Archive for August, 2014

Weekly Newsletter #5: Consciousness

August 29, 2014
My Name is Red. 

My Name is Red. 

I apologize in advance if this weeks email is too abstruse or technical. Consciousness is a difficult topic and there’s only so much one can do without jargon. As a famous man once said, “make things as simple as possible, not simpler.”

The Memetic Stratosphere

There are some technical ideas that draw people like flies. Quantum mechanics is one of them. Everyone from Einstein to Deepak Chopra has something to say about it. Evolution is another. Networks are a third. There was a time when logic was in a similar situation, but with Godel being dead for a while, it’s not clear if logic will have the same status in the future. On the other hand, computation is everywhere and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and says that computation is different from what we think it to be.

When an idea reaches the memetic stratosphere, it attracts attention from cranks as well as geniuses. To a certain kind of person, these ideas are like a flame to a moth. Most people get burned when they come too close. At the same time, it’s impossible to create a lasting intellectual impression if you haven’t said something important about one of those paradigmatic concepts. That’s to say, Fields medals and Nobel prizes will come and go, but a good idea will last for ever. How’s that for a Platonic view of reality?


Consciousness is one of those topics that gets everyone’s heart racing. Think of the various ways in which we have used this word:

  1. Conscious Experience, i.e., what it feels to see red or blue.
  2. Unconscious experience, i.e., the Freudian account of experiences that are below the surface.
  3. Neural Correlates of Consciousness, i.e., the parts of the brain in which consciousness resides.
  4. Higher Consciousness, i.e., people who have evolved to a greater stage than the normal human being. Perhaps one day machines will attain that state more often than we will.
  5. False Consciousness, i.e., the Marxist idea of beliefs that makes you go against your class interests.
  6. Quantum Consciousness, i.e., the idea that consciousness lives at the quantum level. This one rings two memetic registers at once – quantum and consciousness, so it isn’t surprising that it draws even more attention.
  7. Krishna Consciousness. Ask your robed friend at the airport.

Suffixials and Prefixials

We could go on and on. Consciousness is like salt or pepper in food. It can go on top of any intellectual dish and draw out flavors that were missing otherwise. Consciousness is a suffixial, for it goes after the entity it’s enhancing – see all seven above. Network is also a suffixial concept; social network, media network etc. Quantum is a prefixial concept – quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum healing etc. If I had an infinite amount of time, I would investigate the differences between prefixial and suffixial memes, but since I don’t, I am going to mention that difference in passing and let it be.

My Name is Red

These days, people are obsessed about scientific accounts of consciousness. They want to know how something like subjective experience arose in a world of mindless matter. Philosophers and scientists are kept awake at night by a deadly question: Where in that network of neural firing patterns is my experience of red?

I find such questions strange. They assume that Humpty Dumpty has broken down and shattered into a million pieces. Some consciousness theorists look at the mess on the floor and wonder how they can put HD back together again. Others think consciousness itself is fundamental, that matter arises out consciousness. If that seems outlandish, then talk to quantum physicists, who are increasingly thinking that information comes before matter. Information based approaches to consciousness are hot these days. The new kid on the block is integrated information theory, IIT, due to Guilio Tononi and enhanced by Christof Koch. I will attempt a thorough analysis of Tononi’s ideas in a future newsletter. Meanwhile, Ngram viewer confirms that we’re living in the age of information.

The Age of Information

The Age of Information

While scientists are hot on the chase, some wonder if consciousness can ever be understood scientifically. Phenomenologically oriented philosophers (try saying that phrase five times without stumbling!) argue that the dilemma arises only because we are adopting a naturalistic frame i.e., we are thinking like a scientists, but that’s not the only frame that’s available to us. In any case, consciousness might live at a higher level than the naturalistic frame; it’s what makes any form of framing possible. The debate is endless and I am only flagging some of the debating points this time around. For now, I am flagging consciousness as a topic that plays a starring role in my explorations. Stories, math and code are some of the others. We will cycle through the list again and again before one of us is exhausted.

  1. Let’s start with Christof Koch’s summary of Tononi’s account of integrated information theory. I was with Christof when he tried to convince the Dalai Lama that the internet is conscious. HHDL wasn’t convinced.
  2. Scott Aaronson’s take down of IIT. Scott is a quantum information theorist; I guess he isn’t interested in the combined power of quanta and consciousness.
  3. Ray Monk’s Wittgensteinian view that consciousness isn’t about science at all.

