Fact Control Check

All news lacks truth to some extent, i.e. – it can never be fully verified. The mere absence of the reader/observer, makes it impossible for them to fully know and assess what exactly happened and why. This opens up plenty of room for a middleman – the reporter, the editor, the media company, the megacorporation and the state. Add to that the fact that news, once in the past, becomes all the more difficult to track and verify. So, it is safe to say, that all of us are walking around with some half-truths we take comfort in knowing – nothing new or wrong in that. And that there is alot that can go wrong in the multiple layers through which information makes its way as news to us.

Media outlets and digital services which involve a social platform of any kind cannot go without a front or an act which engages in some level of fact-checking. Nowadays, in fact (pun intended), it is expected that a piece of news should carry a tag of its trueness. It doesn’t matter who is checking the veracity, the information must ultimately be true in the eyes of this verifying party, or the platform. The platforms try hard to convey that this verification party is independent and reputed (usually is a cabal), and ofcourse, a casual user would not bother going past a few clicks on the topic’s veracity. The platforms still have the final say as masters of the technology. So, if a ‘fact’ is checked and proven to be true, they can still not let it fly if it goes directly against the company’s agenda.

This also creates a false-demon, especially for the younger or late adopters of the internet, that propaganda and information control is something new and very unique to the internet. It tries to erase the key historic role of mainstream traditional media in propaganda, and positions the discontent and rage against independent individual sources in this new digital battlefield. Somehow, all their previous crimes are absolved, because this new medium has a faster and wider outreach. When the internet was not around, it was only easier for them to get away with the biggest lies ever told, so now they create a boogieman. There is a good reason why newspapers consistently choose words and slogans reinforcing their commitment to truth and bravery.

The trend of fact-checking is going to be a short-lived one – it is an attempt at self-preservation by an industry and related professions which are about to be made obsolete by technology. The assumption that the internet can be controlled like this comes from the lack of understanding. Many have tried. A common man with his camera can report things to the whole world as they happen. This man alone replaces an entire vanful of crew which could only deliver a correspondent talking over looped footage for two minutes. Machines are already doing most of the research, writing and editing work – so that is also taken care of. The landing pages of the news-giants begging for a subscription speak a lot – this was not the case a couple of years back.

The control over the spigots of information is their last stand. But this is where they falter – while they blame AI being used to create misinformation / disinformation / fake news, they also accept the importance of using AI to catch and control this dangerous knowledge. They forget that technology is neutral, and it won’t think twice before replacing them and even maybe benefitting the centers of ideas they set it up to fight.

The role of the newspaper will be reduced to that of merely gathering content using its own algorithms from citizen reporters, and then posting it in a news marketplace where other sophisticated algorithms will verify and select the competing pieces for their aggregators. Ofcourse, information will never become free from control; but the propaganda, will come clearly cut in different tiers, and with reducing central authority. The AI delivered propaganda will be what the swarm desires, or even needs. I bet that it will be a lot of pro-AI news, to begin with.

This shift is occurring, and the new systems that arise will take time to stabilize, but they will stabilize for sure. And that is a fact.

Sandstorm, In A Shower

Where does this thought take birth?
And who is the one that is thinking? And who thought before Him?
And who acts? And who acted before Him?

The highest and clearest thoughts entangle with the fleeting present; and deep in one’s senses resides the past – sometimes clearer than present, many a times visible as scars. There is something electric about it – an arc and a burn mark.

He observes the world through a lens that is coated with the never-settling dust of existence raised by the winds of time. New patterns over new patterns – sometimes information, sometimes knowledge.

He stands still amidst the shifting sands and takes comfort in the change, which is a feeling of movement. He pretends to remember the shape of every dune which He saw until now – attempting to navigate the past. Hopefully chaining these memories he thinks, “Surely, I must be going somewhere.”

But, He forgets that He is also the grain of sand in this desert, like the others living and unliving. This thought extends beyond Him, into all He can touch, hold, think of or name. It’s not His anymore. And in this churning there are sparks; the flashes let Him see briefly, remember and think; of the fleeting present, imprinting a memory or leaving a scar.

He is close to finding out. It must be the desert. It must be the wind.


The You In Your Phone

Look at your phone – the way its setup, the layout of app icons on the homescreen, the most used apps, the total number of apps, the theme it has on, the wear on the body, how close is it to running out of storage space, which brand it has stamped on it, how new it is, how frequently it rings, how loud its kept, how bright it is, the number of hours it is stared into, how protected it is, how quickly it discharges, how slow it is and what decoration it has. Think about how those little things about your device describe you.

Within its screen is a sacred space for your consciousness to navigate through at ease. It is not the simplest of tools made by man, yet it is available to all and usable by most. This little monolith you carry with you – plastic intricately fused with sand and metal – this is the tombstone of the modern man, which he carries with himself. He perfected all the techniques and knowledge to give himself a new rock. And for this award, he will forego all the other old ways he had devised to be remembered. He will throw away his talismans, tags, chains, watches, rosary and rings.

Similar things, though, could be said about other objects we use, but the mobile phone is the object we reach out to the most, consistently, throughout our waking days and nights. There is no other object which centers our physical existence like the mobile phone.

Such a recent change, and why should I not fear something like that.

Tastelessly Building Civilizations

All civilizations were built by men and women who ate bland food. They tasted what was on their plate at its most natural, closer to the source and mindful of it – this was food which was not washed away by herbs and spices, and its identity. In that moment though, their own mind was at its utmost clarity working without the chains of taste. They ate less and only when they were hungry. Food was intended to be nourishment, and not pleasure. Hunger was a common and a natural feeling, and no one reacted to it the way we react to it now.

But, these creators of civilizations might have unknowingly been building it all for a future where their sons would pursue taste and other vanities more fervourously. With the food security that modernity creates, the practicality of food has been surpassed by leisure. Today’s food is too rich and we do not have to work for it to taste as good. It caters to the tongue but not the body. This does serve the industry which thrives on giving it this role, but this industry is also answerable to no one.

There is also the rare nobility in blandness and simplicity of food. It can be found preserved across traditions in acts and roles concerning purity, service to God, mourning, sacrifice and health. There is something pedestrian about food that has all the ornaments of grease, spice, sugar and heat – everyone loves it, it doesn’t take much to appreciate it. We also see that both dietary factions of carnivores and vegans converge when it comes to not cooking one’s food. Their reasons might be to preserve the desired nutritive qualities, but it is also the taste which is preserved. Come to think of it, any act of preservation changes the taste of the food, which has directly or indirectly led to the hedonistic face-stuffing we see today. With the change of labor from physical to largely mental, the diets of the elites and the masses have also swapped – it is now the elites who pay more for a diet of a medieval peasant, and the masses now survive on hyper-processed monotony packaged for instant consumption.

Krishna speaks of diet in the Bhagavad Gita often; in a sentence, that – your food affects your thoughts, and eventually your karma. This awarenesss of one’s diet extends to its source, on how the food is acquired and prepared. Even in these times, we loop to the same conclusion with the influence of gut bacteria on brain activity. If diets can make you feel depressed or happy, can they not shape your entire vision of the world, which also affects your action? And what impact does leaning toward a type of diet have on an entire society/generation? Which foods build civilizations and which foods destroy it?

The Human Drive

What makes humans carry on? How have they come down this path?

Human progress, at its skeletal, is about elongating life and spanning all space (by saving time). The human story is about becoming immortal and omnipresent.

The universe is immortal and omnipresent. The choice will eventually come down to either – giving up one’s humanity, or becoming the universe.

This pursuit, ultimately, is of the traits that have been attributed to God. We selected these traits for Him, as a subconscious reminder for ourselves. But, was this reminder a lure, or was it a warning?

Conditioned To Consume; Conditioned To Rule

We are the results of the conditioning our societies expose us to. Intended or not, as a positive outcome, the conditioning prevents the degradation of larger structures into chaos and non-cooperation (which they eventually do). This conditioning also sows the seeds for all the emotional and moral problems we experience in the society. Making humans work together in large numbers – people whom they share nothing common with, requires the invention of a lie. It is the easiest to blame just one or two of these – religion, nations or money; while leaving a special place of honor for the third one. But, all three are the timeless tools of conditioning, and also inter-dependent.

The structure which is forced upon the individual must find its outlet. These outlets are, for now, being channeled for better control with apt technology that addresses them. Inlets were always easy to manage, it is the outlets which still need work., but we are getting there. The tendency is high that these outlets often take the route of violence. Those are times of change, when a new recipe for conditioning is tried and we move from one bottled-formula to another. The monkey-mind which makes this outlet be unpredictable and ungovernable is also the same monkey-mind which seeks conditioning. It must latch onto something which brings a sensation of belonging to the tribe. We will do anything to belong – all culture is just about belonging to the group, all culture is conditioning.

We can look at social-conditioning as a gradient within a sphere, with an ever changing cultural command at its core, and its crust being most different from it. The crust, or the fringe, is out-of-step and often in conflict with this dynamic zeitgeist at the center. The zeitgeist will always be open to trying out some part of the fringe, but it is quick to discard and forget, and cycle through it. The mainstream’s values and ideas are as distant from the brothel in a city, as they are from a small independent church in a village.

The conditioning closest to the core, ever in flux, is of the kind which benefits nation-states and the market – this is where the modern man is educated, to become a good customer and an involved voter. The further one moves away from this core, one sees more rigid structures and loyal tradition, smaller groups and more individuality. True, that a person living in a tribe has his world-view shaped by the fifteen people he knows, but yours is shaped by a faceless advertising agency and is no different from at least ten thousand people in your city – who is now more original in their thought? Who is the one popping pills for anxiety? Who is the one ranting and complaining about everything, and involved in the lives of people he doesn’t even know?

Originality, whenever it surfaces, is just a mutation of thought – an anomaly in a string of unoriginal second hand experiences. And what if, that very perfect blend of second hand experiences caused this original thought to emerge in the first place? Ultimately, the individual must decide the level of compromise they are willing to make with the society. They have to test how much they can diverge from the mainstream, without getting penalized. Their groups must also work with that realization in mind. Cults, for this very reason, in their rate of emergence and divergence become an easy target for the society. At the other end of this, controllers of culture – governments, organized religions and corporations, also often push for divergence – but these pushes are of the safe and planned kind, with an assumption that culture can be controlled to achieve an agenda. What they do not wish to accept is that cultural conditioning is not conscious, even when it might seem that way temporarily. The anomaly does always arise, in some minor way, where the individual writes his own little book of laws in his heads.

In our own lives and stories, we often overlook how much of our own identity and actions are built on unoriginal tastes and choices. We are told to feel and react in a certain way for a certain situation. We are encouraged to have opinions, but only if they are not too divergent from what is being spoken casually on the streets. For each of these liberties and choices which define us in the modern world, we are encouraged to also consume something to make it look or feel valid. In the hand of the industrialized society, this becomes a model of governance – to rule via consumption for largely manufactured needs.

Even the peculiar life-choices, diverging away from the mainstream, are just a moment in the past which amazed the eccentric – it was a story of someone else he saw or heard, and in its pursuit he built a replica of it. But this is never an exact replica, because his own experiences differ uniquely, and eventually it becomes his own piece, only to be replicated by someone else. Social outcasts and rebels, unlike what they might think, are also not able to be completely free from this – their identity is a patchwork of other ‘influential’ lives at the fringe which fascinated them.

Coming back from the verbose segue, in short – all of us are not free from social conditioning. Even when we do become aware of it, and act to reject it, the outcome is nihilistic and can lead us to dark ends. There is also the path of non-participation, to not react to the conditioning and then mastering the inner reality – this is what the yogis and other spiritualists can do. Again, non-participation is not an easy journey and not for everyone. It offers its own temptations in groups, which the establishment almost always reacts violently to. The third one, though in participation with the system, is the awareness and self-awareness of social conditioning which a leader exhibits. I have increasingly begun to believe that the leaders of thought and societies across the world were aware of this conditioning they were born into. Their rejection of it, while participating in it, is what the system automatically selected for. Their anomaly found a way out at the top only to trickle down and repeat the process once over again.

Data: What Was / Will Be Always Lost

When we look at humans and their progress, it is the story of information which was condensed to become human-knowledge. It is easy to overlook the tools invented along the way to preserve and retain this knowledge easily. We have gone from writing letters on sand and mud tablets, to storing entire libraries within a grain of sand. Each one of these tools of storing information has its benefits and drawbacks – the latter is often neglected only until the next new medium and method becomes available.

Atleast for the things in the physical realm – paper, sculptures, carvings have a longer chance of surviving if they find the right environment. Even in its degradation – physical data, I feel, is more forgiving. There is real effort involved in destroying information represented in a tangible medium. More time, if not less, is also required to create this information in the first place. It is possible to salvage from physical ruins which could only be created by thousands over decades, to see traces of drawings that once a playful child scratched on a rock, to find an act embedded on a path or the foundation of a house as a footprint, or smoothened by wear – all of these convey some part of the information about that place and time. The physical world provides a greater range of media to leave information into – and it is always available and being written on.

Language is that offshoot of the physical realm towards abstraction, which is the most familiar to us. Abstraction offers speed, efficiency and fluidity, but also relies on more complicated and specific tools to create and unpack it. The tools themselves can be lost, or become unrecognizable. Even within language, one could make a scale from what is the most tangible (writing) to what is the most intangible (speech) – another reason why we might have a greater number of written material available to us (even if we might not interpret it correctly) than spoken languages – this applies especially to the pre-electronic media era. Interestingly, the electronic media could be considered to be another distant cousin of language itself.  This abstract medium offers the most utility in storing the more intangible of our physical experiences (like sound and vision).

Digital data, to me, is fragile. And even though it enamours and offers a great convenience of packing so much information available at the speed of light, it stands on a structure which doesn’t take much to fail. It is not just the issue of data’s validity and accessibility, but also of the methods to retrieve it. Firstly, data in itself can get destroyed because of environmental factors and physical damage to the storage medium – both of these, even at a reduced rate can cause the data to decay to a point of becoming completely unreadable or inaccessible. And even if these factors are being accounted for, there is always the common risk of hack attacks, password lockouts, overwrites and accidental deletions. Not that the equivalents of these risks do not exist for physical media, the intangibility here allows for a greater level of ease for all of these to occur. And then there is also the physical world this intangibility relies on. It takes one mass-hack, power grid failure, a skipped backup, a broken phone, a mysterious account shutdown or just a forgotten password to realize how distanced we might be from this realm than we really think. Just like language, digital data offers an ease to transmit information compared to other physical media, but it can also quickly die out if there is no one left around to speak or understand it – this is the case of obsolete software and code, where we lack the tools and the hardware to even read the data from just a couple of years back.

