Saturday, October 30, 2010

Journal Entry: Things That Flow

Another week: These days, life is far too busy and far too fast for me to keep tab of everything that I am doing. But I try - because this should be the time when I finally managed to take control of my life (so I hope) and this narrative will help me remember the little nuggets that I shall invariably overlook when I look back at this time at a later date.

I wrote such diary one other time: When I first fell in love. That was twenty years back, and I did write about my daily experiences - did she notice me or did she not kind of stories - every day in a diary. I was an awkward teenager then; I spoke no English and dressed strangely, and could barely speak in front of strangers or girls. But I was deeply in love, and knew then that I have to overcome myself to get anywhere in that relationship. So, I tried, only to be spurned repeatedly; the only reason I kept persisting is my imagination that I was making progress. Indeed, no one was that optimistic, and being a rather shy and introvert person full of pretension, I had no friend to share it with. I wrote all of it in a diary, and truth be told, soon the diary became a fiction of what could have been than a documentary of what it was. But this helped: It allowed me to imagine myself, get ahead of the reality and aspire to become the person I was writing about.

I eventually got the attention I wanted and soon, I had no time for my diary. It served its purpose. In fact, when I tried reading it again many years later, it was funny, awkward, badly written, full of pretension and completely unreal, only redeemed by the virtue of my self-love and memories of my teenage self: It brought back many a moments from back in time, frozen and framed. By then, I was pushed right in the middle of hustle of life, became a man of the world trained in the art of flattery, lost my innocence and the ability to play games with myself. Reading the diary was being hurled back to my youth, feeling stupid but innocent again, shy but proud that the transformation did indeed happen. I did think that the diary, an old blue page-a-day diary of 1988, changed my life. This is why I am trying to return to the art when I am trying to reinvent myself yet again.

My life is no less hectic this time, and my passion no less intense. I have spent a good amount of my life trying to be average: My ideas of success defined in terms of my own house, family, car etc. There were a few twists - like I wanted to see the world and the house I dreamed for was to be in England, and I did force myself out of my comfort zone and migrated, and lived a difficult life building up my credentials in a new country from scratch - but the goals were still too mediocre. I would have been successful if I managed to catch up with others, admittedly the other successful migrants, and the price I was expected to pay is servitude: A commitment to barter my time for cash so that I can pay my mortgage dues for twenty years at a stretch. This was indeed a simple, acceptable goal, but it appeared to me no more desirable than various stereotypes that I faced in my adolescence - the cycle of a government job, an arranged marriage, an uneventful life chugging into retirement and a painless, almost pointless, death. Call it mid-life crisis if you must, but I wanted to reconstruct myself as a completely different person, doing pleasurable things, rediscovering new ideas in an increasingly monochrome world, and die meaningfully. This is why I wanted to keep a diary.

Indeed, this isn't a new thought, and I have been trying to make a new start for a while. However, I made several false starts over last couple of years, and eventually almost given up, deciding to return back to India and retire to a comfort zone of a corporate job late last year. I had felt no sense of mission at that time, no attachment, no pleasure in my work and no possibility of being able to make a difference. It is only a chance encounter early this year, and a spell of introspection, made me do what I did - walk out of the pointless job that I had that time, sit at home unemployed for a month and eventually find something that I really wanted to do. It was indeed nerve-wrecking at the time: I was reminded that I was walking out of a job right in the middle of a bad recession without anything in hand (and not any savings to cover myself for more than a few weeks) by my ex-employers, who were particularly nasty and never accepted the fact that I could want to walk out just because I did not like the job. It was my little rebellion against servitude, which my employers correctly spotted and wanted to stamp out completely. Various conflicts ensued, and I had to, finally, choose my freedom over a fear-induced sell-out, and walk out without a job in hand. Despite various warnings about recession and a bad job market, that was the only thing I could possibly do.

My idea was that I start again, which I finally managed to do. I was prepared to face the level of difficulty I faced when I came to this country initially - work in a warehouse - but I did not have to go that far. In fact, I am fortunate enough this time to get an opportunity to work in the sector I wanted - education - doing what I wanted - teaching and writing. This is a fresh start, and I have taken it as such: I thought it to be a gift I earned because I did not sacrifice my life because I have to pay the 'bills'.

So, I am doing what I promised myself to do: Hard work, complete commitment to learning and doing, a different life altogether. I still see this as a state of transition. My working days often stretch to 12 to 14 hours, and I am spending whatever little time I got left after that studying Adult Education and Learning Technology at the UCL. I squeeze in some time to write this blog in between, often early mornings if I managed to get up early (which are rare these days, because I am so tired most of the days and don't manage to get to bed till late), or in between work, if I got a few minutes without anything specific to do. I am enjoying teaching, and discovering that I have some kind of ability of public speaking, which I would want to develop. I am developing a practice, consciously, and hopefully this will allow me to escape corporate life altogether in a few years time.

When that happens, I shall restart again: Go back to Kolkata and live there. This may sound counter-intuitive, but that is what I want to do: Live with my own people, not feeling like a stranger every time I step out of my house. I came to Britain to see the world and expand my horizon: That is happening. However, I would not want to give up my identity in the bargain. This diary hopefully will capture the story and keep me on the message all this time.

