Personal Opinion, Technology

On Mass Behavior…

Argument from morality (known as virtue-signaling in common lingo) doesn’t seem to convince the masses most of the time when it comes to changing their behaviors on issues pertinent to the world, even if the argument is reasonable. There are sound arguments from social-justice activists, environmentalists and vegans that question our moral compasses when it comes to egalitarianism, being mindful of the environment we live in and for increasing the circle of empathy to all the animals around us – but they just don’t seem to be working for most people for some reason – why is that?

If you study the nature of change in human societies, be it any social justice movement or a strive for a better environment, only a few people change their attitudes or behaviors based solely on the revision of their moral values at one time. While I’m not discrediting the achievements of countless men and women who fought for moral change across the millennia, I also want to bring to the attention of people the fact that new technologies and apt economic motivations have always aided us in the process, and have made transformations quicker. Significant changes in human societies in terms of our behavior have always needed economic incentives, newer technologies, substitute behaviors or behavior channels first before the moral stimuli start to kick in.

To state a few examples – first wave of automation making slavery obsolete and financially cumbersome, invention of home appliances saving time for the then housewives to enter the workforce, discovery of the contraceptive pills and birth-control techniques giving women reproductive rights to spear-head the most significant of feminist movements, invention of live-television allowing the words of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to be heard across households, and high-speed internet and social-media bringing people close enough to empathize with other people having different sexual-orientations and granting them equal rights. On top of all these, the incentives for bringing more people equally into mainstream economics were beneficial for all – which ended up changing the behavior of the previously resistant masses and made the world a better place to live in. To talk about the most pertinent issue of the late 20th century, the Ozone depletion – economic incentives in the form of substitutes for Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were established; CFCs were then banned, markets for non-CFC compounds were subsidized – and today the Ozone is recovering successfully. What we can see from these few select examples (and there are a lot more) is that for us to change our behavior as a species, we need to change the nature of our economy first so that it gets easier for people to change their attitudes.

Human beings are adaptive creatures over the long term but can also be resilient to short-term changes. This short-term resilience can be overcome if you provide them with alternatives that aren’t hard to transition into – such as cheaper electric vehicles with better range than gasoline ones, affordable bio-degradable plastic, lab synthesized meat as good as or even better than actual ones, vertical farming and aquaponics more practical and yielding than conventional farming. These could all prove to become paradigm-shifting alternatives that may help us tackle the most pressing issues of our time. And the common ground these technologies share is that they make it easier for us to change our behaviors for the better. We don’t buy things because they’re moral, we do that because we think they benefit us – we are selfish creatures indeed, and that is a reality we need to exploit for our own welfare.

Being aware of behavioral economics and creating markets strong enough to compel even the most rigid politicians to change their policies is equally important. If activists want to be effective, they need to start embracing this process more than just looking for a “symbolic gesture” intended to question people’s moral values. Because if we go for the “shaming” tactic, factions of people are sure to become defensive and even more resilient to change than before. For instance, most of us in favor of taking immediate action against climate change believe that people who are resistant to this idea, and who think of climate change as a hoax, hold lesser moral values, are uneducated and dogmatic. Then we argue assuming that we stand on a moral high-ground, which we may, but we forget that the other person might also be arguing against you with a similar mindset. Playing the devil’s advocate, I could say that the oil companies are resilient to accepting the climate initiative because they fear that they are losing their investments and their markets and hence lobby hard; a proper way to incorporate them into the climate plan would be to provide a fair deal to these companies and an opportunity to modify and diversify their products – such as investing in Hydrogen fuel and subsidizing carbon-trapping technologies they install (a model that is being adopted in Canada and Norway). If our strategy is to antagonize head-on and vilify companies and people, we cannot convince other humans to change their behavior as they will become defensive and protective; we will reach a state of political deadlock – the likes of which we are witnessing across world politics today – dividing people and not getting anywhere in solving even the most existential issues.

The key to tackling this conundrum, in my opinion, lies in the proper understanding of the behavioral sciences – both at the level of individuals as well as the masses. This would teach us to adopt non-zero-sum strategies when dealing with humans as opposed to the ineffective zero-sum game. Playing the blame-game will also not amount to much in this regard. If certain people do not want to change their lifestyles drastically, we should aim for strategies that are minimally invasive – such as biodegradable polythene bags, or electric trucks that are not very different from the previous products. This is very hard to achieve, no doubt, but I believe it is still a better approach than to waste valuable civilization-years preaching people about virtue. People do not change because they want to be good and to do good, they change when they understand the benefit of choosing the better option.

I believe that there’s no harm in introducing behavioral sciences as early as middle school. My argument is that since we are always interacting with other humans as individuals and are exploring our social and political identities from an early age, it would help us as a species if we taught our children to understand the core mechanisms which drive our species in everyday life. The reason I am writing this article is to highlight the multi-lateral nature of reality and how the study of behavior is key to addressing problems in a realistic and non-romanticized manner. We are so much distracted by all the short-term “activisms” that become viral on social media, we often forget to focus on the most effective strategies for solving our problems. We easily sway towards profound statements and emotional rhetoric which are amplified by the media, and we forget to study what the actual problems and their solutions are.

Positive change isn’t brought about solely by demonstrations and movements for a noble cause, it is also a result of chance and is determined by uncontrolled convergence of random events into favorable outcomes. The best way to ensure that change occurs across a large number of people quickly could be by putting more emphasis on the study, awareness, and application of behavioral economics. Because moral arguments may be enough to influence the most educated or aware elites of an area (try telling a poor Nepali villager during a festival that killing animals is morally reprehensible and see how he responds), but the elites sadly do not form the bulk of the population at any time in history, even if objectively their moral values may be more utilitarian.

It may sound authoritarian at first glance, but the reality is that we can attain a more fluid path towards progress if we can focus on modifying the behaviors of the average people – economics is always obsessed with the middle-class for a reason. And the best way to do so is by planning for better, localized economic incentives that can yield technologies and strategies which people find beneficial and voluntarily opt for – changing their behaviors and hence their moral values in due time.

Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Psychology

On Happiness

Happiness, in my opinion, is overrated. I’m not even sure whether it is a real thing. Since life is a continuous process of struggle until the end, it doesn’t make sense when it’s possible, if at all, to reach this state of ultimate emotional equilibrium we call happiness.

Asking “how can I be happy?” is, in my opinion, asking the wrong question. We have no choice but to anticipate and tackle all the painful moments in our lives; we have to expect disappointments, betrayals, sadness, death of loved ones, illnesses and trauma we can get affected by and so on. If tackling is not possible, we may even need to accept them, much like we have to accept death at some point. This much is certain, and we all know it pretty well that we cannot avoid them.

We can’t be “happy” in the romantic sense, as often portrayed by numerous motivational speakers, life coaches or “Gurus”. Most of them present the concept as a holy grail that every one of us should always covet. I have now come to realize that all this is bogus.

This is much like the fact that we cannot realistically establish a social utopia: twentieth-century romantic nationalist or communist or even “democratic” endeavors which tried to do so, failed miserably – at the cost of many human lives. Similarly, in my opinion, romantic conceptions of happiness as portrayed in many popular books, novels, music and movies have skewed our ideas for living a realistic life and have in the process, ruined many individuals, families and relationships. We are told to imagine and pursue a certain arbitrary end called “happiness”, which in fact is always out of our grasp the more we reach out for it. And reality not meeting our idealistic expectations, stresses us out – many a times to the detriment of our fragile mental health. Pursuing happiness perverts our outlook on life, as we look at other people’s momentary satisfactions as being “happy” relative to our momentary dissatisfactions which we deem as being  “unhappy”. This much is not so hard to understand if we think deeply.

Learning to cope with life, recognizing aspects of life that are important for us in the long run (like family and friends), and engaging in activities or hobbies that demand, but not exhaust, our enthusiasm (doing what you enjoy doing persistently without regret), are some of the means to reduce existential stress or anxiety. But again, at the back of our minds, we do need to be ready for the possible unpleasant moments of pain, failure, dissatisfactions – which even these coping strategies may occasionally bring forth.

Being realistic, is to accept the imperfections that mandatorily come attached with existence and to ceaselessly struggle against them – much like Sisyphus against the boulder uphill. Being idealistic is to try to escape from them irresponsibly, by imagining unrealistic targets such as a state of happiness or utopia. By educating ourselves about human nature and to be both emotionally and rationally intelligent – can boost our ability to cope. Now we just need to repeat this process ad infinitum. And all this while, we should completely forget about ultimate happiness. Because the more we think about ultimate happiness, the more we become unhappy at proximity. This is also one core principle of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions provided by clinical psychologists, which is very helpful in reinforcing coping abilities in troubled people.

And that’s the red pill – we need to learn to cope, not to be happy.

Nepal, Personal Opinion

France wasn’t built in a day…..

France wasn’t built in a day…” * 

This is an obvious fact that everyone can grasp; yet I’m really surprised by the pessimism of even the educated people who say “Nepal is doomed”.

Why? I ask them. Most reply that we are being ruled by thugs and are not really a democracy but rather a plutocracy. We’d rather have a strong autocrat like Lee-Kwan Yew or maybe even Gyanendra himself, they say, and we haven’t experienced progress of any kind.

Then I reflect upon the country’s history. How long has it been that we’ve become a republic? 10 years? And how long since we’ve had our first, elected, constitutional government? Not even a year?

Not even a year of stable governance and we already want a strongman. Is that rash or just immensely short-sighted? And is there a guarantee that a strong authoritarian leader that we may get – will out of serendipity become a benevolent one like Lee Kwan Yew? We could very well get our own version of Gaddafi or Saddam. Don’t tell me if you’ll miss democracy then.

Of course there is corruption, of course there are instances of nepotism and of course the laws aren’t perfect and neither is the constitution. Progress isn’t utopian. Struggle will always ensue in the path of progress. Stability, development, good education, quality of life – all these will take time. We may have immensely corrupt politicians today, but with time and a newer generation the person in that position will become less corrupt, the next one thereafter may not be at all. No matter how much those in power tend to ignore problems at present, they cannot stay that way forever because demand or outrage will ensue, values will change and people will want progress so much that there will be little room left for wrongdoing. But for that we should constantly be voicing our concerns or demands – never being complacent nor unjustly pessimistic.

Here’s what Noam Chomsky has to say about realistic optimism. “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope.”

Imagine if we do not have democracy – we will have no right left to even voice about change, let alone take responsibility to see it happen. If not for democracy, the vicious cycle of illegitimate plutocrats or autocrats would have kept strengthening to the point that we may never would’ve been able to resist them. Power cannot be trusted to a concentrated few. Even if it seems imperfect to start with, it is always better used when divided. All the struggles, all the lives lost – all for nothing. So we need to throw away the poisonous cultural and political pessimism that we brew in our minds because we read too much headlines and use too much twitter – but not facts, statistics or critical thought. So to even opine that the country would be better ruled by undemocratic forces instead – is morally irresponsible!

Steven Pinker summarizes in Enlightenment now: “A liberal democracy is a precious achievement. Until the messiah comes, it will always have problems, but it’s better to solve those problems than to start a conflagration and hope that something better arises from the ashes and bones. By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, [unjust] social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers who can consolidate the tremendous progress we have enjoyed and strengthen the conditions that will bring us more.”

Think about it Nepal……

 

* [I used France instead of Rome (unlike the original adage ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’), in the opening quotation, because I think the former represents democratic and humanistic ideals better than Rome would. I’m not, however, considering some of the notable heinous foreign policies of the aforementioned state for the sake of brevity. Some may also point out that France was also ruled by strongmen such as Napoleon; I’d like to highlight that we have been as well – on two occasions after 1951 – but nonetheless in both nations the call for democracy was too great to suppress.]

Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Technology

A vision for my city

I’m not an engineer by profession, but I find cities of any kind very fascinating. And exploring videos and maps of cities and playing city-building simulation games used to be my favorite past-time (before I was caught up in some career work).

