A very interesting piece by my friend Justin E. H. Smith on our shared history with animals and how it has changed over time.
... Our adult humanity consists in cutting off ties of community with animals, ceasing, as Lévi-Strauss put it, to think with them. When on occasion adults begin again to think about animals, if not with them, it is to assess whether animals deserve the status of rights-bearers. Animal rights, should there be such things, are now thought to flow from neurophysiological features and behavioral aptitudes: recognizing oneself in the mirror, running through mazes, stacking blocks to reach a banana.
But what is forgotten here is that the animals are being tested for re-admission to a community from which they were previously expelled, and not because they were judged to lack the minimum requirements for the granting of rights. They were expelled because they are hairy brutes, and we learned to be ashamed of thinking of them as our kin. This shame only increased when Darwin confirmed our kinship, thus telling us something Paleolithic hunters already knew full well. Morality doubled up its effort to preserve a distinction that seemed to be slipping away. Since the 19th century, science has colluded with morality, always allowing some trivial marker of human uniqueness or other to function as a token for entry into the privileged moral universe of human beings. "They don't have syntax, so we can eat them," is how Richard Sorabji brilliantly reduces this collusion to absurdity.
And is there a better video to pair this with than Frans de Waal's lecture on what science tells us about our shared morality with animals?
Finally, "What sort of thoughts can animals have? Tim Crane discusses the intriguing issue of what apes and monkeys are capable of thinking about in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast." (Via 3QD)
An insightful talk by Georg Sørensen on the world order today, where he considers four dimensions: (a) war and peace, (b) global economy, (c) institutions and governance, and (d) global environment. Sørensen is distinguished professor of international politics and economics in Denmark and has written fifteen books "on international relations and development issues. His research areas include society and politics, international community, democracy and development, prospects for a liberal world order, transformations of the state and its effects on international relations." If you like this, check out another recent talk by him on Democracy and Democratization.
In his new book, A Liberal World Order in Crisis, Sørensen quotes me in his final chapter (from my essay, Being Liberal in a Plural World).
Here is a great article by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen on growth vs. development—how the two can feed each other but not in any automatic way, not without the right planning and investment—and why India, despite good economic growth has fared abysmally on human development when compared to other similar nations, especially in South Asia. Must read.
Is India doing marvellously well, or is it failing terribly? Depending on whom you speak to, you could pick up either of those answers with some frequency. One story, very popular among a minority but a large enough group—of Indians who are doing very well (and among the media that cater largely to them)—runs something like this. “After decades of mediocrity and stagnation under ‘Nehruvian socialism’, the Indian economy achieved a spectacular take-off during the last two decades. This take-off, which led to unprecedented improvements in income per head, was driven largely by market initiatives. It involves a significant increase in inequality, but this is a common phenomenon in periods of rapid growth. With enough time, the benefits of fast economic growth will surely reach even the poorest people, and we are firmly on the way to that.” Despite the conceptual confusion involved in bestowing the term ‘socialism’ to a collectivity of grossly statist policies of ‘Licence raj’ and neglect of the state’s responsibilities for school education and healthcare, the story just told has much plausibility, within its confined domain.
But looking at contemporary India from another angle, one could equally tell the following—more critical and more censorious—story: “The progress of living standards for common people, as opposed to a favoured minority, has been dreadfully slow—so slow that India’s social indicators are still abysmal.” For instance, according to World Bank data, only five countries outside Africa (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Yemen) have a lower “youth female literacy rate” than India (World Development Indicators 2011, online). To take some other examples, only four countries (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Myanmar and Pakistan) do worse than India in child mortality rate; only three have lower levels of “access to improved sanitation” (Bolivia, Cambodia and Haiti); and none (anywhere—not even in Africa) have a higher proportion of underweight children. Almost any composite index of these and related indicators of health, education and nutrition would place India very close to the bottom in a ranking of all countries outside Africa.
So which of the two stories—unprecedented success or extraordinary failure—is correct? The answer is both, for they are both valid, and they are entirely compatible with each other.
Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, is usually spoken of as a hell-hole and a shame for urban India. Here is a very different viewpoint. "Look beyond the stereotype," says urban development consultant Prakash M. Apte, "and you'll find a successful settlement with a vibrant community and economy. But developers want to raze it all and start again ... Dharavi is a model that should be replicated, not redeveloped."