Revisiting Maslow's Pyramid

Aldous Huxley's point was that while Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it can not serve truth very well. Life's issues are often so complex that they need nuanced, detailed understanding. Executive Summaries are often too reductive, too naive, and our reliance on those often lead to lack of false understanding.

Maslow's model, I shall argue, is one of those neat, well argued models which may lead to wrong conclusions. For the uninitiated, Maslow's model is insightful, breaking down human needs in five neat blocks - Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Social Needs, Esteem Needs and Need for Self-Actualization - stacked up in a pyramid shape. Everything about it is useful and understandable: The categories seem clear and distinct, there is a philosophical implication of a man's journey to be a better individual and stages are quite clear. It is one simple model which tells a lot.

The model was deservedly successful, becoming gospel truth among managers of men and marketers. The policy makers at national and regional levels, across the world, considered Maslow's pyramid and knew where to throw the tax dollars. And, even futurists looked at Western societies climbing the pyramid and knew what will appeal to the population tomorrow - aesthetics of design and philanthropy, for example.

However, the model may not be entirely as comfortable for those stuck in 'Maslow's Basement'. Should one must postpone the quest of self-actualization if materially one is stuck at the bottom level? Is there no dignity in poverty? Is it correct to assume that if one does not have anything to eat, one can't care for others or does not think what others will think of him?

Maslow's model is quite neat, but neatness is its problem. I agree the Pyramid shape looks neat, but this has a quantitative implication of some sort: Does this mean that less people actually reach the level of self-actualization, or that our needs (types of) at that level are more limited than at the physiological level? The hierarchy is troubling, because that must mean an one way journey - up - but what if my self-actualization is embedded in my social needs?

This is possibly the biggest criticism of Maslow's model, that it is too ethnocentric, made for the Americans. In some more collectivist cultures (as Hofstede would call them) being accepted socially would be a somewhat higher aim than being successful. Besides, the continuous wonderment of my British friends regarding the system of 'arranged marriage' shows how a model like Maslow's can seriously impede understanding of human development rather than facilitate it. I know of many couples living a perfectly happy life after the arranged marriage, and they are quite intelligent, educated people. It is just that their esteem and social needs were regarded somewhat highly than their needs for self-actualization, and hence, they found love and happiness through adjustment with their parents' wishes rather than being obsessed with their own choices.

However, we are still deeply seduced by the charm and ease of Maslow's model and it continues to dominate our thinking. The world remains a more chaotic place, and kids today seem to be skipping the 'safety need' phase altogether: Many, we call them 'nerds', are starting from self-actualization and in the process, changing the world.

In short, Maslow did indeed present an useful theory which has served its purpose. But, theories are always embedded in its time: So was Maslow, embedded in the age of social engineering and idealism, when the American dream was still fresh and undaunted. Sixty odd years on, in the middle of another great economic crisis, we are at an inflection point of human history, where all assumptions must be rethought again. Maslow remains important, but no longer the gospel truth that we must embed in all our thinking.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Emerging India

As you step out of Mumbai airport, India meets you at the door. This is not the India you saw on movies, chaotic and poor; not the one you suspected it to be, from the slums you saw from the sky. But, neither it is the sleek Dubai-like feature which it should have been, if you just trusted the analysts above all else: After all, this is where the next game of Global Capitalism will be played.

The experiences at the door, on both counts, are bound to be anti-climactic. With the new shiny Mumbai airport coming into being, the disorderliness of beggars and scavengers of the past are gone: In its place, now, are security barriers, taxi counters and glass doors. The noisy crowd waiting for homecoming relatives and friends are now spread over a large area rather than a tiny door front: The scenes of emotion are therefore much diffused. It is rather a quiet experience, compared to whatever you have heard about Mumbai from those who have gone there before. But, one thing will still strike you: It is incomplete, and no one seems to care for it.

That incompleteness will appear in bits and pieces, but everywhere. A missing sign here, an empty table, a shopfront still being worked upon, a railing finishing abruptly in the middle of nowhere, a traffic barrier hastily put together: And, also a Policeman who seemed to have forgotten a couple of buttons on his shirt. But, as you try to overlook these, as a kind visitor, you can't help noting the official looking indifferently across the space filled with such half-done things, the shiny cars that briefly stopped in front of the poodle formed by yesterday's rain-waters to pick up their distinguished looking passengers and above all, the blankness and rather apparent rudeness of anyone you may have approached for help. This is no Dubai, no Disneyland of Capitalism: If anything, this will have the feeling of the wild west.

Which will not be far from truth: India is fast emerging to be the Wild West of global capitalism. The movie versions of Wild West show no Indians; that will possibly be the first analogy you will draw - the shiny billboards, the exuberance of the business community and of the Professors and Consultants paid by them, paint a picture that excludes all Indians, the uneducated, 'villager' types. Much like Wild West, where Indians would have formed a majority of the population when the Pale Rider was riding through valleys, these uneducated Indians still form a majority of the population. They are poor, they are not presentable. They are being ordered out, painted out and definitely wished out of India. The infamous poverty of India, which movies and unpatriotic Indians often portray, is being carefully replaced by sleaze, by those who could be bought over to the other side, to join the chorus of the new India, the White Tiger types.

