulties for the ordinary people and achieved little in removing 'black money' (Rs. 2000 note allowed a better mechanism for storing it), has achieved its key goal: He has demonetised the opposition! Since then, despite all the marginalisation of minorities and poor people, BJP appeared unstoppable, winning some big electoral victories, but also winning where they lost electorally - like in Goa or Manipur - where they could buy out the seats whereas the opposition, mainly Congress, watched helplessly. They have also been successful in destabilising state governments, where internal rebellion was encouraged and brought down Congress governments. Mr Kumar's latest moves were perhaps prompted by a pragmatic acceptance of such prospects: He knew the writings on the wall and decided to be on the winning side.

As Journalist Sekhar Gupta pointed out, Bihar was a big one. Now the BJP controls all of India's big states, barring the Southern ones. The changes in Bihar is being seen as a decisive turn for the 2019 General Election, which Mr Modi is now almost certain to win. The opposition, unable to come up with any alternative ideas, looks toothless. The media has been hounded into submission. The courts are largely sympathetic to the government agenda and too inept and self-obsessed to change anything. The Government now has one of its own as President. Every opposition-ruled state is feeling the undercurrent of communal tension, which is usually the precursor of the ascendancy. Mr Modi's tactic of 'If you can't win them, break them' seems to be tearing apart the Liberal politics of India.

The worst fears we had about a Modi premiership have now come to pass, but it is plain that a majority of the middle class voters (though some, from the Linguistic or Religious minorities, remain strongly opposed) are still cheering him on. However, in the last several months, the nature of the Indian government has changed. As total power was achieved, the masks have started coming off. The claims of economic development has taken a backseat and Indian economy has started slowing down (though the GDP figures were massaged and made to appear higher), and the political and social agenda of the ruling party has taken precedence. The global charm has also started fading and the global media has started noticing Mr Modi's authoritarianism and his lack of interest in any fundamental reform except in people's eating and dress habits. 

This is the transformation I am witnessing now as I travel around India. I should guard against crying foul too soon, and I don't want to exaggerate and claim that India has already turned a Dictatorship. And, the path it is taking possibly does not lead to the totalitarianism, as there are different interests and personalities are competing for ascendancy rather than being subjected to the whims of one man. But, not being like Nazi Germany is not a great achievement, particularly if India seems to be on the way to become one of those states where the politics of the majority and the interests of a few corporations seem to drive the agenda. India in 2017 and beyond will perhaps give a new model of illiberal state for the future historians to ponder. And, this 'coordination' of the Bihar state would possibly be seen as the all-important inflection poimt when this transformation became clear, and the social agenda finally and decisively trumped the rhetoric of economic development.



 

 


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Automation Against Capitalism

Automation is Capitalism's great new prize and its most potent challenge. At once, it breaks the back of organised labour but puts into disarray the carefully constructed social system that we call Capitalism. It is Capital - that's what machines, robots and know-how are - becoming supremely productive and utterly meaningless at the same time. It is the realisation of an utopia, but also a moment of reality. It would potentially expand supply infinitely, as finite Human time will no longer be required, at the same time as perversely limiting demand, as nothing that is produced could be bought.

The last bit is indeed the classic Marxist argument, but from the vantage point of 21st century, we see something that Marx did not. First, though Marx made some very insightful predictions, the empire was still only taking shape and at the time of Marx's death, the integration of global economy was still in its infancy. Also, for Marx, the nineteenth century capitalism was a relentless pursuit of efficiency. It was about converting every scrap of human life into productive work, with just as much rewards for workers as is needed to preserve the scrap of human life they were allowed to live; the rest went to the owner of Capital. And, finally, Capital in Marx's world was a finite commodity: Remember this was the time of Gold Standard!