I’m a fan, especially of cities with less horizontal sprawl and more vertical elevations – such cities take up less space, cut transportation time significantly, and save energy and water distribution costs drastically. And of-course: I particularly have a crush on well-designed cities that have an organized mass-transit system, my personal favorites: the city of Kobe in Japan (Trains everywhere!!!!) and the city of Medellin in Columbia (Cable cars!!!!).

Cities are multi-dimensional, that is – despite them being established mostly in a top-down manner (like planned cities of Barcelona or Manchester or Seoul or Singapore), they can also be improved via a bottom-up approach (Rio de Janerio, Brasil or Medellin).

By bottom-up approach I mean – to improve, with minimum demolition, cities that are already overcrowded and seemingly unmanageable; and to give them their own unique identity along with improving its citizens’ overall well-being. The city of Rio and Medellin have done it in a uniquely Latin-American way. They improved upon their slums (Favelas) that were already there, without destroying them (now some of them are crime-free and pose as tourist attractions), they regulated housing in other areas and made it affordable so newer immigrants need not further expand the slums, and they established a mass transit system unique to the topography that could carry their citizens efficiently, for low cost, connecting the thriving city-center to the developing Favelas on the hills: via spacious cable cars!!!

When I look at my own city of Kathmandu valley, I see no alternative to the bottom-up approach. We simply cannot afford the top-down approach anymore – there are too many heritage sites and monuments and people live everywhere in a haphazard manner. Everything is jam-packed and we surely don’t want more dust. We simply cannot afford to press the ‘reset’ button for this city. Innovation is a key figure for bottom-up approaches and we all know it can bring us around traditional problems just as in Latin America – without the need for destroying anything of significant value.

It’s a shame that in my city they had to destroy historical landmarks such as “Sohrakhutte” just for the simple task of expanding the road by a few meters. There is also another talk of building satellite-cities outside ring-roads by destroying historical Newari villages and towns. These are examples of a top-down approach – where an authority figure (government or a company) have complete authority and control in development projects, with little regard for the citizens themselves. Top-down approaches are more suited for building newer cities such as Navi-Mumbai, or Singapore or Songdo-city outside Seoul; all of them being built from scratch out of land reclamation or on top of wastelands. In older cities with historical significance or over-crowding, only the bottom-up approach makes sense. And let’s be honest, regardless of the federalization the the country, Kathmandu valley will still have significant influx of people for many years into the future.

So one example of a bottom-up approach to improve upon the aesthetics of Kathmandu city could be by completely doing away with cables or wires (many cities around the world have shifted to wireless or CDMA and we can get rid of wires in due time as well). Just getting rid of obsolete data transfer systems would free up much needed spaces, exception only being for electric cables. Another method would be to employ smart transit systems requiring minimum infrastructure – such as relatively cheap-to-build (compared to underground metro) yet large enough cable-cars to connect commuters from dense areas like Sitapaila or Budhanilkantha to somewhere near Line-chaur or Ratna-Park. To aid rush-hour traffic, we can instead turn towards local shareable vehicle technologies (Tootle is one example) which would allot an idle vehicle not just for one person – but for any going in the same direction for a small price, as long as there’s space inside. We don’t always have to widen the roads, as we can learn from old cities in Europe – we can restrict vehicles to promote alternate methods of transport within set areas.

Even if we just improve upon the sidewalks and crossings, many people would opt to walk short-distances instead of using vehicles (which we currently do with micro-buses, even to travel a distance of only a kilometer). We can replace the clutter of small-size buses or micro-buses with bigger scheduled buses in a way Sajha yatayat are doing. Big buses free up traffic by fitting in more people per square meter on the road. Instead of allotting massive budget and energy for constructing underground metro systems (which would also require a lot of demolition) we could opt for skylines such as heavy-capacity monorail systems which occupy less space and can cut across dense areas of the city with minimal invasion (Like those being modeled or tested in Mumbai, Bangalore and Guanzhou). And these are to be connected with each other – such that a person living in Koteshwor could ride a monorail upto Lagankhel and then switch to either a bus to go into the city or a rope-way to get to Lamatar. We need loops of transit systems. And all these can be approached only by means of a considerate bottom-up approach, not really top-down. A bottom-up approach also saves us more money and time for construction compared to top-down ones. The philosophy should be to turn Kathmandu, not into New York or Osaka (because we are never going to achieve that in a reasonable way), but into a livable, more efficient Kathmandu.

Of course these are just my amateurish assumptions and it will be harder to implement these changes in practise and people do exist in our country who know more about this than I do. But we just ought encourage ourselves to think outside the box once in a while. We could also benefit from sending our technical people to train in Latin america or china where innovative concepts for both new and old cities are being explored on a regular basis. We need to learn from the people who got it right, so that like them, we can also pull our city out of the dust and into the 21st century.

And last but not the least, I think we need to participate ourselves, as citizens, for the betterment of this promising city.

Personal Opinion, Rationalism, Technology

Aid our faulty memories!

Another common problem in the Nepali medical work-space: we rely too much on our memories.
 
Our memories are faulty. We live in the age of information surplus and not in the time of William Osler or Edward Jenner. And it is completely natural to forget the massive amount of information we collect, and people shouldn’t be shamed or tested purely on failure of recall.
 
Human memory wasn’t designed to handle so much information all at once. Our brains can only store memories if they are linked to something personal, relatable or frightening. This is where mnemonics come handy when memorizing facts or concepts. But that isn’t always possible for everything in practice. Compared to most developed nations, we rely too much on memory to the point of regressive test standards and burnout.
What is important is to actually understand what charts, criteria, protocol, scores are useful for. It serves no practical purpose to memorize those charts and tables which can today be promptly accessible on procedure room walls, tablet devices or smart phones. For instance, what’s the point of memorizing scoring tables for diagnosing Lupus, if we can easily look it up on a cell phone at bed side? Sure, having a better memory will boost one’s career and will maybe be helpful in busy situations. But such individuals are outliers, and not every medical professional are blessed with super-human memory. We need to think in terms of the average medical professional. Faulty memory is also a major contributor towards medical errors which can cost actual patient lives! Even the brilliant prodigies who become great doctors or successful nurses can forget – as they too are humans!
 