Some people may say I am being unfair: Those street-smart white tigers are new India's poster boys. They make modern India what it is today: A land of opportunity. But, you, riding your cab to the suburban Mumbai, may have to work to keep the faith: The cab driver will feed you with stories of political corruption, while pointing out various areas as belonging to various gangsters, while you could not escape noticing large gated communities existing side by side with slums, displaying the same indifference that you saw at the airport. You will know what you are seeing - a wild west - only that money and influence have replaced guns and wit, and no Pale Rider is in sight.

An India will emerge. One disabused of its age-old decency, its innocence and its dignity in poverty. Not one that waited for ages with unwavering patience, but one which wants to get rich quick. Not one which accepted all comers with open arms, but one adolescent country with a rude arrogance. Not the India you read about - but one with a false sense of past and increasingly, a false sense of presence. One that is imagining a bright future but concluded that imagining is enough.

An India which we have to wait to pass, before the one we knew and loved, return.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Educating for the Keeps

Innovation is important as the world is not enough. We can feel happy and smug with what we have achieved, but then returns this sinking feeling almost inevitably that all's not well. And, it is not: There is too many anomalies in our idea of progress. With most of people on the planet too poor to eat and the resources fast depleting, our prosperity feels like stolen, not earned. The innovation talk helps us feel better: In a way, innovation is the basis of our morality.

But it is still easier said than done. The enemy of innovation is not any hidden monster, but steady state, which we are so eager to achieve. The final frontier forever features in our thinking and drives us: We aspire to stop and stay, therefore we move. It is only fortunate that some of us aim so high that we never finally reach that steady state. It is that Utopian aspiration, rather than rational thinking, which drives innovation.

However, while we were good at innovating physical contraptions to extend our physical attributes - such as moving faster - our thinking about society and that regarding relationships between men (and women) were somewhat retarded. In this sphere, our general innovative tendencies, our desire to go beyond our station, were interfered upon. We were made to believe that such innovation is disruptive. Even the critical thinkers about the society, such as Marx, derided new thinking as Utopian, and wanted to concentrate on what exists to visualize what will be. He failed in a way: Despite the validity of some of his arguments, his followers moved in circles and failed to create a better society. (You can say I am reading Herbert Mercuse)

This, despite, Marx's own boastful expression - the point about philosophy is to change the world. It can indeed be a problem of method: A preoccupation about the process of change undermined the search for the nature of change itself. However, most physical innovators came the other way: They imagined how it will be first and then fit the methods together.

At this point, we may be reminded of Schumpeter's idea of innovation, that it was about solving social problems using existing methods and not about creating new methods. So, innovation is not entirely a scientific exercise: That will be the realm of inventors. It is more the task of the businessmen, the social engineers of our age, to visualize solutions to problems and bring together the scientific body of knowledge to solve it. One can see the problem of social theory, particularly critical social theory such as Marxism, in this light: The obsession with method obscured the imagination of what a better society should look like.

But this is not about Marx and Marxism in particular, but why we must keep looking to create a better society: With fairer distribution of resources, more widely available opportunities and a more 'just' relationship between people. The rationale for being persistent in this search is partly due to the fact that societies, and indeed lives, can't stand still: they inevitably degenerate. Time plays an important role in the physical world; no less so in our personal and social worlds, it is the key to our formations and relationships, our existences and beliefs, and in general, of creativity and happiness. While we inevitably tend to hoard, protect our gains, life always does a sort of balancing act and plays Robin Hood if it must. This happens over long term, indeed; but while economists tried to console themselves by saying that in the long term, we are all dead, long term is increasingly becoming shorter with the expansion of our expanding moral and physical resources, and our ability to change the world at will.

So, we must strive for a better society. As a practitioner of education, this may be my founding faith: But may be not, as education has become an instrument of stability, not newness, in our societies. The educator's goals have been reduced to simple formulations of productivity and servitude: Degrees and Credit-worthiness sum up what the education must achieve. The space for imagination regarding social innovation is, therefore, increasingly limited. Education as an instrument of steady state society, championed by the extension of the corporate state in the realm of educating, is taking over our profession. This is where a line must be drawn, and critical imagination must return. This is the last window of human thought, its ability to think freely and imagine a better society, which is being closed into the darkness of method and mindlessness.

I rest my case.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

John Wood on His Personal Transformation

Renewing Myself, Yet Again

I have given up on being a businessman, finally. It is not for me. It never was, indeed, but I did not know till I tried. It was one of those things - I am far too idealistic, that is unreal - for business. The only positive thing I had that counted was my never-say-die optimism, but that is more a liability in certain circumstances. The biggest problem was perhaps my essential idea that men are honest and want to do better things, a rather naive assumption that somehow stuck with me. So, I was far too careless, indiscreet almost, in all the businesses I got involved in. Besides, I was taken for what I was - naive - and ended up losing money and friends in the process.

