Epistrons: The Design of Knowledge

I love and hate philosophy in equal measure; love it for its sustained engagement with abstract concepts and universal arguments and hate it for its parochialism.

How can something be universal and parochial at the same time?

I too am mystified by the contradiction, but it’s a fact; the parochialism is only increasing. When I think about it, it’s not surprising at all: every discipline that’s matured has broken away from philosophy. Now that we live in a knowledge saturated world, the study of knowledge itself is becoming a domain of its own. What’s left is turning inward; philosophy itself is breaking away from philosophy.

At the other end of the hype spectrum lies the golden age of Artificial Intelligence, where Socrates is being reborn as an AI in a Palo Alto garage. It’s not as if I am immune to the hype — I think we are in the middle of a major shift in which philosophy is developing a new interface (a new API in geek speak) — with design and engineering alongside the older interfaces to science, religion and literature. That interface mirrors the shift toward synthesis from analysis: to know is to make.

However, like any radical shift, the ratio of hype to substance is high, perhaps unacceptably high. That’s where I see an opportunity: to sift through the froth of machinic hype and to reveal what I believe to be a real revolution in human understanding. If you’re in a hurry, you might just want to click away after digesting my main slogan:

Design will be the universal organizing principle of philosophy in the 21st century, replacing logic which performed that function from the late nineteenth century until now.

So let me present the case for design amidst the ruins of wisdom.

We all have to start somewhere. I like to start with the world, or what Indians call samsara. It’s what we take for granted. The world reliably presents itself every time we open our eyes. Rocks are rocks. Trees are trees. There’s no danger of falling into a wormhole by mistake. The world is so reliable that we can forget about it entirely and worry about the devil corrupting our perceptions, as Descartes did, or invent new instruments to probe its contours as scientists have done since antiquity.

Unfortunately for us, when we probe the world it reveals itself as being completely different from the blanket that surrounds us day and night. Both trees and rocks turn out to be mostly empty space. Day and night are themselves by-products of the earth and its inhabitants hurling themselves around the sun.

So what is the real world? Is it the firm earth beneath our feet or the trillions of atoms into which that earth dissolves? Is reality in front of all of us or hidden behind a veil that parts only for the wise? The contradiction is maddening, and it propels humans to invent ever new forms of knowledge to unravel the knot. So much so that our invented knowledge is beginning to cover the world like a second skin.

I believe it was Mark Weiser who coined the term ubiquitous computing, to denote a world in which computing has escaped the confines of the desktop or laptop and spread throughout our physical environment.

Here’s another way of thinking about ubiquity: instead of computing being a special mode of interaction on a keyboard, mouse or screen, imagine that the entire world was a computer that responds appropriately to every move we make?

Isn’t that true already? I mean every object: stones, trees, rabbits, dictators is available to us in its own way and in doing so, it is an object with which we can compute. Perhaps we didn’t need to invent mainframe and desktop computers first and then work really hard at unboxing the desktop in order to turn information loose in the world; the geeks who made the world (in seven days? in four billion years?) ensured that it’s a computer that responds to our every need. Human inventions are merely the next layer on an infinite cake of information and knowledge. What do we do with this layer cake?

Should we mine the world for information or simply collect what’s falling from the trees?

The miners have had the upper hand for the last fifty years and their dominance is accelerating. We have always collected information, but the speed and scale at which it’s being done now has no precedent. Some of that information is self-organizing with (more than) a little help from the miners. What happens when the matrix rejects its creators?


We live in increasing fear of our robot overlords, but I believe stupidity is as likely to kill us as cleverness. Let's imagine a peaceful action gone wrong: suppose a pacifist tech zillionaire commands his favorite robot to steal the nuclear stockpile of every country in the world and bring it back to him.

I am going to call it the android approach to nuclear disarmament

The robot is smart at what he does; much smarter than the grunts who guard nuclear bombs across the world. Plus, it’s not afraid of dying; death for a robot is only a chance to become 2.0. Reincarnation works better for robots than for humans. So our intrepid robot arrives at a secret stockpile somewhere in the mountains of Nevada, a place so secure that mentioning it in this piece will get the NSA knocking down my door. It disarms the guards and the alarms instantly — nonviolently of course.

Having secured access to the nuclear arsenal, the robot dials back to home base — the zillionaire’s penthouse in San Francisco. Z is having his evening snack of kale chips when the call arrives.

R: Phase 1 accomplished.

Z: Excellent. Send them over!

Oops. The robot’s semantic engine isn’t perfect yet and it’s been trained to get things done in the most efficient way possible. R does a quick dictionary.com search for the words “send” and “over” and quickly plots the geodesic from _unknown location_, Nevada to penthouse, SFO. One minute later, the bombs are flying to SFO. And they’re live: the robot was asked to send them over, not disarm them before doing so. The robot’s obsession with efficiency take precedence over causality. Two minutes later: doomsday

How did events reach this pass? Since when did objects created by us to increase our understanding threaten to become our masters? How can we take back the night?

Let’s take a deep breath first.

We don’t have to run for our lives yet. There’s still time to reflect on the history of knowledge and the instruments we have created to extract knowledge from the world. Yes, knowledge has a history. So do knowledge devices: aren’t the carved tablet in Babylon and the swiped tablet in Boston both knowledge devices? I call them Epistrons. Aristotle thought all humans seek to know. Epistrons are artifacts we have built to fulfil that need.

Epistron is the most general term for a knowledge product, device or system that’s been created to satisfy our knowledge desires.

Once we liberate our minds from a specific kind of epistron — robots and AIs — it’s clear that epistrons cover a vast range of artifacts, ranging from the fully physical to the fully mental. Not that physical and mental are fundamentally different — I am just pointing to our experience of these objects. Even a short list of epistrons should include:

  1. Physical devices such as telescopes, microscopes, sensors and cameras. More generally, all kinds of laboratory equipment.
  2. Mental devices such as concepts, principles, axioms, laws, theorems.
  3. Media forms such as articles, journals, books and more recently, websites — here I am including both the physical artifact whose design includes layout and typography as well as the mental artifact whose design includes logical structure and coherence.
  4. Physical institutions such as schools, universities, libraries and courts
  5. Mental institutions — could be better to call them systems rather than institutions — such as theories, constitutions, philosophies as well as symbolic systems such as alphabets, formal and programming languages, mathematical notation, equations and so on.
  6. And finally, the modern computational epistrons that include robots, search engines and machine learning systems.

These synthetic systems are among the most important and robust of all human creations. Universities last longer than nations. Some books have lasted longer than the civilizations in which they were written. Nevertheless, they are artifacts — the earth goes around the sun in an elliptical orbit whether we exist or not, but the equations that describe the earth’s motion vanish when we vanish. How do we understand this bewildering array of knowledge artifacts?

The study of knowledge is one of the oldest of human concerns; with formal history of over two thousand years and a much longer prehistory. Over the years, the study of knowledge artifacts has spread across a bewildering array of disciplines. Philosophy helps us understand the abstract foundations of knowledge. Graphic design helps us make better books and websites. AI and Robotics helps us make intelligent machines. These fields don’t talk to each other at all. How many philosophers are interested in kerning? I believe that’s a real pity, because we live in knowledge saturated societies. We are spewing out data in unimaginable quantities even while couch surfing. How are we going to make sense of it all?

The good news is that as artifacts, epistrons are designed objects; and designed objects can be understood within design systems. In fact, I would argue that the design of knowledge lies at the origins of design, just as logic lies at the origins of reasoning. So let me end this introduction with a question:

Can we encompass all (or much) the forms of knowledge within a comprehensive design system?

Short Answer: No.

Longer Answer: Every system has its fissures, though some are more likely to protect you from hailstorms than others. It’s going to take a long long time to create a design system for knowledge, and chances are we will all die before we get to the destination, but it’s a journey worth taking. Where do we start?

It’s all about text

The history of formal knowledge is closely intertwined with the history of texts. While Socrates didn’t write a word, Plato wrote many and it’s his words that inaugurate the western tradition of knowledge. When we read Aristotle today, we’re reading his lecture notes. Whatever else they might be, philosophy and theoretical science — mathematics, physics, computer science etc — are forms of textuality: mostly prose but with a heavy dose of symbolic representation such as equations, graphs and diagrams.

