Sunday, March 30, 2008

Q u e s t i o n s O f O u r T i m e

I would like to summarize an amazing lecture by Michel Serres, which I had the fortune of listening to in person.

A society undergoes a complete upheaval when there is a transformation in the way information is organized. Most thinkers have assumed in the past that major societal changes will be brought forward by advances in hard technology - such as the steam engine, wind mills, electric bulb etc. This textbook version of history is not true. Infact, all the major changes are brought in by soft technology - the technology that deals with information and messages.

The history of human civilization so far, can be distinctly divided into 4 eras :

  • Oral Era : All communication was done through speech
  • Writing Era : After the discovery of a written script for language
  • Printing Era : After the discovery of the printing press
  • Computing Era : After the discovery of a machine to process and communicate information
Each of these advances brings a significant change in the way information, in the most general sense of the term, is handled by humans. These soft advances literally tear the world down, and a completely new order emerges in terms of politics, commerce, science, law, religion and culture. These six spheres crudely summarize the entire human activity. So let us understand what has happened.

Oral Era

Politics : The society is organized as tribal units, each governed by a collection of clan elders. The individual owes his loyalty to the tribe, as exemplified by race relations coded through genes.
Commerce : Commerce is done through barter. Gold and other precious metals serve as useful benchmarks for barter.
Science : Primitive theories try to explan natural phenomena. Making tools and weapons is considered an art. Education is provided purely within the family.
Law : Law is loosely conceptualized as the honour of the tribe and the family. Each person is required to defend this honour.
Religion : Animistic and polytheistic worship function as ways of attaining harmony with the world, and of explaining away troubling natural calamities.
Culture : Epics are weaved together by bards travelling across the land.

Examples : Vedic India (till 600 BC), ancient Greece before Pythagoras (till 580 BC), Europe before Rome (till 100-200 AD), societies of uneducated people who cannot read or write (40% of current India, 64% of current Afghanistan)

One word which defines state : Race

Writing Era :

Politics : State is invented, with a legal code written on stone (Ashoka's stone proclaimings, Hammurabi's code) The state has a physical boundary that has to be protected by an army. The government quickly develops into a monarchy with a hierarchical control of feudalism.
Commerce : Money is invented (a value written down on metal). A new mercantile class emerges which deals with money and commerce.
Science : Geometry is invented. Mathematics emerges and engineering is no longer an art. Natural phenomena are explained through observation and measurement. Education is provided by monasteries, and the notion of a teacher is born. Libraries are few and far in between. A teacher has to remember a lot.
Law : It is no longer unwritten family honour, but the written law of a state. A special class of policemen emerges to defend and enforce the law.
Religion : Monotheistic religions of a book emerge. Now written down into a strict set of rules, the belief system becomes static and resilient to change.
Culture : The artists are sponsored by the court of the king. A language emerges for writing down music. Art and sculpture are carefully studied with the exactness of measurements.

Examples : Pre-colonial India categorized by caste (till 1600 AD: Mauryas, Guptas, Chalukyas, Moghals), Pre-renaissance Europe categorized by class (till 1500 AD : Greece after Pythagoras, Rome), Tibet till 1950, Arabia till 1900, sections of contemporary India where caste is still strong.

One word which defines state : Religion

Printing Era :

Politics : Books spread knowledge, and the idea that "all men are equal". This gives birth to democracy - a representative government elected by the people. The world is divided into nations.
Commerce : Banking is invented. The notion of solvability and economic trustworthiness are born. Cheque and printed money give rise to the capitalist system of commerce.
Science : With printed books at hand, a teacher is no longer required to remember all the topics of instruction. Education begins in earnest, and the entire population gets educated. The scientific method is born, with the notions of experimental validation and support. Science explodes into a thousand new branches.
Law : The notion of a constitution is born. Religion gets separated from law.
Religion : "Every man is equal to the Pope, with the Bible at his hand", proclaims Luther and begins the Protestant reform in Europe. Religion becomes a private affair with no intermediate person. Church loses its power and monastic orders slowly disappear.
Culture : Art is viewed as a product in the market. The entire population gets to sponsor artists, through direct purchase of their art. A new class of middlemen emerges to control these means of distribution of art.

Examples : Modern Europe after renaissance, USA, Modern Japan, the educated middle class of developing countries (India, Brazil, China..)

One word which defines state : Market

Computing Era :

For the first time in human history, the entire world is connected at the distance of a mouse click. We are only entering this era. Just like the revolutions before, the entire world is about to be torn down. A new political and economic system is going to emerge, of a world without borders.

We can already trace some changes. In commerce, ATM and e-commerce have redefined the way of doing business. Globalization is changing the economic levers of the world. New economic frauds are surfacing, which will demand investigation towards new ways of doing business. In science and education, internet is begining to redefine the role of a teacher. Scientific exploration is at an exponential growth, through computational simulation and global collaboration. In law and politics, we need investigation into new ways of governing.

Here, I finish summarizing Serre's lecture. What follows are my own comments about the computing era. We need to ask bold questions : Can we get rid of representative government and usher in a new internet democracy? Can an individual be completely free ? Can the security of an individual be assured without violating privacy ? Can everybody be an artist ? Can an artist be assured of intellectual freedom without worrying about the economics of his business ?

These are the questions of our time.