The Indian megacity of Mumbai has an estimated population of about 14 million. Of those, only about 35% live in 'regular' permanent housing. The other 65% live in informal settlements, which for more than a third of those people means squatting on sidewalks and under bridges. The rest -- nearly 6 million people -- occupy settlements on private and public open lands, some of which are more than 50 years old. Dharavi is one of the most famous, but unlike all others and despite its common depiction as a "slum", it is actually a successful work-cum-residential settlement. Developers have been trying to redevelop the area for years, but Dharavi is a model settlement that needs to be replicated, not replaced.
Located in the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi has a population of more than 600,000 people residing in 100,000 makeshift homes, and one of the world’s highest population densities at more than 12,000 persons per acre. It is just across from the Bandra- Kurla Complex—a fast developing commercial center that has overtaken Nariman Point, the current downtown of Mumbai—and is also located close to Mumbai’s domestic and international airports. Despite its plastic and tin structures and lack of infrastructure, Dharavi is a unique, vibrant, and thriving 'cottage' industry complex, the only one of its kind in the world.
More here (browse the comments too). Below is a related TED Talk by Robert Neuwirth who finds "squatter cities—where a billion people now make their homes—to be thriving centers of ingenuity and innovation." Check out another TED Talk by Steward Brand on squatter cities.
In Philosophy Now's special issue on consciousness, I explore "the complexity of consciousness and its implications for artificial intelligence."
As a graduate student of computer engineering in the early 90s, I recall impassioned late night debates on whether machines can ever be intelligent – meaning, possessing the cognition, common sense, and problem-solving skills of ordinary humans. Scientists and bearded philosophers spoke of ‘humanoid robots’. Neural network research was hot, and one of my professors was a star in the field. A breakthrough seemed inevitable and imminent. Still, I felt certain that Artificial Intelligence (AI) was a doomed enterprise.
I argued out of intuition, from a sense of the immersive nature of our life: how much we subconsciously acquire and call upon to get through life; how we arrive at meaning and significance not in isolation but through embodied living, and how contextual, fluid, and intertwined this was with our moods, desires, experiences, selective memory, physical body, and so on. How can we program all this into a machine and have it pass the unrestricted Turing test? How could a machine that did not care about its existence as humans do, ever behave as humans do? In hindsight, it seems fitting that I was then also drawn to Dostoevsky, Camus, and Kierkegaard.
More here (read two discussions on it: one, two). Also see the discussion on a version that appeared earlier on 3QD.
The position of the colonizer's language within the changing culture of its former colony is always a fraught one, and the difficulty of the matter is severely compounded in a country like India, whose citizens never shared a common language prior to their colonization. Lack of a common language must be one reason why English persisted in India after Independence, despite the fact that it had little penetrated the colonial population. Although it's still far from being a language of the masses, English is more widely spoken in India today than it was in colonial times.
English remains a first language of the uppermost classes, and it's increasingly gaining traction as a lingua franca, the language of the modern office place. Yet Indian novelists who write in English have been taken to task for their choice of language, and questions regularly arise as to the "authenticity" of their works. These are matters worth discussing, but we can acknowledge that the answers will never be neat or straightforward.
In The Caravan, Trisha Gupta has added to this conversation by describing the surprisingly complex relationship of the Hindi language to Hindi cinema, suggesting a relationship that's always been difficult, if not contrived. Gupta describes the changing registers of filmic Hindi, and how, as Hindi filmmakers increasingly come from English-speaking households, and as more and more of their films are actually depictions of the Indian English-speaking world, this messy relationship continues with new challenges and artifices.
The Hindi film industry, [Shyam Benegal] argues, has its origins in a hybrid, cosmopolitan mix of people and languages. “If you go back to the 1930s and think about a studio like Bombay Talkies, you’ll find that the producer was Himanshu Rai, a Bengali; the main director was Franz Osten, a German; and the star actress was Devika Rani, whose Hindi wasn’t something to write home about!” Benegal says. “But in any case, directors, technicians—how does it matter if they can’t speak Hindi for peanuts? Actors, well, they can get language coaches. The only thing that makes a difference is the writer.”
