Archive for March, 2012

The Viability of Political Formations

March 6, 2012

As Scott Page’s own work has shown, model thinking can help us understand political realities, of which the largest, most macro-level issues are with the evolution of political formations as a whole. There are several forms of human political sociality of which the nation state is the most dominant now. But we have also had kingdoms and republics and several tribal systems. What makes one give way to the other?

 The background: I just finished reading Thomas Trautmann’s beautiful summary of the main themes of Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which the oldest text on politics and statecraft.  One of the points he makes is that Ancient India had republics as well as kingdoms but for most of the last two thousand years, kingdoms were the norm. Trautmann says that kingdoms were both economically and morally more acceptable. Also kingdoms were both more economically efficient and politically more diverse. Strangely, modern democracy arose from Kingdoms rather than republics. Tribal communities like the Afghans haven’t evolved into democracies despite historically being more participatory in their decision making. Perhaps even more strangely, not a single Buddhist country is a real pluralist democracy, including our own southern neighbour Sri Lanka.
The Fundamental Observation. Democracy and dictatorship are neither inevitable nor completely random. Instead, they become more and/or less viable depending on the circumstances,  both material as well as mental. Model thinking should be able to help us think through what is accidental and what is structural in this evolution of political systems.
The Questions: What makes certain political formations more viable than others at a given time? Is it a function of economics alone? What role does technology play in sustaining a political entity? Why do we such linear paths in the space of politics: theocracy–>kingdoms–> democracy rather than a more liner path?
A book worth looking at is Acemoglu and Robinson’s “Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship,” which is the best modern treatment of this issue from an economists point of view.

The Future of Learning

March 2, 2012

More here; You Tube video of my talk at TEDx here.

Modeling Education

March 1, 2012

We had a pretty productive thinkbinder discussion hour yesterday night. There were about seven or eight participants (10% of the class, not bad in my opinion). Two observations about the discussion itself:


  1. Even a chat window is a productive tool for strangers interacting for the first time, as long as we are interested in similar topics.
  2. Thinkbinder as a technology needs some improvement. It is good for asynchronous social interaction (i.e., social interactions where you and I are not on at the same time, like what we do on Facebook)
  3. We need a wiki for pooling our discussions around particular topics. I have created a wiki for this class here. The wiki will be the core of the ++ in the Stanford ++. It is where we will showcase the projects that come out of this course.

I was hoping to use the discussion to start thinking about collective projects and in that respect the discussion was great. We spent quite a bit of time on discussing the use of model thinking in understanding the current education crisis in India (see this blog for a lot of interesting data and analyses). As a country, we are among the worst in the world in education parameters, however one measures them. Several interesting trends are emerging in education:


  1. Private schools are increasing in popularity across social classes.
  2. The government is making a huge investment in higher education.
  3. We have an ever larger population that needs to be educated in employable skills.


As you can imagine, these trends put together suggest that we are almost about to go over a cliff. What happens when 200 million Indians come of employable age with the abysmal skills that PISA and others are doing? What happens when government schools start emptying out and we keep pouring money into the govt education system? What can we do help analyse these trends? What can model thinking do to help us understand and improve the quality of education? These are some of the questions we should think about and the steps we need to take are:


  1. Pool as much data/resources/links on education in India that we can.
  2. Start modeling some of the data with plausible assumptions.
  3. Visualize the results.


It goes without saying that education is of great interest to a lot of people; this data-model-display cycle should be available to everyone, not just people in our model thinking class. So let us think about this as an edudata challenge:


Can we crowdsource ideas/models/solutions on how to improve education in India?


I think we can, so please do spread the word.


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