Saturday, July 25, 2020

History, Geography, Repeat


A few years ago, I reached a conclusion that had an ‘aha’ element to me – geography drives history. This was based on my fascination with watching the map of the world (lately this has been the ‘nightlights’ version). I have made some crude connection between the shape of the world and what happened in it over the centuries.

Geography driving history
For example, India and China may seem close but their plains are quite apart from each other. In fact, South Asia is a relatively contiguous region separated from the rest of the world by Hindukush in the west, Indian Ocean in the south and Himalayas in the north and east. Similarly, east and north Asia is separated from the rest of the world by sea on east and Tibetan plateau on the west. The list goes on. This explains much of ancient history. Broadly put, why people kept to themselves within these accessibility circles.
Closer home (temporally) the world wars in early 20th century can also be linked to the heavy hand of geography. First world war was fought at least initially between the naval powers and the landlocked central powers. The late entry of US into both the wars was also linked to geography in that it was separated by a huge ocean and could afford to wait.
Less obviously but still interestingly, would Vietnam have been able to withstand the onslaught of US might if it were not so hilly? Not to take away from the bravery of the Vietnamese soldiers but their Iraqi counterparts had just the desert to fight in – so very open! (Arguably, today’s Vietnam may not be able to withstand the significantly improved technology of US armed forces, but likewise Iraq would have been overrun in 1971 easily by US forces). Afghanistan was harder to conquer and manage for US than Iraq was – geography again.
More broadly, the spread of culture is based on natural substructure of geography. For example, today’s Spanish culture (including the beautiful Flamenco music and dance) is influenced a lot by Arabic one, unlike say Swedish culture. Even Italian culture is lot less influenced by Arabic one because they didn’t share the history unlike Spaniards and Arabs. The peak of Arab power was before navies became prominent – hence land-based movement was the primary means of influence.
Why did Britain, Spain et al become the primary naval powers when the time came? Easy – their proximity to seas. Germany, Russia and those ‘inside’ couldn’t quite develop navies as fast. Far-out Imperialism remained the preserve of Britain and France. Here too, interestingly, the first naval powers i.e. Portugal and Spain trained their sights on Latin America rather than Asia. When Britain and France did become naval powers, they were forced to explore North America and follow on from the Portuguese (Vasco Da Gama) on Asia. Even the broad split of Africa to France and Asia to Britain can be traced to proximity of France to Africa (both through Mediterranean and Atlantic). Britain went farthest!

Geography -> history -> geography
More recently, especially after some thinking on complexity economics, I have revised my conclusion. First the background. I have increasingly come to believe that complex systems based on continuity of causality (effect1 -> effect2 -> effect1) are more common that simple systems with unidirectional causality (cause -> effect). So the revised conclusion is as follows.
Geography shapes history and history in turns shapes geography.

By the second part I don’t necessarily mean actual shaping of mountains and rivers (though that too has been happening and may increase in future). It’s more to do with human interaction with geography.
Take the location of major cities for example. My own city – Mumbai – gets bucket-loads of monsoon each year. In recent years – that has also meant loss of lives, productivity, and property. Why would Indians congregate in such a prone spot to create the financial hub of their economy?
Short answer is – this isn’t a policy choice. Much as the powers that be everywhere in the world would like dictate where an important economic hub should be, it is difficult to do that beyond a point (the failed experiment in India of the International Finance Centre is a case in point). A medieval Indian king – Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq – tried to shift his capital from a north-centred Delhi to strategically located Daulatabad. The attempt failed and he had to reverse the shift. Admittedly, Shahjahan shifted the capital from Agra to Delhi but that was a minor shift given how the people in power then were spread across these two cities already.

Coming back to Mumbai. Till the 17th century, it was largely rivers that told people where to settle. Large cities were typically on the banks of a river. Indian people weren’t seafaring on account of their cultural biases and also for economic reasons (there was a lot going on at home itself, since India was home to about 1/4th of global GDP till the 17th century).
It was the British that founded Mumbai. Its proximity to sea and distance from the then local powers meant it was safe for them. They then sewed up the seven loosely connected islands into a bustling town. (After the brits left, Indians continued the good work of reclamation – Nariman Point in the 70s, BKC as late as 90s and Worli Seaface in 2020!)
In this context, it was history that guided geography.

