Sunday, July 13, 2008

The society defining forces

Several things have shaped human societies over time. There have been a few regular themes and then a few which came and went. What we need to understand from here on is which are the drivers now and how do we manage them for a better tomorrow.

In the past religion, natural resources and land have been almost constant drivers of social structure and restructuring. Periodically there have been special themes. The racial anger before WWII or industrial revolution in 19th century imperialism or the outcry against imperialism in 20th century or the rise of nationalism in western world political revolutions in 17th and 18th centuries.

The social structure is built and altered by some of these inherent forces as also some upheavals like war, disease or large scale migration. In the modern times, the drivers shaping us have been predominantly emergence of a new global military order, fossil fuels, international mobility of capital/goods/labor, religion and finally technology.

How the society will evolve from here with the pushes and pulls of these factors is not an easy thing to imagine. Harder still is an attempt to shepherd the course of events in the desired direction - if at all we know what that is.

One of the trends emerging in recent times is the reestablishment of population as a driving force of prosperity. Before the industrial revolution, GDP was almost linearly linked to the number of people a region had. That in turn was driven by resources, rivers and trade along with government spending on massive projects. Post industrial revolution, mass manufacturing enabled the societies with fewer people to catch up and leave behind those with more people. With an edge in military technology of the western powers imperialism followed. Long after the dark age experienced by the colonies is over, these economies are still reeling under the impoverishment suffered during the colonization.

Slowly the things are coming a full circle though. Technology improved so much more in the interim that the mass manufacturing became commoditized, the western world itself is trying to move up the value chain into services economies and outsourcing manufacturing to cheaper locations. Once again population is coming back to the centre of economic activity. The demographic dividends that the populous countries are looking to reap is an evidence of that. As for the western economies, the declining population has started to ring alarm bells leading to all sorts of desperate efforts to get women to have children. The worry is very real.

Where are we headed from here. For more than 3-4 decades the populous countries will probably continue to play catch up on the standards of living of the west. However, post that the populous countries will appear lot mightier than the sparse west. Just as Europe went to the sidestage of the global arena to make way for US, the western world will make way for the populous countries. Once again the world will look more balanced - more prosperous than it was in 1st century, but with pretty much the same relative relevance of various regions.

As an Indian, I am not worried whether India will grow big mighty and prosperous. I would however, like to ensure that the process is smooth and does not encounter the special obstacles of the prevalent times. To do so, the most crucial three things are ensuring access to credit, education and healthcare to the near poverty line people of the country. Else much of the demographic dividend could turn into demographic liability.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sone ki chidiya - the less understood part of our past glory

Indians have only now started coming out of a defeatist mentality of living in the past glory of indian civilization. Today's indian is confident - and often wants to mingle with the whole world and pick what is best - including things at odds with the traditions.

That is of course a very healthy thing. Contrary to popular oldies' cries, the typical indian youth has maintained her interest and pride in indian culture while embracing new ideas from west or east. What i would want to focus upon in this article is the fact that not many indians (including the oldies) are aware of the phenomenal economic might of the indian subcontinent throughout most of the known history of human civilization. We often take great pride in our culture - almost always in a apologist attitude that we dont have money but we have values. What i am saying is that throughout most of the human history, we had values alright, but we had money as well; and tons of it!

Watch out for the following numbers.
Share of Indian GDP in global GDP was as follows
1st Century - 33%
10 century - 30%
15 century - 25%
16th century - 25%
17th century - 25%
18th century - 18%
19th century - 12%
1920 - 8%
1950 - 4%
2000 - 5%
2008 - 8%

Where does that leave us? We missed out briefly on the industrial revolution and got left behind and ruled over for ~200 years; taking away our lead for a couple of centuries. That aside, we were always the most prosperous part of the world. We are again set to be so. If you leave out 19th and 20th Centuries, India pretty much is the centre of the world.

And it looks all set to be in the decades to come. We always led the world economically, spiritually, intellectually. We will need to continue doing that in the decades to come. The world anyways looks lost without a sensible leader.
What we are growing into is not a miracle or a emerging economy doing well - it is our rightful position under the sun.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Path of least resistance

Last couple of months, i have slowly started realizing the theme of path of least resistance (PLR) in areas as diverse as national external affairs strategy and getting a small chore done over weekend.

What is PLR? It is the thing that is most likely to happen. It is empirical, not planned or desired. What is the big significance of it? It is useful to know the PLR before drawing big plans. In short, there is only so far you can go from PLR with a given level of effort. Luck can of course come in handy. Unfortunately you cannot factor that in!

How should one handle PLR? It is simple. However, it calls for observation. It also calls for patience. Often enough people run away from PLR and keep getting stressed about it. I am not proposing that PLR be accepted as given. In fact often enough, PLR is detrimental and needs to be altered. However, owing to ideology, liking, expectations, moral sense and so on, people end up mistaking desired path as PLR and then either underprepare for a looming crisis or just despair.

An example is due. Think of the organization reformer in a large company. She is keen to get people to reduce wasteful use of time in mundane activities. She figures out some brilliant methods to do so. However, she faces major challenges in implementing these. On the other hand, think of the social reformer who is trying to awaken the people of a village against their political apathy. People agree with him but shy away from action. Closer home, think of the kid who is told to behave in front of guests. But does not!

All these are examples of underestimating the inertia in PLR. At times, people completely ignore PLR and declare that tomorrow onwards life needs to look different! Alas, PLR is strengthened by so many factors that it is a very highly non-trivial task to alter it. Interestingly, one can use the same inertia to get a desirable activity into PLR. That of course is a matter of skill.

