Sunday, January 31, 2021

Exploration as the only endgame

In one of the recent mediations, I landed on the thought that exploration is not only one endgame, it is probably the only one.

There is indeed a lot to do, but none of it is the endgame. There are no places to reach, no goals to achieve, no deeds to do. None that have any sanctity beyond keeping the entity occupied and directed.

In this vein, exploration marks the difference between the repeated and the novel. Clearly, there are many things that are repeated in a human’s life. There is a routine to most days – and often for the better.

But the preference and comfort of routine can actually take a human being down the path of behaving like an automaton through and through. There is a line that needs to be drawn – to ensure that routine is helpful for providing a semblance of structure to the life but does not ossify all of it.

Coming to the more important element of exploration, once the basic activities are routinized and taken out from the bandwidth allocation, the rest is open for exploration.

Let us not get into what to explore and how. The central idea of this article is to just highlight that exploration alone is necessary and sufficient as the endgame of a human life. (Assuming here the sustenance and safety aspects are already covered – partly in exchange for some routinization).

This seems like it may get teleological, but it does not. I am not claiming that exploration is a higher calling of some sort. I am in fact offering it as an alternative to the nihilist conclusion of any coherent worldview that is built on what is known to humanity as of now. The modernist position on this is that one’s life needs to have some purpose - e.g. “achieving one’s true potential”, “contributing to the wellbeing of fellow human beings”, “reducing suffering in the world” etc. However, once one has become disillusioned with the claims of such modernist claims, one may to go through an intermediate phase of nihilism – “nothing matters” – which can be liberating or depressing. It is depressing if one is secretly still a modernist but wants to desperately move on. It is liberating if one has indeed moved on.

Why would one be disillusioned with modernist ambitions? Not everyone would. There are lots of people that go about their lives quite productively with one or more of the modernist ambitions. However, take someone who sincerely explores the foundations of these ambitions – including one’s being, nature of self, the degree of control human beings have over their circumstances. For her, these ambitions turn out to be mired in the unfounded ideas of an era long gone. We are all dealing in memes that came about over last couple of thousand years – there is as much sanctity to these memes as there is to the fact that we have 10 fingers. Both are results of contingencies that shaped our form, our brains, and our minds. What’s more, unlike the 10 fingers that are honed over millions of years of evolution, the memes are relatively recent in origin – not only are they open to questions, but also likely to be fairly open to improvement in the evolutionary sense.

That is the only sense that has a direction, rest is meme-driven and hence open to changes.

It is in this sense of direction that I am claiming exploration to be the only endgame. It is continuation of the process that blindly brought us into existence i.e. evolution. One can extend the idea to evolution not only of intelligence and life on earth but of solar system and of the whole universe itself.

In general, matter has been exploring design spaces – initially landing on atoms and thus elements and then quickly moving on in smaller niches to molecules and hence complex chemicals. One strand of organic chemistry moved much further in complexity and led to life at least on one planet as we know it. Within this strand, one sub-strand moved further in complexity of social organization – creating a global interconnected system of organizing about 7 billion individuals of the species.

It would be quasi-teleological to say that there is a purpose to all this i.e. complexity is increasing. I wouldn’t even go that far. To me, the blind exploration of design spaces that has been going on is enough as a guideline. When matter first coalesced into hydrogen and helium, we got stars. However, these were of different size – owing to various contingencies. Some became black holes, other shone as regular stars of some size or other. Some matter didn’t coalesce into large enough blocks but remained in orbit around other large masses – giving rise to planets.

The story goes on. It is not necessarily of increasing complexity but exploration of various possibilities from a given starting point. That is how evolution happened. Such diversity of species suggests that there is more than one way of being in the world – an elephant as well as an earthworm. Human is yet another way of being here. It turned out to be a starting point of larger complexity. Now we inhabit an interesting branch of this march of exploration – one with a complex society, language, several memes and spare time and energy for further exploration.

What we do with that is up to us. The reason I am not all that enamoured by ‘happiness’ as an alternative to exploration is because it gets boring pretty fast. Also, owing to the complexities of human brain and human societies, it is often hard to predict and plan for. It just happens, when it does. Also, the happiness logic is inverted in modern human societies – evolution gave us the happiness phenomenon to steer our behaviour towards survival and procreation. Now we are obsessed with that lever and we keep pulling on it – to titillate our senses, although we are well-fed and adequately procreated.

Exploration is a concrete and controllable agenda to pursue. It doesn’t prescribe a lot and doesn’t have too many ‘key result areas’. It asks a simple thing of its practitioners – avoid repeating and attempt to go through the new rather than the old.

One can of course be thoughtful about how and what to explore. But this can easily become mired in complex considerations which may masquerade as simple improvement of exploration but are really driven by the hidden agendas of the pleasure-seeking or novelty-fearing modules in one’s brain.

There is no major prescription. This is an attitudinal shift to bring about. This is also something to keep in mind to help liberate the brain from niggles of worries, angsts and so on – most of them quite irrelevant when seen from the exploratory point of view but major ones if one follows the modernist thought process of a purposeful life!

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!