Weekly Newsletter #4: Make it So!

August 21, 2014

I arrived in the US as a greenhorn mathematician. Mathematics was and remains one of the most international of disciplines: Russians, Chinese, South and North Americans, Africans, Middle Easterners, East Asians, Europeans and Indians are all welcome. I met people from about twenty countries in my first week at UW-Madison. Maths and theoretical physics are in marked contrast to philosophy – their sister theoretical discipline – which remains parochial everywhere. Something worth thinking about in this week’s links.

My first apartment in Madison was in Allen House on University avenue. It was a one bedroom apartment that I shared with a fellow Indian graduate student. He was the smart one; commandeering the one bedroom to himself since he had a girlfriend and needed the privacy. I slept on the living room carpet for a year. It goes without saying that I spent as little time in that apartment as I could.

It was the TV room downstairs that saved me from complete despair. Star Trek: The Next Generation was on everyday from 11:00 PM to midnight. There were about ten of us who watched it religiously. It took me a couple of months before I realized that two of those were fellow mathematicians. We soon became the best of friends. Years later, one of them came to my wedding, pretending to be my wife’s brother. That’s another story.

TNG was much better than the original. Picard had all the qualities Kirk lacked. It was a kinder, gentler Star Trek which showcased a group of mutual aliens exploring the universe. It didn’t go unnoticed that our Allen house audience was a mixture of foreigners and Americans exploring the universe in grad school.

That technohumanist dream still sticks with me, but I think Star Trek is dead. Silicon Valley was always about money, but now it seems to be exclusively about it. Technology is no longer a means of expanding one’s imagination, even when it claims to be so. Consider Elon Musk, of Tesla and Space X fame. I wonder why he gets the adulation that he does. Space is not the final frontier anymore. A man landed on the moon almost fifty years ago. We need a different technical imagination; not one that abstracts humans away from the earth and relocates us in space. Earthworm cosmology.

Earthworm Cosmology

Earthworm Cosmology

It works in practice, but…

Earthworm cosmology is biocentric when compared to star-trek cosmology, but does it compute? As my theorist friends say: it works in practice, but does it work in theory? Why should you care? Let me count the ways:

  1. I don’t want to bring back a geo/anthro-pocentric view through the backdoor. Earthworm cosmology is as universal as star-trek cosmology. While it should have a clear moral edge stemming from our status as inhabitants of this planet, it should apply to any being anywhere.
  2. It shouldn’t become stamp collecting.
  3. Theory is more interesting.

Earthworm theorists have their task cut out: create interesting theories that find favor outside the world stamp collectors. As far as I can tell, theory + interesting + non-stamp-collecting requires the use of something like mathematics. Is earthworm mathematics the same as star-trek mathematics? I don’t think so, but we have to start from what we have and dig our way back into the earth. This week’s links explore the shift in mathematical thinking that might make it suitable for earthworms.

  1. Let’s start with two polemics on the lack of diversity in philosophy. First one here. Second one here.
  2. Then, let’s move on to silicon valleys burning problems or how the man caught up with burning man.
  3. I guess earthworm cosmology is a new kind of science, though not the new kind that Wolfram thinks science should become. He does have some interesting things to say about the future of pure mathematics though.
  4. This might also be a good time for me to plug my own article on the topic.
  5. John Baez was the first internet star of mathematics. “This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics changed the way math was communicated on the net. John has influenced the practice of mathematics without having a prestigious position or tenure at Princeton or Harvard and in the last few years he has moved away from his earlier concerns toward doing something about climate change using mathematical tools. The azimuth project is his attempt to do something about the global ecological crisis.

Slice of life

August 17, 2014

Once upon a time, people labored for a single organization for an entire career. My father worked for BHEL from his twenties until he retired. Government servants in India and some other countries still follow my father’s footsteps, but increasingly, people shift careers several times before they retire.

The old compact was simple. In return for loyalty and labor, you received a degree of paternalistic care: a steady income, health care and other perks. That pattern repeated itself throughout one’s life:

  1. One marriage, one family.
  2. One job, one career.
  3. One country, one nation.

It was a steady life. Somewhat boring and dreadfully oppressive, especially if you were a women, black or Dalit. Still, it came with a measure of stability, and human beings need stability. It’s not clear what value remains in the old system once that foundation breaks down. We will find out soon, for all three are in trouble. The first broke down a long time ago. Alternate ways of living are mushrooming. The second is breaking down right now. The cracks in the third are beginning to show.