So let’s talk about the writers, then. From the 1930s right up to the 1970s, Bombay cinema was famously a vehicle for accomplished writers in Urdu and Hindi. “Whether it was Pandit Mukhram Sharma, who wrote so many socially conscious films for BR Chopra, or men like Kamal Amrohi, KA Abbas or Wajahat Mirza, the writers of the ’50s and ’60s had a connection to the language,” says 51-year-old Anjum Rajabali, himself a well-known scriptwriter (Drohkaal, Ghulam, Rajneeti) and someone who has helped institute scriptwriting courses at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Whistling Woods International film academy in Mumbai. Rajabali points out that even as late as the 1970s, most of Hindi cinema’s scripts were written in Urdu. Javed Akhtar—one-half of what is probably Hindi cinema’s most successful scriptwriting team, Salim-Javed—wrote in Urdu, which was then transliterated into Devanagari for the benefit of those who couldn’t read the Urdu script.
Partly for this reason, Hindi cinema may be unique in the world in requiring the services of a "dialogue writer" for each film, a writer who is credited separately from both the script writer and the director.
So why did Hindi cinema need the specialised ‘dialogue writer’? Was it because, as Rajabali argues, the film went directly from the story stage to the shooting stage—steered by a forceful director—and then all that was needed was dialogue for each scene as it came along? Or was it because, as Javed Akhtar points out, Hindi cinema—unlike Tamil or Malayalam or Bengali cinema—did not emerge in a region where Hindi, or rather Hindustani, was the spoken language? The roots of Hindi cinema lie in Pune, Calcutta, Lahore and Bombay. “Bengalis, Marathis and Parsis, who were great screenplay writers, were not necessarily conversant with spoken Hindi/Hindustani. So they needed dialogue writers who were,” says Akhtar.
An interesting account of the high-stakes rivalry between Facebook and Google for the future of the web:
Although Larry Page, Google's co-founder and its CEO since April, was born just 11 years before Mark Zuckerberg, his counterpart at Facebook, the two belong to different Internet generations with different worldviews. In Page's web, everything starts with a search. You search for news or for a pair of shoes or to keep up with your favorite celebrity. If you want to learn about a medical condition or decide which television to buy, you search. In that world, Google's algorithms, honed over more than a decade, respond almost perfectly. But in recent years the web has tilted gradually, and perhaps inexorably, toward Zuckerberg's world. There, rather than search for a news article, you wait for your friends to tell you what to read. They tell you what movies they enjoyed, what brands they like, and where to eat sushi.
Facebook is squarely at the center of this new universe, and much of what people do online these days starts there. But Facebook's masterstroke has been to spread itself across the web and allow others to tap your network of friends. As a result, thousands of websites and apps have essentially become satellites that orbit around Facebook. You can now go to Yelp to find out what your Facebook friends say about the new coffeehouse down the street, visit Spotify to let them pick music playlists for you, or play Zynga games with them. To make matters worse for Page, much of this social activity can't be seen by Google's web-trolling algorithms, so every day they (and by extension, Google) become a little bit less accurate and relevant.
More here. If you are curious about Mark Zuckerberg's personality, check out this interview with the man (Dec 2010).
Here is a success story from the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro. Plagued for years by violent crime, the favelas were awash in gangs, drug dealers, and high-end automatic weapons that even the local police didn't have; thousands were killed during shootouts. The police were afraid to go in; kids growing up in the favelas idolized gang leaders; fear ruled the streets. The horrifying movie City of God, based on a true story, captured all this brilliantly well. However, with the soccer world cup and the Olympics coming up, the government recently adopted a whole new approach to addressing this problem and it is working out really well. Check out this report by Al Jazeera.
In a large mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, lies a crystal sarcophagus containing the mortal remains of Mao Zedong. Every day, masses of Chinese citizens line up on this largest of the world’s public squares to view and pay tribute to him. An immense, framed portrait of Mao gazes beatifically upon them from the high walls of the once Forbidden City, a palace fortress at the edge of the square. A few years ago, I too had arrived hoping for a glimpse of the man—the spectacle of Mao’s refrigerated body held for me nearly as much morbid fascination as my interest in his legacy and place in the Chinese imagination.
As it happened, the mausoleum was closed for renovation. Disappointed, I mused that perhaps the real reason for closing the mausoleum was to hide the evidence that Mao had been turning in his grave of late: watching China grind from feudalism to communism to capitalism in a mere half century cannot be good for his repose. If “communism” means a classless society with a centrally planned economy in which the state owns the primary means of production, then poor old Mao—as the man who fought for it, forged it, and upheld it for decades—became irrelevant long ago. And though the frozen Mao may still be revered, the pulse of China throbs now to a different beat.