What does future hold?
Consider Covid-19 itself. Before Covid the cities had a hub-like structure – downtown is where the ‘action’ is and where most people have to go for work. That’s the commercial district. Technology had already enabled weakening of this dominance but legacy effect of city-centres being ‘central’ was too strong to wane quickly. Covid changed that. Now it is imaginable to work in a spread-out manner. If people in these commercial districts are coming to work only 1-2 days a week or not at all, they may explore living away from city-centre in large houses. After all, if restaurants, cinemas, theatre, shopping district are all constrained by the pandemic, and the children’s schools are only online, what’s the upside of being close to the city centre?
Of course, the pandemic will eventually be brought under control. However, in the meantime, enabled by technology, alternative living models become viable as people experiment. They may just get the critical mass that drives the long-term change as well.

In this sense, history will drive geography again!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Allegory of the Self

The courtiers met again that evening and concluded to dissolve the court until the resolution of the ongoing confusion. The confusion was caused by the Amatya’s claims that their beloved emperor was not really there and that he never was.
For long the courtiers had grown accustomed to the modus operandi of the court – which admittedly did seem a bit peculiar to a visitor but somehow not to the courtiers themselves. What was peculiar about this court was that the emperor never spoke to the courtiers and vice-versa. The emperor (they claimed) sat on the throne behind a veil and nobody ever looked beyond the veil. They attended the court dutifully and carried out their responsibilities. They did all that in the name of the emperor. He however never gave them any direct instruction or took any update in person.
The Amatya was always a bit uneasy about this arrangement and had tried to point out to some courtiers the real mechanism of the operations of the court. He claimed that someone or other always temporarily usurped the throne in the name of the emperor and directed others. It just seemed at the time that this itself was the decree of the emperor. What was even more intriguing, each of these usurpers themselves believed that they were usurping at the behest of the emperor.
There was the recent case of the Mahamantri taking centre stage and telling the Senapati to gather the troops for defence on the southern border. Then there was a time last week when the court clown entertained everyone for hours. Everyone hoped (but could not find out) that the emperor enjoyed the performance as well!
Amatya claimed that he came to the court early one day and opened the veil. Lo and behold, there was no emperor. There was no throne. There was just empty space. He put the veil back again to avoid shocking the courtiers.
One by one, they looked inside the veil and came back shocked – there was no emperor!

How are we to run the affairs of the court, they asked each other. Nobody had a good idea. Hence they dissolved the court for the time being, to look for answers!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The meme of identity

Some memes are so central to our being that we may find the thought of them being memes almost repulsive. Still, taking that risk, I am suggesting that human society has seen an increasing ascendance of the meme of identity. This meme is summarized as follows:

"There is a core self that is 'I' for each human being. This self is immutable, continuous in time and transcendent. The sovereignty of each individual is founded upon this self. The core identity of an individual is this self. One finds one's true self over a period of time. If one is true to oneself, life is full of possibilities. If one is not true to oneself, there is anguish and suffering."

I would guess that this identity meme arose in the intellectually curious amongst those having the luxury of not having to work/fight for subsistence - a subset of the early priests. I would further guess that this meme was the preserve of the elite classes till recently - say till the beginning of industrial revolution. Why that might be so is simple: the rest had way too much on their mind - what with the food gathering and the plague and the rituals of being a part of a society. They clearly were not automata - but were quite tightly bound by their roles and the requirements of being alive so as to leave little time for reflection. In a sense, their identity was mass-produced by their social context and installed in their minds without much variation subsequently. The elite classes with the luxury of spare time and energy could probably muse about the questions of who one is and what is one meant to do. The latter also requires some freedom of action to be answered with anything other than the role-based activities in the given social context.

More recently, as a larger and larger part of the society has been able to afford spare time and energy - and as the legacy systems of identity definition have crumbled around the world - there is a massive growth in the meme of identity - especially its definition and further 'nurture'. Gradually over the last several decades, more and more of human beings are starting to ask - who am i? Few of them of course have stopped to wonder if the question itself is relevant. That reluctance is probably driven by the already weakly established mass-produced identity meme. The social context always installed a simple version of the identity meme in each one of us anyway. It is just that in recent decades, the spare time and energy has meant that there are mental resources available to most of us to attempt refining this meme further.

I have gradually lost interest in the identity meme. As i noted above, it is based on an already established meme of the same type but simpler construct. There is nothing more sacrosanct than that to the notion of identity. As noted in another one of my blogs, the locus of self is not inside one's head but in the social context. As I read Metzinger, Dan Dennette and Bruce Hood and watched a few other videos related to the topic, I have anyway concluded that the self is an illusion (it is not unreal, it is just far less than it seems). However, as I observe the simple as well as 'profound' human reflections I can't help but feel a sense of amusement at the notion of 'core self', 'true nature', 'real identity' and so on!!!