These are the three things we know now. First, Capitalism has defied Marx's prediction of imminent demise by progressively expanding into the farthest reaches of the globe and bringing new consumers in its fold who would slave away their time to get a piece, if only a crumb, of the cake. Further, Marx did not see Capitalism's unique tendency to create meaningless jobs - jobs which has no other productive use other than hooking people to the elaborate system of signs and desires - which gave it a 'viral' character. The system did not generate surplus through squeezing out productive efficiency; it rather created surplus by creating useless demand. This indeed wouldn't have been possible in Marx's world of sound money, but it was long gone as the Gold Standard, and its successor, Gold Exchange Standard, were conveniently binned, and an intricate but dubious system of fictitious capital was constructed to monetise the future. 

Capitalism survived and well. It advanced breaking down traditional communities, ways of living and methods of transaction; it encompassed the globe and monetised every living moment. It created layers and layers of useless jobs: Jobs like reality TV stars, models and celebrities, whose job is to create allure and keep us hooked; all those Consultants, who recycle received wisdom and specialise in making slide decks; all those myriad middlemen and sales people, who sell fictitious financial products of dubious value to each other, so on and so forth. And, all this was paid for with credit, created out of thin air by modern financial system, predicated on people slaving away their future time in the pursuit of more. 

And, what if they don't? We may be at that moment when the delusion of Capitalist sign-making reached its pinnacle and self-deluded itself; fooled itself in the business of making fools; signs became so all encompassing that the reality has been erased. As machine step into the workplace and take away jobs, it is not only that the semblance of shared prosperity vanishes, but it takes away the possibility of all those labour time on whose basis the credit was built. Among all the slickness of Robot-produced future, the debts that built Capitalism have to be reset, as there would be no-one, or at least not enough people, to pay for it.

The Robotic future is therefore as calamitous to Labour power as to the current form of Capitalism. It is no straight road to Marx's "Hunt in the morning, Philosophise in the evening" utopia (a passage which he took out after he wrote it, apparently out of embarrassment) but rather a scary challenge to all those plotting the future: If Robots do all the work, who pays for the Debt? And, if we are to reset all credit, can Robots be at all there?

Indeed, one knows the answer: We will find a way - we always find a way! And, indeed, we will. But all things that have a beginning will have an end. We are perhaps living in end times when our ability to exploit the frontier and mine the future to create a system of illusory jobs and fictitious capital comes to a close. Surprisingly a system's greatest triumph also looks like its end; that is usually how History plays out.

  

 


Incubators and Universities: Need For A New Model

As the crisis in jobs becomes apparent, many think that the way to maintain the Middle Class society is to be found in entrepreneurship. In their mind, it is a straightforward transition: People not finding jobs would start businesses. In some quarters, those look for jobs are already maligned - 'Job Takers' they are called - as opposed to those committing themselves to entrepreneurial journey, the 'Job Creators'. As always, the reality is harsher than the theory. But my point is not to challenge the idea that there should be more entrepreneurs. It is how to get there I have questions about.

More specifically, my doubts are about the new trend of creating university-based incubators, US style, in the universities in developing countries. The incubators are taking the place of 'Placement Offices' or what was euphemistically called the 'Industry Collaboration Office', becoming the last mile of the students' life cycle in an university or a business school. 

The idea behind these incubators are to replicate the successes of the incubators in the top universities of the world. They are inspired by the stories coming out of the likes of Stanford and MIT. The governments are excited about it too, and treat the incubators as solutions to the jobs crisis they have in their hand. However, the trouble is, the universities in the developing world, particularly those in ex-colonies, are very different institutions than the American ones, and they are hardly designed to be hotbed of innovation.

It is a mistake to see all universities as same, when the Colonial University was set up with the very purpose of standardisation and connecting colonial education to colonial employment. Indeed, the countries are now free, but most of them maintained their colonial institutions and see modernity in continuity of the traditions bestowed upon them by the Colonial administrations. This was specifically the intention of the British administrators, who appreciated the value of soft power long before the term was coined. And, among the institutions of Colonial age, the universities were the most revered, seen as gifts of science and reason, an intimate ally of the modernising politicians who took over the running of the countries after the Colonialists left. 

