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.

COVID-19: Household PPE Disposal

With how the things have been for the past two months now, it is interesting to see something which was the focus of my thesis become a topic of discussion at all levels, everywhere. There is, however, an aspect which will surely become a hot topic in the months that follow – it concerns the generation of plastic waste during this pandemic and its appropriate disposal.

If the increased consumption of single-use plastics wasn’t enough, there is also the fact that even when meant for reuse, these cannot be recycled once contaminated. Hospitals have a waste stream which is tightly segregated and regulated, where contaminated waste goes straight to the incinerator and there are special waste management teams or companies handling that.

I am concerned about how this plays out at a household level, where personal protective equipment is being disposed across into the regular waste streams. As there is no separate bin for waste with either biological or chemical contamination, I feel the surge of PPE being disposed off from households will lead to new problems. Most local waste collection companies also do not anticipate, nor are prepared, to deal with this biologically hazardous waste which will come in mixed with the household trash. Though the situation before allowed for minor occurrence of such bio-hazards in the stream, a significant increase in that, in either the regular trash or recycling streams, would add on to the problems.

I think it is absolutely necessary that along with the correct use of masks (in which there was demonstrably a huge knowledge gap), people should also be informed about the correct way to dispose off their contaminated PPE. The details of disposal need to be stated as clearly as they are in the infographics on correct mask use. Currently, all disposal is vaguely mentioned and incorrectly shown as flinging a used mask into a trashcan – addressing that other part of the product’s life cycle is really necessary this time.

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 ‘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.