Another way information is lost, especially at a larger scale of availability, is when it becomes too common. In this scenario, everyone assumes that someone else will have the data saved, but no one really does. This is becoming frequently visible in the digital domain as large networks like the internet begin to age. Closely related to this information loss is the common practice of removal on purpose.

But all of these issues are known, and we are still riding on trust, now attempting to decentralize data storage – which might just be the best possible way for us to retain the information we are generating at an ever increasing rate. Most of us do not think that the most personal of our chats, memories, movements, images, secrets and thoughts are residing on multiple hardddisks across the world, hooked in and being swapped out constantly in a warehouse.

But, I also think of an unknown genius of our times, meeting an untimely death, leaving behind thoughts and ideas locked up in a disk or a cloud account. These will never be revealed to others even when some services allow for retrieval, not many will bother and sifting through a person’s lifetime’s worth of data will atleast take another lifetime. His ideas would have had some fighting chance to be found, if they were written up in a diary and hidden in a hole in the wall.

If you are for maintaining your own or humankind’s legacy, and in preserving it, you will not enjoy the ride that’s ahead – no doubt that the tools and media will definitely improve, but a lot would have already been lost by then and inbetween the increments. If you are concerned about privacy, you can take comfort in the fact that your data will eventually be lost. Someday, this post too would become obsolete enough to be moved to a sole backup disk which is not cared for enough, and all that I have written here will be lost.

Life’s Lessons From Harddisk Crashes

Many years ago, on a winter night, I restarted my laptop amidst a Windows update. The computer did not boot properly again, as something had gotten corrupted (Windows 7), and I did all the wrong things to get it back to a working state. By the time I could hear early morning traffic of delivery vehicles on the road, I realized I had lost most of my data, which was largely entertainment but also some really old photos and portfolio pieces, ten years of my past in photos – zapped out of existence. No amount of self-attempted software data recovery would let me get back those files. I had overwritten my data multiple times on that limited hard-drive in the panic of trying to fix it. It was a decimating feeling and I had learned a lesson, afterwhich I have slowly created and bettered a routine of regular backups. It soothes an unexplained trait of an archivist, which I have, and have only became aware of in the recent years.

A snippet from that night (seems like a UX issue which started it all) –

It happened today, once again, even though I had been preparing myself for this for years. And surprisingly, it happened in the same manner it had the last time. I remember losing tonnes of data back then- most of my music and movie collection – painfully curated and maintained, were lost to chunks that would take hundreds of years to sew together and make sense. I also lost my sketches and work for the portfolio – I have no idea if I will be able to get them back. So, either I am absolutely stupid or the Linux community needs to make the disk partitioning experience more forgiving and less rigid – it seems like it is made in such a way that the user’s actions ultimately lead him to delete/erase a partition only to clutch his hair for the rest of the night.

But I am glad this happened now and at no other time – if I didn’t have the scattered backups at all, things would have been disastrous. At least it got me into reorganizing my backup storage and to deal with duplicates and other terrifyingly mixed up file structures and content – to look at the problems I had been neglecting. I will have to create a system.

Dramatic, but not the first time it had happened either – this was, what I call, the third crash. The ones before had taken out most of the data with them, but that occured at a time when a lesser part of my life was on the computer –  my life’s work and experiences until then, and my storage media, had been limited in size. Within a decade between 2005 to 2015, things had changed for my generation in India. But, I had no clue it would become what it is now.

The initial few years were very iterative and painful as I was very callous, yet constantly occupied with the idea, and also limited on resources. I went hard at it, probably to compensate for what had happened the last time. My friends also noticed this and they pointed it out, often mockingly. I realized that this was going too far and it did not have to become the centerpiece of my existence. The archivist tries to preserve, but with a deeper understanding that some or all of what he preserves will be lost – all I could do was to not add any noise to it.

Now that I have a system in place (though far from perfect), I do sleep at night without a worry – owning less, consuming and generating less, and accepting that all the information ever created will eventually be lost at some time. The realization prevented this habit from malignizing into an OCD-like issue. Yet, it is still amazing to meet regular people who do not care about all of this at all, and would not even think twice if they lost all their data with their phone (which most of them do – multiple times within a couple of years). They also already have most of their lives on their phones or computers. These people already are playing on chaos’ side by its rules without even knowing about it. I like that. I wish I could be carefree like that, and because I cannot be, I had to figure out a middle-ground. Life is all about surfing on the edge of order and chaos, as many wiser have said before me in different words. I sometimes feel that this was a loser’s compromise. But then again, I do not know of anyone who ever won against entropy.

Tragedy of A Family

Like all relationships, families are temporary arrangements, where people come together to co-inhabit with and support each other. The unrealistic dream which makes it work is the hope that all of the members will be together in the future even when separated by work, marriages or individual pursuits. Like most human endeavors, death is not thought much about – until it happens. Regardless, anyone who survives gets to walk away with memories, but walk away they must. The family model, though more isolated and quicker in its cycles in the modern times, is no better or worse than its pre-industrial equivalents.

Every family has its tragedies, which either become the lessons or conflicts of the present day. And, every family is a tragedy waiting to happen. I see it as an inseparable part of the human experience – it is tragic for the ones who get to have it, and also for the ones who don’t. Like all essentials, it is taken for granted, dismissed and sometimes intentionally discarded. Even the ones who do their best to preserve it eventually get crushed to see it disperse despite their most sincere efforts. In all of our battles and methods to running a family, we do not pause to consider its impermanence in moments of joy, nor do we appreciate its integrity in times of difficulty, even as something so timelessly fragile.

There are two ways in which people react to this universal tragedy – one is of denial, holding it as pain or anger, and traps like ‘why me?’, which ultimately harms them endlessly; the other is of a bittersweet thankfulness, that in between the chaos and the infinite layers of time in this universe, you got to laugh and cry with those people you could call your own, and they made you who you are. The home might now be empty, but in your memories it only echoes loudly with their laughter and presence. Who can take this away from you? How you react to this universal tragedy decides your outlook towards your existing relationships, the family you might have, the life that you are living and most importantly – your own end.

Discarding Democracy

The emperor’s divinity was replaced by an equally absurd idea – that an individual’s voice matters in a crowd, and that a crowd of such voices is capable of undertaking well thought out decisions. It was never defined what kind of crowd this must be, and it is assumed that the crowd has common goals, histories, values and aspirations – which it doesn’t. Most of the times, the qualification to be a part of that crowd is to simply be born within a certain geography. Any of the impactful and complex human experiences and identities do not matter. Societies which tried to further detail the definition of this crowd were quickly isolated, demonized and replaced with the standard. Nation states pride themselves on how much of a democracy they are, often competing for pats on the head by Uncle Sam, and imagine the non-democratic countries to be a prison camp from which souls must be liberated.

As a voter, no matter where you lie in your political views, you are bound by this ‘democratic thinking’ where you select a group of people of your liking and see them march hand-in-hand towards a bright future. The mere presence of this mental propaganda poster, regardless of the party signs or the people you see, is a sign that you are enslaved to this type of thinking. This thought is also essential to the survival of the nation state, and you are the least of its concerns, let alone for the people you imagine in that image.

In my younger years, I was fanatical (like most young people) about democracy over anything else. Democracy seemed like the light the world desperately needed more of. It didn’t matter how it was delivered as long as it was being delivered – democracy could fit into bombs and food aid bags with the same ease. It felt just. And as a young person, justice is what you seek in the smallest bits of your existence. The absence of that justice in the real world makes you angry, outraged and volatile. It is a weird age when Ayn Rand seems to make sense but the working class also deserves its own pedestal. Your education informs you of the battles against injustice throughout history until now, and then it leaves you with the momentum – charged up, informed and ready to vote. All the political movements rely on this promise of justice, which can never be delivered, and hence all political involvement relies and feeds off on that youthful rage, which does have its place, but quickly starts looking ugly when exercised past a certain age. For most, according to me, this delusion should end the day they pay their first tax on income.

If you are still stuck on the ‘but my taxes help build roads and bridges’, I think that this conversation was never meant for you. I bet that you decorate your property with stickers of your favorite political party, or worse – your favorite sports team.

Income tax is the most direct and forced transaction and interaction between you and the government. A police arrest comes second. It is only facilitated by the lie, accepted at varying levels, in the statement I just quoted in the last paragraph. Here are some realities of taxes – no matter how much a citizen pays, it is never enough. The return of protections and services by the state is never met or allocated correctly back to the taxpayer. Even in cases where it is stated that it does, it is used for something which the taxpayer never asked for. ‘Here, a new train station to the airport you can never afford to fly out from. Also, don’t get stabbed while getting there. How about some mosaic art on the station walls?’ This is your connection with your government, at its most efficient, least influenced by the the layers of emotions, politicians and analysts. Now, one by one, add these layers to it and replace the incentive of money (i.e. a universal incentive) with a paper slip and the press of a button. This is what democracy is for me.

Of course, there is the bit about participation, grassroots and representation. Nice words. But the moment you talk about them, diluting factors also come in, which range from business interests to the demographics which shape the opinion over yours. You can call your local politician every day but without enough numbers you cannot be heard. Creating such pressure by itself can only happen once you become a part of this system – if you can rally the support of a group of people to get a law passed, you are already a politician at some level even if you do not call yourself one. As you go up the totem-pole, you begin to lose autonomy and the leash gets a more bipolar and ruthless master. ‘I serve the people’, they say.

It is also funny how voting is treated as a very private matter, the booth is covered with curtains as if people cannot look at you or your social media posts and tell whom you would vote for. People have become the symbols of their political parties. I knew before coming the US that one of the American etiquettes was to not discuss politics at work, or with strangers. Maybe 2016 was the wrong time to arrive and make this observation, but since then, every conversation I have experienced at work, school or with a stranger disregards that etiquette. This might be something recent too, where expression of individuality has bubbled over into expression of political allegiance – a necessary dilution? a subconscious cope for a society seeking a group? I am sure that it is the belief in certain specific things which bring people to support the political groups they do; and again, most drama is when people do not walk the line or fail to check all the boxes of the party, which becomes the fodder for commentators of the opposing group. It is an endless cycle. However, I cannot help but be very sure that the people who were at the forefront of these ideas, which attract individuals to gravitate towards a party, were themselves highly distrustful of these democratic establishment. No man who truly believes in a cause also leaves it open to be ruined by politicians.

There is also the state-sponsored drive where the voting process is celebrated, advertised as a duty, encouraged and even pressured for. They reward you with a holiday for it. It is an old trick of the nation state to maintain its relevance – as long as the people believe, it exists. Another interesting observation in the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential Elections were the campaigns on behalf of the social media giants which bombarded their users with ‘Go Vote’ messaging. It was a mobilization of their users, a large part of which was known to vote a certain way. The posts of people with the ‘I Voted’ stickers changed their meaning, from seemingly harmless acknowledgement of participating in the polls to well-targeted political signaling. Top all of this with the voter fraud accusations, which came both the sides of the political aisle in both the elections. This was democracy at work at all its stages in apparently the strongest democratic systems in the world, and I was blessed to witness it from within as an outsider.

I feel that the only reason why democracy remains popular is because it does what it promises – it over-democratizes power regardless of capabilities of those seeking it, and it makes its replacement the only penalty for them. It is not about improvement, fairness or choose what you may – it is about power. For the voter, it is the illusion of the proxy-power it provides. It plays on the strings for him which hit a more primal note – there is something which feels ‘just right’ about the rule of the people. Maybe, it is that brief moment when a society recognizes the otherwise invisible underdog – when they see him go to the polls, with a wish that his vote would align with theirs.

The flaws of democracies, which are at the heart of every dissatisfying piece of news one reads (which is all news), have been well discussed and demonstrated. Some groups know very well how to play this system to their advantage, but it usually ends up backfiring, because the control over the chaos of the crowd is always lost. Having an opinion against this structure is an unholy opinion to hold, but it is a useful one, definitely the one which will keep you alive. Because, you are the one who is prepared and at peace when people are killing each other off over a decision someone else made for them or for a decision they are making at someone else’s directives. The ones who are the most devastated, and even entirely consumed by this structure, are the ones who were the most invested and reliant on it, because they signed away their individuality with the ballot.

I do not know what will replace the collapsing nation states and their democratic structures, (I do not care about them tbh) but I can be prepared for what comes next by unlearning this inefficient concept and its false promises. I am certain that democracy would be getting discarded as we go ahead, it will not vanish but fade out or change its form. One way to look at the future is to be skeptical of technological progress and the darkness that it brings, but another outlook could be of how much closer to nature does machine begin to behave. Humans might finally apply machine intelligence to restructuring structuring society in its most natural form devoid of political structures. It could find the right amount of people forming small bands of flat hierarchical societies local to an allotted land, each group ‘matched’ to its neighbor as a transience of human collective. Maybe the crowd has been subconsciously trying to do just this all along – to use democracy to make democracy obsolete.

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The Matrix – A Shared Experience of Two Generations Shaping Tech

Here, I am using the terms used for certain generations very loosely – I do not think the categorization by birth-years is a good way to classify a generation. Within a generation, at its extreme ends, there are sharp differences in experiences and attitudes; also the same generation in a developing country would have had a very different kind of exposure to technology compared to its developed world counterparts, and it is only the recent generations (late millennials and Gen-Zs) where the tech-exposure, ideas and lifestyles have begun to converge globally.

For me, personally, The Matrix Trilogy is that one story which is an important shared experience between the previous generation and mine. The other might be the TV show ‘Friends’, but that is the blue-pill and we are not about blue-pills here. So, the Matrix. Almost all Gen-Xers have seen the movie, at a time right after when the common person became reasonably comfortable with the internet; and most millennials have grown up watching their older siblings and cousins watch the movie, only to watch it again years later and understand that there was much more to it than good CGI and benchmark-setting action sequences. The deep cultural impact of these films still rings fresh with increasing relevance even after two decades or so. But, since millennials were the first generation which truly owned and shaped the internet culture (I will write about it in detail later), I think that they also had a better understanding of this film and its meaning. While for Gen-Xers, it is just a movie that they watched and remember fondly; it is the millennial who really lives this movie everyday.