We never think in terms of ‘lives saved’, or ‘mishaps prevented’ or ‘errors avoided’ in Nepal. We seldom think as a group. We only think in terms of individual success. Maybe this has to do with our poorly regulated standards and indifferent medical professional bodies. And why not? Most research work done out here is to fulfill a certain criteria for individual promotion or raise and rarely to solve actual problems. Even if research has been done with genuine intention, their findings are just shoved aside as “just another study” by those in power. Some institutions like PAHS in Patan are trying to change this dependency on human memory, but PAHS is just one institute in one part of one district! We could learn from them, but we perhaps emphasize our professional ego too much to progress. 
 
Computers obviously have a better, faster, and more accurate memory storage and recollection system. They are here to aid us, to potentiate our faulty memories, so we can instead dedicate more energy in conceptualizing and problem-solving in real time. Using smart devices at bed-side isn’t a sign of our incompetence, it’s a sign of progress if it helps us to prevent errors due to our primitive organic memories. Given that we could standardize their use at bed-side (like institute-dependent apps or webpages), I can confidently say that they will surely prove to be a great boon (and a massive relief for nurses, residents and medical students) for the field as a whole. 
But who’s going to take me seriously, I’m just a random blogger.
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Nepal, Personal Opinion, Secular Humanism

Emancipate the Enlightenment!

As I’m writing this, I’m very well aware that I should be going through my own little curriculum instead of this blog, but I have a habit of jotting down stuff instantaneously and, if I deem it’s worth it, sharing it with others. But this blog is not about me or my life, it’s about an obvious thought I had on which I really want to elaborate. It’s about higher education in this country in general.

There’s no point in regretting even the bad decisions you make in life since you can’t go back in time and right the wrong, but you definitely have a responsibility to redeem yourself or others from similar mistakes or misfortunes by trying not to put yourself in that sort of situation again, and by warning others at present or in the future. So this blog could be a useful insight for people who are, at present, in the same situation I used to be in the past. I have to say, with a heavy heart, that it was a grave mistake to have studied my undergraduate course in Nepal. However, I do think I have tried my best to compensate for the lack of diversity of ideas, absence of proper scholarly training and poor standards of scientific methodology in my medical college curricula, with amateurish self-education and a couple of online courses on research writing skills, thinking skills and professional skills albeit without any formal degree of any kind. None of which I got the opportunity to learn through my Alma mater nor through my university. Probably the most common demerit of studying in a private, non-autonomous medical school (does not include reputed public institutions).

But this blog is not just about medical education, but instead about the entire pattern of the local undergraduate system. I will also make an effort to question whether or not we should maintain technical disciplines such as medicine, engineering or law as undergraduate degrees. The blog is not meant to blame anyone directly, but instead to point out a serious problem in our education system here in Nepal (the scope of the blog focusing mainly on higher education and perhaps secondary, but not really primary education). However, we should with an open mind and honest self-reflection, be able to realize that all of us, perhaps myself included, are part of the problem.

Rigid System

If I see a fundamental flaw in our system of higher education, be it secondary, undergraduate or post-graduate, then it must be in the design and enforcement of restrictive and rigid curricula. Such is their pattern and strictness, that it is almost impossible to change subjects or streams midway through a course. Of course, I realize people will make the counter-argument of one having the responsibility to decide for themselves in due time. That makes sense, but it should also be realized that to be able to decide in that manner, students who are not really primed should have the right to receive a detailed orientation program providing an apt introduction into the system, before they have made their payment or admission. But they don’t get it.

I also realize that due to pragmatic difficulties in tackling the rampant bureaucracy, cronyism or nepotism or all at once, this arrangement may not be immediately feasible, but the troubling thing is, it looks like as if none of us are eager to solve the problem at all given the time many cohort of Nepali students have had to deal with such problems. Well, if this arrangement doesn’t fit within our system, then there should be an easier alternative, to be able to change the stream midway within the same university ecosystem. But that is not allowed without heavy consequences. Academic flexibility is simply non-existent. This, however, does not apply to technical disciplines such as medicine or engineering because since a lot of time and investment is required to train students, it would not be a viable or sustainable model if respective institutes came with a free abort switch every semester or so. But where such provisions do justice, there can be found none.

So students are stuck mostly in a rigid system of education, wherein a humanities student cannot major or minor with a science degree or a science student cannot minor in a philosophy degree (of which Nepali universities are seriously lacking in quantity and quality) and the like. As this does not apply to technical fields, such fields should be instead transcended up to the post-graduate tier. In short, to try and model them after the American system. Before addressing any rebuttals, I’d like to stress on an evident fact that high school or secondary school students are not fully capable to directly transition into a technical field without proper orientation or without undergoing the intellectual maturity-inducing buffer of undergraduate degrees. There is thus a reason why higher education in the United States of America is still the most sought after option for students globally. One general reason is that most of their universities are autonomous and allow students to discover themselves within a vast pool of career options. Another general reason is that despite the vast pool, they always have the flexible option of selecting add-on, alternate or double majors or minors, limited perhaps only by the individual’s capacity. And since they get an enormous amount of practical, theoretical and social exposure during their undergraduate years, only the surest of them will opt for the essential yet difficult technical fields as graduate studies.

Critics of this idea may dismiss it as a far-fetched and an overtly idealistic one, but if you look carefully into the history of education in the United States, they too had most vital technical education as under-graduate degrees as late into the 1980s. It was after a paradigm shifting legislation that most technical disciplines got raised into graduate-levels, allowing students time to be sure of their academic prowess during their undergraduate years. We don’t necessarily have to copy the Americans exactly. If you look at other western countries such as the United Kingdom, despite having technical disciplines included as undergraduate level degrees, prefer at least a year of internship, experience or related training and a well-guided, informed orientation before enrollment through a standardized exam. I guess that time lag provides a minimum buffer for students before painstakingly mugging up for entrance exams only to be abruptly thrown into an inescapable well of professional responsibilities.