Different parts of the world currently adhere to each of the above 3 eras. But ultimately, they all need to progress towards the 4th era. As we see clearly, each of these eras is antagonistic to the others. There will be a lot of resistance to change. As the era tries to fight back against its child, its uses the wisdom of its own battles with its father.

A society living in a religious writing-era conjures images of violence and lawlessness of its father, the oral-era. But the battle will be finally won, and it has to succumb to the capitalist printing-era.
Example : In 16th century Europe, the church has fought quite hard against democracy and secularism. It employed scare tactics, by frightening people that without monarchy and a strong church, there will be utter anarchy. In contemporary world, radical Islam frightens the believers that liberal democracy is kafir, equivalent to idolatry.

A society living in a capitalist printing-era conjures images of religious fundamentalism and monarchy of the writing-era, during its own battle with the computing-era.
Example : In fact, Europe, USA and Japan are fighting this very battle now. The right wing tries to poison the minds of the population about the battle against fundamentalist Islam. A scheming recording industry scares the people of internet piracy. The existing order tries its best to divert attention away from the questions of our time.

Before Michel Serres, another philosopher Karl Marx has attempted to a similar diagnosis of human society. But his theory of Marxism is as away from a correct diagnosis, as Lamarckism is away from Darwinism. Lamarck indeed had a revolutionary idea - that animals could change their form over the course of time. He theorized that the giraffe has just protruded its neck to catch the tall juicy leaves, and the neck just got longer and longer. But this is just not true. The unit of evolution is not the animal (phenotype) but the underlying gene (genotype).

Inspite of his courage in thinking of human society in a scientific manner, Marx had a wrong theory. He theorized that hard technology (phenotype) brings about societal changes instead of soft technology (genotype). Indeed, the communist philosophers of the Soviet Union just hoped that Lamarck had been true. Russia had been no capitalist country when the Bolsheviks imposed the socialist pattern. Neither had been China or Cuba, or any other communist country. The Russian communists aspired that, if only they pushed their necks long enough, they might catch the tall juicy leaves. But this is disastrously wrong. Each of these revolutions had been a retrograde step : killing a capitalist printing-era in favor of a monarchical writing-era. It is for this reason that communist countries exercise a severe censorship and thought control. It is unfortunate that Indian communists are still flaunting the same rubbish which has been tested by time to be utterly wrong.

The job of the progressives is to help the world get in terms with the technology, as quickly as possible. This would mean favoring a writing era over an oral era (religion over race), favoring a printing era over a writing era (market over religion) and favoring a computing era over a printing era (internet over market) - in the above order.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

S n o w g r a p h

I have always been facinated by snow. The shape of a snowflake, its size, and the path it takes as it falls on the ground - each of this is the output of a complex mathematical equation that has thousands of variables. What would take a supercomputer a couple of hours to simulate is done by nature in a couple of seconds. And what more, there are billions of them snowflakes in one single day of snowfall. Each of them is uniquely beautiful.

After a long hiatus of 3 years, I resume to muse on this blog over the philosophy of snow. The topic of today's musings is what I call the snowgraph - the particular pattern describing which parts of the earth are covered by snow and which are not. Given a terrain with some variation of texture, windwardness and overboard traffic, nature solves a binary labeling problem - which parts of the terrain to cover with snow and which not.

The problem is interesting if the temperature of the earth is a little higher than freezing point, that is, so sufficiently high that a single isolated snowflake would melt away immediately after touching the ground. But when a crowd of snowflakes fall on the ground, a pattern will still emerge. The snowflakes will be floating islands of lower temperatures, sorrounded by a warmer ocean of atmosphere.

This accumulation of snow into a pattern will happen, if and only if the average frequency of a random snowflake hitting a portion of the terrain is higher than the time it takes on that terrain-portion for an averagely sized snowflake to melt away. Both the above variables depend on a complex assortium of factors such as the thermal conductivity of the terrain-portion, the windwardness of the terrain-portion and the thermal energy generated over the terrain-portion by traffic passing overboard (people/cars/water/..). Nonetheless, all these factors integrate with each other to produce the snowgraph. The snowgraph captures all the complex dynamics of this integration. This is nature's way of compressing information.

Now the interesting question is, can we discover the hidden forces that gave rise to the snowgraph (for example, by observing and analyzing an aerial photograph of the terrain) ? This is a fascinating piece of detective work. Given a photograph of a terrain in summer and in winter - one bare and one covered with snow, can we detect if either of them is fake ?

Most of the interesting questions of nature are of this kind. We have the snowgraph standing before us. But we have no idea why it is like that - why only parts of the terrain are covered with snow and why not the rest.

Why do we have five fingers on each limb ? Why do we have hair on top of the head but not on top of our palms ? Why are our palms soft and sinewy instead of hard and metallic ? Why do we have eyes on the top of the face, instead of having them over a prehensile object like our hands ? These are questions interesting not only to biologists, but also to roboticists who want to simulate these phenomena. Each of us is a snowgraph. Each custom in our society and culture is a snowgraph. Each object and each phenomenon in nature is a snowgraph - uniquely mysterious and uniquely beautiful.

The laymen amongst us abandon these mysteries and proceed with the daily routine. The believers amongst us give a ready answer - saying that it is God or whoever they believe in that did it all. But those few men amongst us who are bit by the curiosity bug, they dig deep and wide, and they unravel the mysteries of each snowgraph.