All of the dissatisfactions of the millennial – his outlook towards society, humans, money, existence, relationships, entertainment, humor, politics etc. is the very ideological battle between Agent Smith and Neo happening within his mind, now even more isolated ‘from the real’ thanks to his 4G phone. Though such a conflict for a generation is nothing new as there have always been the norms and the countercultures for every time – but, both ideas in the past dreamt of and fought for a better tomorrow. The millennial, like the battling forces of the Matrix in his head, seems to be waiting for the end; as he or she sees society transform through the technologies he once harmlessly learned, bonded with, quickly mastered and now improves for a living (with his older Gen-X sibling up in the C-suite, ofcourse). It is a bipolar existence for a generation with an end-of-the-world zeitgeist. The Gen-Xer also knows the technology well, but he largely views it from a financial and optimization perspective. And that is understood, because for him in his youth it was still about a box which he could program, control and maybe fill spreadsheets with. The tech-shock which older generations experienced when going from analog to digital was so sudden that anything beyond their understanding could as well have been all lumped together as magic – for them, there was no difference between a dial up, a fiber optic or a bluetooth connection. It is the rapid small increments which the Gen-Xer experienced but failed to see. But the millennial sees that because he was the first one to use the internet to substitute connections in the physical world with ones in the digital flatland – it was the first time social fabric was cloned there. But with that, the millennial has also readily inherited and absorbed the thoughts of the radical Gen-Xers – who saw the larger impacts of this technology on society, beforehand and as it was occurring. What was viewed as an extreme or paranoid view towards technology back then is an understood and accepted reality now, even when you comply with it. The average and oblivious Gen-Xer becomes aware of the impacts of this technology only and only after becoming a parent – a conversation which he had shut himself off from in the best of his thinking years. You see that awareness show up briefly in his face when his young one throws a tantrum in public to be allowed to use the tablet or the phone. The awareness usually fades away as quickly as it came, because he cannot connect the dots, or worse – he is incapable of viewing the future as grimly as the millennial does.

It will be interesting to see the shape our society takes in the coming decades – with its belligerent machine intelligence shaping wars and relationships, and surveillance which only death can avoid; all of this set against the backdrop of rapidly changing climate, increasing population and a pulsating debt-bubble of an economy. Millennial anxieties have mostly come true so far, and I must repeat that the millennial sees the end. Or, maybe I am over-analyzing an already overanalyzed work of fiction. Yet, I am sure that people in the future will come back to this movie again and again as the one which defined a crucial crossover period of mankind – regardless of how our future turns out to be. That, I must say, is a great cultural heirloom to share with one’s older sibling.

The Forgotten Dog

As an observer, and a longtime ‘ally’ of street dogs, my journey has been one of fear that turned to friendship and deep understanding. The ancestor of that mutt who greets you at the tea shop, must have probably watched as Nadir Shah sacked and slaughtered the city. His forefathers were here long before yours or mine. People are just temporary with their never ending immigration, I believe that a city belongs to no one but the dogs on its streets. Think about it – from your neighborhood to your friend’s neighborhood at the other end of the city, there are so many overlapping territories of stray dogs – an ever changing parallel landscape and a battleground over which feuds occur, it is a story of its own which will never be recognized or seen. But you can hear it sometimes on wild sodium-vapor fueled summer nights.

Man’s progress is good at covering up the destruction it causes, sometimes the seeds of this destruction are sown for his children to reap. The curse of progress is the neglect of the long term for the pursuit of the immediate, whether it is for profit or convenience. Even when the intentions are good, there are results which are not foreseen until it is too late.

The man-animal conflict in urban areas is all about humans and their dogs. Usually, in cultures which value life, this interaction is friendly and of mutual dependence and respect. But there has been a change, with an increasing gap in the Indian mind between itself and the nature it is a part of, which leads to overprotective paranoid parenting. It is successful in instilling in blank minds the idea about animals either being a commodity of fun, or a source of danger when not commoditized. The fear remains even in fully grown adults, with all of their machismo melting when there is a lazy pack sleeping outside the ATM our boy has to get to, in the middle of the night.

And every now and then, there are cases where a pack of dogs maul a careless child, or an adult who gets too jumpy in front of them. While the western world takes the Caucasoid approach of eliminating any source of a problem by killing it, India still has had a more tolerant atmosphere so far. But there are cities and communities where dogs are not treated with the slightest of respect one would have for a living being – countless cases of abuse show up every year and the animal protection laws are also weak. And this is just the state of dogs, which among other animals in the kingdom garner the most pity and compassion – the other animals just live in hell, especially if they are politicized. I should point out, however, that at least in the developed world they do give the captured strays a chance at finding a home before they put them down. In India, if the city does not have a warm corner for the street dog, it resorts to sticks and stones to the head, and sometimes the younger dogs can even end up as crocodile feed at the zoo (or so I have heard). But there are safe havens, like central Delhi, where dogs live in privilege on the streets – or at least that is how it was like when I was growing up in that area. Unfortunately, when I returned to my neighbourhood after a span of nine years, not a single stray dog was to be seen – this was a successful sterilization program.

In places where dogs are not actively culled, the bleeding heart animal rights activists suggest that dogs be castrated/neutered and that will put an end to them breeding and propagating themselves further. Again – man playing God intervening with nature’s perfect systems. Light eugenics – because only the pedigreed dogs have the right to reproduce, all mutt-bloodlines must end. This is pretty classist if you come to think of it. And it is not that these carefully preserved and prized pedigree dogs come free from genetic issues. This is just more subtle than a mass-killing, but killing nonetheless. Then again, we have not really had problems with forced-sterilization of humans in the recent past either.

Sterilization is seen as the middle ground between people who love dogs and people who absolutely despise them. It is an insurance of a dog-free neighbourhood in the future for the latter group, and in return they must tolerate and not kill them through the various means they had employed before (it is still common for some disgruntled person to poison the neighbourhood’s stray dogs or false claim attacks and report to the municipal authorities). Sterilization and neutering are also sold to owners with an added list of health benefits which seem too good to be true. I wonder which dog sterilization procedure drug or surgical tool company pays those vets for their conferences – if that is even a thing. Adoption is another solution, and is picking up with the bourgeoisie, but this arrangement might be a tough compromise for the free spirit that toughed out in the open world, now locked and crazed through the afternoons in your 3BHK shithole.

Now, here is something to think about – the street dog of India, known for its ruggedness and intelligence is being killed off through sterilization. This is a huge loss in the steps to evolution of the species, it was evolution in the most natural way possible with the least amount of intervention of humans. I take that back, by now, these dogs must have evolved a gene which lets them digest in copious amounts the oily meaty leftovers that are dumped at the back of restaurants. These are dogs that have mastered the dynamics of human society at its worst and coldest, which is on the street. Any misfits have been swiftly killed off by humans since the beginning of human settlements. These are the dogs of the future cities, not your Siberian Husky which you are trying to keep alive in the Delhi summer with Arvind Kejriwal’s free electricity. These are countless dogs – pedigreed and wild, who have assimilated into the landscape and climate. We are killing the best of the dogs that will ever be and this will be an intangible and living cultural heritage lost forever. 

If we have gone too far on the path of sterilization, we can, at the very least, have some sort of a genome sequencing or embryo preservation initiative for stray dogs. I am sure that desi dog aficionados would happily back such a project if some bored biology major/canine expert decided to work on this.

Rethinking Rakshabandhan

It is a surprise that the festival has survived through its transition from organic to something highly manufactured – right from the logistics to the main object of focus. Amidst my thoughts on how the entire custom has changed in these times into an impersonal delivery through a gift mailing service, I recall the hastily written letters, grooved with the handwriting on the unwritten side of the folded paper – sometimes it would be torn from a notebook and the other times from a fresh ream. Even before unfolding this message and reading it, the density of this script would give an estimate at the time-window she got to find this year in her hectic schedule – regardless of that, it would still go into my box of memories. And in that haste would also be a half-open pack of teeka and rice powdering and staining the whole envelope from the inside. Its smell would mix with the scent of the rakhi creating that unique sensory imprint of this festival.

Now, it is nothing like that – just a neatly packaged rakhi with a generic printed message. The biggest content of the envelope is a discount coupon for the next order.

Rakhis put more plastics on my wrist than a digital watch.

It has been a few days and I am planning to take the rakhis off my wrist. I am thinking of all the plastic and how it has increased its share against other materials that were used in the decoration and details. Ideally, I am supposed to leave these under a tree when I discard them but these particular threads will have to be thrown into the recycling bin, which doesn’t feel like the right treatment for something your sisters spent time selecting and stressing over its successful delivery to you. I see the damages of this product’s entire life-cycle compared to what it was originally intended to be – a mere thread. One is a product, another is an artifact.

The simplicity of the thread makes it iconic and beautiful, maybe with a personal touch of something she added that will burst into life at the roots of a tree – that would be enough, which is possible by freeing it from the ugliness of the over-ornate that has infested every aspect of our lives. Unless the people who practice this tradition start considering sustainability and simplicity seriously, this topic will become yet another matter of government intervention into their belief system in the coming future. Complaining then surely will not help.

Removing the layers of consumerism from our festivals is important, and looking at the original practices – the ancient practices, at their simplest, also reveals their environmentally conscious set up.

Language & India’s Education System

A Personal Journey:

My appreciation for the languages of India grew when I came to study in a foreign land. While cohabiting with people coming from very different parts of India, I saw how strong the common cultural thread of this country is, regardless of the geography or the language, its presence is good enough a sense of familiarness one seeks living thousands of miles away from home. Here I was able to break free from my close-minded approach (having lived in one city all my life) toward other languages of the country. I found comfort in groups where languages unintelligible to me were being spoken, even when I could not understand a bit of it, there was something strangely homely about them – maybe it was the people themselves or occasional words which I could catch, or maybe it was how social interactions remain common across the country even when the language differs. I was like an infant, soaking it all up, not just hearing but reading the faces to build the context of the conversation.

This is the same position where a lot of people complain that certain groups or communities immediately switch to their native language and do not speak in a commonly understood language, English – in this case, there is mention about etiquettes etc. But then all of us are guilty of doing this, the group always comes above the individual. Rather than complain, I approached it with an open mind and this experience only made me more curious about India’s languages – the ones I have overlooked, the ones I mocked and the ones which were supposed to speak but couldn’t. As sad as the state of affairs might be, I am glad I have come to the point of this awareness.

Questioning my own attitude towards foreign languages and the rich languages of my own country, living with them, and experiencing their loss along with that of my very own mother-tongue, I will share some ideas on how we have come to this, why and how we continue the way we do, the problems arising out of it, and some ways this can be realistically fixed.

The Past:

There was a time when all languages in the sub-continent contributed to preserving, thriving with and augmenting the Dharmic thought, with great literary works translated from one language to another and new languages literally evolving from the previous ones, merging entire sections of the land together culturally. Obviously, as information was not as instantaneous and not cradled inside a foreign civilization as is today, things could be labeled as safe – the culture evolved, checked itself and matured steadily to become all that which struggles to survive in the noise of today.

The hierarchy of languages, i.e. difference in the languages spoken by the common folk and the ruling class also existed before India was ruled by foreign powers, but both the languages often interacted, co-evolved and remained native to the land and thus did the ideas. One can see strong commonalities of all sorts between cultures separated thousands of miles apart within this landmass – these are not just limited to customs or religious practices but how individuals think and act. This is the Dharmic thought.

Surprisingly, even during the Muslim rule, despite the court languages being either Arabic or Persian, (both of which influence contemporary Indian languages heavily through thousands of loan-words) native languages were not fully uprooted. The emphasis was on carrying forward the word of the book, regardless of the medium, and education systems were attacked right away – burned down, but not replaced or mutated into something which propagates their agenda. Though destructive, it was something which the culture would have survived and successfully assimilated with, and it did. Languages like Kashmiri took on the Persian script, Urdu was created in Delhi and such.

The British had a different approach altogether, they needed a class of Indians who would serve them in a better capacity to run and administer this huge landmass, but also act as a cultural and racial buffer between this colony and the homeland. Because in any imperialist setup, culture travels both ways – by this time, reshaping the education system was a verified buffer-enabler that prevented the much feared reverse flow of culture. Now, ideas could be controlled, shaped and reiterated if they were not palatable to the folk back home. That said, one can’t really blame the British for doing what they did – any ruling imperial power in their place would have taken similar measures to prolong the rule abroad and preserve the culture within.

English In India:

The blame for the current state of things lies on no one but us. Instead of re-evaluating the system that was left in our hands after independence, we carried on with the same structure (with superficial changes) of which language is only a small part that pokes out – like a broken bone. This is a pain we have gotten used to unless it gets touched every now and then. And while English education and our emphasis on it did offer its advantages, especially when it came to serving (yet again) in the markets set up by the powers which once ruled over us and others, it has led to a lot of new problems internally (not to forget being mocked for speaking English in one’s unique way even when the grammar or vocabulary is often superior to a native speaker’s). I am sure other post-colonial nations are dealing with similar issues but theirs might be way less complicated as the ill-effects in our case just undergo a combinatorial explosion with every new language you throw into the equation.

Though there is nothing wrong with things converging to English, as the internet, wealth, media and entertainment are currently centered around English-speaking nations. What is interesting is that while other sets of non-English speaking populations, that make up a huge chunk of the world, have carved their own independent communities and systems freeing themselves of the dependency on English. Some countries, out of necessity, and some out of sheer pride, have managed to prevent the influence of foreign languages on their own culture, regardless of whether they were ruled by an imperial power or not.

The positions of power in newly-independent India went immediately to the educated English-speaking elite, regardless of their political leanings or religion. Even when the policies have always been to appease and benefit the farmer, the soldier and the poor; the leader and the kingmaker come from an elite group where speaking English (to some level, at least) is a requirement. This only feeds back into continuing a system that was set up originally by the colonial power.

This results in creating a system where the chances of a person succeeding in the Indian society are directly affected by their command over English, and even though English is taught at most schools, there is a huge disparity in the quality of that education. This has led to the creation of a class divide at an intellectual level. At a superficial level, this divide can be observed by just glancing over differences between English media and entertainment and their counterparts that are in local languages. At a deeper level, this divide exists in academia which affects policy and politics, while remaining oblivious to the cultural needs and moods on the ground.

Anyone who struggles in speaking English fluently is not dealt with a mature understanding, which would be along the lines of – ‘This is not his or her first language.’ but something more like, ‘This person must be pretty dumb because they cannot pronounce certain words/use incorrect grammar.’ This thought infects all Indians at all levels, regardless of their own proficiency level with the language – the linguistic pecking order! This is a topic of jokes at all levels of aggression, but the crux is to judge a person’s worth by their command over this foreign language. And sadly, this does hide a reality within it, where in the hierarchy of the society, English is what judges your worth and places you in this new varna-system.

Education System:

All parents wish the best for their child, and given how things are set up, an English education is a must in their list of things to provide. This is a desire that spans all social and economic boundaries in India, the privileged ofcourse do not have to think much about it apart from circumventing the hoops elite schools place in their intake, a questionable practice in itself. The less privileged aim for any school that might have an English class or at least mentions that in its advertisements plastered un-aesthetically over public property.