I’m in no way saying students out here are incapable of pursuing technical studies right after secondary school. But I guess, having experienced the unfair pressure and also the irrational feeling of race to get a degree, a little bit of buffer of any kind would be more than welcome. Of course there are pretty competitive students who despite being of young age achieve any feat other international students achieve, or maybe even better. But these are outliers, and when talking about improving a system as a whole, we need to look at where the average lies. Sadly, our average is even below just ‘disappointing’ to be honest.

Mushrooming Privatization

To add to our misery, in spite of this country declaring itself a socialist-welfare democracy in the constitution, the exponential mushrooming privatization of educational institutes could probably make even the red-state libertarian capitalists in the US jealous. As we all know, decades of political instability, and lack of stable regulations allowed this nightmare to project as reality. As you walk the streets of any big city or town in Nepal, you’ll definitely come to see at least 4 poorly established, cramped up, two-storied private schools every block or so. Going further, the story of colleges are similar, just only slightly regulated as the economic incentive is relatively higher. Moving on, even a pep talk about the frequency of private medical colleges or engineering colleges in the nation is enough to elicit a big, synchronous, nation-wide face-palm.

A university is supposed to be a self-sufficient, autonomous institute dedicated solely for the purpose of furthering scholarship and broad academic progress to help the society it exists in. But despite founders of the two largest universities in the country having that vision, their visionary goals definitely did fall victim to agendas carried by sycophants and crony bureaucrats, for us to today witness a disgusting trend of capitalization of an essential sector. Universities here prefer to hand out profitable affiliations wearing thick blindfolds without regard for any standard. Private medical schools, to be specific, screen students through, mostly but not always, poorly regulated entrance exams. That too, taken actually by their affiliated university and not they themselves. And there’s no trickle of standardization at all. One year the pattern is A and another year it’s like B and the subsequent year maybe even a Z! No wonder why Dr. Govinda KC keeps up his hunger strikes for more than 20 days each time. Entrance exams have no systematic curricula, people who make questions aren’t always taken fully in confidence liable to become leakers, and the question-makers depend almost entirely on Indian question-banks, without having to waste any intellectual effort to rigorously design a scientific or standardized pool of questions. An easy way out. Similar is the case for all private engineering colleges as well. And despite all this, they expect professional standards to rise (perhaps miraculously by way of some unseen entity).

Education in Nepal is heavily influenced by the Indian system. Rote learning, point-blanc in-your-face questions that test memory more than concept, and an ever increasing race-for-life fostered by a paucity of academic space amidst an ever-growing population rate. To be fair to India, institutes there are already starting to up their standards and loosen the pressure on students due to popular and intellectual demand across many places. But our institutes show no sign of budging from the ridiculously regressive, plagiarized standards of education that go completely against human nature itself!

I honestly do not have a pragmatic solution in mind for solving this. I guess perhaps people with better experience and knowledge than myself have even more workable solutions. I am just pointing out a problem from the point of view of a dissatisfied graduate who claims to have learnt more through foreign textbooks, curricula and the internet than I should have from the local curriculum or system. To tell you a story, as we were interns, demanding a raise in our stipend as per university guidelines, we were lambasted and lampooned by the authority quite literally as “immature children going against their guardians” (I never knew we had to pay a large sum of money to get such dishonest and insecure guardians). Despite giving us the raise, the college greatly cheated us with regard to rooms for interns saying ‘internship is not for resting’. Provision of rooms for interns remains, however, till this day, strongly etched in university guidelines for private medical education. A room that pops into existence every time the university inspection arrive and disappears right after they leave. And no one ever went further to ask for the room ever, because private colleges here actually have the tyrannical ability to hold individual students as academic hostages. For instance, if you open your mouth too much, your degree can be held back or your letter of recommendation not issued, conjuring up with some obscure and bureaucratic clauses for not doing so. It’s basically career suicide to voice against your college administration. Such is the reality, as I can write now as a safely emancipated graduate.

Anti-intellectual Hierarchy

What may have happened to the world of philosophy if Socrates had never questioned the way of his teacher and his elders? Where would we be with the practice of blood-letting and operating without anesthesia had someone not doubted on their efficacy at one point in history? What would have become of this country had we not thrown out the Rana regime out of dissent? We would perhaps still be wearing long pointy masks to treat a global Bubonic plague with bear-bile and perhaps be taking our sick to the shamans to treat infections. Or perhaps be prosecuting dalits for spoiling the village well as per the first Muluki Ain set by Janga Bahadur Rana. Humans have come a long way from obsolete practices because people could doubt and improve on their doubts thereafter. As an old latin proverb goes: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

But the trend we have in our education system, is that of a masochistic submission to the sacred ‘Guru’. Especially prevalent in medical education, if not in others. An anti-intellectual hierarchy that tries to suppress doubt and dissent from their juniors. To be fair to some inspirational tutors who really are dedicated towards encouraging openness and academic dialogue, I’ll say that you people fall in the minority and this isn’t about you lot. The pervasive mentality is still that of a hierarchy of age or professional graduation. ‘Thou shalt not go against the professor’ is the common save-your-asses trend. Or even the nonsensical ‘call your immediate seniors dai or didi’ or the anti-humanistic tradition of “Ragging” (Formal bullying of freshmen by seniors). Because if the professor or the senior has a problem with you, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a problem socializing or even passing. Academic dissent can easily turn into a sequence of personal vendetta and thus professional or academic sabotage, from which there may not be any redemption. One reason why students self-suppress themselves even in the face of inaccurate or outdated information. Ask anyone who has gone through an archaic testing pattern known as Viva-Voce in medicine. If you question the teacher or the examiner, you’ll hurt their ego so keep quiet instead and mug up their notes for some bloody marks or points!

To be a little optimistic, this trend is dwindling, thanks to the advent of broad band internet and an increasing awareness in part of the teachers as well as recently graduated students who became teachers themselves. But it’s not surprising to see students joyful whenever they find a good and welcoming teacher, because those still are rare. It’s this mentality that must be upgraded for us all to better our system. Students should never be held academic hostage for dissent or difference of opinion. How else is anyone supposed to broaden their mind and think outside the box? There’s a reason why freedom of speech and expression is vital in educational institutes, it’s to foster legitimate dissent without the fear of prosecution, formal or informal. A virtue which Nepali students almost certainly are deprived of in their institutions.

