Democracy and Progress

May 23, 2004

I enjoy eating at the faculty club on campus, but not for the
food. Its the company. And I particularly like eating at the “big”
table, the one where business school (and some other) faculty
eat. Mostly the older senior faculty, and then there’s usually some of
us younger ones. But for me, there is much wisdom here, as well as a
change of pace. Discussion flows freely in the absence of youthful
ambition.


Sukhi Singh from Engineering the other day explained something most
profound to us all. Since the elections has just finished back in my
native country India, and had resulted in an overwhelming defeat for
the ruling party, despite their presiding over one of the biggest
economic success stories in Asia, we were talking about what had
changed and what had not.


Sukhi (which means happy) said that India would not taste real success
unless a fundamental aspect of its culture changed. He called this the
“premise of distrust”. Every bureaucratic institution in India is
pervaded with this, resulting in a system of intricate checks and
reviews, requiring approval at many levels. You see, since everyone in
India is expected to break the law if not checked repeatedly (and this
is quite a valid assumption mostly), there are stages of checks,
overlaying great chokes on economic endeavor. And then the checkers
too need checking, which greatly raises the possibility of corruption,
which becomes endemic.


In contrast, Sukhi said, the United States functions in a manner with
a premise of trust. Everyone is expected to follow the law, and mostly
everyone does. The checks are ex-post and not ex-ante, for breaking
the law is severely punished, with no exceptions. Creative people are
free of bureaucratic hinderance unless they break the law. But they
are not checked, reviewed, second-guessed or exploited by people with
no ability to provide a proper input on their work.


What struck me later was that this was it. Just trust versus
distrust. While we may continue to fool ourselves that it is democracy
in the U.S. that makes us so productive, it may not be. Freedom surely
paves the way for trust to work its magic, and that freedom is ensured
by democracy, but in the end, its the culture of trust that does
it. Democracy alone would be insufficient. Otherwise, India would be
the most successful country in the world! It is a country with over
80% Hindus, yet the President is Muslim. In the most recent election,
it almost had a women executive head, of Italian origin, born in Rome
(and she would have been the second women to run the nation). The
final choice for Prime Minister is now a sikh, with a degree from
Oxford. If anyone needs evidence that democracy is a western
prerogative, let this be the best counterexample. Compared to India,
democracy in the U.S. is infantile.


But, the culture of trust does make the U.S. unique. We are taught
early to trust ourselves and believe in our thoughts. How many
countries preach this gospel. Which religion even comes close? So,
when the state starts to mistrust us, big brother us, use the Patriot
Act to smother us, it makes us really unhappy. When we are told to
trust them, not ourselves, something is wrong. When government tells
other nations to trust them, not themselves, we insult them with
distrust. And we need to be really careful, because if carried too
far, we will lose the mother lode that makes this country what it
really is. In any case, lets trust in ourselves, instinctively and
surely.

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Connectivity

May 22, 2004

One cannot but be amazed at the pace at which communication technology
has evolved in the past few years. I am able to email anyone, crossing
borders in seconds where before I would have to mail documents,
enticing inspection. I can call anyone anywhere. But mostly I can call
everyone, by just writing this blog. Baring your mind, heart and soul
has never been easier.


My wife carries a cell phone on which I can reach her anywhere in the
world by calling her local number here in Berkeley. She has been away
now for almost two weeks, upsetting the rhythym of our lives. When you
have been married as long as I have, its nice to have that quiet time
to oneself as your spouse travels, but the absence of routine
eventually becomes harsh and oppressive. Thats when I call, hoping to
proxy my routine in a few minutes of conversation.


The human connection has transfer rates that far exceed that of any
technology we may ever devise. Even as physical telephonic contact is
made between us, my wife opens the emotive connection as well,
operating at a bandwidth far exceeding the physical voices that pass
over the lines. And she asks – “Are you ok?” – to which I reply “Of
course.”


I sense a sudden disappointment – does she not know I am feeling out
of sorts? What happened to my hypothesis about emotions and infinite
transfer rates? Was I wrong?


And then with relief, I realise that she is not asking me, she is
telling me she knows. Logic will never outstrip instinct.


Tragedy of the Commons

May 14, 2004

The other day I was unable to use my email. I received so many
messages from my students that I crossed way over my email box limit
(a measly but disciplined number of MB). Why I receive so much email
is another whole issue, but let that ride. Now, the way our campus
mail works is that once you cross the limit, you are not allowed to
send mail until the box is within limit. So, in effect, the only way
to reply to email is to first delete it. Is that a Catch 22 if
anything?


Here then is a perfect example of a tragedy of the
commons. Overgrazing this resource makes it inaccessible and stops
working for all involved, even though every single person acted
independently, innocently unaware of the impact of their actions.


Yes, there are ways to get around it, such as using another email
account and copying back and forth. Or forwarding the whole mess to
another account. And so on. But it usually simpler and easier to just
delete all messages. That way, no one’s email gets preferential
treatment.


I used to read my email only a few times a day, so as to prevent it
from interfering with my concentration, which is needed if I am to get
any research done (and help save the world from ignorance). But now,
with my mailbox topped out, I need to keep it on and respond fast – so
I am a rat on a wheel, trapped in email hell forever. I have no idea
how long I can keep this up.


Quite apart from aiding communication, email seems to spawn
thoughtless interaction. Just because it is easy to shoot off an
email, everyone assumes that work is getting done. But it isn’t. It
can’t happen unless thought is applied first. Also, waiting for a
response is not getting work done, its waiting to postpone getting
work done. Its also a waste of time.


But I realize that one must set an example. I try very hard now not to
send email without thinking, and never if it has no productive
purpose. Some rules:


  • Do not send emails saying “Thanks”. I agree, it is important to let
    the other person know you got the message, but why not let that be the
    default option?



  • Email is asynchronous. Why make it like the telephone? Dont make it
    into a conversation.



  • Never assume that asking a question merits an answer.



  • Do not let email allow you to push your thinking onto someone else.



  • Delete any email from an unrecognized source.