English is not a problem for the privileged classes as they are usually the households that themselves converse in English and their children attending schools with children from similar backgrounds only makes English the least of their concerns. Here, English classes are light coursework and everyone has a ball. At a university level, most majors are centered around English, and this completes the cycle by contributing a workforce back into the English-thought run post-colonial machinery – doesn’t matter whether it is the government or business, the deracination occurs effectively with every batch.

Now things get more complicated for the households where English is not spoken. Neither of the parents know the language and try to make that push into making their child study English – this has to be their lottery ticket and in their desperation, they are willing to bet the ranch. The results are not as easily predictable as with English-speaking households, with most coming out of the system with sub-par command over the language (thereby being unable to compete with their better educated counterparts) and the ones who do in fact get benefitted, enter the elite club mentioned above – it is true that the financial situation might improve ten folds within a generation but the tremendous loss which occurs at a cultural level is irreparable.

The schools where these children end up in, apply various methods to enforce students into conversing in English, some include corporal punishments or minor fines (reminiscent of the Missionary-run schools during the Raj), but realistically, none of this works and no amount of “Speak in English!” threats can make students coming from similar non-English speaking households converse in English outside of their daily one hour lesson. Things do improve however if there is a mixture of students coming from different backgrounds, but this too is a rarity with the rapidly rising divides in the society.

Now the effects of this difference are not just limited to mastering English but also are about the sciences and the social sciences, all of which are taught and tested for in English – if not at high school level, then at university level. The students from this latter group of households have to work extra hard to first get over the hurdle posed by the language and then to absorb this new content. An uphill task which few succeed in getting through, but there is a majority that gets left behind, partly-trained and partly-confused.

Come to higher education and research, where most instruction and reporting is conducted in English – the knowledge gained from research or observation drifts and compartmentalizes to the English speaking audience. Once knowledge is being imparted in the tongue not native to the land, how can we even dream of bringing it to the masses and making them understand it at a deeper level – the equal opportunity much often talked about can thus never be achieved. How can it be accessible to minds that are inquisitive and brilliant but are only held back by the inability or lack of resources to learn a foreign language. The lack of access to this knowledge has trickled down into the very primitive concepts that still have to be manually updated by a board/committee every few years, with their own redactions and biases, where new terms are just transliterated and localized from English thus causing further erosion of vocabulary and ideas.

Regardless of the stage in life you are at, the confidence and value placed on oneself takes a beating consistently only because of a single language one is unable to speak, regardless of one’s actual capabilities. Why, thus, would we not be the under-confident and self-sabotaging people that we are?

Complaints about the quality of education are a cliche by now, but the image of a student not even able to structure their own thoughts clearly, let alone rephrase someone else’s complex idea, is a very real thing. What we have now is a mass of educated idiots amidst a collapsing culture who are unaware of their condition and their identity, aggressively seeking a western socio-political definition to their existence. This dissonance is nothing but an experiment gone wrong, where they were meant to think English but they never could, with no fault of their own. The ones who do think English are the ones running the show, again unaware of their condition, but confident in their actions being righteous, which is more dangerous a headspace than conscious malevolence.

All of this said – English cannot be the national language of India.

The Inner Conflicts:

India’s languages are a recurring topic of discussion and mostly, if not always, these are controversial, whether it is the erosion of the native languages and their purity by external influences, or straight-up imposition. The diversity and its beauty has been reduced to in-fighting providing more fuel to the political formula of divide-and-rule. Everyone loves to think of their language to be the best, and immediately shuts the door to anything different, (which is a very human thing to do) but where Indians go wrong is that this bias has an exception, which is English. Indians from two different regions would, by default, prefer communicating in English rather than figuring out a common Indic-language they speak, as one party would often feel it to be a compromise of some sort if they speak a language other than their native tongue which they do know but refrain from using – the trust and understanding needed to make this work lacks from both the sides.

The political center being amidst Hindi speaking States also unknowingly gets influenced by the thought bubble where it is oblivious to the differences and moods of the rest of the country. One just cannot convince a group to adopt your language when their beliefs are strongly rooted in their language being the oldest and best in the world. In such a scenario, imposing a language would only repeat the imperialist practice where the language of the court has now become Hindi, which, ofcourse, makes the speakers of other languages feel sidelined.

The linguistic diversity of India is a strength we have failed to benefit from and now it lingers on in our system, as we quarrel over who speaks and who doesn’t. This very diversity, if prioritized and pushed for at every level, can offer great social, cultural and even administrative benefits. Social in the sense that a large part of the population that gets excluded from participating in the knowledge building process can be included, cultural in ways of bonding the nation through its similarities, and from a nationalist and administrative perspective as something which builds national identity and adds security through exclusivity.

Proposed Solution:

The solution to the Indian education system is directly tied to the languages and how they are taught in its framework. According to me, solving one solves the other. We cannot enforce languages and we, obviously, cannot discard the education system completely for it is tightly bound to the system. But what we can do is suggest and try to bring about a few changes which are realistic and the least destructive in their implementation.

ONE. We must make two Indian languages compulsory (one being of the state or region) for everyone across all education boards. English should hence be a tertiary language, (which can be compulsory or not) depending on the school. This will not only allow the coming generations of Indians to be fluent in two Indian languages but also open up job opportunities for them in different parts of the country without arriving there as a population that gains resentment from the locals for eroding their native culture through passive or active language imposition. This will also fill in a huge gap for jobs that are important but often neglected, like teaching, even if done as a part-time gig. The increase in the demand of language teachers and their movement across the country will offer its benefits in tightening the fabric of the nation as well. What the national highway system did to the United States in bringing them together as a nation, I strongly feel that it will be this improved national linguistic network which will do it for us.

TWO. The other part of this solution is just about adding an additional step in the workings of higher-level educational institutions – where all research papers/dissertations are to be submitted in English along with one Indian language of the author’s choice. So, our student will be contributing not only to the English speaking scientific journals but also to, say, Kannada speaking scientific repositories. This also adds opportunities for translators to play a more active and interesting role, who are presently limited to legal or legislative work. Even if the output is coming from lower-tier colleges and universities, this will rapidly build up the backlog of missing research literature in Indic languages, where recycled projects and plain repackaged low-quality undergraduate research makes up for this gap rapidly. An added benefit of this two-language publication rule would be that with every translated research paper, the training data for machine translations in-between Indic languages would benefit. The uses of this sophisticated system would eventually go beyond just translations but also aid in enrichment of vocabulary in native languages. This will directly affect what is taught in schools, about any subject, as the control over it will be loosened from the hands of an education board that still is very Anglo-centric in its thought – with the Internet, students at all levels who are instructed in their native language will be able to access information from this literature directly.

PS – I just had to put these thoughts out there, even when I know that none of this will be read. All I can do now is watch our society descend into chaos with a clear conscience, unsurprised.

Post-Sensory

They have managed to nail computer vision, and the abilities of machines discern sounds and create speech are better than ever. Presently, the focus has been on the sense of touch – and the interfaces are focusing on the tactile, trying to refine it and give it the quantity (and at times quality) so that a machine may experience it the same way. But taste is what I want them to define next to a machine.

Computer Taste. Taste Recognition. As absurd as it sounds.

Vision and sound have probably been the easiest of sensory experiences for us to mechanize and digitize.  Taste, I feel, shall probably be the last and the most difficult of all senses to replicate. Even with the most refined of present sensor-tech we have created that can detect and quantify a change in the natural world, taste is something at a higher level, it is a combination of the other senses. It is where the touch, smell and vision come into play together. Even with combinations of individual sensor-values affecting brain activity for each item tasted, what we would be able to create further from a model trained on this would only give us the brain activity equivalent, and it would not be replicating the sensation itself.

But maybe it will be possible one day, when the total sensory input gets strong enough to surpass taste, where taste is not necessary as a more powerful sensory dimension would exist in its place and be much more useful to an artificial super-intelligence. It would be like tasting one’s food by just by the sight or smell of it, like how we do countless times in passing.

That sensory dimension sounds a lot like desire.

New Light On Dancing Shiva Symbol

This is a review written by my father which was published in The National Herald on 08/06/1996.

[Dancing Shiva in the Ecological Age: By Henryk Skolimowski, Publisher: Dr. Henryk Skolimowski, International Center for Eco-Philosophy and Indian Institute of Ecology & Environment New Delhi. Paperback. Pages: 214, 1995, Price: Not Written]

The collection of articles by the learned author who is a Professor of Philosophy in the Programme in Humanities, College of Engineering, University of Michigan, USA, is an attempt at giving a new meaning to the dancing Shiva symbol so commonly available in the Hindu temples, Hindu households, museums of arts etc. Although in the Hindu religious mythology, Shiva is one of the Trinity responsible for destruction preceding a rejuvenation, the author tries to cull out the basic essence of Hindu philosophy in which destruction is never final and creation is never complete in the sense that they are all part of the same cycle in which there is no beginning or end.

2. The author has quoted profusely not only from Upanishads, Buddhist literature, Christian theology but also from the present day savants such as Andre Malaraux and T.S. Eliot. The vastness of the range and the depth of the author’s learning is also evident in his mastery of language and ability to use the words as instruments of revelation.

3. Although the volume contains 15 articles each of which can be read independently yet there is a common theme running through all of them. The theme is that man’s relationship with nature should be that of reverence, love, devotion and not otherwise. According to the author, participation at the deepest level is the true essence of life.  there is an interesting article on structures, symbols and evolution. The author describes in some detail what the dancing Shiva symbol of Hinduism means to him.

It is a symbol of continuous metamorphosis, a ceaseless beginning of life, a symbol of fluidity and essentially undefinable character of life. There is something fascinating and mysterious in the conception of universe conceived in the image of dancing Shiva. It is this conception that some of the Western thinkers (such as F.Capre) have evoked to replace the petrified conception of the universe in the image of the Neutonian clock.

4. an abstruse book which could be understood only by a person having reasonable proficiency in philosophy and metaphysics, it seeks to emphasise the wholeness of the universe and oneness of life manifest in plants, animals and human beings.

The author seems to be a votary of Hindu view of life which underplays differences and divisions and accentuates oneness and wholeness. The author feels that the dancing Shiva symbol enjoins upon mankind to feel responsible for the nature and the universe, the responsibility of which will result in the rehabilitation and protection of everything that is good in the world and in turning good of whatever is not.

One could disagree with the author but one can not help feeling moved by the sense of urgency that drips from every paragraph of the book. The author feels that we had better get together our acts including our pursuits of ‘scientific knowledge’ otherwise it will be too late.

– Shashi Bhushan

 

Advice On Advice

4th lap around Rajiv Chowk, as the hazy December sun sets. Guru HS and I go into life philosophy – beyond the books and the terms. A brief mention of some crossroads and I try to suggest the ways forward – 2018 is coming to an end afterall.

He responds –

Macha, giving advice is like the ultimate (ego) trip for the ego. For that brief moment, your ego finds a position of power and influence over the person seeking the advice.”

This is true. There is so much advice afloat, and it is so tempting to be the one giving advice. I guess it is one of those traps.

Maybe that is why, in the Dharmic ideas, the legendary advisory roles have been allotted to teachers, or literal God-incarnates. The former aims that the student surpasses him, which requires the suspension of one’s ego; the latter functions beyond ego and all of that.

Of Dogs & Mountains

Whenever I have hiked in any part of the Himalayas, there has always been a dog that tagged along. And this is something everyone experiences – anyone who has taken a trail leaving a village or a town. The reasons will not be known as to why these mountain dogs accompany travelers in their treks from one village to another, only to mysteriously disappear and reappear again. Maybe they do it as a duty or with the hope of getting some food; or for their own sense of security, to have a human to walk along with through these isolated paths that might harbor some danger. These dogs are the much-mentioned, often-photographed but seldom-discussed aspects of everyone’s Himalayan journey. Their stamina will surely surpass yours and they could do the same trek several times in a day, both ways – your challenge is their neighborhood and one should never forget that. Their friendliness comes from seeing this world right from their doorstep – these are wise beings that must be treated with respect.

Climbing right now, my legs hurt and these urban lungs gasp for the very cool air that makes my ears hurt, and I slump down on a rock to rest. If I climbed too fast, the four-legged friend will come trailing along, I ask him whether it was the flower in bloom that slowed him down or if it were the bones in the grass I had quickly glanced over; if I climbed too slow, he will be up there ahead of me, gazing from some vantage point waiting for me to start again.

In the towering silence of the mountains, away from humans, I become aware of this other being’s presence and the trust and familiarity we have in this short duration of knowing each other. Briefly, I understand what Yudhishthira might have felt when asked to let go of the dog at the end of his climb to the heaven. And maybe the dogs that climbed with me (and you) were indeed Yama in disguise – who knows? But anyway, a part of this story about the final test of a demigod repeats in each and every such climb; staying alive as long as there are dogs, mountains and men.

mount_doggo_climb

The Spirits Of Those Times

What is nostalgia? Why do images or videos from a bygone era crystallize fascination in all of us? Is it the simplicity of the lives lived back then? Is not all past looked at with some yearning for crumbs of positivity, so that our lives do not feel like an utter waste? There is always a past to look to and smile at no matter how bad and unsatisfying our lives have been. Because in it is the fleeting moment at its most familiar, that familiarity is what we relate to our present, for good or for worse.

When I come across imagery from times other than now; if it was the time when I was alive, for me, I think of where I would have been when that image was captured. How the flutter of some butterfly’s wing would have related it to my day.  I think of the objects in that image – that they were the best outcomes, a result of the apex of technology of that time. I try to remember if I had owned or used one of those objects, or if I had interacted with one and, if yes, when did I interact with one for the first time. These can be anything from telephones & chairs to electrical switches. And prior to my existence, I think of where my parents and family would have been, the fake memories from their stories I plant in space and time appropriately. Nostalgia is an expert level family puzzle game for all ages.

Whether it is a video from the 2000s or from the early 90s, there is always something to connect with. Then there are the images from further back in time, and I look at all of them and think of the people in those frames – each and everyone with an important story to tell, their life central to their reality which is the most important of them all. And they walk out of the frame to their lives and days as more like them walk in – these people who are always on the way to something important.  There are ultimate geniuses, and leaders as well as complete desolates and degenerates in those crowds – some of them are now dead and some of them are still around to witness how far we have come. It would be interesting to see how they connect their youth to the media they come across from their times – how does that weigh against their childhood memories and which connections of memories survived and which ones did not? How would have the 90s’ technological boom affected their attitude compared to how our parents recalled their youth?