Race for the Holy Grail

Spoilers ahead! By the holy grail, I actually mean academic degrees. That’s all that matters to a majority of parents, students, teachers and institutes. We are, in this tiny country, in a serious race for some academic degree and to earn money faster than our neighbors or cousins. A superficial counter-scholarly trend that is prevalent in this part of the world. Knowledge, professional training or skills should be the desired means as well as the end of any academic of educational institute or student. Out here, paper certificates, many times liable to be counterfeit, are treated as the only important end. Degrees, though they seem important, are but just means to make a get some academic recognition and to earn a living. The end should, rightly always be, the knowledge and expertise one gets through the process of education.

Such is the provision out here, that students can even obtain a degree (however poor their academic or professional prowess might be) simply by passing a black and white exam that only screens for their ability to recall volatile memories. Concepts and practical skills are rarely well-tested. Now of course, as I’ve pointed out earlier, there are outliers who can excel in the same system as much as the outliers at other end who constantly fail and never get anywhere. Again I’d like to stress on the fact that it’s the average we should be after, not the outliers. Any body or group of people genuinely interested to improve the standards of graduates of any discipline, technical or others, should always strive towards improving the average. But that doesn’t happen here, at least not according to my experience and knowledge. It’s a culture reflected by acts such as schools displaying the names of their best 10 students on hoarding boards outside their premises, who have gotten good marks in a certain board exam. Much like one of those cheap click-bait advertisements we see on the internet for Viagra.

Colleges, campuses and private medical schools all exist, annoyingly fostering this dystopian mentality. Instead of improving the average, their focus is too often just on the outliers for the sole purpose of advertisement, possibly to pull in more students. The blame can partly be put on the society as well. These profit houses disguised as professional institutes, are mere stamp pads bearing the emblem of the university’s degree. Their fodder actually comes from the society’s priority of superficial taglines over the more important pulp of education: The real-world application of their knowledge. The major incentive is solely profit and nothing more, with certain exceptions of course, but very little. The people who run such institutes perhaps have no sense of responsibility towards the nation or the society at all. They can be justifiably called factory houses that package students with respective degrees, which occasionally hand out the best employee or best package award to keep the money flowing. A massive disgrace to scholarship indeed.

Hope

I repeat, I do not claim to have a solution at hand at the moment. I’m just a mere blogger highlighting what I saw to be wrong and disturbing. From the beginning of the history of scholarship, from the time of the first universities and schools established in the first civilizations, it is well known that the quality of any society is an indirect but proportional reflection of the quality of their education or scholarship. As a matter of fact, we can grossly estimate where our nation stands at the moment.

I really want to be optimistic on this regard though. Despite my harsh criticism, I do need to point out that this country has made significant strides in the sector of education as a whole, considering the nascent history of democracy and a sluggish yet emerging free market. Bureaucracy is not as pervasive as it used to be during the Panchayat era and it is being easier for citizens to access government services as per growing popular demand. Corruption and nepotism is being scrutinized, and efforts at improvement are being made by related individuals and groups in related sectors. The first actual federal government hasn’t even worked for a year and federalism hasn’t had an actual chance to test itself. Foreign graduates and expats are returning and there’s an ever growing entrepreneurial spirit reflected by the the emergence of new startups and them turning later into successful businesses. These are hopeful aspects of this nation. But never really enough to be content. Not yet.

Despite the visible glitter, attitude towards scholars, intellectuals and professionals are still not impressive though. Those who do opt to stay in Nepal to further their fields are seen with contempt, many even labeling them as elitists or non-relatable privileged class. Opinions of experts are not given more importance in policy making than those of a less educated but powerful politician. Celebrity worship is on the rise, but intellectuals and scholars are looked down upon with the stereotype of talkers and slackers (more than often, rightly so). It’s simply a paradox of dissatisfaction. All hope may not be lost, but anyone concerned should seriously need to contemplate on this grave matter.

If we supposedly need to start from any one point in the long and tedious process of bettering our society, then definitely top priority should be given to education and scholarship. Do we wish to stay in the dark and keep blaming our politicians for eternity, or do we wish to better our society by recognizing, respecting and emancipating our potency for enlightenment?

Personal Opinion, Rationalism

Did you know?

All these people who complain about ‘white privilege’ and ‘white exceptionalism’ definitely have credit where it’s due.

But sometimes they take it too far to the point of falsely justifying their cultural inferiority complex, that likens their argument to those of religious fanatics (Us against them sort of mindset). That white people are bad and should be always guilty for what their grandparents or ancestors did; and everyone else is a victim of their white prejudice.

Arguing from a ‘victim’ mindset could be detrimental to the legitimate argument they actually may be presenting, because in such a state, it degrades their argument just to the level of white people-bashing and nothing else. It’s one thing to learn from the ill aspects of history, and wholly another be stuck at one point of it.

It helps to not polarise your thinking and knowledge if you can understand about perspectives across the world. Did these people know that the Japanese people, isolated from the rest of the continent, used to be as entitled as the British Colonizers? There still are politically powerful ‘Japanese exceptionalists’ lobbying against immigration in the state and to strengthen Japanese influence in the region. The imperial government of Japan tried to expand its dominion all over East Asia and the Pacific at one time. There was a time United States didn’t like to interfere in global affairs, before the great war. It’s all about power. A dominant culture of one time tries to encroach upon others. Indians would if they had a chance. The Nepalese would if they had it themselves. Not implying moral indifference, just asserting an observed phenomenon. Not everything has to do with race.

And if you look at history from a bird’s-eye-view, then it all makes sense. That is why I respect intellectuals and personalities who try to present a non-narrative-driven, unbiased picture of reality instead of the opposite kind who have a particular agenda at hand and confidently argue just to defend it, even when they are wrong.

In simpler words, this is why I respect outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall-street Journal, BBC, Aeon, Atlantic and Reuters (nowadays, even Wikipedia news) more than CNN, FOX news, MSNBC, Vice, Vox or the notorious Huffington post.

