Friday, March 18, 2016

Dead People and Their Ideas

I think about dead people. Not because they are dead - this is not about any maschoistic exercise thinking about deadness - but of their ideas. I seek my intellectual stimulation not just from Wired magazine, looking at all those gadgets of the future, but also trying to understand what Adam Smith or Karl Marx would say about technology, society and progress. But such habit of looking back makes me lonely - I am often without company in the midst of excited conversations about gadgets and possibilities.  But, oddly, this does not make me feel old: It makes me feel alive.

Whatever you may think of this self-justification, there is something lovably naive about all this chatter about technology. Lots of people believe that whatever we are experiencing - this progress - is unprecedented. Consider, for example, this magic of hailing a cab through Uber, or getting a handyman through Handy! This is denting the universe - they would claim! While it is certainly denting the universe in a way - Uber's billions could buy out all the possessions of most of us - that exalted claim of changing lives as has never been done before is at best narcissistic. We have never been before - as we never hailed a cab on a smartphone - but this is deja vu all over again for those who could think what public transport would have appeared like for those lucky humans when it appeared. Lord Curzon, the Victorian in a time-wrap, once fought with a bus driver as he would not drop him at home: Our sense of loss with Uber may be compared with that.

Forgetfulness have its virtues. We forget, particularly those moments of the end of the world that pervade our lives from time to time, and that allows us to move forward. It is easy, but mistaken, to transpose this individual virtue as a collective goal: To seek to achieve historical amnesia does not make us move forward, but back - as we forget, we repeat! This is where Dead People and their ideas are infinitely useful: They are those counsellors who stand outside our time, and even if we do not fully understand history, their ideas are useful bulwork against the collective forgetting that we make ourselves capable of.

So, unlike being old - I do not start my sentences with "In 1972" - a life pursuing Dead People and their ideas may be alive, filled not just with I-was-here-before moments but also a view of what comes next. It is not the pursuit of lost time, but rather the voices from out of our time that give me a sense of perspective: We have been triumphant about our technological progress before, just as much, and as economic historians are pointing out now, our recent progress may be hollow in comparison. We do not know, we can not know - such judgement would surely be the preserve of a future generation - and it is only the thought that would matter. 

Future is exciting, and past matters - but we live in the Present. But the present is just a moment, something so temporal, almost without its own presence: Caught between the legacy of the past and expectations of the future, the present is merely a negotiation. And, bereft of meaning in itself, it is that perspective, balance, or tension, between the Past and the Future that gives the Present its meaning. In this, some intimacy with dead people and their ideas give us that perspective.



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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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