Until recently, text was a representational tool: a linear script freezing the structure of the world on a two-dimensional surface. What Galileo meant when he said the book of the universe was written in the language of mathematics:

  • there’s the universe
  • here’s the book and:
  • the latter captures the former in mathematical form.

Remember that before Galileo and his colleagues (and to this day) many people believed that the true purpose of text was to record the word of God. That recording was mediated by the church, but certainly not the empirical world outside. Text belonged to the sacred, not the secular. Meanwhile, telescopes were used for spotting ships on the horizon — ships arriving with valuables from distant lands. Galileo pointed the telescope at the heavens, creating a sacred function for a secular object, but in his use of mathematics to study the natural world, he created a secular function for a sacred object.

While Galileo and other scientists brought the sacred and the secular closer together by pointing texts and telescopes in the same direction, it’s only now that we can contemplate the merger of text and telescope. Three new developments are making that merger possible:

  1. Code: programming helps text escape the confines of the book.
  2. The Web makes it possible to blanket the world with knowledge
  3. Intelligent devices help us turn text into things.

In combination, we are entering a historical period in which the primary function of text isn’t to represent the world as much as to grasp it, and in doing so, to cover the world as an invisible layer. Which prompts an obvious question:

If the book of the universe is written in the language of mathematics, then what language should we use to write the ebook of the universe?

I obviously don’t have an answer to that question, but it’s clear to me that the future of knowledge is tied closely to the future of text. There’s enormous churn in the world of “text experiments” — see here and here for a couple of interesting new ideas. I will be tracking those developments closely in my future epistronics. Having said that, let me get back to dead tree books before I quit. I have a short list of must reads for anyone who wants to design knowledge systems.

My reading list. 

I am looking for books that serve as a precursor to the idea of epistrons, of creating “knowledge by design.” Books that reveal the various forms of knowledge that fill our world and even better, inspire us to make those forms ourselves. Each book in the list should have a minimum of four out of these five features:

  1. Philosophically astute
  2. Mathematically literate
  3. Keen eye for aesthetics
  4. Literary flair
  5. Reasonably modern

That’s a high bar. Here are nine books that meet that bar. In chronological order:

Note 1: One of these is radically different from the others. Guess which one. 
Note 2: I am sure there are books I haven’t read that aren’t in my list as a result, so feel free to write down your suggestions in the comments.


Knowledge Contracts I

In a previous essay, I mentioned that we are shifting from scientific to cognitive accounts of knowledge. Interestingly enough, that shift is happening to our understanding of science itself for the official norms of science aren’t adequate to the challenges the disciplines face today. 

P-Hacking

Several scientific disciplines - most prominently psychology and the biomedical sciences - are suffering from a crisis of reproducibility.  The crisis has many origins. An obvious one is widespread cheating, i.e., scientists making up data where there’s none to be found. While that happens more often than you think, a far more pernicious trend is data dredging or p-hacking i.e., collecting data without a scientific hypothesis and then testing enough hypotheses against that data until one of them passes collective norms. 

What’s the worry? Why not collect enough data now and worry about its value later? Isn’t that the new norm, whether we like it or not? Companies, governments, labs and individuals are all collecting data in the hope that it can be mined for gold later (BTW, I refuse to acknowledge data as a plural term). 

But consider the following political argument for installing surveillance cameras across the city: that only criminals will be caught and law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry. Is that really true? The problem is that law abiding behaviors vastly outnumber law-breaking ones (and many of those are morally correct even if law-breaking) and therefore, while a criminal is more likely to leave a trail of suspicious behaviors, we can’t work our way back from suspicious patterns and conclude criminality. Let me show you why. 

Suppose there’s a way of walking - let’s call it W - that associated with criminality. Let’s say 75% of criminals walk that way and 5% of non-criminals walk that way. Let’s also assume that 5% of the population is criminal (I am assuming astronomical rates of criminality!).  Finally, let’s assume that the city has invested in a computer vision system that identifies W with 100% accuracy. Now suppose that the computer vision system has detected a case of W. What’s the chance you’re seeing a criminal? 

It's not that hard to calculate but the outcome is surprising. Suppose there are 100,000 people in this town. 5% are criminals, so 5000 criminals in total. 75% of them walk like W, so 3750 W walking criminals. 95000 non-criminals of whom 5% walk like W, so 4750 walk like W. Assuming that the camera detects people at random, the possibility of an innocent person walking like W is 4750/8500, i.e., about 55%. In other words, more than half the people being tagged suspicious are innocent. Now imagine something worse: suppose there’s a list of 10 suspicious behaviors and an individual has a 5% chance of possessing any one of them.  If these are independent behaviors, the probability that you have one of them is 1- (.95)^10, i.e., about 40%. In other words, despite being innocent you have a 40% chance of being labeled a criminal because you’re going to meet one of the 10 criteria for enhanced suspicion. BTW, this is exactly what scientists do while p-hacking - they are going on a fishing expedition when they test one hypothesis after another until one of them strikes gold, even though they have no idea what they are doing. 

That doesn’t sound right does it? Especially if being tagged so enters you into a police database that you can’t inspect and that in turn triggers other state behaviors so that you are scrutinized when flying or buying property or getting a job or you name it. Isolated cases of knowledge failure are bad enough, but they are worse when those failures trigger other system-wide responses. Which brings me to: 

Knowledge Contracts

A good friend of mine who was also my office mate at that time quit his Phd and the shared office one Monday. His reasons for doing so were simple, if ruthless: he said he either wanted to win a Nobel Prize or make a hundred million dollars. Nobel was the first choice but in order for his work to be a serious contendor, his PhD would have to be in a field that would win someone a Nobel prize. Therefore, a field that wouldn’t win anyone a Nobel was a useless field and having sunk so many years in this field, he couldn’t start from scratch in some other academic discipline. Unlike the 100 mill quest, where he could start from scratch. Bye bye. 

My friend might be an outlier (he's well on his way to 100 M) but his attitude explains why scientists are so protective of their data and keep hacking at it until it confirms a hypothesis that will get them published in a prestigious journal. Jobs are scarce, tenured jobs even scarcer and the pay is low until you get a tenure track job. Hoarding data and hypotheses is a (seemingly?) rational response to scarce resources. 

What can we do about it? 

One obvious way to address it is to agree upon a new collective contract. I want to call it a social contract, but it’s better termed a knowledge contract. Here's a promissory note: a social contract serves as a definition of society, i.e., those who are bound by that contract. Knowledge contracts are bigger - they extend beyond society to all the earth's inhabitants. That discussion is for another day. 

Scholarly work has plenty of knowledge contracts already. For example, scholars demand that arguments be backed by evidence; that hypotheses be falsifiable and so on. As the reproducibility scandals show, these contracts aren’t enough. A falsifiable hypothesis is useless if other researchers can’t falsify your hypothesis because they don’t know how you collected your data and how many other hypotheses you rejected before landing on the one you are seeking to publish. Not only should this hypothesis be falsifiable, you should also leave a trail of other hypotheses you have already falsified.

As the pursuit of knowledge becomes more complex, we can’t be satisfied with norms that regulate individual acts, whether those be individual experiments or individual hypotheses. We also have to pay attention to how the facts connect to each other:  

☐ is my data exposed to the public?

☐ can everyone access it in a format readable by standard protocols?

☐ do you have a record of how many hypotheses you tested? 

These norms can come into force only through collective action - and scientific inquiry will be stronger for it once we all agree: robust, reliable and replicable data is a common good if it exists.

Back to the Real World

Enough about science already - why should you care? Because every one of the problems that affects science afflicts the larger world too. Bullshitting, fake news and “alternate facts” should worry us all. 

Consider climate change. It’s been shown to be a true claim in an overwhelming number of studies. Yet, if I pick one counter-hypothesis (say, there’s a secular, non-anthropogenic trend towards warming) and test it against the data of a thousand different studies, I will probably find one that bolsters my counter-hypothesis. I can then blow up that counter-example through the million media channels I control. 