Old Car Smell

The carcinogenic new car smell is often prized and romanticized, but we never mention the smell of old cars; part motor oil, part petrichor – the smell of the road and the trips it had been on. And now that too is a rarity to come across, because how the design of the vehicle-cabins has evolved.

In the years when cars did not ship at default with an air conditioner and all there was a fan, the body was not designed to seal the environment within the car from the elements, at least not in the same way as it is done today. And as the car would get older, the smell of the road crept in. The lack of comfort compared to the modern car could also be a sign of the machine being closer to its environment than it is now, distant from our range of comforts yet more truthful to what it was and which soaked in everything it had gone through. In these cars, just by the mere smell, one could accurately guess where they had been parked and whether people took care of them or not, or even whether they drove them too much or too little. Car fresheners would also ride the strong foundation of these natural smells, unlike today where they just hit you in the face with the sweaty smell of a closed air conditioned chamber. The only thing I can accurately guess in the modern car is whether someone ate an EggMcMuffin in it in the past two days. And maybe there is a hint of this old car smell on an old public bus, but it still lacks the personal character and lies in public space and use.

But hey, now we are far from that, cars are not cars anymore – just electric carts which you would not even have to drive in a few years. But blessed would be those who saw the automobile at its most raw – a man made machine which was very much a part of its environment, with its own unique smell. Among the various descriptable and undescriptable, tangible and intangible feelings of driving and owning a car, the smell will also be something we will miss when we entirely stop driving as a society.

No, There Need Not Be An App for That

In this post, I would like to talk about applications for digital devices, or anything on a screen for that matter. This topic does not really require an introduction like how it did ten years back, and most of this has been mentioned in places elsewhere but I will ramble because I must. Applications have managed to become a part of almost everyone’s lives, whether they wanted it or not – even the ones who were once very anti-tech find themselves staring at a screen for hours everyday (my mother who once used to blame the computer to be the source of all evil now cannot get by without YouTube and WhatsApp). Since our relationship with technology has changed, so must the degree at which we analyze and criticize it.

For Users:
Privacy –
Our devices have a good number of apps; and apart from the two or three which are essential to going about our lives, most of them are what we did not use after that one time we needed a discount code, or because everyone else was using it and we did not want to feel left out. It is not possible to use all the applications on your phone and function as a normal productive human being, as often promised by their developers. There is more to this compromise – these applications linger on with their bloating updates, keeping an eye over what we are doing till we either uninstall them ourselves or lose/break our phones. Enough has been discussed on this and I would not drag this along further but, in short, – the service never really ends with the transaction.
Attention –
Even if we can view more of what is going on in our screens than ever before, our focus on tasks is diminishing – more tabs and more sources of notifications lead to a complete saturation of our senses and attention. And then, there are apps for improving productivity and focus as well, or that is what they claim. Some have even crossed over on to keeping one enriched through audio while we are doing some other task – I am not really sure how much of that content is retained in our minds compared to sitting down and, say, reading an actual book. All of this seems to perfectly complement a population that is getting increasingly dependent on focus enhancing medication. This only gets worse when expensive smart e-learning packages are sold to institutions – these are nothing but more applications, each with its own set of distractions aimed at the youngest of our populations.
Life-
With that, we have come to a point where the interactions of our existence, directly or indirectly, rely on a digital application of some sort – whether the goal is achieved by downloading an app for a particular task, or is realized by going through multiple layers of digital media to achieve a goal (an example would be – turning your computer on, dealing with its interface and then pulling up a browser that leads you to the website delivering the solution/information required). In this flood, our modern and smart living experience is nothing but us looking at one screen and then moving onto another. The real world just doesn’t have room in our lives anymore and it is just not us who is to blame but also the creators who see an app as an end, or at least a supplementary essential, rather than as a means. People have often talked about how real conversations do not exist when everyone is looking at their phones, but I wish to prod this along even further – do real conversations even exist nowadays without phones? Do most conversations not eventually spiral towards someone pulling out a phone to look up something that would make things more interesting? And when the conversation is in an exciting scenario or leads to a great moment, the need to capture it through photos becomes essential (the real world interaction leads to a great experience which must now be put into and validated through the application realm). The phone gets pulled out regardless. Not to forget that the phone and its make also influences how we are perceived.

For Designers:
To designers and product developers, apps seem like an intelligent & quick solution to what were previously insurmountable problems. The evaluation of a product’s worth is mostly centered around the digital experiences it has to provide, even when that isn’t primarily the focus of that service. The seamlessness of its interaction with the real world and its changing dynamics is one of the key barometers to make this said experience great. This seamlessness also involves the success of that application to keep the user absorbed/pulled in within its ecosystem, away from other ecosystems (which also includes the real world). This competition for attention is a deadly game we are playing with our society and is not really expected when every other design group uses feel-good words like ‘social responsibility’ etc.
I feel, this is something we are not talking about as a community, maybe because of how much it has simplified our living and has achieved a status where it need not be questioned. Also, not to forget, that a lot has been built upon this and a huge industry with its numerous specialized jobs depends on the screens which keep us distracted and unsatiated. For every young designer, having visualized apps and interactions to some extent has become almost like a rite-of-passage. User interface/experience and visual communication design, fields with immense opportunities for research, have somehow gotten fixated for too long in this trap of the app – everyone is focusing on ‘crafting’ these experiences and great products in the form of phone or tablet applications. It is almost as if these designers, by their own will, have forced themselves and the experiences they seek into the guidelines set by the corporate giants. But, if at the end of the day, one is held hostage by a leading device platform developer, and if that is where most of the bread and butter is at, how can one really solve problems beyond the screen? This is an honest question – in a walled garden with a limited number of playing blocks provided (to which the platform developer regularly adds or removes), can you really innovate for the real world beyond a certain point?
If the ever-present and unquestioned goal is to push for a digital product that solves real problems, all the research and the decorative post-its are, thus, useless.

Businesses & Products:
New and old businesses alike, whether big or small, fall prey to the app trap. The reasons are many: it might be because of their desire to try out a new technology without a huge investment or risk, or a push to keep up with the times, or just finding the app-marketplace to be a level ground when competing against big players. The last one probably is stemmed in the overnight successes of independent app developers that became multi-billion dollar corporations. Even within the established digital services domain, some businesses have already ditched their online websites completely for apps while others are slowly phasing them out or are downgrading their capabilities. The reasons for these are both economical and socio-technological, and hence the snowball of applications only gets bigger with every passing year.
One does not need apps to control or manage light-bulbs, shower-heads or keys – these objects serve their own purpose by themselves. A device with apps for that is the intangible equivalent of a purse with all the keys to your home, your passport, your bank account info, your nail cutter, hair trimmer and your toolbox – all of it, in one place, all the time. You have to carry it around and take these objects out every time you need them, must have it all in there regardless. Losing your purse also gives away all of these to someone who finds them, or at least takes them away from your reach, even if the loss is temporary and recoverable. Just because there is no physical weight to it does not mean there is no weight to it.
Apps also encourage obsolescence – while physical parts might be, to some extent, easier to source and create (or at least replace) – code is difficult to break into for repairs by an average user. Open source alternatives completely depend on how impactful the product was during its run and they too might stop once the interest of the community dies out or the overall use of this gets absorbed and closed off as a small feature by the larger fish (discussed below). This effect magnifies if you have a physical product that relies on an app to run. Imagine having a perfectly functioning ‘smart’ light-bulb which cannot function anymore because the application is out of development; or the application now only serves a newer line of products; or it works only on newer operating systems for your devices. To turn that damn bulb back on again, what would you throw and what would you replace?
Apps should be replaced by relevant interfaces that only become salient to the product’s scenario of use and context. And there need not be an app for everything. Even in situations where an application or a digital experience seems to be the absolute necessary for a product or a service, it need not be so at all. All the designer needs to do is step back and look at things through a new perspective.

The Unified Interface & Its Coming:
Usually, there would be a software capable of performing a given set of tasks, anything that would expand its capabilities would be done through a plugin or another software that would use the application in a certain manner. These handy plugins or widgets are suicidal by nature in these times, because once they gather enough user-base, they are rapidly absorbed by the system they rely on or work within. Things which are the USP of these smaller products get picked up and added as extra features to the main apps they rely on. Take for example Maps, you can now call for a cab, lookup places to eat through this single application on your device – sure it might rely on another installed app for this feature to be available, but once enough people start to use these features on this ‘mother’ app, the economic incentives of piggybacking for these food and taxi aggregators become high enough for them to discontinue their standalone applications. Right now, these things happen slowly within an ecosystem or in between applications that work with each other, but soon this will expand into entire operating systems. What we are headed towards is an experience where independent (not independent in the development sense) software would not exist – it would be the part of the operating system where it shows up only when needed.
The focus of the industry is also on VR or personal home assistants, but the song remains the same for this new medium. In fact, it only gets murkier with this – the simple action of whipping out a phone will be completely replaced by the presence which is actually beyond one’s control, we would be incapable to really turn it off. It will soon extend itself to the devices we will interact with or shall be present through someone else we interact with (asking people to put down their phones nowadays is an escalated situation by itself, imagine asking someone to turn off their personal assistant or such entities). The user will become an extension of the interface. The strings of control just became tighter – good luck coming up with socially responsible designs for that.


So simply put, things look bad and will only get worse. And I am not really big on changing this, because there is no other way either – it is just that we can only be cautious and know about the consequences of what has us smitten. The signs of it already show up indirectly through the court hearings, political conspiracies and corporate leaks we frequently read about. Such is progress and it does not come without sacrifices. Behind all disappointment is a hype, behind all utopias is absolute control.

Seasons

In Rochester, weather is the most easiest-to-converse-about topic between strangers. Everyone and anyone can get started about their own snow and storm story. This post is based on one such discussion I had today with a Lyft driver about it – rather than the “back in ___ we got _ feet of snow”, this conversation was more about appreciating this climate, even with its extremes.

Living in the upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere is way different from where I have spent most of my life. Here, all the four seasons are very salient and each comes with its own intensity and beauty.  This is unlike how it is in the temperate climates, it gets hot or cold but your surroundings pretty much look the same throughout the year. Nature reminds one loudly about time as it passes and a new appreciation develops as each year ends and starts over back again.

For people like me, who arrive here in August, it is almost like starting a biography of someone from somewhere in the middle. You get to see the individual age, shrivel up and die, but you also start the book again to see what you missed. Maybe that is how I will write my autobiography, that might help me know myself better.

Fall

The colors of the summer can be found to be lingering on for a month or two and give one enough time to observe what will soon be gone. It quickly rustles away with the winds, the same omnipresent winds which once felt like a breath of life, now carry with them the remains. Life measures time with decay, but in that decay it puts on a grand show, its last colorful push of reds and yellows – maybe a struggling display that this life, these trees, these leaves and flowers, too existed in this space and time. And then they are gone.

Winter

Winters are long and unforgiving, thus meditative. They bring in that necessary pause our lives require. One can just sit for hours and look out at bare trees, with maybe an animal skipping through quickly gathering the last bits before heading home. A crow would often break the silence bragging probably about how it has braved these winds. I am always fascinated by that one leaf which is dry and dead but still clings on to the tree, as if by some miracle it will revive once again; and maybe it does, and no one notices. Even within this stagnation, one can see decay occur – in the wet ends, at doorsteps and carpets, in what happens under the snow and the salt. Life recedes back to the bare necessities, around the heart and the hearth, and the extremes and excesses are numb so we can only hold the layers tighter to our chest, bent in and closed off from the death that stands at its strongest in this veil of stagnation outside.

Spring

The burst of the spring through the sleet, wind and snow, is that reminder of life’s return which one tends to forget about in the months of the winter. This happens almost by magic, within a week or so, and you see life raise its head once again. It feels like it would only get colder there onward and it often does – the winds and the rains crush and dissolve the large chunks of snow that lay out there for months, the same winds which had suppressed life now destroy what they had set. And then, one can see the grasses rise through the snow and the flowers dot the trees. From that, which one assumes to have been dead and stagnant, comes a sign that life was always there. It only survived in decay.

Summer

Summers are absolutely beautiful here in the flower city. It never gets too hot, and rains cool down the weather whenever it gets too uncomfortable. The days are long and the sunsets at 9 pm with their long shadows and the reds make the whole place look like a few places I have seen in my dreams. There is this laze which sets in even in the life people lead here. Now at its most fertile, this is when humans come out – we are the decay which feeds on this tree from the top.

Why did I ramble about the weather of Rochester? I do not know. Maybe this is my ode to it.

 

Cliché – ‘Feel Good’ Business Terms

Whenever my job search takes me to a website of a company, there are a few words I absolutely expect to see – the careers section is, of course, the one I am looking for but then it comes with the others, sometimes nested within and sometimes they sit right around it. Businesses trying to put on a human face is an old and overused act, but since these words span the size, business ethics, industry and ideology of the business it is something worth mentioning. That said, these terms are unavoidable in these times where almost every one is projecting their virtue but my reason for writing this, as a designer, is that we can do perfectly well without any of it – it is an unnecessary practice.

Diversity and Inclusion – Usually shows a person of color or someone in an ethnic attire (or wearing some part of it) standing in a corporate boardroom surrounded by people in suits or business casuals. This has almost become an icon for diversity for websites of businesses. It reveals a fantasy of the inclusion and the ratios to which it is desired. Never have I come across such a photo of one white guy in a room full of, say for example, Indians – I am sure some of these big companies have offices in Mumbai where expats work. Is this inclusion only based on the race or the sexual orientation of a person (the latter only when it is very much visible in a photo)? Why do they miss out on the countless people who have a disability but still are a part of the workforce?

Sustainability – Any human activity, whether it is the production of goods or service, is unsustainable towards the environment. Sustainability is just a word for lean production practices where costs are saved while also avoiding penalties from the EPA or its equivalent. Yet, places where these regulatory authorities are missing, things are very different. The only thing that is being sustained are the profits, nothing else. It only gets worse as the businesses scale up in size. I think a better and more honest alternative for sustainability should be ‘damage control’.

Corporate Social Responsibility – This is an old one and most people know about it – photos of kids from a third world country in a school equal tax breaks.

It is often tempting as someone creating content to be carried away by these terms. Though no casual client or applicant would check whether the statements made are true or not, but this practice does add to the overall redundant and ever-growing clutter that most information on the internet comes with. And it gets all the more painful when some really sophisticated design firms can be seen doing this.

Guitar: Giving Up To Continue

“Makes me want to quit playing the guitar.”

“I should sell my gear on eBay.”

While conversing with my roommate, KK , as Guthrie filled the apartment with his brilliance through a mere television speaker, I realized that my pessimistic approach of quitting the instrument (or at least the influence of that feeling over me) upon seeing better players is not the correct way of dealing with insanely talented guitar players. The right way would be to keep playing and gain a higher appreciation for the person and his skill. Recognition of the fact that you shall not be the best should not be the end, it should be a sigh of understanding that you are only a human not capable of yet another thing – but, so what?