Personal Opinion, Philosophy

On ends and their means…

“If two people arrive at the same conclusion from two different sources of knowledge, would it be necessary to differentiate or discern the validity of these sources?”

For example, one person becomes a vegetarian after reading Buddhist scriptures and another becomes a vegetarian after thinking through utilitarian ethics and the rationality and morality behind suffering of animals for dietary gains, would it still warrant skeptics to be skeptical of Buddhist values or vice versa? Would ends justify the means?

To those who say we shouldn’t and that all schools of thoughts should be given equal importance in terms of values and outcomes, what if in the next few lines of some Buddhist scriptures it is mentioned that only men can attain enlightenment and not women because they are not higher up the spiritual hierarchy? (This is just an example I made up, but many, not all, traditional Buddhist scriptures do limit women’s enlightenment status and proclaim that women can never truly become the enlightened Chakravartin or the Buddha).

I would assume that defendants would come to the rescue of Buddhism by saying those are “not true words of the Buddha but later interpretations by his numerous disciples through the ages”. A perfect “no true Scotsman fallacy”. And others may add that “we ought to accept the good values and reject the old and redundant ones”. I would perfectly agree with the latter statement of defense, but a question would definitely come to my mind: If we were indeed to cherry-pick what we deem ‘good’ and filter out what we deem ‘bad’ from established documents of an idea, what is the point of accepting or adopting the identity of the whole doctrine itself? Haven’t you clearly contradicted from the original doctrine yourself? Are you being unaware of your double-thinking? Are you not uncomfortable having to live with the evident cognitive dissonance that you’re displaying?

This was an effort to highlight one fundamental problem with eclecticism or syncretism  that are prevalent in the current globalized world, thanks to John Lennon’s Imagine and the 60’s hippy-movement. In short, these are schools of thought that equate every human idea or philosophy to be of similar value and importance. But the fact of the matter is that, this cannot be consistently true. In that sense, can we rightly equate the core tenets of Nazism to those of the Quakers? Can we equate the fundamental principles of Islam to those of Buddhism? Can we equate Advait Vedanta to Hindutva? Can we equate superstition to science? Can we equate the values of Democracy to Maoism or Freedom of speech to Fascism? No we cannot!

For a careful thinker, there are flawed ideas and there are sound and valid ones. The conclusions derived by the latter of the sort follow through cogent and valid premises themselves. All ideas cannot be given equal weight, even if we do consider going through them to broaden our perspectives. (You cannot logically try to match the core ideas of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to those of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty). This much should be well evident and well thought, and not to be confused upon.

It is important to give every idea a chance, but more importantly, there is a dire necessity (and perhaps also a great responsibility) these days for us to be able to distinguish between good ideas and bad ones. We definitely need to ‘train’ ourselves to do so because we aren’t born good thinkers. All in all, we definitely need to learn to not confine ourselves, as much as possible, within boxes of unchecked biases.

Futurism, Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Technology

Can machines think? 

A unique thing that a future AI will most likely do is to ‘decide’ for itself, and to ‘learn’ from the consequences of it’s decision. The process has already begun. So what different will it be from humans, if an AI can ‘decide’ and ‘learn’ from available inputs and memory? Should we still call their cognitive algorithm ‘Artificial’ intelligence, or simply “Intelligence” like we call our own?

But first, let’s have a look at how we think as individuals. Suppose we have a notion in our brain as a result of a perception of some stimuli that leads to it, such as visual ques or auditory ques of someone’s speech.  Subsequently, when the turn comes for us to either act or form an opinion or a stance about it, we try to rationalize it, justify it or either scrutinize it based on our memory and knowledge (or beliefs) before coming to a calculated or an emotional conclusion.

ex_machina_ver4
If you haven’t watched this movie, leave everything and watch it now!

Even lower mammals think. They rationalize their actions only through a much simpler algorithm: Heuristics. Putting it simply, heuristics can be said to be prompt justifications based on emotions such as fear, hunger, attachment, lust and so on or based on readily available impromptu memory. Humans probably just have an added dimension to this algorithm, with the ability to separate emotions from pure cognition most of the time. It’s evident that such a quality is not inherent, but rather learned. Nonetheless, it seems that only humans have the capacity to learn to such an extent so as to be able to travel to outer space or to be able to harvest the energy of an atom.

Pure cognition helps provide an additional, learned dimension to the algorithm such that we have been able to cooperate with other members of our species, learn written languages (spoken language is innate but written is always learned, no wonder the focus on literacy rates around the globe), do advanced mathematics, learn to cook food with style, do art, train to understand science, build aircraft and so on. We are just like other mammals who can be said to think, but with a much more complex algorithm. Say, when compared to Rhesus monkeys who also do think, live in social groups and have opposable thumbs like ours, but do not have the capacity to learn as significantly as we do.

In that sense, dogs think as well. And most of us must be familiar with their behavior. Throw a ball for them to fetch, they’ll retrieve it back. Hide the ball again, they will search for it and sniff around your body because they have the memory that you last had it. If you show your empty hands to their eager eyes, they’ll then start to sniff around the lawn closest to where the ball had landed previously. This is basic mammalian algorithm. Food is here – eat food. Food isn’t here – search for food. Food was here, now no food – search where food was last seen. Then repeat this cycle, until new food is found. Forget about the old food.

We do this too. But we have a higher level of problem solving ability, because our algorithm is much more complex as I’ve mentioned above. In the dog’s algorithm above, it tends to forget about the food of interest if a new food is found. But we humans on the other hand, tend to keep thinking about the object we have lost in the distant past, the food we were denied and keep looking for innovative ways to either search for the same food, or to be wary in the future so as to not commit the mistake of losing the food or object in the same way or to eventually learn to assure plenty of food by learning how to farm! You may have noticed here, that unlike our canine friends, we plan for the future and think ahead. We see the bigger picture, when a dolphin or a chimpanzee simply cannot. Their solipsism is limited to survival or hereditary kinship, while our solipsism can go beyond survival to wonder about the diseases that kill us or even so far ahead to wonder about the stars and planets that have no connection with our immediate survival; all when simultaneously co-operating with other individuals of our species who aren’t even siblings in any way.

her-movie-review
Another great movie that portrays a successful outcome of a textual-auditory Turing test. A must watch.