Then there’s the rash of claims and counter-claims about fake news; how do I know which claim is true when neither side provides a trail of trust all the way back to the source? This is a real problem, when all news is seen as fake or compromised, those with the most money or power to propagate their interests are going to win because they control more channels. At the same time, journalists and others have to protect their sources who will be in danger if their identity is revealed. 

How can we: 

  1. Collect data/conduct interviews securely?
  2. Prove that the data was indeed collected appropriately?
  3. Have anyone verify through an equally secure method that the data was collected securely. 
  4. And do all of the above without revealing who was the source of the data. 

In answering these questions we will have to tour a brave new world of zero knowledge proofs, decentralized ledgers such as blockchain while keeping our focus on knowledge and ethics rather than technology. 

To be continued. 





  

Cognitive Studies

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Only the west has knowledge while all other cultures and civilizations only have myths and other suspect beliefs. That division of truth (though one might ask with Stalin: how many divisions does truth have?) is replicated in the disciplinary structure of academia. The dynamics of western society is the subject of economics, sociology and political science while the barbarians outside the gate are the subjects of anthropology and various area studies programs (South Asian Studies, East Asian Studies etc). The gate is porous - some fortunate barbarians slipped through so they benefit from Gender studies and Black and Chicano Studies and Native American studies. 

That’s why Science Studies comes as such a surprise. Scholars such as Bruno Latour and John Law turned their ethnographic gaze towards the alpha men of western scholarship: their scientists, technologists and economists. That encounter produced some of the most spectacular fireworks of late twentieth century academia, including claims that facts are socially constructed. 

How is that even possible: isn’t the definition of a fact that it’s out there rather than being made by us?

Latour has an interesting defense of the construction of facts - he doesn’t use the word “social” since he doesn’t think it denotes anything substantial (why? because society is what’s being constructed, not what doing the constructing). He says: why would you want your facts to be anything else besides constructed?  Let’s take a fact such as gravity acts equally on rocks and feathers.  Do we observe such facts in the wild? No, we don’t. It takes a carefully constructed vacuum to produce a situation in which feathers fall at the same speed as rocks. It takes a lot of labor (notice the use of that Marxist term) to produce that fact; why would we want to deny the creative forces of the scientist by attributing facts to a magical and uber-capitalist nature? Facts, like bricks, are made with great care in the laboratory, i.e., the scientific factory. 

I am simplifying and mangling his argument, but you get the point: if knowledge is a commodity produced by a particular laboring class, it’s products (such as facts and theories) have to be understood analogously to other products of labor. Fair enough, but I don’t want to stop there. Science studies still accepts that there’s a special kind of knowledge produced in a special kind of factory. It doesn’t equate a Yanomami Amazonian’s knowledge of the forest with that of the scientific botanist. 

I believe that distinction between high knowledge and low knowledge doesn’t hold anymore. Not for romantic or political reasons, or because I am a relativist who believes each culture or person has their own ways of knowing. Instead, the real reason is because we now live in knowledge societies where we are all producing knowledge all the time. To take one obvious example, the iconic companies of our time make money out of (mostly) free knowledge labor on everyone’s part: where would google be without our searches, facebook without our updates and amazon without our reviews? Knowledge is simply no longer a specialized form of labor. 

Yes, it’s true that the market compensates knowledge labor in lopsided ways: amazon doesn’t pay me anything for leaving a thoughtful review, but it pays the designer who designs the interface on which my review is based really well. There’s a new hierarchy of knowledge, but it’s not the hierarchy of facts versus myths. 

All of this is to say that even the market acknowledges that knowledge no longer lives in science but in cognition, i.e., in the mental, emotional and aesthetic capacities of all humans, and perhaps a range of nonhumans as well. Those knowledges are increasingly the target of control, competition and advertising  - for example, mindfulness meditation has become an instrument of productivity. Are we moving into a phase of capitalist development  centered on knowledge or are we in a new condition altogether, a cyborg existence that goes beyond capital? 

I am thinking the latter, but that hunch is irrelevant to this essay

Whatever the case may be, we need a new framework for understanding knowledge as it’s being produced today, which is cognitive rather than scientific, so science studies should be replaced by cognitive studies.  I use the term cognition expansively, to include emotion and aesthetics as well as reason, but even at it’s most expansive, cognition is limited. Which is a good thing. Science is limited too - it’s importance is precisely due to the fact that it’s a limited perspective that claims universal applicability. Cognition has a wider angled lens than science. With any luck it has some applicability too. Let’s see. 

Talking about applicability, what phenomena are ripe for cognitive analysis? The map of the cognitive terrain is yet to be drawn, but let me mention a couple of directions. Consider the phenomenon of elite disenfranchisement - the widespread belief amongst white people in the west or upper caste Hindus in India that they are victims of a massive conspiracy. Where do such beliefs come from? How are they aggregated and turned into political platforms? What role does technology play in turning grievance into electoral retribution? 

There’s no shortage of scholars investigating these questions; some approach them as political scientists, others as psychologists and yet others through ethnographic studies. I believe cognition, broadly construed, is the thread connecting these disparate research agendas.  It’s only through cognitive studies that we can understand how forwarded rumors on WhatsApp lead to lynchings in India or how democrats rather than republicans have made Russia into public enemy number one. Most importantly, cognition is both abstract and concrete, partaking in both the digital and the physical. In fact, it breaks down the old dualisms between nature and society, between mind and matter etc. That too is a good thing. The central developments of our era - climate change, automation, ecological collapse, animal rights - arise at the intersection of information and energy. That’s cognitive territory which can only be explored using cognitive tools. 

You will see some of these tools in action as I discuss the climate of our times in future essays. Let me correct that statement: cognitive studies will be incorporated into every post for the foreseeable future; my goal is to say something useful about topics of wide interest . With that in mind, I am hiving off the technical material - such as the vatman series - into separate writing projects. 

That’s what I thinking. You may think differently. Please tell me if you do!

Megamaya: The Globe and the Earth part 2

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The machines are coming, the machines are coming. I know quite a few people who spend their waking hours imagining scenarios in which the world will end inside some metallic belly. Are machines eating the world? Will robots take our jobs and then our souls? 

The term "machine" is inadequate to describe the ruler of our current condition; the cyborg systems we are building today have moved so far beyond the Victorian era machine that we need a new term for them. I prefer to use the term globe as shorthand for human power in the anthropocene. The globe is much more than a machine. It's a system of machines. Even a system of system of machines; one layer stacked upon another until we don't know where the machine ends and the earth begins. As a result, the power of the globe extends across the earth, subsuming farm, forest and factory into one system. There's no doubt that the globe is unstable and will collapse of it's own weight, but that day lies in the future. As of now, its reach is increasing. The global empire extends from the microbes in our guts to the clouds in the sky.  

Rule by foreigners can be opposed by sending the foreigner home, but what do we do about rule by genetic transmutation? Rule at a human scale can be opposed at a human scale. What resources do we have at our disposal when the sphere of control extends from cells to continents? How do we respond to a power that threatens to transform the entire biosphere? To take just one example, when I read proposals for geoengineering the earth's atmosphere, it's clear to me that even our response to the globe is mired in the same consciousness that's the cause of the problem. The globe is nothing but the earth swallowed, digested and represented by humans, or to use a more modern analogy, the globe is the transformation of the earth into a simulation. 

Except that I don't like the term simulation, for they are fake. In contrast, a drone raining fire in the mountains is all too real - even if the drone is operated by a kid in California manipulating it with a joystick. Don't believe me? Ask the mourners at the funerals that follow. There's reality and then there's the simulation and while we can pretend that the simulation is reality, we know well that it isn't so. We're quite smart that way: children who're playing know that they're playing. A war game isn't war. 