Humpty Dumpty

The signs of decline are everywhere. Temporary work is fast replacing steady income. While it might seem like a libertarian paradise, few have the skills ensuring survival. Forget about the pursuit of happiness.

The free agent – or should I say micro-entrepreneur has no safeguards. There are the obvious losses: no health insurance, no steady pay check. There are other, less obvious and perhaps greater injuries as well: no community, no professional identity. Who are you after working seven temp jobs to put bread on the table?

If I were to think of the most destabilizing aspect of the new economic condition, it’s that we are bereft of a secure identity. Is there anyone who can answer the question “who am I?”

Life has been sliced into micro-threads. There’s one slice for the morning, when you’re working as an adjunct. There’s another slice for the afternoon when you’re working as a barista. There’s another slice for the evening when you see your children after a long day. There’s a smaller slice for the two weeks of the year when you get to see your family.

If life in the old system was a half-empty glass, we are now left with the sharp edged shards of a shattered glass.

The Learning Problem

I don’t think we can turn back the clock. Unions and governments aren’t about to restore a measure of sanity. I prefer to see the current situation as a learning challenge: how can modern societies learn and adapt and create new institutional structures that respond to our economic and political conditions?

While the atomized free agent plays into the hands of predatory capital, she has the opportunity to break free from the bonds of previous eras and reorganize along fresh new lines. That reorganization starts with the reorganization of education, for schools and colleges are the crucible of society as a whole.

If the promise of college education was a degree, a white collar lifestyle and a stable professional identity, the new promise should be a lifelong learning, an ecological lifestyle and an adaptive personal identity. Let me end this note with three ideas for keeping the new promise:

  1. Disaggregate older degrees into discrete skills. Information and content are commodities.
  2. Strengthen people to people mentoring and apprenticeship. The breakdown of trust is the biggest problem we face. Neither companies nor unions are providing that layer of trust; we have to create trust networks in which we engage as peers and citizens. The learning network has to be at the core of the new society.
  3. Create platforms for binding people and small institutions together so that they can bargain for benefits as a network rather than as individually insignificant players.

The technological atoms for creating these networks are already available to us; what we need is the social will and organization to make it happen. Google and Goldman have gorged themselves on the network windfall for the last two decades. It’s time the rest of us reaped the benefits.

Weekly Newsletter #3. August 13, 2014. “Stories”

August 13, 2014

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story — Yoga Vasishtha.

Summer is waning in Boston. The days are visibly shorter than they were in June and July. My daughter’s thoughts are turning toward school. She will be starting in three weeks but two of those are in a camp organized by her school teachers. This is the last week of unstructured time for her. We are going to take a mini vacation to cap the break. I will not be in town for the Friday newsletter, but I didn’t want to break a tradition almost as soon as I began it two weeks ago. So here’s this week’s newsletter, a couple of days early.


My grandmother was an excellent storyteller. She created worlds out of thin air; anything was possible once the lights were off at bedtime. Whitehead said that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. I suspect all my thoughts are interpretations of my grandmother’s stories. It’s no coincidence that we read stories before sleeping. Stories and dreams are creatures of the night; weaving new worlds as our bodies rest. I don’t consider storyweaving to be a metaphor. The world is made out of stories.

On the face of it, it’s a really weird idea. We think of the world as real, hard and made of stuff. At most, we are willing to make an exception to that general rule by admitting other equally solid but insubstantial entities like numbers, sets and other mathematical and logical objects. Stories are the very opposite of hard; they are soft, flexible and in our current ontology, inside our minds. Hard can’t be made out of soft, could it?

There’s a simple answer to that conundrum, for it’s a very old idea with a new twist. Let me give an example. India is full of pilgrimage sites – the Divyadesams, the Jyotirlingas, the Viharas – often marked with a temple. Most sites are associated with a deity and often a guru figure. Each one of those sacred places has several stories that are attached to it. There are myths of gods and semi-divine heroes who have bestowed their blessings or done heroic deeds at that place. There are famous, i.e., historical, not mythical, gurus who taught or had an enlightenment experience there. There are the tales of people who were cured of their ills after visiting one of those places.