Time now for taking the world for what it is like. I am now reducing my commitments into things that matter. I have become aware of my mortality, in a way. I realize I don't have endless time in hand. I am still optimistic, I still want to do things that I like, and I am still looking forward to life. But, I realized, despite hero-worshipping my grandfather, I am not going to be a businessman like him. I am much better off starting my life new, with a set of new goals.

Which I have, lately. I am in the middle of a full-fledged career shift into education. I have forced myself into an education company, directing strategy but also teaching, a part I quite enjoy. Besides, my reading list is all about education these days, as is my current chief preoccupation - completing my post-graduate studies in education at the UCL. It is quite hard, the struggle I have to do to keep all the balls in the air while coping with the remnants of my past life, but I am always an optimist and keep telling myself that this is more like the initial months when I first came to England - a restart, only better.

Besides education, my other current preoccupation is writing. I have realized that this is one activity I love - writing this blog is almost therapeutic to me - though it will need some training and commitment to make my writing more professional. So far, I always thought of it as a hobby, but lately I have started thinking about it seriously and know that this is one skill I would like to develop as I build a career in education. So, currently, I am trying to practice writing - copies for adverts, short fiction, news reports, websites - and develop this into a sort of parallel profession that I can pursue more seriously in a few months' time.

I have never had a career of any sort, only brief moments of success. In my life, I have done many things - some very well and some not so well - in a rather erratic sequence which resemble a child's play rather than a professional journey. At the hindsight, it may look planned, but it was chaos in reality, something that I forced upon myself and immensely enjoyed at times. This journey was marked only by some prominent twists and turns, which I call bonfire moments, moments when I decided to do something new, renounce everything that I stood for till then and forced myself to learn a new thing and start fresh. Despite my sense of mortality, and the urge to make my life more meaningful, I am at it again - I am sort of obsessed about newness and rediscovery of myself.

So be it, then. I am Hindu after all: in a way, all I do is a preparation for an afterlife. Just that I have chosen to live my life in a sequence of lives, not leaving it to God to decide what happens next, but playing a bit with myself and exploring the possibilities of a rebirth in a shorter span of time. The deadness of one existence really never weighed on me much, nor did the challenges of being a toddler yet again appear too daunting. I always found my way: That represented the soul of my enterprise.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Larry Lessig on Law & Creativity

Being Subversive

I am having loads of fun being subversive.

I am a bit of a non-conformist. That bit did not change since my school days. What changed is that I usually kept quiet, kept my head down and accepted the way of the world over mine. No longer: I have lately become aware of my mortality - that I am old and don't have much time left to let the world go by - and now refuse to give up and go quietly.

Being a non-conformist has its own problems. You become sensitive to the fact that everyone may have an opinion - a different opinion. Since you expect your opinions to be heard, respected, you start respecting everyone's points of view too. This makes you an indefatigable learner. This opens your mind, stop you from being a bore, forever. However, at the same time, this may drown you down, and crowd you out. I must admit that this has happened in my life quite a few times, particularly in my life in England: It is a masculine world where you must push your views around to be heard. I paid the price for being far too sensitive.

It was a difficult path converting my non-conformism to true, interesting subversion. Technology came to my rescue. Technology can disrupt the power structure and mould it irreversibly, a fact I lately realized. Intelligent deployment of technology can truly transform even a rather stable environment based on patronage and privileges, and bring in a sudden openness. This subversion is fun: It is like opening a window and letting sunlight into a room which was closed for years. It is almost that transition from being dead to coming alive.

As I follow all this discussion about using technology in education, whether or not it enhances learning, whether or not it improves behavior, and think this completely misses the point. We try to discuss whether we can, with technology, achieve yesterday's goals in education: conformism, predictable behaviour, transference of a body of knowledge. But, education does not happen in a vacuum, and the ultimate goal of education is enabling the learner to be a man in the society. So, it must move lockstep with society, which means new goals should emerge. In the context of a society so deeply disrupted by technology, where the power structures are crumbling, and we are zooming towards an inflection point, offering better education should not mean reaching outdated goals but inventing new ones.

Like, being able to extend our cognitive realm with new ideas and innovation. If education is meant to facilitate this, it will be hard put to achieve this objective within the bounds of the established power and authority of tutorship. I am currently experimenting on using technology to achieve an intensely student centric environment, where only loose rules and common courtesy will be accepted as a given, and everything else will be invented, moulded and discovered. This will be, if I get my way, the core of a larger project - the World College - where inverted power relationships will put the existing body of knowledge in various fields in a truly global context.

Let me explain by using a discipline like Physics. I choose this because truth in this area is likely to be least sensitive culturally. However, a discipline is not just about the body of knowledge, but also a related process of inquiry, and this is more culturally sensitive than we would like to believe. The cultural sensitivity of the methods of inquiry in physics is actually an opportunity rather than a problem, because there must be more than one ways of reaching the truth, and even there is a possibility of more than one truth, even in the physical world. Today, a power relationship, an established authority, a select set of journals and publications, a particular language, guard the entrance of the discipline and keep all subversion, and therefore, variety and newness out. But new possibilities are already emerging: New people are joining the enquirers and creating new knowledge, like the amateur astronomers of the past, who contributed significantly to the body of knowledge and changed our understanding of the physical world. Technology made this possible (in this case, it was the telescope). Inverted power relationships, facilitated by technology, may change things yet again.