Then again, it feels like simulation and reality are coming together isn't it? We have been into make-believe as a species for ever: we grow up playing games and even as adults, we entertain ourselves and each other with novels, theatre and movies. The suspension of disbelief is at the core of being human. That's because make-believe has many of the properties of the real. We take driving classes before taking to the open road. Scientists conduct experiments in controlled conditions and use those to make claims about reality. Paradoxically, play helps us get a surer grip on reality. 

Unfortunately, our play has run amuck - it threatens to cover all of reality. If you've seen the movie "The Matrix," you have an idea of what I am talking about: to its inhabitants, the matrix appears perfect. Beautiful houses and perfect streets; everyone is tall, white and rich. Except that it's an illusion: in reality, the earth has been taken over by machines. 

In the movie, things get interesting when a few brave humans wake up to the nightmare outside. If only we were so lucky. Our overlords would be sweating buckets if all it takes is cutting off a few wires, grabbing a few guns and going after the bad guys. 

The globe is much more insidious. First of all, it's not an enemy; it's us. Second, it's not us being bad, but us being good. Who doesn't like living in a pleasant neighborhood with a plush house and two cars? Who doesn't like a society which makes those luxuries available to everyone? Except that we might all die when the climate collapses from all that luxuriousness.  

Let me ask you a question: what if a demon - or a deva, depending on your ideology - replaced one tree, animal or person every second with a robotic counterpart, so that after a few million years there were no biological creatures left on this planet, only silicon ones. Let's assume that these silicon creatures would live and love just as we do, complete with a Silicon Bollywood making movies in which robotic heroes and heroines danced around silicon trees. 

Would that be a tragedy? If so, why? If not, why not?  

I am guessing almost everyone who's reading the previous paragraph thinks it's an unmitigated tragedy. Except that most of the tears are fake: the horror may have nothing to do with replacing creatures by robots and everything to do with replacing humans by anything else. We would be equally horrified if we were replaced by a super-intelligent race of octopuses. 

Our revulsion is a sign of human tribalism more than genuine care. Otherwise, wouldn't we be rejecting the story of development and progress that's been sold to us for the last two hundred years? Doesn't development mean replacing farm and forest with factory at an ever increasing pace? 

Let me also admit the hypocrisy in these statements - for I am very much a beneficiary of the transition from carbon to metal and silicon. Isn't the computer on whose metallic surface I am typing these words made in a factory built out of the ruins of a forest?

Here's a core problem: the worst long term changes are often caused by genuine concern in the short term. Consider the following example: at the beginning of the twentieth century, most transport was animal powered. Horses were everywhere. Unfortunately, those horses were not and could not be toilet trained, so horse shit was a major problem. In contrast, cars were a clean and sanitary alternative. 

Now fast forward a hundred years: there are no horses left in our cities and not only have we removed animals from urban areas, we have replaced that animal life with perpetual gridlock, air and noise pollution and the threat of climate collapse. A similar problem has emerged from the overuse of antibiotics - you can't go to a doctor in India with a slight fever and come back without antibiotics. Surely that's saved lives but no one calculated what rampant use of drugs will do over the long run. What happens when drug resistant strains of Tuberculosis spread throughout the country as a result? 

So what I am trying to say is that the globe isn't sustained by evil. Moralizing will not make it go away. Instead, we are much better off seeing it for what it is: a form of Maya. A supersized maya that's seeped into the world and now blankets it from head to toe. In other words, a Megamaya. We are now living in megamaya. 

I can see the question coming: "can you define megamaya for me?" 

I will not be offering you a definition of megamaya. 

Having said that, the lack of definition isn't a sign of complete chaos. Cognitive scientists talk about radial categories, i.e., categories organized around a central feature with other less important features revolving around that central sun. The category bachelor has "unmarried man" as the central feature, but recognizes other features such as temporary bachelorhood and exceptions for people whose unmarried status is tied to ritual or religious practice. While bachelors are unmarried men, we don't consider the pope or the Dalai Lama to be a bachelor; meanwhile, we are happy to bachelorize the married man whose wife has gone away for a few weeks.

Megamaya is a radial category. It's central feature is human sovereignty enhanced by machinic systems. Of course, a future gigamaya could reverse the relative position of humans and machines. We haven't reached that yet; we are somewhere between ten and a hundred megamaya units. In that plenitude, humans are on top, machines below them and the rest of the earth below those machines. 

It goes without saying that megamaya isn't an illusion; it's not a dream which disappears when we wake up. Megamaya is out there in the world. What tools do we have to understand megamaya, let alone change it? 

That's where Indian philosophy comes into the picture. In my opinion, Indian Philosophy - not only its official brahminical wing, but also its informal, street wing - has the richest storehouse of ideas, metaphors and arguments about the nature of reality qua reality.  

It's that understanding of reality qua reality that I find strongest in Indian philosophy; the insight that makes the Buddha leave his home and Gandhi fight for swaraj. Am I being romantic? Probably. Am I blind to other cultures' insights into reality as reality? Even more likely. Whether it's merely an accident of birth or genuine wisdom, it's Indian philosophical insights I have absorbed under my skin and therefore, it's this culture that gives me the tools to understand megamaya. Why else would I give megamaya that name?

Afternote: What does that "qua" mean? Consider an object in front of you. Let's say it's a book. If you're reading this book on paper, then this book is such an object. If you're reading the book on screen, then the e-reading device is such an object. 

Now suppose you're a chemist and you spend the next day analyzing the chemical composition of the paper in this book, then you're not analyzing the book qua book. Nothing about your analysis is unique to this book. On the other hand, if you're a literary critic and you spend an hour fuming at the style of this book, or if you're a computer scientist who writes a program that measures the word frequencies in the book, you're analyzing this book qua book. That's because the style of the book and its word count are both essential to making this book what it is. 

It gets complicated quickly: the same computer program can analyze word frequencies in every book in the library. It can also analyze word frequencies in journal articles. So it's not only about books qua books but arguably about texts qua texts. It is very hard to identify practices that work only on books and nothing else. 

Vat me alone

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

It’s both the most ordinary and the most profound thing in the world, but you have only been you and no one else. You might have been a virtuous worm in your last life. With any luck you will make it to minor deity status after the clock has struck twelve, but this time around you are you. That’s the only me you’ll ever be. 

Except at night. When you’re sleeping your soul takes a break from its body and travels the world. You might find yourself the queen of Russia one night and a pauper on the street the next. It doesn’t matter that the nighttime travels are the doing of your brain - isn’t that the whole point of the brain in the vat? 

There’s no vatman without that prison of the self; if we could be someone else on demand, we wouldn’t be asking any of the deeper philosophical questions that come out of probing our isolation. Even worse than this isolation is the fact that it ends. One being infinitely greater than zero, being only one is better than being no one

So you’re stuck between zero, i.e., non-existence, and two, which is communal existence; one day you’re Rajesh and another day you’re Bob. I forgot to add 1.5, which is life as we normally experience it; while we have a privileged role in our experience, other people and creatures play supporting roles in our home movie. We experience them as beings too. 

Is 1.5 a good thing? Some of those beings are deadly, aren’t they, with sharp teeth and stale breath? Why bother engaging with the terrors of the world?

In contrast, the vat has all the advantages of the womb. The juice comes without fail every day. Rene Descartes, one of the great vat masters of all time, conceived many of his brilliant ideas while stuffing himself in a stove - it was warmer than the Dutch winter he was forced to endure in exile and it’s comfortable warmth was better than being burnt at the stake by the French inquisition. Being vatman can be the most comfortable thing in the world. 

Then there’s the powerful Cartesian demonstration that the vat has the greatest purchase on certainty there is - step outside and you might see some stars, but that twinkling light could turn out to be a heat-seeking missile. 

Why forsake the comforts of certainty? 

The Adventures of Vatman

Aren't straight lines boring? I have been zagging about climate change, animal rights and other planetary calamities for several months. It's getting to be burdensome. Time to zig. Or rather, it's time to zigback to a topic I continue to think about in a parallel universe, a world without care or worry, a topic that’s sent a few paychecks my way: the study of the mind.

Note: A zigback is like a flashback but in parallel instead of serial. Where a flashback takes you to an event in the past, a zigback takes you to a parallel world in the present. What's zigzagging? 