Interestingly, the 108 Divyadesam’s get their identity from being mentioned in the poems written by the Alwars. They’re places that exist because they were written in stories. It’s Austinian “how to do things with words” with a vengeance. My guess is that most pre-modern communities were similar. They don’t have the Cartesian, geometric intuition about space that we do.

I believe that we’re about to re-experience the world in a similar manner. Technology is moving us toward a non-Cartesian intuition about space, space that has meaning and value on top of geometry. The most obvious reason is that stuff is becoming smart. As a layer of software gets baked into our built environment, we too will experience space as having value, meaning, interaction and stories. I have this app – made by Google, of course – on my smart phone that pings me whenever I am near a landmark in it’s database. It immediately calls up the history of the landmark, who’s lived and worked there and what significance it had then and now. I would say that app prefigures a world marked by stories.

As the mobile experience blends into augmented reality and internet of things, I think it’s more or less inevitable that our experience of the world will have a narrative character. I also think it will prompt us to rethink our metaphysics. Perhaps it’s stories all the way down – that value and significance aren’t just a human thing. In our attempt to de-anthropomorphize the world, we might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

This week’s links

  1. An interesting article on narratives in games. I like how the author contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of different narrative media such as literature, movies and games. We know it’s hard to turn novels into movies. I invariably prefer the book. What about turning stories into games?
  2. There’s Alan Kay telling us that explanations aren’t stories, that we need to think differently in order to do science. I disagree with him, but he does tell a nice story.
  3. Myth and philosophy are key to bridging the gap between scientific and fictional narratives. If you haven’t read Roberto Calasso, you should. He seems to have ready every book in every language while writing quite a few of his own. One of my favorite books of all time is Ka, his synthesis of Indian myths.
  4. The quote from the Yoga Vasistha is one of two epigraphs at the beginning of this newsletter. The infamous Wendy Doniger wrote an excellent book on the YVbefore she got into trouble for applying the same techniques to Hinduism as a whole. Moral of the story: write about books that people don’t read.

Weekly Newsletter #2: 8th August, 2014. Unity in Diversity

August 8, 2014

I think it was Nehru who used the term “unity in diversity” in his book Discovery of Indiato describe India and it’s culture. Then, as now, India was an incredibly diverse country. No single language, religion, ethnicity or political persuasion unites the country as a whole; and yet it moves. It’s the opposite of the European nation state built around a common language and religion. India’s unity amidst diversity has always been contested – there are people who believe that India should be Hindu (though it’s not clear how that would solve the problem of diversity) or India should be a Hindi speaking country. Some people will always try to impose their monolithic vision on to India, but I believe it’s impossible to succeed. No centrifugal force triumphs in India for too long. I am gladdened by the irreducible diversity of India. It’s a fluid existence of identities that have multiple loyalties. Loyalties that refuse to be suborned to an overarching identity.

I have been thinking about the implications of fluid, mostly peaceful (and sometimes incredibly violent) coexistence for domains such as philosophy that are far removed from the passions of nationhood. I believe that philosophy, design and the arts should come closer than they’re now. Epistemology should be replaced by epistry.

Technology is rapidly changing the landscape of knowledge. We no longer hit the library for information. We might soon be going to the web for education as well – not that I expect physical learning spaces to disappear, but their role will change and new blended learning environments will emerge. Some of those environments will be dystopic, but others will help us imagine a better future.

This Week’s Links

Fluidity is a central design challenge: how can we create knowledge environments that let data and information stream through as we adapt to new situations. Fluidity doesn’t live in the abstract, it needs context and circumstance. This week’s links have something to do with fluidity of the phenomenon they seek to describe.