The joy now comes from the discovery of a small lick or an embellishment which makes me appreciate the player even more when I understand what was overlooked for years in my favorite song. As religion seduces a new convert through its rites, the initial fascination of a player focuses on antics and speed a performer has to offer; and this matures and often slows down as he grows to seek new sources of inspiration. And he finds himself playing and enjoying music he had imagined he would never like.

No wonder they have called it a spiritual journey.

On Freud & Jung

Dreams play a key role in the respective psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  Freud argued that dreams are “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious,” whereas Jung asserted that “dreams are the fertile soil from which most symbols grow.”  Each adopted very different theories about the nature and significance of the dream, however, and very diverging strategies for interpreting them. Compare and contrast Freud and Jung’s ideas regarding the nature of dreams.  Which do you find most appealing and why? Which has the most efficacy for interpreting works of art? Finally, above all, which theory best acknowledges the ethical or moral dimension, that is, the act of taking responsibility for one’s own dreams?

With the end of the 19th century, dreams had lost their mythical qualities as messages of impending doom from the divine. The Interpretation of Dreams sealed this by questioning the composition and the reasons for the dreams we have, it also set the foundation for psychoanalysts to develop and to disagree on. Freud’s analysis of dreams came from the core belief of there being an unconscious which controls one’s perceptions, actions and thoughts. Though Jung and Freud ascribed to different frameworks for their psychoanalytic methods, their ideas were grounded in the fact that there is an unconscious and a conscious mind. In 1913, Carl Jung parted ways with Freud and the conflict was mainly because of his rejection of Freud’s idea of life energy being a purely sexual one. What Jung did, I feel, is that he questioned Freud’s own confirmation biases by putting them into a more encompassing box for which Freud was not ready. This is a commonly seen confrontation between geniuses, where two rigid worlds collide on the same ground they stand upon.

While Freud believed in a primal libidinal unconscious to be the sole explanation of human action, Jung saw it as an important force, but that which was not alone in shaping our minds. He went on to further subdivide the unconscious into the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. Unlike Freud, who believed neuroses to be only rooted in childhood trauma, Jung also believed that the repression of traits by the individual themself, as the ego wishes no association with that thing or trait, caused neuroses – thus repressions can happen throughout one’s life. Another reason for what might have led to these differences can be seen in the interesting parallel of both Freud and Jung being the sons of men who were a religious authority in some capacity, the former’s father was a Rabbi and the latter’s was a pastor – their relationships with their mothers also differed. A maternal authority in the case of Freud and the lack of, which Jung substituted with his own understanding or anima, explains exactly (in a very Freudian way) as to why the two men might have differed. The inclination of Jung towards Eastern religions is his anima, which could identify and relate to,  and thus sought, its presence in the Eastern cultures where gods exist in both masculine and the feminine forms. This was something completely neglected by Freud to the point where one could safely say that most of his observations were Eurocentric. Though, Jung was more accommodating to the other views, Freud’s views formed a stepping stone without which probably we won’t have had the clarity to grasp Jung’s ideas.

On Dreams:

According to Freud, dreams are a wish-fulfilment, which is a response to the repression of our unconscious primal urges – these sexual urges are kept in check by the society but are always present in our minds. The dream-work must allow the release of this pressure of repression, which the censor tries to regulate, else it would lead to neuroses. Dreams address to these these developmental milestones by making it possible, as an interface, for these thoughts to be comprehensible. Anything and everything was grounded in the Freudian idea of the Oedipus Complex, but these had to be first dug out, identified and ‘cleaned’ to be understood as the symbols that they are. The experiences of the day, which condense into imagery (an individual imagery compared to a symbolic one) in the mind, hold some meaning which points back at what went wrong. A psychoanalyst would, thus, interpret these symbols and almost reverse-engineer it down to what might have been the cause and put it in a way that is tangible to the patient – it is a dive from a leaky boat of this real world into the sea of dreams to bring back up what might have caused the holes. Meanwhile, Jung’s idea of the dreams included the collective unconscious which he believed to be the instinctual element we have inherited from our ancestors. What we see in our dreams are symbolic representations, not of the Oedipal kind, but instinctual. These go much deeper into the humanity’s heritage and thus span culture. While Freud, for example, would look at anything in a dream that was pointed as a representation of the penis; Jung would add more room to think by saying that the penis in itself could be a representation of something else. The personal unconscious would thus work with the symbols from the collective to hint at what was wrong and would also try to fix it. Freud saw dreams as a day residue from previous day, integrating the information as a continuation of life while Jung saw dreams as a separate integration not related to real life with new areas of psychic exploration that could provide sudden burst of personal insight. But giving Freud his due credit, the Jungian instinct could be seen as a more developed form of the primal unconscious which he talks about. Freud’s only mistake was that he focused solely on the sexual element of it.

Religion & Dreams:

Both Freud and Jung also had differing opinions on religion – Freud, being anti-religious, saw it as a mass neuroses which sought to establish a parental figure for an individual. Jung saw religion as the tool to reach self-realization, which was also a form of psychotherapy. The knowledge that had enlightened Siddhartha to become the Buddha was this Jungian self-awareness and management of mental suffering.

He went beyond the scope of Abrahamic faiths and Graeco-European myths which influenced them to study Eastern philosophies and faiths. And being the rational man that he was, he did disagree with certain aspects of them, (as grounding one’s beliefs completely in one story or fable can yield to biases as held by Freud), his ideas encompassed their teachings as well. Studying the symbols from the East, he could, in a way, back his theory of there being a universal collective unconsciousness. Thus, the Jungian individual as being a loose collection of living sub-personalities – as a plurality loosely linked into a unity – could be one of the reasons why pagan cultures had gods for such human attributes. Emotions had always been personified as gods that transcend the psychological entity. Jung saw a constant interaction between dream and the reality where dream occupies uncertainty and fleshes out an unknown reality. Dream does its best to express a reality that is beyond conscious comprehension. And as all of this is very real when we are asleep, dreams might just be the temporary oceanic feeling of oneness Freud addresses to, where both matter and the mind are united.

Science of Dreams:

Freud had a hardline physiological explanation for his hypothesis of dreams, which relied on the presence of electrical activity in the brain during sleep. It must be noted that until then the existence of electric activity was known, but its behavior had not been studied until much later. Freud thought that dreams function by keeping us asleep for longer whereas Jung saw them as a way to reintegrate the traits to be reassessed. Sleep, according to Freud, was the best when it was completely dreamless –  ie. there ought to be no mental activity but modern day studies have shown otherwise. Jung’s explanation was beyond what can be called scientific at that time, he believed in there being more to just than the firing of the neurons. The firing of the neurons in the brain was not random but was something that generated an abstract structure. Now, we can see how science has taken us to a point where we question reality itself through the existence of multiverses. There is another theory which brings back some science into Jung’s ideas. It has been suggested that sleeping provided us an evolutionary advantage. People who get adequate sleep live healthier and have lesser chances of developing mental problems. The explanation is that the ancestors would dream up the anxieties which would influence their decision making in the real world, thus increasing the chances of their survival. And perhaps this is why a collective unconscious exists that stays omnipresent in the realm of dreams. Another interesting thing is that the influence of Jung’s thoughts on this collective unconscious memory is also visible in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. It is just that Freud saw it as an anxiety that society banked upon to survive while Jung could have seen it as what had made the human society survive – two sides to the same coin.

Realizations from meanings:

Freudian interpretation of dreams is more about looking into the past to explain what was while Jung uses it to pave way into a productive future. I feel more in line with Jung’s ideas, though both the individuals were in their own way trying to help people out – I feel that dreams hold some key to a future. One such personal experience has been of a recurring dream I had had of my teeth falling in clumps, which I immediately informed my parents about. They were shocked and the fear was very much visible on their faces, because for them, this meant that a harm would come to the head of the household. My father, who at that time had been battling cancer during that time, died a month later. I think of this dream again and again, as it holds both a Jungian facet as well as a Freudian one. The hardships a family must face for a long period of time when a member suffers from an illness, such as cancer, provides so many inputs that get repressed over time. Looking up the meaning of this dream tells us that it commonly hints at illness in the family – I see it as one such symbol from the collective unconscious. The question is, as Jung might have put it, was I awake back then to realize and learn from it?

Creativity & Art:

Humans are bound to interpret symbols, we seek patterns in everything and that is what sets us apart from rest of the animals. This is both a boon and a bane. While we process a vast amount of information on a daily basis to survive, the intake also consists of what we have not used. It needs to be explained. And dreams do just that. Rightly so, Freud believed that there was something really informative to dreams. In the generation of these explanations and ideas lies creativity and thus comes the influence of dreams on the arts. While Freud believed that the dream had to be a slip through the censor (thus almost having a attribute to its nature), Jung believed that the dream tries to communicate with the individual as clear as it can. The dream, thus, can be considered to be the birthplace of thought just as how the artist is the birthplace of culture. Jung saw creativity as the push towards the unexplored which was sourced in the realm of dreams. It is supposed to be a place where anyone and everyone (regardless of how they are in waking life) thinks in images.

Ancient cultures did so by attributing these dreams to a power that was beyond their explanation, and this might have been the very source of myths and stories which were later represented through various paintings, stories, plays and sculptures. Both Freud and Jung believed that the birth of mythology and literature was from the dream and that they shared the mode of information presentation through a narrative structure. Though dreams bear a relationship to how one’s day has been, it is also nature speaking of its own accord. Jung believes that the dream happens to you because nature creates it – that means something is thinking within us. But once, the myths and stories were found have much more than what the gods would engage in, a new approach was presented where dreams and the recurring themes within them were discussed differently by creatives.  Dali and Hitchcock immediately come to mind when it comes to artistically exploring the inner facets of the mind through this non-religious Freudian lens. An example, that too an extreme one, is of the mythological stories across cultures with the theme where a mortal woman gets raped by a god. The symbol, though explained back then through stories of gods, still lives in the form of women having dreams of being sexually assaulted. Cultural norms also play into account on how the dream in itself gets interpreted – and this includes Freud himself. And as we know that most of his patients were not completely cured of their neuroses, it does tell us a lot about how at that time, an interest in the topic of childhood abuse and whatever piqued the interest of the times was used as an explanation of dreams. This is also a point that Jung in a way frees his postulate from.

Freud sees art as having no value but yet being something which we could not do without. Art, through a Jungian lens, is what our dreams have made out from the massive inputs we receive both as individuals and as a collective. It needs to be analysed by the mind  and this analysis can lead to a spiritual self realization, but also shake one’s grounds of belief entirely. This self realization can be therapeutic and thus art can address to this, which is a release by itself of the images in one’s mind that need to be shown. The Jungian theory gives a more responsible approach to the individual by putting the power back into the hands of the person, they can learn from their dreams themselves and use it as a way to better themselves. It hints at action rather than reliance on someone else’s explanation of one’s own reality. This process can be spiritual or religious but it is creative nonetheless – we might think of creativity in a very traditional mindset as being able to write or draw but there is much more to that. Creativity exists in all forms of work. There have been countless cases of mathematicians dreaming up solutions to the most impossible problems, at times with a divine intervention – the genius Ramanujam would often attribute the knowing the answers to the toughest mathematical problems to the Goddess of Learning, who would tell him the solution in his dreams. And in other cases, people try to achieve these states, to learn more about themselves through meditation or medication.

Numerous writers, philosophers and artists have tried to explore the realm of dreams but none can be sure except for that it is yet something really uncanny and subjective about our lives which we have become completely used to. What might be someone else’s dream is either a very unpleasant or intriguing experience for the other – and that is what, I feel, certain art films and artworks aim to address. Jung’s mere realization of there being a self which spread beyond this mind and that there is an collective unconscious that connects us might just explain for this fascination with dreams and all that is dream like. Then again, the ideas of Freud (as he had postulated for the human mind), stand in between and within these newer like in a city with an ancient past.

On ‘The Uncanny’

In his 1919 essay titled ‘The Uncanny’, Freud describes the notion as a ‘hidden yet a familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it’. It is a confrontation of the subject and the unconscious, and the repressed impulses which reflect as an irreducible anxiety back at the real world. Freud was one of the first few to discuss the concept of the uncanny – here, he starts by analyzing the word itself and the various meanings it might carry. Both the German words, unheimlich and heimlich could be considered to be the two faces of the same coin wherein their meanings almost blur over each other. The essay further delves into the myths and fables with themes that are known to cause this feeling of uncanniness. But as it could be easy to make vast generalizations from a handful of examples, Freud also draws very clear lines through careful explanations for different situations where the same situation might not be uncanny. He also states that the uncanniness is what pushes the set reality of that experience or story towards what it shouldn’t be – the formative elements which pull the observer in through the details which reinforce a reality can only then be broken down by the dissonance that results in uncanniness. In ‘Playing with Dead Things’, Mike Kelley adds more color to Freud’s ideas by putting it in the context of the realist figurative sculpture and how it has been perceived and what it has stood for. He refines the concept by studying the representation of the human form in sculpture, and our interaction with the inanimate through lenses that cover religion, death, aesthetics, fetishes and culture. Each one of the causes given by Freud for this uncanniness, is demonstrated by Kelley through examples from human history spanning cultures. While Freud looks at this uncanniness caused by us being reminded of our mortality & a challenge to our expectations, it could be said that Kelley directs the dialogue ahead, beyond mortality and to the building of such expectations.

Kelley’s assertion encapsulates both the characterizations of the uncanny presented by Freud, where they arise either from what our ancestors have experienced or what one has experienced in the childhood. The ‘uncanny’ is supposed to remind us of our own Id, our forbidden and thus repressed impulses which when placed in uncertain situations remind us of infantile beliefs in the omnipotence of thought. The super-ego, ridden with Oedipal guilt, feels threatened by this as it fears symbolic castration via punishment. Also, the example given by Kelley about the Church trying to discourage the use of sculpture was in a way this very uncanny feeling it had towards the pagan relics of one’s mortality. Though, the Church in itself would also thrive on the fear of one’s own mortality, it could not comprehend in the same way how pre-Abrahamic cultures had used sculpture. Thus, a super ego at a cultural level was now trying to check whatever remained from the early stages of this ego’s development. Though, it eventually had to come to terms with the use of sculpture for religious purposes, one could safely say that its attention might have shifted on another such pagan issue. I think Kelley’s examples include much more than what Freud was trying to demonstrate through the folklore. The mention of ‘unfamiliar familiarity’ and ‘familiar unfamiliarity’ also ignites countless examples in one’s mind that must be mentioned in brief. This goes beyond the arts and into the sciences where discoveries of ancient artefacts are still met with speculation and fears regarding their origin and working – an uncanny feeling wraps such findings. Another example would be of the uncanniness that is felt usually by newer cultures towards the traditions and customs of the older cultures – there might have been remnants of it within these newer societies that give rise to fear. One could even attribute this to be one of the reasons for the Oedipal Complex, where the child experiences what his father did, through him, and ends up in conflict with him.