For much of the twentieth century, language captured the attention of philosophers the world over, going so far to say that the problems of philosophy are nothing but the problems of language in disguise. While introducing Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell says: 

"Starting from the principles of Symbolism and the relations which are necessary between words and things in any language, it applies the result of this inquiry to various departments of traditional philosophy, showing in each case how traditional philosophy and traditional solutions arise out of ignorance of the principles of Symbolism and out of misuse of language."

Wittgenstein reiterates the same point when he ends his book with: 

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

One can only be silent for so long. There's a kind of speech that's a finger pointing at the moon. I can never speak with certainty about another being's feelings; even other human beings are opaque to literal alliances and other creatures are doubly resistant to literal speech. Mythical speech can correct some of these errors but in the process of doing so we realize that language isn't everything. 

That realization had a collective dawn towards the end of the millennium when the philosophy of mind replaced the philosophy of language as the dominant subfield, a dominance that continues to this day. It seems obvious to us now that the mind subsumes language. After all, linguistic phenomena are just one type of mental phenomena; philosophers of mind also study consciousness (arguably the coolest kid on the block), perception, emotion, attention and any number of other mind-laden entities.

The party line is that the mind is going to reign for a while, that the key puzzles of consciousness are resistant to solution. I believe that's true, but a time comes when resistant puzzles, however tantalizing, are set aside in favor of other questions and paradoxes. What's considered important need not be the same as what's considered challenging. The reign of the new king is almost over. Some of us think we have reached peak consciousness, that philosophical storms currently on the horizon will upend the mind’s position at the top when the winds blow landward. 

What’s blowing?

Indulge me as I zigzag through an answer with thought experiments, arguments and stories. All I can say for now is the new regime will subsume our mental concerns just as language was swallowed by the ocean of mental activity.

Another Note: This being a zigzag course, I am not going to talk about the philosophy of mind alone - the zags through our planetary responsibilities will continue to race along on tracks three and four.  

Brains in a Vat


Chances are, you have heard of brains in a vat. If not, here’s the basic idea: let's say you’ve been troubled by a nagging cough for the last few weeks. Being the cautious kind, you get yourself tested. After one look at the test results, the GP passes you on to a pulmonologist who, in turn, invites an oncologist to the second meeting. The oncologist reveals you have incurable lung cancer. Only a few months to live. He wants you to undergo one final test just to be sure. You retire to the oncologist's waiting room. 

While leafing through the latest issue of Mortality Now - conveniently stacked in large quantities in the waiting room - you notice a call for participants in a mind-blowing study. A silicon valley startup is prototyping its immortality as a service platform. You might just be the ideal participant.

The startup’s promise: they will remove your brain from your body and give it a new house in a climate controlled underground chamber in Oregon with plenty of water and electricity to feed and clean your brain for eternity (i.e., until VC funding runs out); further, they promise your brain will receive the freshest, most nourishing sensory inputs every day - some days you will travel the Himalayas meeting yogis meditating in ancient caves, other days you will dive beneath the ocean on top of a sperm whale.

Organic eternity.

The only problem: the brain transfer is irreversible - they have to dispose of your body once the brain is removed (while omitting to mention that your brain is part of their IP and will be sold off when investors start looking for returns).

Not a problem for you: your body is collapsing anyway. On the 4th of July 2020, you become Oregon's newest resident, BR1701, better known as Vatman.

These are your stories.

The Weather Outside

Having dealt with old-age homes recently, I know the key to successful retirement is routine garnished with variety. Vatman’s hosts have taken that adage to heart: every week is the same and every week is different.

On Mondays they take their vats on a trip to the Grand Canyon, which is to say, they live-stream their proprietary drone’s passage through the gape in the ground and feed it to the vat’s sensory interfaces. This being a first world retirement home, you can also communicate with the drone operator and ask him to navigate the drone as you see fit. He's just a kid sitting in a Palo Alto Starbucks; he will do what he's told. 

Except that this Monday (July 6th, 2020) is your unlucky day- Russian hackers have taken control of the drone’s operating system and have diverted it to Democratic party headquarters. Fortunately, the company has plenty of drone footage stored on AWS. Without revealing a thing, they start piping in last year’s trip taken on July 1st 2019. As the CEO texts the somewhat troubled drone operator: how would vatman know the difference? Duh. Make it so. 

Meanwhile, you’re having a good time zooming through the canyon. When drone does one of its 360 degree spins, you notice storm clouds are brewing. Thunderclouds have always made you anxious. You want to get back to safety (what does that even mean when you’re stuck in a chemical bath in Oregon?) and you ask the drone operator to fly the drone back to its base. Meanwhile, in a lucky coincidence, another drone owned by the CIA has annihilated the errant Russian hackers. They were working out of the same building in Damascus (cheap rent, great food, lots of clients) as an ISIS handler.

With the hackers gone, your drone operator regains control of his vehicle and starts live streaming today’s trip once again. In a second lucky coincidence, while the clouds that made you uneasy were from last year’s trip, it turns out that thunderclouds are brewing at this very time in the Grand Canyon. They sure look ominous. You feel like vomiting and tell the operator to stop. The operator sympathizes with your unease and steers the drone out of the canyon before the rain starts.

All's well with the world. You want to heave a sigh of relief, but you can’t since you don’t have nostrils or a chest. Damn. Instead, you thank your operator, close your mental eyes and wait for tomorrow’s snorkeling trip to the Bahamas.

Questions:
1. Was your belief about the storm clouds over the canyon a true belief?
2. Was it your belief that caused the drone operator to move the drone?
3. Were his actions appropriate to the circumstances?

Parting Thoughts

An enduring puzzle in the philosophy of mind is that of mental causation, i.e., how can a thought or a feeling cause changes in the world; for example, how can the burning sensation caused by accidentally placing one’s hand on a hot plate cause you to move your hand?

In our story, the belief, i.e., the anxiety caused by thunderclouds, belongs to vatman. The action was controlled by the drone operator. How is it possible that a belief housed in a brain disconnected from the world can cause changes in that very world? Causation without connection seems like an impossibility. At the same time, if your complaint didn't cause the drone operator to move the joystick, what did?

We can also ask a meta-version of the same question: if all brains are disconnected from the world, which is to say, if all of us are really brains in vats, how can we ever make anything happen, and even if we do, how do we know if what we have done is the thing worth doing?

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FFreedom: Ending Factory Farming

Ethics in the Anthropocene

In a previous essay, I introduced factory farming as the great moral crisis of our current era. In that essay, I juxtaposed factory farming with climate change (the two are related, with factory farming being one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions). In this essay, I am going to dig deeper into the relationship between moral and material conditions. Does a specific form of energy use come with a moral calculus? Does it come with a metaphysics? I believe so, and my beliefs are stated right at the beginning and repeated once again towards the end of this article: 

  1. We live in the most anthropocentric era ever. 
  2. Fossil fuels power the engine that produces an anthropocentric world - human rights and oil exploration are two sides of the same coin. Factory farming is the most egregious manifestation of this anthropocentrism. 
  3. The transition from fossil fuels to alternative (renewable) energy sources should go hand in hand with the end of factory farming and the flourishing of all beings. 

Now for the main story....

Our moral condition is intimately tied to social and technological conditions. There was a time — perhaps in prehistory, perhaps as recently as three hundred years ago — when we could afford to neglect the nonhuman world entirely — the human impact on the rest of the earth was small enough that we can treat it as a rounding error. It was possible to define the human as a stand-alone species, a disinterested witness admiring the spectacle of nature.

That condition has changed. Today, to be human is to be more than human. Now that human freedom is accepted the world over as a desirable outcome, it’s time we set our sights on other freedoms, freedoms that aren’t human freedoms even if they will eventually help us flourish as well. One freedom in particular: the end of factory farming, which, I will argue is deeply connected to another freedom: the end of fossil fuels.

I use the term “FFreedom” to denote these two moral demands, demands that expand our traditional conception of human freedom into the nonhuman world. We often hear that the underlying problem is greed, especially organized capitalist greed. Greed is surely destructive, but in this article and in subsequent articles, I want to argue that it’s not just the negative side of humanity that’s the problem. It’s the positive side too.