  1. The New York Times has a blog on contemporary philosophical matters called The Stone. Gary Gutting has a wonderful interview with Jonardon Ganeri, a well known Indian Philosopher (i.e., a philosopher who works on Indian philosophical texts rather than a philosopher of Indian origin) where Jonardon artfully parries questions about Hinduism. It’s a great read.
  2. Moving from philosophy to technology, I am sure many of you read this news report about MIT researchers recovering audio information from visual information, of figuring out what something sounds like from knowing what it looks like. You can imagine the possibilities for surveillance. Visual surveillance is relatively easy if you’re out in the open. On a clear day, you can be recorded from a satellite in orbit. Audio surveillance is hard. You need to be pretty close to the target. If speech is recoverable from sight, video becomes audio and you have no privacy in public. Your word really would be your bond, for someone could mine a public video of you making a promise and hold you to your word. I find that cool as well as troubling, but my real fascination isn’t with the technology. It’s with the idea that information itself is distributed across sensory domains. Think about this way: it feels very different to hear something than to see it. Red is a color, not a sound. Yet, we know that objects have shape and make a particular sound. We still don’t know what binds sight to sound. Perhaps information is the glue. That will be a huge advance in our understanding of mind and consciousness.
  3. While some people believe that we’ll be uploading our minds to google’s computers soon, other’s are not so sure about these reductive approaches to the mind. In what I call “the reduction of all reductions,” scientists are measuring brain activity during meditation and trying to arrive at a science of enlightenment.Read this interview with Evan Thompson to understand why that’s such a bad idea.
  4. Mindfulness is one of our modern mantras. Stressed? Meditate. Want a better job? Meditate even more. Meditation is fast becoming another commodity. There’s even an app for it. So is big data. Where an earlier generation fought for our rights, we seem to believe that social challenges can be solved, like a calculus 101 problem. I am of two minds about this. I do think data will help us address social challenges. At the same time, data isn’t a substitute for democracy.
  5. Finally, while some of us binging on twitter and facebook, others are OD’ing on MOOCs. Why take six courses a semester when you can take sixty? Is that really a productive way to learn? Would you hire a person who took a degree’s worth of MOOCs in one year and aced all those courses?

That’s it for this week. As usual, your comments are welcome. If you have any suggestions for great links, let me know.

Epistry: Fluid Knowledge

August 6, 2014
Solid and Liquid

Solid and Liquid

I believe we are experiencing a shift in the dominant metaphor for knowledge. In the past we talked about knowledge as a solid, with attendant concerns such as security and certainty. In the future, our dominant metaphor for knowledge will be that of a fluid, supple and adaptive. That shift will have consequences for the architecture of knowledge, from epistemology to pedagogy and policy.

Three ways of knowing

Aristotle thought that human beings are rational animals. After a century of world wars and the Freudian and cognitive revolutions, it’s not clear if we’re all that rational. Yet, we are epistemic creatures. The acquisition and exercise of knowledge is central to most cultures. As societies become complex, they divide our concern for knowledge into specialized streams. Some talk about the nature of knowledge. Others investigate it’s transmission from teacher to student. A third group looks it’s social organization.

First comes epistemology: what is knowledge, where does it come from and to whom does it belong? This is one of the oldest questions in philosophy, both East and West. Then there’s the related question: what is education, what should I teach, how should I teach it and to whom?

Finally, there’s the institutionalization of knowledge in schools, colleges, universities and research laboratories. Our questions about these institutions are often economic: what should society pay for, why and how much?

The three put together form a triumvirate: epistemology, pedagogy and policy. While all three concern themselves with knowledge, the communities surrounding them have distinct cultures. Epistemology lives in philosophy departments and in thoughtful corners of the natural and social sciences. It’s been the concern of some of the greatest philosophers. Pedagogy belongs to schools of education. It is often seen as a pragmatic, career oriented training for future teachers rather than an investigation of knowledge per se. The institutional structure of knowledge belongs to administrators, bureaucrats, planners and grant making agencies.

That settled trichotomy is understandable, for our epistemic practices are thousands of years old. I don’t think they work anymore. I am no fan of disruption as business schools use that term, but I believe we are at the cusp of a massive shift in the nature, production and communication of knowledge.

The Centrality of Knowledge

Information surrounds us. We struggle to make sense and value out of it. Information is useless without structure and organization. No wonder that Google says it’s mission is “to organize the world’s information.” All this information is overwhelming even with the organizational tools we have at our mousetips. In any case, it’s not what we’re looking for. If not, we would be spending our days browsing through Wikipedia.

Information needs to become knowledge and wisdom for it to fruition, unless we want to become mental bulimics. We are running on old intuitions about the nature and function of knowledge, what one might call paper knowledge. It’s knowledge that tacitly assumes print to be it’s primary medium. Paper era intuitions are inadequate for our information era realities.