To start with let us understand the factors contributing to PLR. First and foremost, it is faith in what is seen, has been done repeatedly and successfully as against what can be!
Secondly change upsets intricately linked factors. E.g. asking people to be punctual in the morning may force them to travel in times of high commuting traffic and hence add stress to their lives which may negate the purpose of punctuality (productivity enhancement)
Thirdly, PLR often has a set of soft protocols around it. Without explicitly agreeing or negotiating, people often create protocols which are woven around a certain way of doing things. New process is new protocol and that is tough to establish.

All the above things hold for the PLR as a habit. There is also another type of PLR. It is one without habit - even for something done or proposed for the first time (without anything it is likely to replace) there is a PLR.
This is tougher to understand because it is tougher to analyse and assess beforehand, unlike a habit driven PLR.

In fact, some might say that this type of PLR is a tautology. I believe it is not. With adequate attention and observation, one can indeed estimate what is likely to be people's reaction to a certain proposal/order/request/suggestion. This is where PLR assessment helps. One can then chart out what portions of a proposed set of activities deviate the most from PLR and require highest attention. Also, which portions can be scheduled for later or taken out entirely post a cost benefit analysis. Much human energy goes into trying to enforce a proposal very far from PLR.
One can almost think of the energy as a resource and then prudently use it to deviate from PLR.

Is there something innovative one can do to alter PLR before proposing a new activity or thought? Probably yes. There is no law of conservation here. I believe sufficient ground work can alter a future PLR suitably such that the new proposal then deviates less from it.

Another example is due. Suppose, the central government wants to reduce the corruption in the employment guarantee scheme. Now one way to generally take out a dictate saying we are sending inspectors to check the corruption and actually do it. A better way is to send across volunteers to sensitize the potential corrupt officials of the ill-service they are doing to the nation and the poor as also warn them softly of the potential punishments. To add to the preparation, stories of a few officials caught doing it and thus suspended without pension can be spread around (irrespective of whether they are true). Then the inspectors can be sent to actually perform their duties of checking corruption. This is probably not the best example. The idea is to simply think through the possibilities of altering the potential PLR before taking a major action in deviation of it.

In personal life as well, much of the above applies. A large number of people are unhappy with their jobs but are unlikely to change them. More often than not they seem to be waiting for an opportunity that they have never sought!
Anyways, this almost enters the sticky domain of a person taking charge of his/her life. I will not dig deeper here. But it would suffice to say that this taking charge of one's life is also essentially about estimating one's own PLR and living by incrementally altering it over time.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

the origin and evolution thereafter

i have always wondered what the origin of the universe was like. Actually i was even more perplexed about why there is a universe at all. Later on, i realized this might be akin to imposing a human trait of looking for meaning and purpose on a inanimate entity.

that said, the process as we claim to know it today is itself highly fascinating. The details aside, the common theme i find of great interest to me is the specifi-cation. The process of becoming from being. Change from constancy. Evolving from uniformity to lumpiness. whatever might have been the theoretical observations about specific details of first three minutes of the universe's life; i always thought of it as something very highly uniform giving way to something lot less uniform. In essence, the formation of energy and mass and localized concepts. I picture in my limited imagination the universe before time as a vast pool of being - unperturbed by any wrinkle. Then for some unknown reason or no reason at all, the wrinkles form. Interesting, neither space nor time are relevant in a universe made of uniformity. Because time is relevant only when change in some frame of reference or other is observable. Likewise, space is relevant only when distinct lumps are separated from each other and "location" has a meaning.

The evolution thereafter can thus be looked at as more and more specification. Energy came together to form mass and then smaller particles came together to form larger ones - later on atoms of small elements and then heavier elements - albeit lot more sparsely populated across the universe.
As of now, we could still be moving to heavier and more localized universe. To be precise earth in itself is a fairly dense object by universal standards of hydrogen and helium dominated stars. On earth again, much of the minerals are some of the heaviest elements in existence.

The universe seems to be already moving from hydrogen to helium. As fas as i know of star physics, i think the red giants, neutron stars and such later stages in stars' lives are necessarily of a heavier variety.

Leaving that line of thought aside, there is an interesting discussion elsewhere. Another direction in which the universe seems to be evolving is the complexity of its constituents. Of course it ties in well with the moving from uniformity to the specificity. however, over and above that, the universe is also seeing highly localized phenomena of self conscious beings like humans. Now i would not have had a very significant opinion of the species had it not been for the considerable change in their habitat that they have brought about. Earth has been altered a lot by human beings and i believe so will be the solar system in next 100 years or so.

on the optimistic side i can say this is beginning of the new age for the universe. it is the age of conscious beings altering the face of the universe over time. While obeying the laws of nature, going towards lower entropy in specific pockets. What i mean is that entropy as a whole is going to increase and that is a given. However, in our limited lifetimes, what we end up doing is altering the impact of entropy increase from what it would have been in its natural uniterrupted course of action to what it is because of human intervention. Simplest thing is our cities. The houses and streets and other things with it are not likely to be the result of any natural phenomena. Definitely not at the scale at which we have them. Of course while building the order in the cities, we do create a lot of disorder in the energy spent of building them and maintaining them. The entropy as a whole does go up. However, the path is altered. There is a pocket of system we have managed to create in the middle of disorder.

All the history of human civilization has been this creation of order amidst diffusion and disorder. The disorder is in some sense the natural way of the universe - it indicates uniformity at its own level. The next stage of universe's evolution seems aided by conscious being through their efforts to create a better surrounding for themselves.