The problem lies in our self-understanding of humanity itself and what it means to have a good (human) life. What it means to be free.Our fossil-fueled, factory-farmed world is like a giant sacrifice at the altar of humanity. While our violence on the nonhuman may not matter, it should, for it destabilizes our uber-humanity. On the flip side, a factory farm free and fossil free world will contribute to human as well as nonhuman flourishing. That’s why there are two F’s in FFreedom: fossil free; factory farm free.

From Marx onward, we know that the reign of capital is doubly unstable:

  • Economic booms and busts are inevitable
  • Wars, especially total wars, are inevitable 

The anthropocene intensifies those two instabilities and adds a third:

  • Total collapse is inevitable

Here's the main premise of planetarity: The anthropocene and its instabilities won't go away until we replace discussions of the "human condition," i.e., the circumstances in which only human beings exist and flourish with the "organic condition," i.e., the circumstances under which all beings on this planet exist and flourish. Further, it's clear that the nonhuman is beating down the social doors anyway - whether it's ocean surges that flood cities, designer microbiomes or the streams of data that connect our insides and outsides together, our fate as a species is now directly connected to the wellbeing of the earth. Politics has never been more important than it's today.

Industrial Life

Let’s start with the foundational transformation of the modern era: the industrial revolution. Was it a good thing or a bad thing?

Before we answer that question, we have to ask: good for whom? We can argue for eternity about whether the industrial revolution was good for people or not. Those who are for the revolution will talk about the ease of our modern lives, the advances in health and education and the vast plethora of gizmos that make our lives safer, faster and more interesting..

Those who are against the revolution will talk about the sweatshops and wage slavery that’s been the backbone of industrial manufacturing, the destruction of lives and livelihoods that came in the way of progress and the general alienation that characterizes modern life.

After all, I am writing this essay on a computer, and that wouldn’t have happened without the discoveries in basic science and technology that made mass manufacturing the standard form of production after the industrial revolution.

And so it goes.

What’s without a doubt is that the industrial revolution was an unmitigated disaster for all the other creatures that share the earth with us. If they’re wild creatures, they have seen their habitats shrink to nothing, putting them over the brink of extinction in many cases and living close to it in many others.

If they are domesticated - what a word! - their fate is often much worse: forced to live in unspeakable conditions in factory farms until they are killed in equally hellish circumstances. Or experimented upon in labs in the name of science.

The only creatures that have had anything close to an upside are pets but even there, it’s only the animals lucky enough to be chosen as our companions that (arguably) live a good life. Their unlucky siblings suffer the same fate as the rejects from factory farms.

All of this in the name of human welfare: as they say, a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. I say “in the name of human welfare” very carefully, for who could be against human welfare?

When we talk about the impending disasters of climate and ecological collapse, we talk about human greed: of oil companies maximizing profits, of capitalists privileging robots over humans, of governments that invade in the name of democracy. Some of us also talk about animal rights and animal welfare, of extending privileges to nonhumans that currently only protect humans.

There’s nothing wrong in any of those claims. Of course we have to protest energy companies looking for new oil fields. Of course we have extend rights to other species. No doubt about it. Note, however, that those who protest energy companies rarely protest cruelty to animals. And the other way around. It could be that everyone has limited time and energy and can only be effective in a narrow domain.

True enough, but what if the fossil fuels and factory farms are symptoms of the same disease? Wouldn’t we want to address the root cause? Put another way, where does the problem stem from? Is it the greed of oil companies? Of chicken farmers? Or is it something else? There's a long queue for people who think oil companies are evil. A shorter queue for people who think chicken farmers are evil. But the general assumption is that the goodness in humanity makes up for these lapses. That the world would be perfect if all of us embraced true human values. 

Perhaps.

But here’s an alternate hypothesis: that the disasters we are fearing (or ignoring) flow out of our goodness as much as our badness, that our human values are a problem precisely because they’re human -

  • That replacing oil refineries with wind farms will only kick the real problems down the road.
  • That capitalism itself is a sign of anthroprocentrism run amuck, even as we congratulate ourselves on not believing in angels and demons.
  • What if the problem isn’t humans being bad but humans being human?

Philosophers are usually reluctant to derive OUGHT from IS, but an analogy to a previous era of oppression might clarify how the moral is deeply related to the material.

Ending Slavery

There were no shortage of moral causes in the mid nineteenth century - colonialism was expanding into India and other parts of Asia and Africa, the treatment of laborers in the mills of Manchester and elsewhere was horrible and the Victorian era greatly expanded the reach of patriarchy.

Then there’s slavery, which stands out as the worst evil in this crowded field of misery; ending it was the great moral cause of the nineteenth century. While racial oppression continues to this day, we can say with some certainty that the world is better today than it was a hundred and fifty years ago.

While we see it primarily as a moral cause - as it surely was - it’s impossible to disentangle slavery from other shifts in the material economy. For example, while the importation of slaves to the United States ended in 1808, the black population of the United States increased from about 700,000 in 1790 to about 4 million in 1860. In other words, the enslaved population exploded in an era which increasingly accepted its moral repugnance.

Isn’t that a contradiction?

Yes it is, if understood only in moral terms. However, consider this material fact: Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin in 1793, and the production of cotton went from 1.5 million pounds in 1790 to over 2000 million pounds in 1860. There’s a direct correlation between the increase of the slave population and the increase of cotton production, even as the “efficiency” of production (as measured by cotton/slave) increased throughout this period.

In other words, we can’t understand the extent and duration of slavery without bringing in shifts in technology and modes of production. While we can assess slavery purely as a moral calamity, we can’t understand the resistance to the ending of slavery or its ultimate demise (which required the bloodiest war in US history) without reference to material conditions.

To use a physicists turn of phrase, moral statics can be pure, but moral dynamics, i.e., changes in the conditions of justice, are deeply intertwined with material conditions. I might go on a limb and say Marxian theory gives us many of the conceptual tools that help us understand moral dynamics within the human sphere (i.e., race, gender, labor etc).

Back to FFreedom

Like slavery in the nineteenth century, our awareness of animal sentience and personhood has increased in the last fifty years (say, after the publication of Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” in 1975) but so has factory farming: several fold increase in large mammal production (e.g., cattle and hogs) and orders of magnitude increase in poultry and fish, so much so that factory farming rival transportation for its impact on greenhouse gas production. How do we incorporate the energy economy into our understanding of factory farming?

Energy use isn’t the only factor; we can’t understand factory farming as its currently practiced without bringing in biotechnology and yield maximization in animals bred for dairy or slaughter. While these factors are well understood individually, together they reveal a mode of planetary production that’s qualitatively and quantitatively different from the industrial mode that spawned Marxian theory and its competitors. Despite attempts by theorists such as Timothy Morton to expand Marxian theory to the planet as a whole, I believe the attempt is bound to fail - there’s no simple replacement of class by species. Planetary production is driven by networks of energy and information, not the clanging of steam engines. As machines change, so do mechanisms of explanation.

Of course, one can challenge animal welfare laws or fight for the rights of dolphins without worrying about theoretical frameworks, just as one can fight for better pay and safer working conditions without buying into an account of the laboring class versus the capitalists. Surely that work needs to continue. Nevertheless, I believe a new theory is important for at least two reasons:

  1. Theoretical reflection makes explicit the tacit conditions of our times and that in turn helps design new institutions that can respond to those conditions. You couldn’t transition from the divine right of kings to liberal democracy without philosophers imagining that new condition.
  2. It’s easier to align actors interested in animal rights, climate change, food sovereignty and globalization if we can draw explicit links between the energetic and informational basis of these seemingly disparate movements, which, in turn, is necessary for a truly transformative politics.