We are moving away from the age of print to the age of the screen and from text to multimedia. Epistemology, pedagogy and policy need revision. A revision that makes these three streams run down to the same river. That river is what I call epistry, a tapestry of knowledge that is part philosophy, part science, part art and part politics.

As I argued in an earlier piece, design plays a major role in epistry. It helps us merge the formal architecture of knowledge (epistemology) with the interpersonal architecture of knowledge (pedagogy) with the institution architecture of knowledge (policy). We need to design fluid knowledge systems.

Crystalline and Fluid Knowledge

Everyone agrees that learning is -more or less- the same today as it was a thousand years ago. Some of us think that’s a good thing, other’s the opposite. Even our theories of knowledge are about the same today as they were three hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, the world has changed. Classical knowledge was individual, rigid and abstract, much like a crystal. Bertrand Russell captured it’s allure in his view of mathematical beauty:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.

Solid State 

Solid State 

Both Russell and Einstein dreamed of a final theory reducing the universe to a few logical or physical principles. I believe that dream is dead. The search for final principles isn’t over, but our understanding is no longer measured against that lack. If there’s one thing that our formal knowledge systems haven’t understood, it’s that the future of knowledge is collaborative, fluid and situated.

We don’t want crystalline knowledge. We should prize fluidity over precision. Further, many of the challenges of the future are systemic challenges. Not for the lone hero tilting against the windmills of the universe. It’s in system creation that current knowledge systems fail dramatically. Even with all the benefits of modern technology, the best we can do is rocket science. What do I mean?

Collective Wisdom

The high point of rocket science was the Apollo mission to the moon. It was a vertically integrated project with a single purpose: sending human beings to Earth’s only satellite. There are other examples, both good and bad: the Manhattan project, the human genome project and so on.

Solid melting away

Solid melting away

Houston, we are not rocket scientists anymore. The challenges of the future are multi-faceted. They involve simultaneous engagement along several fronts. Tackling climate change isn’t like sending a man to the moon or Mars. Neither is understanding consciousness or ensuring ecosystem wellbeing. These problems demand a different epistemology. They need a different pedagogy. They will be implemented by an alternate institutional structure. We will need much epistry if we’re to be successful.

The Design of Philosophy

August 2, 2014
Turning Descartes upside down

Turning Descartes upside down

Many people I know, thoughtful people at that, have a poor opinion of philosophy. They think it’s a has-been discipline: too many words and too little applicability. It’s a pretty short sighted view, but that view is encouraged by philosophers who hew close to the sciences. As long as philosophy is seen as a handmaiden to science, it’s destined to be meta butterfly collecting.

When I think of philosophy as a craft and an art than a science, it reminds me much of design – addressing genuine human needs while alerting us to the fact that these needs are bound to a certain time and place. In fact, I think it will benefit all of us if we subject epistemological and metaphysical ideas to a design analysis. I am sharing some thoughts on how one might go about doing so.


I am not a postmodernist, but I also think the postmodern turn made us aware of the social and material circumstances underlying the creation of knowledge. I do believe that philosophical, mathematical and scientific ideas emerge in response to needs of a particular time.

Human agency plays a role as well. Take the telescope. When invented in the early seventeenth century by Lippershey and others, merchants used it to see further out to sea than before. There was money in sighting a ship loaded with goods from the East. Galileo took this invention, improved it and pointed it toward the stars; the world hasn’t been the same since that 90 degree turn.

A particular time and place – like Italy in the late Renaissance – makes both uses of the telescope possible. Not only does the need for the telescope arise from the merchant culture of that time, glassworkers of that time had the resources to turn an idea into reality.

Design isn’t arbitrary, for it addresses objective needs of a human community. Design also needs creativity and human agency. At the same time, design problems have a history – a problem isn’t a design problem until the time is ripe. This is what the Indian tradition calls Deshakala, the spatiotemporal context for the emergence of a phenomenon. In my opinion, design is the science of Deshakala – it walks the tightrope between objective knowledge and sociohistorical determinism. With that preamble, let me turn toward design challenges in knowledge itself.

The Design of Certainty

What if philosophical ideas are solutions to design problems? What if philosopher’s needs aren’t different from merchants’?