For some years now, the zeitgeist in China has been closer to what Deng Xiaoping, a successor to Mao, neatly voiced in 1993: “To get rich is glorious.” And today it seems that the only thing still communist about China is the name of the party that continues to rule it with an iron hand; for while China’s communist leaders have embraced capitalism with an astonishing zeal, they have not allowed the free flow of ideas and information within China. Ordinary citizens are actively kept in the dark even about the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. As I stood on the square, among the crowds of locals and holiday makers, flying kites or striking “I was there!” poses in front of Mao’s portrait, it struck me that most of the people around me—and most Chinese nationals under the age of 35—do not even know about the event that transpired there.
I attended a lecture yesterday by Debra Satz, Stanford Professor of Ethics in Society. It was titled "Why Shouldn't Everything be for Sale?" Satz began by acknowledging that free markets, in general, promote greater efficiency and freedom of exchange than other systems. But markets do a lot more, and there is considerable debate over what limits should exist on markets and their intrusion into certain areas of life. Even many diehard libertarians have qualms about letting the market dictate some transactions, such as those involving child labor, organ trade, surrogate motherhood, life saving medicines, weapons trade, narcotic drugs, or exporting toxic waste to poor nations.
Why do people have these qualms? What moral intuitions might be behind our discomfort in letting the market govern such exchanges? And how might we devise social policy for such markets, knowing that prohibition at times can produce pathological side effects (e.g., banning child labor can increase child prostitution)? In her most recent book, Why some things should not be for sale, Satz tackles such questions. In her lecture, she presented four parameters that can make certain market-based transactions deeply problematic to us:
(a) The weak agency of a party, for instance, due to a significant lack of autonomy or knowledge (e.g., child labor, subprime lending, and organ trade; Satz cited a survey in which 75 percent of the kidney donors in Tamil Nadu—in the so-called "kidney belt"—did not even know how many kidneys they had left). (b) The vulnerability and inequality of a party (e.g., prostitution, surrogacy, and organ trade). (c) The likelihood of extreme individual harm to a party (e.g., surrogacy, drugs, and weapons trade). (d) The likelihood of extreme societal harm (e.g., child labor and weapons trade).
Here is a review of her book that is worth reading:
Debra Satz’s book is a very welcomed addition to the growing engagement of philosophers with questions of morality, ethics and markets. Some of this engagement is well publicised such as Michael Sandel‘s whose BBC’s Reith Lecture on Markets and Morals remains a good introduction to the topic.
Debra Satz does not write to popularize the theme although Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale is written in a very engaging style, capturing complex arguments in a few crisp paragraphs. The starting point for Satz is that one-dimensional view of markets prevalent in both economics and political philosophy prevents us from appreciating that markets are more than mechanisms for the efficient allocation of resources. Markets can also shape our politics and our civic culture. Particular types of markets – what she terms “noxious markets” – may restrain or subvert the development of desirable human qualities, shape preferences in undesirable ways or promote objectionable social relationships. The contrast with the approach taken by economists such as Alvin Roth to repugnant markets, which takes repugnance as a barrier to the expansion of markets that can be overcome by focusing on trade-offs, should be noted.
Christopher Lydon, host of Radio Open Source, has just done a valuable series of interviews with South Asians, nearly all Pakistanis. Called Another Pakistan, the people he speaks to about the state of the region include novelists, artists, singers, journalists, historians, activists, and others. Though they all seem to come from the region's English-speaking upper crust, a lot of their perspectives and many-layered stories still find little or no room in the cramped narrative of Pakistan in the West, including on the pivotal role of the Partition in shaping so many of the pathologies in the region. The interviews run for many hours but a condensed two-hour version with selections from the longer interviews is a good place to start (I'm just starting to work my way through some others).
One interview I enjoyed for the most part was with Ashis Nandy. He “has just made his own study, in 1500 interviews, of the wounds of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan — among the searing and decisive memories of his own boyhood in Calcutta. The snippet that leaps out at him now is that 40 percent of his sample called up stories of themselves and others being helped through that orgy of blood and death by “somebody from the other side.” In no other genocide, Nandy says, can he find a comparable measure of mercy. “There is that part of the story, too,” he is saying. “That is South Asia.” Click below to listen (via 3QD).