Terrestrial Ignorance

The crisis of society isn't an isolated crisis - it's just one of the many ways in which we are struggling with our terrestrial existence - in short, we have an excellent grasp of cosmology and a terrible grasp of being earthbound. Copernicus onward, we no longer consider humans to be the center of the cosmos, but if anything, we consider ourselves even more central on earth. So to end at the beginning: 

  1. We live in the most anthropocentric era ever. 
  2. Fossil fuels power the engine that produces an anthropocentric world - human rights and oil exploration are two sides of the same coin. Factory farming is the most egregious manifestation of this anthropocentrism. 
  3. The transition from fossil fuels to alternative (renewable) energy sources should go hand in hand with the end of factory farming and the flourishing of all beings. 

Let me finish with a few words about the first of these three claims. In this case, I believe the diagnosis is pretty straightforward - while Copernicus and Galileo helped us liberate the heavens from God, their lineage has done nothing to liberate the earth from man. In fact, that lineage has made conditions on earth much worse for most beings. While we have bought into the myths of progress and enlightenment and how we don't believe that angels dance on the head of a pin or that the sun rotates around the earth, we actually live in the most anthropocentric era ever.

Consider the dominant activity of the modern era - business. Trees and foxes can't do business with you. They don't own property, they can't start companies and they can't bribe politicians. A lion can't purchase antelope meat and an antelope can't purchase lion insurance. Of course, it's not just business that excludes the nonhuman; so do all of our political institutions. Lions can't lobby for antelope quotas and antelopes can't vote their own lion-free party into power. Useless as labor, cute as companions but not productive in any real sense, the only thing that an animal can do is surrender its flesh for food or donate its body to science. I am using the terms "surrender" and "donate" as euphemisms of course. The engines of society are all anthropocentric. All our efforts to extend rights to the nonhuman world founder on this basic fact of political economy. 

The anthropocene is nothing but the culmination of imperial-capitalist expansion except that we miss its primary victim. Yes, it's true that entire human cultures have been destroyed in its wake, but the one constant in the march of imperial-capital has been its success in converting every nonhuman into an object that serves a function outside its own world: food, fur, furniture, you name it. Therefore, the violence at the heart of capital shouldn't be read primarily as class-conflict but as ecocide.

Of course, it's not capital alone whose violence needs to be read that way - remember the four pests campaign that headlined Mao's "Great Leap Forward" that turned out to be one of the main contributors to a catastrophic famine. In other words, it's not only capitalism that's at fault but the logic of the modern world as it pertains to terrestrial existence.

Endnote: As you can see, I am mixing terms and concepts such as class and capital that lie within the social and other terms and concepts such as ecocide and nonhuman that lie within the realms of the natural. We will have to develop new concepts that don't balk at these disciplinary crossovers.




Cultivating the Nation

By Rajarshi MITRA - Flickr: Down on the farm..., CC BY 2.0, Link

India is going to the polls in a year or less. After many years of elections being primarily focused on developmental issues, this coming election is a referendum on the nation qua nation, i.e., what is India and who is it for?

For many years, a standard complaint was that the ruling elite was in it for themselves without having the nation in mind. Elites will always look out for their interests but it’s clear that the current ruling dispensation also has a nation building project in mind - and a capital building project and a religion building project that goes with the nation building project. I happen to think that this particular nation building project is both unstable and unjust but I recognize that a nation building exercise is under way.

Therefore, it makes sense to ask the question: what is India? How to build cultivate a new India?

It’s 2018, do we even need to build nations anymore? There’s reason to think the nation is a collapsing category, that the only way to shore its fortunes in the face of teeming forces of capital and climate is to create a smokescreen, i.e., blame the nation’s ills on enemies within and without. No surprise there. Of course, enemy-seeking is guaranteed to create a negative feedback loop that will undermine the nation as such, but we won’t go there; I will accept the nation as a given in this post and its sequels.

Instead, let me turn my irritated gaze toward the second half of nation-building, i.e., the building. It’s an industrial metaphor isn’t it, recalling images of men and women laying down railway lines in Soviet era posters. Wrong metaphor if you ask me. Let’s go for an earthier metaphor: cultivating the nation. Let’s say the nation is a farm that creates bounty if tended well and disaster if tended badly. What kind of farm do we want? So many decisions:

  1. Which crops should we cultivate? For cash or for sustenance?
  2. Is monoculture a good idea?
  3. Should we share our fields with other claimants or should we declare them as pests and try to kill them?

And so on.

Back to the 2019 (2018?) elections.

While I am not in the country right now, I will be spending quite a bit of time there over the next twelve months, and like most Indian citizens, I have a deep interest in the outcome even if I disagree with my fellow Indians as to the shape of a desirable outcome.

Disagreement is a genteel word: at its worst it reminds me of children arguing over whether one side cheated when it threw the ball this way rather than that way. Indian politics is not a genteel sport: it’s not “public reasoning” where both sides argue and then sit down to have tea. It’s a blood sport. We are not talking about theoretical debates over freedom of speech here. Nevertheless, I believe that we can’t have real politics unless we offer political recognition (not political legitimacy) to rabid partisans of every type.

I am a partisan who wants his side to win, but one who recognizes that others are legitimate partisans who want their side to win, which brings me to the question motivating this post: how to create a political commons that recognizes all its occupants even as they might be at each other’s throats?

In my not so humble opinion, we can’t set about the task of nation cultivation unless we answer that question.

I say this because modern liberal political theories and institutions don’t acknowledge the universality of violence in the core of their theorizing, except perhaps in international relations where there’s some discussion of just wars. That’s because the sovereign, i.e., the state acting in the name of the people, is supposed to stamp out all violence that doesn’t stem from the sovereign’s hand - note how the SEP article says at the very beginning “Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, also has a core meaning, supreme authority within a territory.” Isn’t that the idea behind the leviathan? In this scheme, violence by non-state actors is a sign of state failure. Yet, Indian politics is full of violence: from assassinations and murders to strikes and riots, and at least in India, violence is both a strategy for electoral success (1984/2002) as well as being tempered by electoral success (Assam and the AGP for example). 

The Indian state has never been the supreme authority within its territory - neither has the Pakistani state for that matter. In fact, supreme authority is the exception rather than the rule in the annals of statehood. That’s why it’s possible for the RSS chief to say he can deploy a militia faster than the Indian military. The point is not whether the RSS can or not, but what it means when he says so. I guess that means we are a semi-failed state. Nation cultivation 101 fail ho gaya. Fortunately, I am past the age of taking exams so I am willing to ask silly questions about alternative cultivation patterns.

Such as: why is the “state as sovereign” the right imagination of the nation? Or to even more provocative: what’s a just riot? Is that even possible? If not, is it because we have bought into a theory of violence in which only the state can conduct its affairs with a rifle in hand? I mean, when the US congress deliberated with grave concern whether the US should invade Iraq (not once but twice!) and passed resolutions and quoted this and that section of the constitution, was that just? If so, what kind of justice is it that it’s legitimately possible to kill millions at a time but not hundreds? We need to tease apart our assumptions about the relationship between government and the gun.

Not that I am advocating riots; far from it, but it’s wrong to assume that the Indian state will act as a leviathan exerting monopoly over violence and prevent illegitimate non-state violence, i.e., anything besides police action and war. That’s always been a terrible hypothesis about the Indian nation building cultivation project and will increasingly be proven wrong even in those parts of the world where the state plays that monopolistic role today. Not that those parts of the world were immune - it’s just that after the orgy of the second world war, an international leviathan, i.e., the US, prevented internal violence within its direct sphere of moral concern, i.e., North America and Western Europe, while outsourcing violence in its amoral sphere of control to client regimes.

Anyway, much to think about Loksabha 2019, even if you don’t have a direct stake in the outcome of the Indian elections: metaphors of cultivation, ideas of nationhood, ideas of recognition and legitimacy, ideas of right and wrong presence on a given piece of land, and underlying it all, the reality of violence in every sphere. It also offers venue for reflection on some of the most charged terms in the desi vocabulary: himsa, ahimsa and dharma.

PS: Let me also admit that I have an ulterior motive here: I am asking this Indian question as a surrogate for an even larger question: how do we create a political commons for all the creatures on this planet even as some of them are literally at the throats of the others?