Descartes was almost a contemporary of Galileo; unlike his older peer, he escaped from France to Holland to avoid persecution. Descartes’ great meditation on certainty is the beginning of modern philosophy. Descartes, like many philosophers before and after, was enamored with the certainty of mathematical reasoning. He pointed the eye of reason toward knowledge, somewhat like Galileo pointing the telescope to the heavens.

After a long and rather clever argument that echoes to this day, Descartes arrived at the conclusion that the only thing we are certain about is our own consciousness. To put it in one sentence: you can mistake a rope for a snake, but you can’t mistake your experience of a snake for anything else. Consciousness is transparent to its experiencer.

That emphasis on certainty lead to some of the great discoveries in mathematics and logic all the way to Godel’s theorem and beyond. Mathematics has benefited from this philosophical demand: we have much higher standards of proof from our 17th century counterparts and that rigor has helped us build a much greater edifice than they could have ever imagined.

But, as I said at the beginning, what if certainty was a design solution that arose in response to a specific need? Consider scientific knowledge in the 17th century: scientists were few and far between, data was scarce and expensive and it took months to communicate your results to anyone else. In that situation, certainty was a fantastic design principle for knowledge: the more certain you’re the less you’re dependent on data and less likely that your message will be subject to corruption during its travels. Our needs are different from Descartes’.

The Design of Plausible, Correctible Knowledge

We now live in a different age. There are tons of scientists. Data is cheap. Communication is fast. It’s easier – both technologically and financially – for us to correct errors than to insist on incorruptibility. It’s time to design a new epistemology that doesn’t take certainty to be the utopian ideal of knowledge. In this new design, plausibility is a better design constraint than certainty. Plausibility goes hand in hand with correctibility, i.e., the idea that the premises of knowledge can be changed systematically. Sometimes those premises are modified because they don’t match the data – as often happens in science. On other occasions, you might want to change the premises because the problem has changed. You want a system that can consume apples once it’s weaned off oranges.

Mathematical knowledge is particularly brittle in this regard: we don’t have good theories for replacing an axiom by another one if the first one turns out to be inadequate. Mathematics is good for building edifices; it’s less so for building systems that generalize quickly to new domains. The latter is the hallmark of cognitive systems.

Children can’t understand Fermat’s last theorem but they’re very good at identifying bulldogs as dogs after having seen German Shepherds and nothing else. Our task in the future is to theorize mathematical and cognitive epistemology in one framework.

There’s a larger method at work here: knowledge has to be brought into a world of human or animal needs so that we see the outlines of the design problem and create our ways toward a solution. If done properly, philosophy will be as important to future technology as design is today. Apple made design a buzzword in technology circles. As we enter a new era of technologicall mediated higher education, can philosophy play a similar role? It’s time to turn Descartes’ vision of knowledge upside down.

A Slow Internet

August 1, 2014

There’s a story behind why I want to create a slow internet; let me try to condense it into a few paragraphs.

I came to the US as a graduate student in the early days of the internet. I still remember the first time I downloaded a paper from the internet archive and remained amazed at the speed at which new developments were made available to mathematicians and physicists. I remember when I bought my first Springer book for 30% off from Amazon (It was Maclane’s Category Theory for the Working Mathematician) and realized that I didn’t have to wait for weeks to pay full price to the University Book Store.

At about the same time, I discovered Asha for Education, an NGO that funds primary education in India. It was started and kept alive by Indian graduate students and software nerds from across the US. When I moved back to India, the internet moved with me. I was able to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues in Bogota, Boston or Bangalore. In fact, the traffic in Bangalore being what it is, the internet was my primary means of keeping in touch with fellow Bangaloreans.

All’s this to say that the web has been and continues to shape my experience of the world. It’s not a technology or a service, but a tool for thought. It’s an increasingly dysfunctional tool, driving me and everyone else I know to distraction. I want to experiment with a slower internet.By slow I don’t mean lazy. I mean an internet that helps us build trusting relations with others, where real dialog and debate replaces soundbites and where we can collaborate on projects that really matters.

It’s an internet for serious fun. Serious because it’s built on somewhat old-fashioned ideas about trust, character and responsibility. Fun because it’s built on play, that people can create amazing new things while enjoying each other’s company. I think of it as a contemplative internet, a little refuge. An Ashram in the middle of the chaos.

