Archive for September, 2014

Weekly Newsletter #9: The Contemplative Craft

September 26, 2014

Crowdsourcing usually refers to the aggregation of small decisions made by a lot of people. For example, aggregating the votes on a singer on American Idol is crowdsourcing. While much judgement might have gone behind the decision, the decision itself is simple. Voting in general – whether for presidents or for performers – is a crowdsourcing problem. Another tacit assumption behind crowdsourcing is that the decisions are taken at about the same time – while voting is spread across a whole day, a day is a relatively short time in the life of a presidency.The internet is the ideal medium for aggregation. Crowdsourcing usually refers to the aggregation of small decisions made by a lot of people. For example, aggregating the votes on a singer on American Idol is crowdsourcing. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is crowdsourcing. I want go beyond crowdsourcing into craftsourcing. 

There’s that famous saying from the Hsin Hsin Ming: before enlightenment, chooping wood, carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. I can’t think of a better evocation of the daily craft of contemplation. That focus on craft is central to every deep human tradition I know. When I was a mathematician, I used to practice mathematics several hours every day. Now, I spent a similar amount of time in philosophical and scientific practice. Craftsourcing involves deeper engagement with learning and knowledge. It’s practitioners need to give more of themselves and engage deeply with each other’s ideas and decisions. The classic modern example might be academic labor – the solution to Fermat’s last theorem involved the labor of several people across centuries, each one of whom engaged deeply with previous generations of scholars. Craftsourcing is spread both across space and across time. 

Both crowd- and craft- sourcing are ancient social capabilities, but the internet has definitely revolutionized their scope and their reach. Crowdsourcing is at the heart of the major internet companies business model – Facebook, Google, Amazon are all based on aggregating the preferences of millions of people’s beliefs and decisions. Craftsourcing is not as developed, since it takes more effort and has fewer obvious economic benefits, but Wikipedia is arguably our best example of craftsourcing, where hundreds of thousands of people have given their time freely to produce the best encyclopedia on the history of our species. More recently, the polymath projects have created much excitement around collaborative solution of math problems, but true craftsourcing remains rare. Unlike crowdsourcing, which has produced businesses such as Google and Facebook that simply couldn’t exist in a previous era, we are yet to see craftsourcing produce knowledge of a kind that no one has produced before.

The contemplative traditions are ancient examples of craftsourcing – the daily life of the monastery is around the slow but steady practice of the contemplative craft. Can we recreate that experience on the internet? I doubt if purely virtual interactions can replicate the mentor-apprentice relationship, but a combination of virtual and physical interaction might be able to go a long way. 

This week’s Links:

  1. Chu Hsi’s Learning to be  a Sage, or how to become a true master. 
  2. When two modern sages met: Einstein meets Tagore

Weekly Newsletter #8: Inner Space, Outer Space

September 18, 2014


Universities are strange creatures. A great university – sadly, every single functioning one of them is in the West – is one of the human race’s crowning achievements. Where else have we managed to:

  1. Sustain a vibrant physical institution for a thousand years – only religious institutions have lasted longer.
  2. Combine conservatism with dynamism – some departments focus on texts that are thousands of years old, while other departments barely pay attention to papers published a year ago. Religious institutions manage the first, but not the second.
  3. Churn tens of thousands of students every year.
  4. Uphold free inquiry while being ‘responsible’, i.e., serving the needs of governments, corporations and (less so) citizens.

As a sustained creative effort, nothing else comes close to the institutionalization of knowledge in ivy.

There’s a strange schizophrenia about universities. From the inside, i.e., if you are a student or faculty, the software matters more than the hardware. Tenure is granted and exams are passed on the basis of marks on paper. From the outside, the hardware matters more: money granted or donated for new centers, gymnasiums, hires, equipment and other things with a physical imprint.

In reality, the hardware and the software are intertwined. The stability of knowledge is conditioned upon the stability of the buildings that house scholars. That connection is most obvious when you look at parts of the world that have lost their universities. Consider India’s civilizational heritage: once upon a time Nalanda was the most important center of learning in the world. The destruction of Nalanda and Takshasila destroyed the buildings as well as the knowledge traditions that were transmitted in them.

We Indians like to think that we are upholders of an ancient culture. It’s true, but it’s not as true as we would like it to be. We have some connection to a classical past in our religious practices and in our artistic traditions, but those connections are strictly circumscribed. Nothing from that past gives us the tools to conduct scientific inquiry, start businesses, run a government or anything that makes the modern world tick. Contrast that with a western university, where the same set of ideas run the inner world of art, mathematics and philosophy as well as the outer world of business and government.

More than anything else, colonialism destroyed our connection to ways of thought and feeling that guide societies as a whole. We are left with piecemeal replacements; no amount of hankering after ancient Indian culture can substitute for systemic, thankless labor. What would science look like if it didn’t develop out of the schism between church and state? What if it were Nagarjuna’s meditations rather than Descartes’ that guided our exploration of human and non-human minds? The honest answer is that we won’t know until we attempt it.

  1. Deresiewicz dissing the Ivy League.
  2. Coseru on logic and mysticism in the Indian Philosophy blog. The blog as a whole is highly recommended.
  3. A New Yorker polemic against Vandana Shiva and her new kind of science. I am skeptical of VS’s kind of science but I dislike her opponent’s kind of science a lot more.

Weekly Newsletter #7: Data

September 13, 2014

Everything you can do, you can do better with data

That’s the new nerdism. We think our obsession with data is brand new, but data predates big data by a huge margin. In fact, data and bureaucracy go together. Ever since someone notched a stick or chiseled a stone, we have been collecting data. I might even speculate that writing has been as much about inscribing the written numeral as it has been about inscribing the written word.