The Globe and the Earth, part one

If you have been following some of my earlier posts (here, here and here in case you missed them), you know that I am somewhere between mad and apoplectic about what we humans are doing to the earth and its beings. There's a story behind this epic destruction: I call it the story of the globe and the earth. The globe is the world we inhabit in our cosmopolitan lives, the world of iphones and startups, human rights and fundamentalisms. The globe is centered around the human - even when it pays attention to the non-human (for example, when that dentist shot and killed Cedric the lion) it does so because we are commenting on the human. The earth is the planet that supports the globe: animals, trees, rocks and mountains. 

The earth is profoundly nonhuman. 

Isn't that old news: every biology and physics textbook will tell you the universe is profoundly non-human and humans have occupied this planet for a minuscule portion of its history. We are just one species on one planet in one galaxy. True, but that's pointing out the overwhelming non-humanity of the world of objects. The clash between the globe and the earth is more profound; it's about the profound non-humanity of the world of beings. 

And if you're like me, you agree that the problem isn't purely intellectual - it's existential, for it's clear to anyone who's paying attention that the globe is eating the earth: sometimes literally, when we consume one of the sixty four billion creatures - a vast number that's almost certainly a vast underestimate - that are slaughtered for our palates every year and sometimes metaphorically as we rush headlong into the climate crisis and more general ecological collapse. 

As I contemplated the global feast, I was struck by the thought that this feast is the primary form of dukkha on our blue planet. Way back when the prince of Kapilavastu was exposed to the realities of life and death, he left home to meditate in the forest for six years before he attained Nirvana and became the Buddha. Unlike the Buddha, we don't have a forest into which we can escape: the globe surrounds us on all sides. You need to be a bacterium to live as if the globe doesn't exist. 

If dukkha is the globe eating the earth, we need to update the Buddha's insights for our current condition, don't we? That thought struck me about a decade ago. I believed then and continue to believe now that the categories of Indian thought are the right categories to address the crisis on our hands. Maybe I should hedge it by saying "the right categories for me" but that would be an unbearable dilution. Let's keep it as stated: the globe's conquest of the earth is a challenge for Indian philosophy with consequences for everyone. 

I am equally sure that there's no forest path toward dukkha 2.0; we have to be lost before we can be found. I was reminded of the difficulties of importing our own history into our present during a lecture by a well known academic. I heard her (or was it him?) say "blah blah blah, Derrida dialectical blah blah." Which piqued my curiosity, for we were in Bangalore, not Paris. After digesting that statement for a few seconds, I piped up: "shouldn't you be looking at Nagarjuna as an alternative source of dialectical reasoning?" 

Maybe I didn't make that exact statement, but you know how academics talk. To her credit, the professor gave an honest answer; "I haven't read Nagarjuna," but before she could continue, a voice from the back of the lecture room said with great vehemence "why would anyone refer to Nagarjuna in this context - that would be ahistorical." I felt like saying: "You don't know me at all, but let me tell you something: I like history." The accusation of being ahistorical hurt. Especially because I didn't understand what the accuser meant. Nagarjuna was part of my history wasn't he? It turns out he wasn't. Not in the straightforward way we expect history to work, i.e., a direct line of communication between the past and the present. Time is more alien than space. 

Derrida lived and worked thousands of miles away from Bangalore, but in the twenty first century, he was one flight away. Things might have been the other way around two thousand years ago when Nagarjuna was composing his masterpiece, when a living tradition connected students to their long dead teachers while the palaces of Europe were too far away by bullock cart or horseback to exert any influence. The modern world has annihilated space, but time remains outside its reach. 

I wasn't thinking of space and time while I was seething under the public insult; I just wanted to show that Indian philosophy was relevant to our concerns today. It turns out to be a much much harder problem than I imagined a decade ago. A-historical or not, time is a real barrier, especially when the world has been transformed beyond recognition by forces originating from outside the Indian subcontinent.

Here's a question: do you know when Krishnadevaraya died? Don't worry, I have googled that for you: he died in 1530. Almost modern - a contemporary of Copernicus. Try as I might, I can't imagine myself living like the Vijayanagar king, while I am quite conscious of living in the shadow of Copernicus' legacy. Not only does the earth go around the sun, our modern consciousness revolves around the ideas of Europe.  

What can we do about it?

You could try rejecting the modern world altogether, or at least as much of it as possible. I think Gandhi attempted to do so, but if it was a hard task a hundred years ago, it's impossible now. Plus, it's not clear what that rejection means. History is objective; it changes who you are. Rejecting history isn't as difficult as desiring to be a quadruped instead of the bipedal creature that we are, but it's pretty damn hard. In fact the rejection of history only leads to fundamentalism, which is a particularly modern way of being. Denying our condition leads to pathologies, not a cure.

So thank you anonymous accuser for pointing out a problem I want to address: the problem of history. The problem arrives on our plate in several forms, but here's the version I want to chew on: how to lay claim to an Indian heritage without turning into a caricature? Second, how to lay claim to that heritage on behalf of all beings?

Frankly, I don't think there's any way out of our conundrum without a radical shift in our methods. The conflict between the globe and the earth has reached a fevered pitch. Incidentally, such conflicts are well documented in Indian myths. In another age filled with violence, the unhappy gods and their rivals churned the ocean in their quest for the nectar of immortality. We have to attempt our own version of oceanic meditation. Doing so will throw up all kinds of beasts and poisons, and if we are lucky, will also reveal the nectar of immortality. 

PS: By the way, we Indians have a relatively benign version of this problem. Consider another group of people who were also called Indians, i.e., the various Native American peoples. Their ranks have been decimated, their cities and cultures destroyed. How does a Native American recover their lost world?



The Indian Anthropocene

Photo by Bibhu Behera on Unsplash

When we think of the ABCs of the future, we usually think of western dystopias and utopias. I have myself commented on Musk's oscillation between the earth and Mars. The animal rights/welfare movement starts with names like Peter Singer or Gary Francione but has almost no acknowledgement of the fact that both historically and currently, most vegetarians in the world have lived in the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia. The argument is that they are cultural vegetarians rather than moral ones. Perhaps, but by that count Russia is a true democracy while the UK and the US are only cultural democracies. 

The climate movement is even worse. It's paradoxical Eurocentricity is a consequence of being centered around seemingly universal scientific findings. For example, so much of the discourse in the US is turning apocalyptic, but no one bothers to ask: hasn't that apocalypse already arrived for the many pre-Colombian cultures that thrived in the Americas, let alone the sixth extinction of countless number of species and the daily slaughter of billions of non-humans? Do we declare emergencies only when white people discover a problem of their own creation? To the extent India (or South Asia more generally) is represented, it's either in the form of destitution: lands leached by ocean rise, heat waves killing by the thousands; vague congratulations for solar investments by the government or breathless (literally!) reports about pollution in Indian cities. None of these, either individually, or collectively, form anything like an understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities faced by the subcontinent in the so-called anthropocene. 

The economic and social shifts that contribute to the anthropocene are relatively new in India - post 1947 with most of the important changes happening after liberalization in 1992. When I was a child, most Indian agriculture was organic and local. The marketization of food is a very recent phenomenon. There were no factory farms until recently and even there we will have to pay as much attention to the farming of fish as to avian and mammalian species. Last, but not the least, we have committed enormous damage to our ecologies in the name of development. The moral, social and political terrain of the anthropocene looks different from the subcontinent than the standard model coming out of New York or London. In short, the challenges of:

  • feeding and powering a large population
  • resisting ecological destruction
  • awareness of internal and external conflict and security concerns
  • continuing a historical concern for other animals while acknowledging the caste inflection of many of these practices 

suggest a complete overhaul of what the anthropocene means for us Indians and arguably for everyone else. Such contestation is to be expected - as the debate over the anthropocene heats up (ha ha) we should expect alternative histories and intellectual frameworks. It shouldn't surprise us when Xi Jinping proclaims that China will become an ecological civilization under his permanent stewardship, though every sign points to that civilization being full of electric cars and solar panels made in China but otherwise indistinguishable from technocratic green modernity. 

What's India's take on all this? More importantly, what's Indians' take on all this?