You might think this is a romantic vision: don’t we need to be productive when we’re online? I don’t care much about productivity, but even if that’s of some importance to you, a refuge is essential. Productivity takes knowledge and knowledge needs slow cultivation – there’s the old-fashioned fogey coming out again. Learning and knowledge take time. They need careful, step-by-step progress from first principles. Serious fun is the best way to cultivate knowledge. I hope to create a little corner for serious fun online and maybe, just maybe, that can move into the real world too.

For now, this is a private effort, made available to friends and people they trust. It serves two purposes. Every week, I will send a newsletter with some thoughts that I want to share. It will build on writing that I will be sharing publicly, but might have some extras as well. I am starting with my thoughts because they’re the ones I can commit. I would love it if you want to add your thoughts to the mix; just reply to this email if you would like to do so. Be warned though that I will want to edit or debate your thoughts before they go out.

The second purpose is to have online discussions and dialogs – on video – with each other and to use that as a way to design a slow internet. If we conduct these conversations on a medium such google hangout, we can even let others get a glimpse of what we’re thinking about. If that goes well, we could start little discussion groups and mini-projects around themes of common interest, but I am wary of imposing structure. This is meant to be a conversation among friends and the closer we stick to that mode of interaction, the better.

Let me end with links to a couple of articles I wrote this week. If you have written something that you want this group to know about, do send it to me and I will include it in next weeks newsletter. Ideally, this newsletter will become a somewhat private collectively produced document, like the underground samizdats in the Soviet era.

  1. The Subject Formerly Known as Mathematics.
  2. Designing Knowledge 2: Books
  3. The Mystery of Education

The Frog in the Data Well

August 1, 2014

The Mainframe and the PC

Surveillance is ubiquitous these days; in fact, a Soviet KGB handler would be shocked how easy it is to find out intimate details of a mark’s life. There’s no need to threaten or coerce either, though that does happen sometimes.

Information is central to control. We have known that for ever. Spies are the world’s second oldest profession. Much bureaucracy is about information. All those land and birth records, tax forms and license permits; what are they besides data?

The logic of data is not that different from that of the PC revolution. The totalitarian state is much like a mainframe: huge, expensive, hard to maintain and always running into one bug or the other. Further, the mainframe provider isn’t interested in improving the technology. Instead, they use the coercive power of the state to keep competition under control. A totalitarian system is an information monopoly.

Unfortunately, that monopoly doesn’t like competition, so it doesn’t allow other purveyors of information to set up shop. No google in China. It also means that frivolous collectors of information don’t find fertile ground – matchmaking sites, hook-up apps, stock prediction markets, none of these can exist as autonomous entities. Of course the actual reality of China is different, but that’s because the state has a fine grained view of information that it cares about and information that it doesn’t. Maoist China wouldn’t have allowed that subtlety.

Universal Surveillance

In comparison, contemporary data collection is like the PC. It’s fast, cheap (and almost certainly) out of control. It’s not big brother and it’s all the more efficient and powerful for it. Once data collection becomes fast and cheap, we can use it for the every frivolous or creepy purpose that comes to mind. Want to know how much you’re eating: there’s an app for that. Want to know where your children are tonight: there’s an app for that too.

Perhaps even more importantly, it makes surveillance a universal reflex. Are you worried that your child is safe? Install a camera at home and inspect the baby-sitter. Afraid that terrorists are coming in? Put a camera on every inch of every border. Worried that your workers are talking too much at the water cooler: put electronic tags on them and measure what they do.

Cheap data makes it possible to universalize information gathering to every sphere of our lives, from our dreams to daily workouts to defense contracts. That universalization, strangely, makes surveillance less ominous. You’ll probably freak out if you knew someone was tracking whom you meet, where you eat and where you sleep. But if that someone was also tracking every yawn and every burp and every little tic in your left eye, you might think it’s too banal to worry about. Arendt might have something to say about our current situation.

Decentralization is Key

Every transaction once conducted on faith is now being replaced by surveillance, and we are all doing it. This new form of spying is worse in the long term than the older kind because it’s more likely to pass off as the natural, decent thing to do. It hits all the right registers: it’s decentralized, it’s voluntary and open. It also changes us from the inside, so that we don’t need to be told to snoop on our neighbors. The logical outcome is an atomized society glued together by data rather than trust. We are like the frogs in the data well, smiling as the surveillance meter rises; but at some point it’s going to boil and we will be cooked.