The infantile narcissism, which still holds ground in the mind of the adult, projects itself onto other objects as it tries to form doubles that give it the assurance of immortality. It mutates, with age, into a recessed space where its own assurance turns into constant reminders of its mortality. This struggle of the self, to stay alive, question reality while also constantly being aware of its own fragility, keeps it torn between inevitable death and the constant desire to create its doubles. These doubles can range subjectively for people, some may wish to live through their artistic work while others would strive to get statues of themselves made. Others might wish to be immortalized (or at least preserved) through their collections, which for them, capture the time and the intangible aspect of their lives. Society in itself pushes this conflict further, especially when it pertains to the aspect of death and birth. We still follow certain rites, across cultures, that hold some primitive ground in them. Thus, there arises usually a feeling of uncanniness related to these topics. The desire to get an expensive coffin or a well crafted tombstone is just another manifestation of what the Pharaohs thought when they witnessed the pyramids being erected. Only the expectation of an afterlife has turned into a wait for resurrection, but there is always this will to still live, somewhere after and in between. And while we are struggling in between this conflict, I feel, we end up creating something.

On ‘The Ego & The Id’

The first statement, from “The Ego & the Id” (on the ego being primarily a bodily ego), makes the point that the ego is dependent on the external world, ie. the conscious self that observes, processes and responds cannot exist without the constant stimulation presented to it. It must rationalize whatever it receives from the real world. But then again, the self should also view itself separate from the outside world so as to preserve itself and not ‘dissolve’ into it. The ego, thus, an organization of the mental process, must arise from the Id itself.

Since the ego forms the interface from where an individual responds to and gets stimulation from the outer world, consciousness could be considered to be what covers this interface. All of this, as it rests on the Id, is in fact the part of it that has modified itself after interacting with the external world. Though ego’s development comes from the nucleus which is the perception system – the development of Id from the instinct, and ego being built on the Id, introduces some room for unconscious to exist within the ego’s reach. Since the consciousness which ego puts forth to the outer world is indeed standing on the boundless unconscious, it affects whatever the Id eventually responds to. Though the ego feels that it is an independent entity, its actions and desires are always in line with that the Id wants. The ego must also operate according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the Id’s demands, often also compromising on satisfaction to avoid negative consequences. It stands on a middle ground between the Id and the outside world (and its stronger manifestation existing within as the superego), trying to make the Id conform to societal rules, while also trying to make the world conform to the Id’s innermost passions. This conflict often leads ego to an anxious place, if not a guilt ridden one. For the human race, our instincts work to preserve oneself, survive and procreate – these are hard wired into our unconscious. Put simply, when we assume that we have made a rational choice, several layers below, it is nothing but a primal desire we are responding to by assigning a rational meaning to it.

The perception here refers to external input and whatever the ego has tried to understand of it. Any lack of such, that is, an ego which leans more toward the super-ego or is unable to explain these actions to itself results in psychological problems and/or coping mechanisms. I feel that the implications of this claim are a validation to Darwin’s then-recent work from a psychoanalytical perspective.

Through the oral and anal stages of the psychosexual development of an individual, the faces of superego and the ego show up and cause early conflicts with what the Id has set up for itself up until then. These have been observed by Freud as the Oedipus/Electra Complex where the parent is seen as a competition for what provides pleasure and even preservation.

At the very beginning, all the libido is accumulated in the Id which in itself is driven purely by the pleasure principle – the early stages are the years where the Id is ‘testing the waters’, ie. it could be considered to be reaching out, knowing and setting its outer layers (consciousness) accordingly to what works and what does not. The pleasure comes from the outside world to serve the Id, thus the pleasure arising from a satiated Id is what paves the way to the narcissism observed in children. But Freud does state that auto-eroticism precedes the formation of the ego – this is the point when the child views his or her body as a source of pleasure. Since narcissism is defined as an investment of libido in the ego, the ego and narcissism must take birth at the same time. The Id sends part of this libido out into erotic object-cathexes, whereupon the ego, now more mature than ever, tries to gain control over the object-libido and tries to force itself on the Id as a love-object. The narcissism of the ego is thus a secondary one, which has now been withdrawn from objects.

Narcissism is analyzed through examples which discuss the early hold of an ego-libido in homosexual men, how children address to the object libido demands of the parents and how love (which is an object-libido investment in an another individual) between men and narcissistic women plays out for both the parties in an imbalanced and often conflicting way; a strong emphasis on either one depletes the other and is definitely not healthy when paired against the opposite, as in the myth of Echo and Narcissus. What Freud does make clear is that love, when reciprocated back, makes up for the disappointments and vulnerabilities that come with it.

In the two essays discussed here, the development of Freud’s ideas pertaining to the structural model of the human psyche can be clearly seen to take form. Conflict is a core pillar being universal to all of Freud’s work so far. Whether it is the conflict between the individual and the herd (in Civilization & its Discontents) or the individual’s invisible war against their own self, conflict is what Freud might as well present as the element of being human. Another interesting aspect of these essays is the exploratory yet a ‘surer’ dialogue than the hypotheses Freud presents, doubts and contradicts often in his later work. The impact of Darwin’s work can also be seen where the primal Id could be the common connection to the compounded conscious experience of our ancestors. Or maybe it is another father-son conflict for yet another essay.

Originally written as a critical response paper for a course.

On Freud’s Oedipal

In the article ‘Ardent Masturbation’, Leo Bersani compares the methods by which influential thinkers of the west like Descartes and Proust presented, questioned and convinced their audience of what they thought was the truth about the world they are in. While questioning the self-appropriative nature of ontology itself in this piece, Freud is examined through his interpretation of the subject-object narrative in the Oedipus Rex. As per Freud’s view, when simply broken down, the story of Oedipus was about a son’s wish to possess his mother and eliminate his father. What was missed was that the aggression towards the parent was not directed by the child but came from the aggression and self preservation drive from the parents who abandoned him to die such that the prophecy they had known of wouldn’t come true. What Oedipus did in the years that followed was to only avoid the fate of being the one who murders his father and sleeps with his own mother. It is fate that wins, rather than anyone’s desires to preserve or to kill.

The given remark of Bersani, when thought of at the level of the civilization, sets the role of the father that protects yet also acts as a threat. This role could be best assigned to an authority such as a government. It is this authority that keeps us safe, from what could be said to be the primal within and the hostile exterior world. The survival of this authority is based on the control over the sexual urges and confusions of the society, which could be analogous to an child exploring his or her phallic stages of psychological development by seeking pleasure from and assigning it to different objects. This rivalry is at root in all conflicts at a social scale and thus the reform, where the child becomes his own the father through a sacrificial murder, is the bloody struggle of a revolution. The entire idea of questioning the established narrative to protect or lay claim to what we feel is naturally ours (resources, personal rights etc.) can be seen at the core of all revolutions and reformations that occured in Europe. Even now, in a society that has probably been at its healthiest, safest and at the peak of its freedom, we still see this in a constant strive to better and overthrow what exists.

The rivalry and challenge to authority is not exclusively directed to the male parent but also the female, as was proposed by Carl Jung through the Electra Complex. But there is another facet to the female authority in the story of Oedipus, where it doesn’t play accomplice to what the male has to say. The Sphinx is the representation of the feminine authority that dominates and punishes with much deadly a force than what the father would unwield. This female figure is not only a match when it comes to physical strengths but is also cunning. Her suicide shows the intensity of this dishonor felt after having Oedipus solve the riddle. This reveals the other controlling end of vanity that results, as Freud suggests, in females when the reverse Oedipus Complex is not properly addressed.

Bersani sees the story of Oedipus more than just a tragic story of a family but rather as a struggle by human consciousness to gain autonomy, in which it separates itself through struggle and recognizes itself as separate from the object realm, with ‘crudest sexual fantasies to the most refined scientific inquiries and philosophical investigations.’ From a Cartesian perspective, it can indeed be the individual gaining control over the forces that made him, creating that demarcation between man and nature which is ever so strong today, more so in the developed world. But then again, there is also a yearning to get back to it, which could be said to be the wish of becoming that father – the illusion of control that is laden with guilt that we as a developed society exhibit towards the world around us.

But when the child identifies with his father, this is the points where he submits to authority and gradually ends up later being a father to a child like himself, choosing a mother that emulates what he had found attracted to in his own. The conflict repeats almost like a ritual – a sign of an illness according to Freud but so essential to human existence. This is where the differences between Occidental and Oriental philosophies show their face, especially relevant to this issue.

The Oedipal Myth, in a way, does largely pertain to the thinking of the West, at least to how it works in the sub-dermal. I feel that Bersani limits his statement safely to an Occidental perspective because of the Greek influence on Abrahamic faiths, which eventually influenced the Western thought. While the Old Testament was largely about an enigmatic father figure exhibiting his authority, usually through severe punishment, things took a different turn in the Bible. Christ’s life in itself was all about questioning the establishment and his crucifixion could be an equivalent of the child murdering the father (or a part of him) thus being bound by guilt. God, or a symbol of his, was brought down from an unreachable place, humanized and murdered by his children. All of this lies at core of what Freud presents through the story of Oedipus – the fact that the son must murder his father only to be reborn again as his son. This influence from more recent and influential stories might have played some role in Freud analysing the myth in this way.

In eastern philosophies, particularly Hinduism (including Buddhism), examples of father-son conflict do exist but they go beyond the mere dialogue that revolves around the claim and access to the mother (the closest being of Ganesha being decapitated by his own father, Shiva, only to be established as a new divine entity by replacing his head with that of an elephant – an analysis of this scenario interestingly correlates the trunk of the elephant to that of the penis and discusses how Ganesha is a celibate, thus ‘put in place’ by his father’s authority) – in the rest of the cases, the father was to be obeyed and there are countless stories about sons being sacrificed for the preservation and sometimes the selfish needs of the father. This approach does show up in the passivity of the eastern thought where historic reforms at social and political level have not been as aggressive as in the west.

The Oedipal Myth, as interpreted by Freud, does not directly influence or play about in the modern Western culture but its theme of challenging an authoritative figure has the essence of what could have led to the influence of Judaeo-Christian thought. It should also be stated that the outcomes of it are not a universal phenomenon but the conflict between the parent and the child is a universal one.

On ‘Leonardo, A Memory Of His Childhood’

Provide a brief critical précis of Freud’s classic speculative essay on Leonardo. Why did Freud decide to write about Leonardo, and what evidence do you find here of Freud’s own personal feelings of ambivalence, doubt, despair and hope?   Is there any evidence that Freud identified with Leonardo? Does Freud’s mistranslation of “nibbio” undermine the entire argument according to Meyer Schapiro? What is Schapiro’s central point and does it strengthen or undermine Freud’s position?  Do you agree with Peter Gay’s remark that Freud’s reconstruction of Leonardo’s early emotional development “stands—or falls—on its own account.

In this essay published in 1910, the Renaissance polymath’s life is analysed by Freud as a puzzle with many lost pieces. Though largely speculative and even flawed in its logic and core derivations thorough mistranslation, both DaVinci’s work and accounts, of what apparently is his childhood memory, are used to construct the backbone of his personality. Surprisingly, Freud, who considers art to have no real use or value, relies mostly on Leonardo’s art to analyse him. This also amplifies Freud’s own contradictions as an individual where he surrounds himself with ancient art in his room and travels the world to see archaeological wonders and collect these artifacts yet claim all of it to hold no value in his eyes. Freud commences this essay by stating that he wishes to bring a more human face which the other historians and biographers tend to overlook when it comes to writing about greats like Da Vinci. With whatever little information he has available, he tries to fill the gaps in our understanding of the artist. Freud takes Leonardo’s childhood, of having been reared by two mothers as a huge influential factor over his sexuality and creativity. The lack of a father in the initial years of infancy and the passivity of his father towards him even after having been around also acts as an explanation to his lifelong childlike curiosity with which he pursued the phenomena of the world and the rate at which he abandoned them. Despite of Leonardo coming across as a man ahead of his time who was not understood, often accused and alone, probably like his single mother, Freud did maintain that he would not have achieved what he did without this almost tragic upbringing.

Freud considers Da Vinci to be one of the most influential and important humans to have ever lived – his outlook in the essay is of reverence and understanding. This work could also be considered as an homage by a man who wishes to seek similarities between himself and someone he admires, this he does first by bringing him to the level of a human who can be analysed (which he explains at length incase it might feel blasphemous to some) and then questioning and speculating on the aspects of his life as if he were just another subject. I feel that Freud feels a time spanning bond with Leonardo, where he sees him as a man who would have exactly understood him even when having an entirely different approach and perception towards the world. Though the essay also aims to explain Leonardo’s dormant and almost maternal homosexuality, it also defends DaVinci. Bringing Freud himself, as a writer into the analysis, one can feel an almost maternal level of understanding with which he writes about Leonardo in this which just might have been the reason why this was one of his favorite pieces.

Freud saw himself, through his analysis of society and mankind, having reached a place or a zone and now was curious to know the way which led Leonardo to the same vantage point. The essay reveals much more about Freud, to me, than it does about DaVinci. Some interesting points are that Freud directed his mental pursuits to what was within, and most of his explanations were centered around the primal facet of mankind among which sexual force was the most dominant for both the individual and the group. Leonardo’s pursuits were directed to the outer world and very visibly avoided the topic of sexuality. Also, Leonardo was met with disappointment from his peers for having abandoned many projects and his scientific pursuits were not really recognized or shared with the world back then. This was there even toward the end of his life where he had found himself to be closer to alchemists of the day than the artists. On the other hand, Freud was almost a celebrity and an influential figure in the field of psychoanalysis which in itself was swinging between a  being a largely speculative pseudoscience and a proper scientific field. While Freud claimed to not feel any use in art and considered himself to be a man of pure reason, Leonardo gravitated toward the sciences through art – the paintings led him to study light and color which ultimately led him to study the physical sciences in a greater detail. The ways with which both the individuals explained the world around them also differed, where Leonardo would try to demonstrate and explain via experiments, Freud would rely on observation and explanation. I feel that Freud was very well aware of these differences while also knowing the similarities that bound them. I would also go as far as to say that one can feel Freud seeing a more feminine side of himself in Da Vinci – the same, if not less, level of rationale and awareness that completely leaves Freud fascinated to some extent. And like Freud, Da Vinci also had some contradictions about himself – while he was a person who did not eat meat and had an almost pagan interpretation of nature and its forces (highly feminine qualities for those times), he would also design weapons of war and show an indifference towards that nature as something beyond our control.