Apply this to a more 'humanistic' discipline, like business or education, and you know the possibilities are endless. But it is no good exporting business formulas across countries and applying them mindlessly. The idea of a world college is to create a core of student centric curriculum first, and then apply the bits that fit. And, technology and technology alone, can allow us to subvert the command and control systems of public education.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Books

There are many reasons why we should not be reading books any more.

First of all, they are bulky to carry. I could not shift house for last six years, despite feeling the necessity, because I have to find a way to move my books. I have paid excess baggage and lived a cramped life, and had numerous arguments with others, because of my books.

Second, because there is an alternative. The electronic format is catching up on resolution etc. One can get books under 60 seconds, almost anywhere in the world (not in Iran though, one of the countries where book reading is so popular), as Amazon claims for its Kindle. What can be better to be able to 3500 books in your hand within a tiny, slim device: for all of £150. Someone reminded me that you will need to spend five times as much to buy bookshelves that can hold so many books.

Third, with newspapers and vinyl gone that way, book reading remains an ugly twentieth century habit. For all romanticism, it is limiting, not liberating. It is a lazy thing, meant for a time when people did not move so much.

And, for all the other reasons why the world should go completely digital.

As a lover of books, an obsessed one I must add, I feel nostalgic about books. I resent its passing, whatever inconvenience it may have caused in my life. I desire they would stay, a few more decades, at least till I live. If I make an wish, a very bourgeois one unfortunately, I see myself dying in a room looking into greens outside, a room full of books. When I think about it, I don't see a computer: They are not part of wish, not part of my character.

However, all this romanticism aside, I think there is a reason why the book will survive, and in fact, will thrive. The book is not a CD, or even a newspaper. It is not a passive carrier of the information it contains. It is not just a medium. It has its own existence: I shall explain why.

But more on Vinyl first, if that's one thing which died in the digital onslaught. It was always taken as a carrier of live performance, a medium. When more efficient forms were found, the fate of Vinyl, and its successors, were sealed. However, books were different: It transported messages and ideas across the ages and space, but it was not representing spoken word. They had an existence of its own.

Primarily because, I shall argue, the sense of authenticity a published book added to its message. I can write a story on this blog, but it is so very different from the printed form: It will never carry the sense of accomplishment that 'getting published' will denote. The 'authorship' sets its own context: It defines a relationship between the readers and the author. The book represents that context.

Even when information becomes free, the need for authenticity will not die. In fact, I shall argue, with more information, authenticity will become even more important. Beyond the smell and touch of the printed book, the sign on the spine - our very familiar Penguin or the Pelican or some such thing - will denote a level of effort and accomplishment. This will be very difficult to recreate online. The fact that I can write online and be read will steal some charm from being published online.

So, in the brave new world, we may see more books, not less. The books do not represent a repressive commercial regime based on the principle of restricting access to information: The library movements across the world, over the ages, sought to put that right and expand the access. Books represent credentials, efforts, authenticity, and ultimately, the existence of the work independent of its author. This is going to be re-kindled as we move forward.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Diary: Things That Changed

The key reason this blog exists is that this is my scrapbook of ideas. Sometimes, I tend to forget this, trying to mould this into a shape, as if this is a magazine or a newspaper, primarily because I think this will help me get more readers. But, at regular intervals, in the rare lazy Sunday mornings with nothing serious to do, I discover the enjoyment in being chaotic, in chronicling the chaotic and messy tale of my life, with the inconsistencies and all. The blog, after all, records everything in a most recent first structure, which is counter-intuitive, in fact, directly opposed to our obsessively sequential sense of order. That way, this is the right tool for my wandering about: I am what I am right now.

My life is changing quite fast. I am truly out of my depressive frustration which would have showed up in the posts only a few months back. My life now is a lot more predictable, even a touch boring. The variations of my mornings now limited to which train I take and which coach I get in, I am saved by the meaningfulness of my work. This is again a big change in my life: Only in brief periods of my life, I liked what I do for a living, and I am enjoying it now. In sharp contrast to my earlier guilt-ridden ever apologetic self, I am now engaged in bringing about meaningful changes, doing work that I wanted to do, and even finding opportunities to meet interesting people, writing and talking. Some remains of my past life still exist, and bother me periodically: But I am hoping that by the end of October, I shall be able to cut my ties with the past clearly and decisively.

So, this is a sort of a new start, and this particular break is primarily driven by my desire to rebuild my career in education and writing. Life of the mind, that's what I want to pursue, though my earlier notions of necessity of solitary existence have now been abandoned. I know that my journey into the life of the mind will be through the crowded public square rather than collegial common rooms, but I am reconciled with the idea and enjoying the journey.

Indeed, learning new things is the big reward that comes with such an effort. At the outset, all this change looks disruptive, I did have my moments of uncertainty in the classes I started taking, but the redemptive power of new knowledge, particularly in understanding the process of education and personal transformation, cleared away any doubts that I had about the worthiness of the effort.