The universities, therefore, are factories to create servants of the state. The whole university culture, with the possible exception of some elite technocratic institutions set up post-independence in some of the countries, is usually deeply rooted in the desire to maintain the bureaucratic continuity, rather than disrupt and innovate. Their students come looking for a qualification that will lead to a job, and their aspirations are more narrowly defined than that of their counterparts in metropolitan nations. The idea of the university as a fountainhead of innovation, therefore, stands on a false premise.

In a way, university-based incubators work against the grain of the host societies, where the innovation mostly happen outside the universities. It also imposes assumptions which are alien and unworkable, like a bias towards younger entrepreneurs, though family support structures are different in many developing countries and people starting enterprise in relatively later stage of life are far more common. Indeed, the investors sometime work with the assumptions they learn from American business schools, and override the considerations of local labour market and society. However, this is part of the problem rather than a justification of a wrongly designed system.

In my mind, there are two things that need to happen. One, and this is close to my heart, is to create Enterprise Schools, which are built upon the culture of entrepreneurship, which will attract a specific kind of people and support them through a longer development cycle. Two, and this is perhaps more scalable, while the incubators may be university based - if purely because the lower real estate costs - they should mandatorily create mixed cohorts, drawing from the outside population, particularly including people who already have work experience.

In summary, my recommendation is that the incubation model needs to be reinvented for the developing countries, rather than the plug-and-play approach that is now prevalent. This needs a conversation, and not blind faith. Enterprise is not a straightforward solution for the jobs problem, as these require changing markets, newer opportunities and upsetting existing corporate primacy, and this, before everything else, needs opening of minds and engaging at a different level.



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What Does A Tech-Mahindra Phone Call Say About Indian IT Industry



Last week, voice recording of an HR executive firing an employee at Tech Mahindra, a big Indian IT company, went viral (as above). The employee was told that he is being fired not because of any performance issues, but because of 'cost optimisation'. He was told to resign by the end of the day, failing which he would be terminated the next day, and lose all his exit benefits and wouldn't even get a reference. When the employee pleaded it was too short a notice, he was told that the company can fire him summarily. When he sought an option to appeal, he told there was none.

After this went viral, many weighed in, converging on the consensus that while the company might have the rights to fire the employee, it was all too harsh. As for me, I thought it was coercive, and therefore, illegal: I can't see how a company can fire an employee on disciplinary grounds because he failed to resign as told. In America, this, aggregating the claims of all employees fired in this manner, would have made a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit.

Anand Mahindra, the Chairman of the company and a business leader who maintains an enlightened image, was quick to issue an apology on Twitter. His other Senior colleagues followed, in a damage control exercise. It is not known whether anyone has actually been disciplined or fired for this stupidity.

The essence of these apologies was that the manner of this firing was harsh, which undeniably it was. However, the commentary that followed accepted these firings as inevitable. The narrative coming out of Indian IT companies is that they have been caught out by 'convergence' of several factors - automation, productization, protectionism - and their business models are changing. They hope to become more nimble, move up the value chain and come up with innovative solutions. These firings, harsh as they may be, are steps towards that better, brighter future.

This narrative is of course going nowhere, as the call shows. Legalities aside, anyone listening into that call can't miss the contempt with which the employee was treated. At one point, he was told that he can't obviously appeal to the CEO (the question is, why not?). This is the layers of disdain that one sees on the Indian streets - the guys in the big cars treat the guys in small cars with contempt, who in turn treats the scooterwallah with contempt, who then treats the pedestrians with contempt, so on and so forth. Of course, Tech Mahindra can't become a magnet of world class talent tomorrow just by firing a few unfortunate employees at the bottom of the food chain. If spreadsheet savvy created great companies, world would have been a different place today. Clearly the company treats its employees like cattle and it is going nowhere with that culture.

Besides, the would-be super-innovator also seemed to have no idea of social media. Otherwise, why would it let lose an obviously untrained and emotionally-deficient HR Exec in a bullying match with its employees? Before they unleashed the best practices in firing that they may have learned from some American company they love to ape, why did they not realise that there is an entire cottage industry of 'how to fire people' in America? Well, the obvious answer is that they did not think about it. That should tell their customers how much they really understand about the world of social technologies.