With these differences, he also connected to Leonardo on multiple levels placing both, first and foremost, as natural scientists. Also, Freud’s own sex life was largely inactive prior to his marriage and after the birth of his children. He also was involved with Wilhelm Fliess – a romance that might not have been physical in nature but definitely was strong. Freud, in this shows Leonardo almost like a hero whose flaws and difficulties made him what he was. A childhood full of questions that cross into the realm of adults is another commonality, in a way, with Freud’s own upbringing in a conservative Jewish household, his eventual abandonment of the faith and the anti-semitic climate he grew up in Europe during those days.

Freud did indeed misread the translation of the word “nibbio” from Oskar Pfister’s work. What was meant to be a kite in Italian, Freud mistook as a vulture and continued to defend the decision to confirm to his own bias. This breaks down most of Freud’s hypothesis regarding the bird  which Peter Gay has rightly skipped in his version. The bird which was supposed to be a vulture, thus, is not Leonardo’s mother nor is it the representation of Virgin Mary. Schapiro sees this memory of a kite touching the infant Leonardo’s mouth with its tail in a much more plausible way. DaVinci had a lifelong pursuit to bring flight to mankind. Most of his designs concerned flight in some way or the other, this also meant that he closely studied the physiology and the behavior of birds in flight. The bird and its tail, which acts as a rudder, could be considered to be a manifestation of those essential actions in flight over his breathing, his life. The tail touching an infant’s mouth could also be viewed as a literary pattern that Leonardo was aware of and repeating. This pattern has been observed in various cultures where a prophecy or a blessing is handed over to a mortal by a bird’s tail touching the infant’s mouth. The works of Valerius Maximus, which employed this pattern, were also prominent around the time of Leonardo and must have had some influence over what he saw as symbolic in either memory or in dreams. Maybe, beyond Freud’s explanation of dreams of flying being a yearning for improved sexual performance, Leonardo saw himself as the forebearer of the gift of flight to mankind and this lifelong pursuit gave him these memories – the ego of the artist in him saw it more than violation by a bird but a divine message.

Freud assumes that all was well between Leonardo and his mother, which also fits well into the story he is trying to build. Schapiro points at Freud having had dismissed the contents of one of Da Vinci’s notebooks called Envy, in which the kite is the opposite of a model good mother. This brings in a fair balance to what Freud tries to push as a largely peaceful and admiring yet highly impactful relationship of the artist with his mother. All in all, if some other details about the family were considered, one could very well state that Leonardo had not forgiven his mother for his illegitimacy and abandonment at a later age. The same would also be reciprocated by the mother as the shame and burden of having reared a child out of wedlock. Once either one of these becomes possible, it isn’t important who points the barrel of hatred towards the other first. Both of these arguments by Schapiro undermine Freud’s position in a manner that is superior in its research.

I agree with Peter Gay’s statement of this reconstruction being self supported on the assumptions it makes. He mentions in his introduction that this was Freud’s favorite essay but also the one which exposes Freud’s flaws in his chain of argumentation, also thus becoming the favorite of his critics. Surprisingly, Freud was also aware of its flaws and even though it was initially claimed to be as ‘psychoanalysis’ conquest of culture’ – a large part of it was argued back into the realms of pure speculation. In my opinion, the assumptions made by Freud would have held some ground thad there been no mention of Leonardo’s memory of childhood. The symbolic interpretation of sighting that bird, and that too a wrong one was a spiral Freud chose to go down for himself. Once that was done, the vulture became obvious to spot in the painting and the mythical relations behind it could quickly be found in Semitic myths – a common parallel of this in contemporary times would be the numerous conspiracy groups for almost everything that exists. The only positive aspect I see of the essay, like the conspiracy groups, is that it opens up an alternate path that might hold true under certain circumstances for someone else. Or, at least it makes an individual on a similar path relate to a person like Da Vinci at some level, and for that, one could say that Freud succeeds in humanizing him in a way for all of us. Just by initiating this dialogue, one could say, that the legacy of Leonardo stays alive through all the absurdity and the logical reasoning – probably that is what Freud was trying to do after all in Leonardo’s own ways of play.

 

On ‘Civilization & Its Discontents’

Freud’s opinion on art and beauty in context to the culture and the civilization comes from a place of pure reason which does sound sensible at first but then later exposes the biases and assumptions which Freud himself is vulnerable to as a human being. For example, though Freud largely dismissed art and beauty, he used to keenly study the life of artists from his psychoanalytical lens – he studied, appreciated and even critiqued the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dostoyevski. This stance softens in his statement on the description of beauty and the importance it holds to civilization – it is almost like a surrender of a very rational man to something which he cannot explain. That, and the fact that he had travelled and collected art gives, in a way, a look at how pained yet fascinated by art the man was. But, that is something which applies to all of us too at an individual level – a person who claims to appreciate the beauty in the world around themselves would have as sensible a definition of it as someone who is always dismissive of it and or is cynical about it.

He also mentions in the second chapter of Civilization & its Discontents the difference in the working of art for the creator and the viewer. While art has the tendency to sway the artist in a direction away from ‘unpleasures’ (often to places of delusion if left unchecked), the viewer experiences it from behind the safety of its temporariness. I would add to this by stating that any change in the way either of these roles work, that of the creator and the viewer, results in bad art or cult-like obsessions.

For me, all art is sourced in religion, or at least inspired from an unachievable ideal that is beyond our reach – this might be a godlike father figure for which it is created as form of reverence, or it might just be a state the artist wishes to see the world as or himself in – whether it is political in nature or a means of rebellion against the existing systems, it is an aspiration for the better even when it is showing the grim face of the society (shock art). Through Freud’s lenses, both these scenarios are states of delusion where an alternate explanation of reality aids the individual to avoid the ‘unpleasures’ offered by this world. Though initial idea of art was completely dependent on religion of that time, art has now become a tool that competes with religion in certain cases – this separation and shift in the attitudes of the societies is observable where art which exists within and without religion becomes aimed at it when it is on the outside. Though this might be because of historic events which have made art a tool to  express concerns and achieve higher levels of self awareness as a culture – one must remember that all the great works of art have arisen amidst suffering and in case that ideal is ever achieved, there will be nothing to dream of nor anything to create towards. This is similar to the example Freud presents with respect to religion, where the unpleasure needs to be for an alternate watered down path of religion to exist for the masses.

The point about art being accessible to a few is indeed a true one, though anyone can create with almost anything available as a raw material or a tool – only a few enjoy the act of this creation. The phenomenon of being in a flow state shows very clearly as to how the process of creation can be meditative. An example that immediately comes to mind, arising from the common task of writing, is shuji or Japanese calligraphy where no stroke is alike and every stroke captures the mood and emotion of the calligrapher. Though an activity requiring a high level of skill, it is described as something which is highly meditative for both the creator and the observer. As said, even when art is accessible to anyone who wishes to create, it is accessible to viewing and appreciation only to a few who can afford – I see it as something which only holds value once the bottom layers of the Maslow’s hierarchy are satisfied. An example of this is the presence of public art spaces in my city, which is the capital of the country India – these brilliant and at times expensive installations stand unnoticed, unappreciated and often vandalized. This is very much different from how public art exists in developed countries where the primal needs of the vast majority are fulfilled. Art is best appreciated when the viewer has a full stomach, a comfortable home to go back to and someone with whom he/she can discuss its meaning – only then would they stop and smell the roses. I have yet another example to back this opinion of mine, there is a huge difference in people opting for fine art education in developed countries versus the developing countries where the focus is primarily above what interests the self in fields that provide job security. Even if not wished for, this brings in the aspect of class into art and design – within these societies, art remains exclusive to the ones who have ‘self-actualized’ while outside these regions, the creative works from these societies are either often outright dismissed or presented with a blanket that keeps them separate (and at times beyond criticism – a positive bias).

But this difference also brings to mention the concept of beauty. Freud looks at beauty as an extension of the sexual, he looks at beauty positive sexual traits which we assign to objects and secondary sexual characteristics even if the primary sex organs themselves are not really considered beautiful (which does explain the development of object-fetishes for many individuals) but doesn’t fully explain the oceanic feeling of oneness in countless other situations. This explanation might just be the weakest among his attempts at explaining this beauty.

Looking away, the complexity and subjectivity of beauty and art in itself explains their purpose. Beauty is subjective not just at an individual level but at a cultural level as well. This subjectivity also influences what the art of that society addresses and considers important – in a way art does find a purpose as a documentation of history, an interpretation free from what the writers of history see the same events as, where the dreams frozen in time can be stared at long enough to view the aspirations and the spirit of those times.

Originally written as a critical response paper for a course.

Savelized!

First came their forefathers, thumping their holy books over our heads and telling us straight up but talking down atop from beasts we had never seen, that we were savages. With that they tried to save us and shape us, shave us off of our primal deeds. I was taught that what I had understood until now was wrong, that they knew better about me, my family, my faith and my people. They allowed me in places I anyway would have had been in, just that making my presence more visible to themselves is what justified the conquest that civilized savages like me. Bound but clothes removed, I was taught to teach the others like me, that only the master best knows the servant.

In a battlefield, bringing death at my own brothers, I am a weapon against the things Master says he protects me from – my roots. But I am also his shield.

Now come their children, riding high on virtue and pills, looking a bit like me this time though; telling me that I am misunderstood – pointing at my skin or hair, reassuring me that I am beautiful yet hated by others because no one understands me like they do. I am misunderstood because they know better about me, my family, my faith and my people. They still allow me in places I anyway would have been in, just that making my presence more visible among themselves is what justifies the inclusion that civilizes savages like me. Unbound but a cloth wrapped around my head now, I am taught to teach the others, that only the master best knows the victim.

Away from the carnage in a new battlefield, I am a weapon against the things he says he protects me from – this time, his own roots. But like then, and now once again, I am also his shield.

On Paper

I.

I just wish to know if there is a word for the feeling which is more of an urge, an urge to write on an empty page. To fill it up with letters and curves or anything else that necessarily need not be read, but not let it be so blank anymore. And sometimes when it is a ream of paper or even a half, the feeling compounds as if it were measured by the thickness of the pile.

I get fidgety around piles of paper but the only thing that stops me is the lack of ideas I have at that moment. It is strange how emptiness reflects back from page into this mind. And someday I will have enough ideas and time and then I will fill them all up, perhaps in that pile of paper I will come across and create the word I seek, for this feeling which is more of an urge.

 

II.

Paper is expensive. Paper just looks cheap. – that is what my father said. He said this often when we solved math problems in the empty margins and spaces of the Sunday newspaper- the idea was to be resourceful while also being free to err. The correct solution was then copied down to the notebook, which was tamed and boring compared to the newspaper and offered no joys like working on an already used page. The space in between the photos and the text came in new structures and horizons with every page to embrace the graphite infestation of the weekend we were to seed in it. It really confined the solution and also taught me quite early in life to work inside a framework which was empty & dynamic and hence made up like almost all frameworks out there in the real world. A decade later yet every now and then I still find myself writing in between the margins, articles and columns of old newspapers but usually it is only names of people and their numbers, the symbols are gone and it is not the same.

I feel bad for every space and margin on a Sunday newspaper that I missed filling up with my infestations so far.

 

III.

I liked to draw everyday, my mind could fill up any blank page within minutes but such is the privilege of being a child I suppose and there isn’t anything special about it. Yet we lose it quick, this usual reality which later stays and becomes a gift to the few while some of us spend our entire lives trying to claim a part of it back. My mind consumed paper and paper was all it needed.

So, my father would get two A4 sheets for me from his office, five days a week for almost six years. Sometimes he would also get the flowers from his office on Fridays so that they didn’t wither in loneliness in a dark room on a desk over the weekend. Or maybe he hoped that life would seep away from them slowly in the presence of our family and the comfort of a home. You tend to find the deeper meaning in the actions of boring romantics like him, all you have to do is remember them even if it is too late. At times when he was over-encumbered, the stems of these flowers used to stain my pristine paper sheets with light drops of pink or green because they shared the same hand for a brief distance. I drew around them – these epitaphs of flowers.

I used to be done with both the pages (all four faces) within an hour or two. I suppose it is the only thing that I could claim to have done religiously in my entire life. When I cut down on the drawing aspect because of the hectic later years of my school and the many new passions that I had found, my father would still occasionally leave a few sheets at my study table as a reminder, or maybe as a way to pull me back into what I had always loved doing, or just as a way to remember that dead child which was my past and still his son.

 

IV.

I collect used paper and fill its unused sides. Reused pages deserve a book just like books printed on one side of the page deserve to be filled up on the other. Contrary to what many might feel, paper feels even more precious to me now than ever. Paper is alive. It feels like the bearer of information who should not be discarded away after hearing only the news he was supposed to bring. He should be allowed rest and asked about the other aspects of his life.

This brings me back to the ream again. A ream, or maybe less, of used paper deserves a word of its own more than just a ‘pile’ or a ‘stack’. The feeling is the strongest when I write on such reams, their fibers now having aged and absorbed the moisture like man gets rigid with his own wisdom. The pile gently gives in and pushes back against one’s movements as if it were alive, as if it were a skin – a characteristic which fresh pages lack. This feeling, if not the others then this, I definitely hope that there is a word for that.

 

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is one of the finest examples of an experience very rare in life when art is surely able to carry you to a different place. I have rarely seen films end on such a powerful note but then again, I have not seen many movies like this. Though today was the third time I was seeing this and it blew me away harder and better than it had the first time.

The part which totally dissociated me from myself and in towards the film and its message was in fact one of the ending scenes where the exploded engine of Atlas-Centaur plummets through the atmosphere back towards the ground.  As it seemingly falls free yet tumbling against an unseen force which burns and bends it whenever it resits it too much, within a few minutes the now-absorbed viewer might suddenly remind himself to check whether this fall is really that long as shown or rather the director’s obnoxious little trick. The slow rotation and the burning up of metal section by section with each spin is terrific to see. This huge piece of human genius, dreams and effort condensed into a mass burns away right before your eyes against the bluest of skies.

Countless other interpretations could go in there and I am sure they do because this film is purely at a level that is meditative yet not focused on a certain message or agenda. All of this happens while Philip Glass takes you back to square one, back into the ground from where you came alongwith the melody of a primitive beginning now louder and more confident than ever – worried but optimistic. What else can represent the human spirit and life better than this I really do not know.