Besides, the life of the mind, one full of ideas and conversations, needs that circle of friends that I am discovering now. It is different from a group of people coming together based on accidents of jobs or residential proximity, and this is different from the relationships one form within a family which is defined by obligations and limitations. What these new friendships are defined by are the commonality of interests, a common commitment to seek a better education experience or creative pursuit, and these are not delimited by boundaries of obligations or propriety, but rather by possibilities and sheer fun of sharing. Some of these friends I don't even know in person, and some others I have only met briefly: But these people are present in conversations on this blog, elsewhere and intermittently.

One thing that changed deeply is my ideas of return, then. The more this life forms, I know my ability to go back to India become more and more limited. I have started forming a new identity, based on these relationships and possibilities of life, and it will be impossible to uproot this and transpose it back home in near future. While India will always remain paramount in my identity, and all the work I do, it seems that I am destined to stay away for a longer period of time than I originally envisaged.

This is a big change. The other big change is that I have realized that I should abandon the two careers I dreamt of, of being a businessman or a politician, because both of these require a sort of ruthless focus that I do not have. One can't be a part-time businessman or a politician. So, after twenty or so years living under an illusion, I am now reassessing what I should be in light of what I am better off being. Late, indeed, but better late than never: I am quite keen to make this fresh start make up for all those lost years.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

On Being Creative

If one change I wish to make in my life, it will be to be able to give more time to my creative pursuits - primarily my reading, writing and efforts in photography - than I manage to do now. The reason is straightforward: I have realised that I am not a bureaucrat or a businessman at heart, and the one thing that gives me pleasure is to do something truly new or creative, including encountering a new idea or meaning of things that I never came across before.

In a way, I have always sought to live a creative life, but never managed to. The primary reason is that I defined what is meant by success wrongly. Like most others in my suburban neighbourhood and inner city school, success for me variably meant a car, a glamorous girlfriend, being able to travel outside my country's borders and having my own house. This last one, having own house, joined the list only later in my life, but this is more representative of the problem that I faced: It is one straight road from mortgage to mediocrity, but the other bits of dream equally hinged on getting a city job, though the term meant different things at different phases of my life. All this demanded conformance, following orders or others, not asking questions, discovering or seeking: One had to leave creativity back home to be successful.

But, I came across Robert Frost quite early in life and decided to take the road 'less travelled by'. The only problem is that I did not commit myself fully, keeping my eye on the more popular road all the time. As a result, my life was awkward and half-hearted most of the time, as was my writing, photography and even the sporadic nature of my reading. Someone, somewhere along the line, convinced me that a creative life is a standalone thing, which can be postponed and returned to when the other businesses of life have been attended to. So while I vigorously disagreed with the notion that only a few people among us can be truly creative - believing in universal creative instinct in effect - my own thinking about 'creative conditions' demanded a certain kind of life, only to be afforded by those who paid the wagers of traditional success (or were born into success).

It is the act of this blog writing, mostly undirected random thoughts presented without editing, allowed me to 'feel' two hitherto unexplored aspects of creativity. The first was about the nature of creativity: Instead of being about the outcome, something new and beautiful, being creative is about the process, the journey. In fact, one does not have to necessarily produce anything to be creative, because one can be creative in terms of searching for an answer, understanding what exists in a new way. As Eric Bohm puts it - the scientific enquiry, aimed at discovering the inner order and logical structure of things around us, is essentially creative, because it searches for truth, which is inherently beautiful. Taking that argument a step farther, any search, the discontents with mediocrity, with the unoriginality of the life handed down to us, are all creative acts. So, while I waited for my creative moment and inspiration, and kept writing this blog, I was being creative all the while. Being creative is, therefore, not a phase or a condition, but a process and a way of life.

The second realization relates to the conditions of creativity. Partly convinced into this by Steven Johnson, but also from my own experiences on this blog and elsewhere, being creative is a social act. Far from being something to be pursued in solitary abandon of an ideal condition, which can be achieved only through considerable fortune or luck, creative thoughts and endeavours come to us from our liquid networks, people that we mingle and converse with, online and offline, friends we keep, flirtations that we indulge in and family that we live within. Again, this is something the blog writing taught me about: The creative process is not just typing in a few words, but expecting a conversation: Indeed, it is about searching for one. Building on from the 'discontent' theory of creativity, I am tempted to say that creativity isn't an internal, private process, but the essential process of connecting with the world, understanding and expressing the truth (or truths) interleaved in things and relationships around us. There is beauty, and God, in the world around us, and searching and participating and being part of this inherently creative process of living among others denote the essential notion of being creative.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Trouble with The Labelled Generations

This post refers to the Guest Post made on this blog by Angelita Williams, but also more broadly to the public discourse on generational labelling, in particular Kenneth Gronbach's The Age Curve. I have always thought Generational Labelling to be a bit mindless, particularly as generational wars are being fought around them. Disliking Generation Y, undermining Generation X, admiring Baby Boomers etc are necessary for newspapers to sell copies, but not necessary for us in our family and work lives and friendships that we form.