The PR exercise that the Senior Execs are doing wouldn't save the company, as these will only obscure the broader issues of commitment and culture. Nothing changes in a big company unless the share prices plummet or the customers vote with their feet. The former will not happen because the spreadsheet boys will speak to spreadsheet boys and buy their theory of 'convergence', and miss the signs of decay. The latter will also not happen because the American customers were treating those Indian IT workers with funny accent as cattle in any case, and wouldn't care if a few thousands were fired. Until indeed, the whole edifice comes crushing down again.




The Eurasian Moment in World Politics

The world of politics is changing profoundly. It is not just about the rise of the strongmen rulers - President Xi of China, Prime Minister Abe of Japan, Prime Minister Modi of India or President Duterte of Philippines - or their perennially ubiquitous counterparts in Mr Putin, Mr Erdoğan, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Zuma. The shift that we are seeing is more than the shocks, such as Brexit or a Trump Presidency, or the ascendance of extreme nationalists like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Netherlands or Nobert Hoffer in Austria. The anti-Semitic rallies in Poland, the authoritarian Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the absurd Beppe Grillo in Italy and the abhorrent Golden Dawn in Greece are all part of a big shift, which is not just about the rise of nationalism and breakdown of the post-war institutions. There may be a more fundamental shift underway.

Discussion about such a shift is not new. This has been discussed in the scholarly circles for some time. But, since the last year, it has reached mainstream media, for good reasons. It does seem that the anticipation of such a shift is now central to strategic decision making in various large countries, including Russia, Germany, China and Turkey. And, after Trump's ascendance to Presidency, such a shift has become one of the key factors in strategic decision making even in the White House. 

I am referring to the shift of power from Atlantic Seaboard to Eurasian plain, something that the Nineteenth century British geo-strategists foresaw. That their vision did not come to pass is perhaps because of the rise of America as a global power in the dying years of the Nineteenth century, when the American industrial might and the American Military ability and willingness to engage changed everything else, followed by the Great War, Russian Revolution and subsequent dividing lines drawn through the world. Eurasia faded out of spotlight as a strategic theatre as Europe emerged.

Indeed, this was not just a twentieth century affair: Eurasia dominated world history ever since the decline of the Romans, but its relative decline started with the improvements in long haul shipping and the voyages of Columbus and Vasco Da Gama. But it was back in contention in the Nineteenth Century, with the Russian and the British empires jostling for influence, until the Americans entered the fray (after a deeply divisive national debate) and changed everything. For the next hundred years or so, American power, primarily represented by the overwhelming power of its carrier groups, dominated the world. The unfortunate Eurasian expeditions by the Russians in Afghanistan ended badly, and led to a breakdown of that empire. 

There are several reasons to think this may now change. The global nature of American power is not well supported by shared prosperity at home, and the domestic considerations may force a disengagement from wider global policing and in favour of limited and specific engagements required for 'national interest'. In many ways, this is a result of the over-reach of the Bush Years and the consistent Foreign Policy failures under Obama, when America's overseas engagements became costly and meaningless. The 'isolationism', if we call it that, was always a force in American politics, but George W Bush's adventurism and Obama's indecision has now undermined the case for 'interventionism' so much that the former makes sense to most Americans. 

This change that we see does not undermine the United States, as it controls the world's most powerful military and is the biggest economy. It, however, means its disengagement from Europe and greater engagement in Eurasia. It also means an economic revival of the Eurasian region, as President Xi builds infrastructure and brings manufacturing and trade to inner China. It also means a great human movement, as the Global Warming melts the Siberian Ice Cap and some of the great rivers running through South and South-East Asia starts faltering (and indeed, global warming may also mean some of the coastal cities can be completely lost). 

From the vantage point of the Trump administration, which wants to reduce global engagements and restructure the American economy and society, such a shift is only problematic if one has to cling to the dated geo-politics of the post-Cold War world. They, along with many other nations in the world, are adjusting to this new geopolitical reality. In a perverse way, Britain's shift - from Europe to the old Commonwealth - is also a pivot in this direction. Germany, with greater engagement with China's OBOR, is already signalling its understanding of this shift. 