Representing data is easier in some respects than representing natural language. For every idiot who scribbles a curse word in the mens room, there’s another idiot who has marked the wall with counting sticks. Data is as primal as language. For the same reason, it’s no less a human creation than language. We have been brainwashed into thinking that data is an accurate representation of the world while the written word is soft and subjective. I disagree: both are human representations of human realities. It’s true that the written word is associated with storytelling while data is associated with science, but they are both symbolic systems. There’s no such thing as pure data.

Data is one of three ways of inscribing the world – the other two being the written word and money – that converts flows into stocks. In fact, that’s the primary function of inscription – it helps us keep track and takes pressure off fallible memories. Inscription also runs the risk of fundamentalism. We are all aware of fundamentalist religion, which one might call the fundamentalism of the written word. We are increasingly aware of market fundamentalism, which is the fundamentalism of money. We aren’t all that aware of data fundamentalism.

There’s a minor version of data fundamentalism that’s been around for a while. It goes by the name of scientism or materialism, depending on whom you ask, but I say it’s minor because it hasn’t affected political or policy realities much. My scientist friends complain about their lack of influence in political circles and the lack of rational thinking in said circles. Social engineering has had a bad rap for the most part.

Data Fundamentalism

That’s about to change, if it hasn’t already. Data driven policy is the new rage. From Obama (and Modi?) winning elections with better data to nudges that make us more virtuous citizens, we are entering an era of data driven societies. The new data fundamentalism threatens to have much more influence on policy makers. As the India Against Corruption protests, the various Occupy protests, the Climate Change protests and the Ferguson protests have shown, there’s a huge gap between the future people desire and the heavy handed response to those who complain. In such a situation, there are two ways of using data: 

1. Minority report style nipping dissent before it happens and military style state violence after it does. This is what's happening (or so the promise goes) in fusion centers. 
2. Uncovering people's genuine needs at a fine-grained level and creating customized policies for addressing those needs.  

The first is the natural instinct of both the law and order conservative and the best and brightest technocrat. It’s a low trust attitude that feeds back into a low trust response from citizens. The second is what we really need. It’s not a purely technical solution; it’s a political one. Politics can and should work hand in hand with technology. Two hundred years ago, mathematicians such as Condorcet created the voting systems that we now take for granted; so much so that we don’t think of them as technology at all. Why can’t we do that again, except with real time data instead of a vote every five years? I think there’s a great future for data driven approaches to government, but it has to start with data driven citizenship, not data driven services. The government has to be of, for and by the people.  Data should only serve to strengthen that claim. 

  1. Ian Hacking’s book on chance. The best explanation I know of the intimate relationship between data and modernity.
  2. The ethics of data according to the paper of record.
  3. Data hype 101.


September 6, 2014

Weekly Newsletter #6: Apple, meet Orange

September 5, 2014


I like complexity. I like simplicity. I think the world is infinitely complex; it can’t be boiled down to seven equations or even seventy million. At the same time, simplicity makes the world manageable, it’s a way of grasping reality. Think about it this way: we have five fingers. They allow us to grasp objects that are of the order of a centimeter. It would be great if we had fractal fingers that we could whip out to grasp microscopic objects and retract back when not needed. Unfortunately, we don’t. As our bodies go, so do our minds. We can only cognize entities at a certain scale. We have invented powerful mental technologies – mathematics, meditation, programs – that help us manage complexity. There’s a learning curve to these mental interfaces but it’s worth the effort, since there’s enormous value in the ability to engage with complexity.

However, we face a collective dilemma. The low-hanging fruit are gone – I don’t think science is over, but I do think that sciences that look for simple, deep explanations are tottering. It’s a cognitive problem: we have reached the limits of thought that can be cognized with paper and pencil (P&P henceforth) alone. I don’t mean P&P literally; I mean problems that can be solved with the symbolic repertoire that paper and pencil have enabled; that includes screen technologies as long as the mental interface is based on the P&P paradigm.

Apple, meet Orange

There’s an urgency to these thoughts, for I have been working with some friends in creating a centre for public problem solving. The goal of that centre is to bring scientists, policy makers, politicians, technologists, social scientists and citizens together to address complex problems that beset human society.

Consider garbage. Some of you might know that Bangalore has a garbage problem. We have been dumping our trash on neighboring villages for many years. They don’t want that anymore. They would rather we took our garbage elsewhere. We don’t have alternative land for landfills. Composting and solid waste management practices haven’t taken off as much as we would like. At the same time, there’s a huge trucking and transportation mafia that benefits from collecting and transporting trash to these godforsaken locations.

Distributed Collaboration

In other words, we have a problem. There’s no app for it. We need an array of interventions: fresh technological ideas, political will, behavior change, citizen pressure and so on. At it’s core is a system of collaboration that distributes tasks among a disparate group of agents performing qualitatively different functions.

Collaboration is common in the software world. Everyone uses version control systems for software development. It’s even possible to divide a large project into modules performing distinct functions. Modular design is a good strategy for engaging with complexity. Unfortunately, garbage doesn’t play well with modular design. It might in Germany, but it certainly doesn’t in India.

So we are where we started, with a stinking mess that calls for design thinking that can’t be sourced from Ideo. Apples and oranges will have come together in a fruit salad.

  1. John Maeda on Simplicity.
  2. The Facebook page for our new centre for public problem solving.
  3. An interesting article about applying architectural principles to product design. I wonder if we can borrow architectural ideas for complex systems design in general. Not urban planning. Something more technical with tools that can be manipulated on a screen.