There are three clear problems with generational labelling.

First, it stereotypes: How can we assert that someone born on the 1st of January 1985 will be fundamentally different from someone born at some point of time in 1984. Going by Mr Gronbach's categorization, 31st December 1984 will be the dividing line between Generation X and Generation Y. One can indeed argue that the person born on or after a certain date may have a fundamentally different life, because of the quirks of the school administrations, immigration policies of different countries, and business cycles. However, because such big events don't necessarily move in a pattern, the generational variations are more likely to be a complex, and more chaotic, thing, rather than the neat characterization in boxes that this Gen X/Y business suggests.

Second, because there is no agreement on the labelling among various people who use these labels. Mr Gronbach's labelling was somewhat straightforward: The GI Generation (born between 1905 and 1924), the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1944), the Baby Boomers (born between 1945 and 1964), the Generation X (born between 1965 and 1984) and Generation Y (thereafter). However, new 'generations' keep cropping in: There are the millennial, indeed, people born after 1995, and now Generation Z, I would not know whether this is meant to convey a sense of finality or just tiredness with generational labelling. One can't reliably use such labelling if it means different sets of things to different people.

Third, because such labelling is unhelpful and lead, sometimes, to generational wars. It is more like - I need to be like this because I am Gen Y - than the other way round. Popular press used such labelling with great abundance and little care, oblivious of the fact that this is a way to bring on a new sort of 'class' war. While lives of people vary, for a multitude of reasons, and our calendared lifestyles mean that everyone do not get the same opportunity, such generational labelling essentially undermine continuity of culture, and the commonness of human spirit, and overemphasize the consuming habits of a given period.

Extending the last point, I shall say that the discourse on Generational Labelling is a contribution marketers made to social theory, not from the perspectives of disengaged observation but with an intent to intervene, which makes it a shrewed strategy but a flawed theory. The futility of such labelling is clearly evident when such ideas are imported, en masse, into other countries with a different history altogether. I could never say that the Generation Y in India were those born after 1985, because the country's history and culture is quite different. But this is precisely the label used in Indian media, which is in a desperate race to equate the consuming habits of the just adults (which include the millions which work in call centres and software 'factories') with those of the West. But, such labelling is misfit, as Indian generations seemed to have lag effect (Indian 'GI' generation, if there was any, are those who fought in the country's freedom struggle and were born after 1915) and Indian Generation Y behave more like the American baby boomers, taking out mortgages and buying first family homes, while, at the same time, facing their first recession in a lifetime, unlike the baby boomers.

Finally, apart from the sheer absurdity of fitting everyone in the world into these neat categories, generational labelling displays the same problems of oversimplification and reductive tendencies that the other big stereotype, the clash of civilizations, have shown. The point about such theories is that they all undermine the power and the position of an individual. If we keep faith on the individual effort in shaping the circumstances, and belief systems of an era, such big stereotypes should be useless. However, these theories, based on an overtly simplified versions of our history, we make the mistake of forgetting the big lesson of history - the power of individual efforts and the futility of stereotypes - and therefore, become condemned to repeat history's big mistakes.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

In Defense of Generation Y - Guest Contribution by Angelita Williams

In August, the New York Times Magazine ran a rather lengthy article entitled What Is It About 20 Somethings?, which received quite a bit of buzz on the Internet. The article was essentially a proclamation of what's wrong with the so-called Generation Y. The article came amidst a slew of related opinion editorials in which young adults have been pigeonholed as addicted to technology, spoiled, and directionless.

While the article did accurately describe those who are now just finishing school, it seems that the cause-and-effect reasoning behind it is off-base. The implications that so many so-called "experts" are making is that young adults are changing jobs more frequently, traveling more, and putting off commitments like marriage and having kids simply out of a desire to stave off the responsibilities of adulthood. In other words, 20 somethings are being cast as immature.

However, instead of looking at the decisions of Gen Y as intrinsic, why don't we consider how trends in the global economy have shaped this lifestyle? For example, the article mentioned that on average, those in their twenties are changing jobs at a rate of about seven times by the time they hit thirty. While it would be easy to understand this high job change rate as a trend shaped by a certain restless spirit, we can't forget that businesses are now undergoing a paradigm shift in which permanence is becoming more and more of an anachronism. In other words, young adults aren't necessarily changing jobs because they want to, but simply because they have to.

Another defining characteristic that the article ascribes to 20 somethings is that many are placing a greater emphasis on identity search. While searching for meaning is certainly a process that everyone undergoes, the heightened importance of this "identity search" for our generation can be understood as yet another sign of the times.

In Daniel Pink's 2005 book, A Whole New Mind, the author argues that we are undergoing a transitional period--from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. And in the Conceptual Age, Pink notes, it is those who have developed six essential senses--Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning--who will come out on top. Therefore, if 20 somethings are indeed spending much time traveling and searching for meaning, it will only be to the benefit of their future careers, since emerging business models today demand the depth of the thought, creativity, and understanding of the human condition that this sort of "search for meaning" entails.