I believe this shift is real, not just because of the geo-political logic but also because of the conscious actions of the countries and the leaders. There are countries which are blissfully oblivious - India seems to be one among them - while the others are scrambling as they see themselves losing out, such as Britain. We may be at a moment that comes once in many centuries, a turning of a long term trend visible only from the long-view vantage point. This would impact not just politics - though this may be where it starts - but business, economies and lives of people. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Ideas and Ideology

Ideas are fascinating and exciting. We live in a culture that celebrates ideas. In a sense, we see all history as history of ideas now. It is ideas that make men great, and the great men are those who belabour with ideas, either to bring it into being or to create impact with it. Entrepreneurs, our modern Heroes, are the idea-warriors, who puts everything on stake to make their idea work. Ideas, in short, are divine inspirations, whose blessing we all seek and whose existence makes us meaningful.

But there is a dark side of ideas, which never gets talked about. All the monstrosities for the last two hundred years have been committed in the name of ideas. And, indeed, if one counts religion as an idea, the history will go back much further. Just as we transformed the Great Men doctrine into a narrative of great ideas, we should also perhaps replace our evil men doctrine with a narrative of bad ideas.

However, I anticipate an objection coming: Many ideas, which turned out to be pure evil, did not appear so at first. It takes a purely evil man, such as Hitler, to make an idea, such as Race Theories, really evil. And, thereon leads the usual Liberal vacuity: No ideas are inherently great or evil, it's what men make of it!

That is all nonsense. Ideas don't exist independent of men. We may make it sound like an object in itself, but ideas are really words and actions coming from people. They have no separate existence. And, besides, the concept that all great men are men of great ideas and yet, an idea needs evil men to become evil, is the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too option.

It is time that we are having a reasoned debate about the downside of ideas. At every crisis point of history, this was quite obvious. For example, the Pragmatists in the United States, writing after the horrors of the Civil War (in which, Oliver Wendell Holmes fought), understood it perfectly: "Ideas should not become ideology", as John Dewey would later maintain. Stalin and Mao took the ideas of perfect society just too far. But these are only the well-known examples. Untold crimes have been committed in the British Empire, Commonwealth Countries, The United States and other parts of the world, in the name of ideas. The modern state, all-seeing and all-powerful, inflicted upon its people all kinds of forced behaviour, in the name of national interest and common good. Austerity, a recent idea, which argues that the state should live within its means though that does not apply to defence expenses or things like Monarchical maintenance, has also been taken to the extreme, but avoided scrutiny. When things have gone wrong, someone fell on his sword, but the idea lived on.

Why do I write about this now? Because ideas are seductive, and perfectibility of human beings is not monopolised by Dictators. These assumptions sit under every policy document, every technology business plan, every business school, every self-development formula, the claims of theory, science and technology. It touches our daily lives every moment, and most of our lives are lived within the matrix of options set up by ideas of perfectability and neat behaviour. And, this idea is not just a passive framework: This is actively, intrusively, ubiquitous. There are nations around the world - India among them - where the quest for creation of a pure people is real: The Republican Democratic constitution that the country was set up with, are being torn apart in the search of pure 'Indianness', just as the Japanese, the Chinese, the British, the Polish and the Hungarians set upon similar journeys. The ideology of ideas are all-encompassing and inescapably alluring.

While I argue against purity of ideas, the alternative, I am told, is relativism: If you don't believe in an idea, then you are a drifter, without roots, without a truth. But, this, again, is a fallacy of purity of idea, as if the Truth exists outside the human consciousness. As we build our world, it is best to acknowledge our role in it; to accept that life isn't perfect and our standards are, largely, defined by circumstances. Variability and malleability are the only truths of human existence. And, so it should be.

Therefore, it is sensible to keep Dewey's dictum in mind: Ideas should not become ideology. We are better as observers than as judges; flexibility is an inevitable aspect of human existence. We are beings in time, our consciousness is fragile, temporal and grounded: So is our knowledge. If a bigger truth exists, the best we could do is to be sceptical about it and search for it, but never, never, never should we pretend to have found it.




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