Other supposed "adult" milestones--like getting married and having children--that today's young adults are increasingly putting off, should be cast as something positive. While "settling down" of course has its benefits, we are living in a world in which overpopulation is a very real concern, one that is almost as grave a future threat as global warming. If young adults have the perspicacity to wait longer to have families, it will be for the benefit of our world and society as a whole. The success of the new globalized economy depends on the energy of a mobile, creative workforce. In this respect, Generation Y may be doing something right after all.

This guest post is contributed by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of college courses. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: angelita.williams7

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Question of God

I usually step aside debates with no end, and the question of existence of God is one such thing. However, this is one debate very difficult to run away from, particularly in today's world where God is making a comeback. In every debate he keeps springing up, everyday news and big debates of the day centre on him and he definitely has the full support of almost all governments in the world. So, if I am asked whether I believe in the existence of God, it is very difficult not to have an answer.

The answer could be quite straightforward. Most people who know me will know that I am quite a 'practising' Hindu, reading up some of the ancient texts and sprinkling my conversations with references from what I learnt in my childhood. I am not the temple-going kind, neither do I pray much publicly; but then there is a temple I go to if I am feeling restless and downbeat. This inevitably makes me believe in the existence of God, surely.

However, like everything else with me, I am afraid, the answer is less straightforward than that. An honest answer will be that while I am deeply Hindu, I accept this as a culture and a way of life, not as an immutable version of idol worshipping. I have learnt, through my life experience, the negative aspects of Hinduism too. For example, I believe that some of our Hindu practises, particularly to casteism and lack of dignity of labour, is the primary reason why we see so much squalor and poverty in India.

Above all, though, I believe that men have invented God and it is not the other way round.

In short, I put God at the same pedestal as science, which is another human invention of sorts. Both of these 'concepts' liberate us at times, offer convenient explanations, as well as blind us at other times and make us go after each other. Considered this way, God seems to be a perfectly logical conception, a sort of 'black hole' which suck away the current realm of unknown and of complexity; with a touch of anthromorphism, one can think God is actively seeking to spread new human knowledge so that he has to do less. All the readings of complexity theory, which essentially explains why it is so difficult to connect everything in a simple cause-effect explanation, point to the necessity of God. The concept of God can provide a simple explanation to unbearable complexity of our lives and free us from impossible moral problems that will arise if things can not be explained at all.

So, to reiterate, I believe that God is an idealized concept which human beings have formed. In a way, it is consistent with my Hindu belief: There are a multitude of Gods, and each of us has a heavenly manifestation within ourselves.

To think of it, this refers to the bit of goodness in each of us. When I pray to God, I pray to my good self: When I want success, I appeal to that bit of myself who want to get up in the morning and believe in hard work. When I want happiness, I appeal to that bit in me who is kind and enjoy being with others and feel good with other people feeling happy. It is a complex concept made simple with a humanistic representation of The God.

So, no blasphemy - I can argue I believe in God, though all my prayers are silent and private ones. I never see any use of organized religion, which, to me, is a political formation of a bygone era. The fact that the organized religion (and not God) is making a comeback today because we are struggling with our cognitive limitations and are now more willing than ever to give up thinking. It is easy to lump our failures into easy explanations built on blaming others, and, indeed, in the end, race into unnecessary wars. That's all noise trying to submerge our private conversation with our individual deities, and to steal our perspectives that we can gain by looking at ourselves.

Shall I wait for deliverance or bring it about myself?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Being A Londoner: Humanity and Hyde Park

There is one thing about being in London: You can't call the difference between freedom and slavery. Like, not being able to tell whether the glossy tabloids mark the freedom of opinion or the complete subjugation of heart, whether it gives or deprives us of opinion. It is a bit like not knowing whether it is pleasure or pain we get catching the morning 7:45 train to come to office; it gives us the daily bread, but not the way the Lord would have liked (if he was kind).

For me, the struggle is many dimensional - considering that the reason why I want to stay in London is to keep my freedom. To keep reinventing myself, to be the king of fresh beginnings, to pursue my dreams as they come without having to bother about what people will say. There is whole web of things around money: After doing a few years (as in Jail), it dawns on you that even the money can be equally liberating and subjugating.

The particular place I like about London is Hyde Park. Indeed, speakers' corner is less interesting now, as we live in a society of consensus, of the democratic centre. This is what the democracy has done: Taken the sheen out of the Speakers' Corner. Any opinion which does not agree with the basic premises of urban slavery are considered to be fringe madness. We have multiplicity of parties but ridiculously narrow range of opinions.

Hyde Park demonstrates some of the other human freedom. Here, for example, lover couples try to explore the limits of public view and privacy, often rather outrageously to challenge the boring perceptions of propriety. I guess the sexual love is one area exempt from the conformity requirements of our time: The sexual revolution is the only revolution which has truly happened. Hyde Park is, that way, a museum of humanity, whether the Speakers Corner is dead or not.

So, that's London: An endless stream of humanity overground and underground, round the clock, pushed by the sheer material pressures of existence. But, within this, the odd love, a stolen moment in the British museum, a living moment frozen in mobile camera, odd infatuation getting better of formulaic love, past and present jostling together - four weathers a day.

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