But a crucial similarity between monkey and human cognition, is the process of decision making and learning through experience (detailed memory), regardless of the vast differences in cognitive capacities. What a machine could not do till now, even a cognitively less developed dog could do. But that is, interestingly, changing.

Most machines and software in use today, can think and make decisions. But their decisions are seemingly redundant. They don’t learn much. However, a new approach to programming and computer science these days is calling in a new era of ‘machine learning’. There are already ‘bots’ circulating throughout the internet which alter their codes to suit their website or server’s agenda. And they learn from previous failures to be able to improve in the future. Some computer viruses may be doing that as well. Notable projects include Google’s Deep mind, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana; are all being developed after every launch so that they increasingly cater to the customers by learning about their relevant behavior patterns and making accurate decisions based on it. They are only getting better by the year.

I remember Noam Chomsky, who is foremost a Cognitive scientist, replying to a journalist who asked him “Can machines think?” by saying something like “I think to ask ‘can machines (computers) think’ is like asking ‘can submarines swim?’. Computers were designed to think.”

According to him, since computers were designed to think, and to calculate one has to think, they’ve always been thinking. It’s just that they couldn’t decide on their own or couldn’t learn on their own without some kind of human input. We witnessed the attainment of this decision aspect in machines which spearheaded us to a digital age from an analog one. The next step is that we may witness machines daft with the learning aspects as well. These two faculties, which we’ve only been accustomed to witnessing in humans and lower animals, we will possibly see it unfold in inorganic machines who can actually think just like us and often become indistinguishable from (or even superior to) humans. And this thought may be creepy for some of us because after this, our inventions will have taken over the very definition of our species, Sapiens, itself (Sapiens = Wise/Thinking). If so, we may no longer have the sweet comfort of becoming the only intelligent entity on the planet.

Take this idea for a moment. By just looking at a person talking to you, can you tell for sure whether they are either thinking like you are or simply are just involved in the conversation? Can you differentiate their affect (emotions) from their cognition (thoughts) right there and then? Can you tell whether their thoughts are spontaneous or pre-programmed? I guess not. And we certainly couldn’t do so, if for example, humanoids passed the turning test. Now who is a machine and who is not? Are we only calling ourselves machines just because we are organic? Why are our cognitive algorithms called ‘thinking’ but not that of machines because of this organic bias? Are we not organic ‘survival machines’ as well?

Questions may also arise as to whether or not to call them ‘artificial’ anymore because of their ability to decide and learn on their own. For a robot that passes all levels of the Turing test (text, auditory, audio-visual), how can we tell by simple interaction that they are thinking or not thinking? Can you tell then, for certain, whether a pedestrian you collided with while commuting, was a humanoid or a human? Other issues may come about after that, such as rights and cognitive egalitarianism (equal rights for all intelligent entities and such) but it’s beyond the scope of this essay.

So the whole point behind this write up was to highlight the idea, that before asking questions like “can machines think?” it may give us a better insight if we also entertain the question of “can we think?”. It’s an interesting matter to ponder about. Because seriously, can we really think or are we under the illusion of thinking? Or are we merely processing information and memory to form a conclusion or a specific reaction that gives us this illusion that we are actually thinking?

Futurism, Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Science

Death of the Biosphere? 

(Transformation of the Biosphere)

Why do we consider inorganic or organic materials made by humans as “unnatural”, when we do not designate the same term to mountains created by tectonic collisions or to elegant rocks eroded for ages by river water nor towards parasites such as Toxoplasma infecting the neurons of lower mammals and altering their behavior?

A typical answer to this question is that what we consider to be “unnatural” could be those entities formed as a result of a ‘sentient intention’ (a sentient being doing something intentionally). But if so, then even a courting swallow is sentient enough to manipulate twigs and leaves to build itself a nest, and not just that, but also decorate it with the intention of attracting a mate. But is a swallow nest “unnatural” to us? If say, the swallows were as cognitively enhanced as we are, from within their solipsism, would their nest be “unnatural” to them then? So perhaps the only option left to answer the question would be from an anthropocentric (human-centric) viewpoint?

If we are evidently products of a natural process, then isn’t it logical to also assume that our tool-making and tampering of ecosystems is most likely a subset of the natural process (i.e the universe itself)? Unless of course, a third omnipotent entity might be puppeteering our actions; of which there seems to be no justification whatsoever. The former notion fits more appropriately, when we also learn the fact that free-will most probably doesn’t exist and that we all behave and make choices as a result of our conditioned heuristics (if not trained to do otherwise). That is saying, in simpler terms, that our brains and with it our personalities and preferences are shaped by the random events of our environment.

For instance think about this; take a tissue from a certain person, Shyam, and clone him. Will the clone bear exactly the same personality as Shyam himself? Will the clone become the same Shyam or a different Shyam? Same can be observed from the differences found in personalities between two monozygotic (identical) twins with exactly the same genetic makeup. How is this, again, not part of nature? And how, also these conditioned individuals’ future decisions, moral codes, ethics, judgement, emotions not be part of nature? If humans decide to construct a tree-house, is it natural or unnatural?

Man man - Natural things
We’ve been taught from a small age about the dichotomy of Man-made and Natural. But I finally think we are mature enough to question this idea. If Man himself is natural, how are man-made things technically ‘unnatural’? 

It is perhaps possible that we may be viewing matters which concern the milieu in which we exist, frequently from only within our solipsism. Because in the blind eyes of reality, a plastic water bottle is as much a component of nature as the keratinous fur over a wild bear. They all come from molecules found within the universe, made from the elements of this universe, and released into the universe itself. It just seems that from within our own solipsism, we perceive a plastic water bottle as “unnatural” and grizzly bear fur as “natural”.

Another example is that we consider paper plates “unnatural” yet we do not often say the same for make-shift banana leave-plates used by ethnicities in Kerala. When both utensils are in fact used for holding our food, why is one considered natural yet the other unnatural? When bacteria protect themselves from viruses with Cas-9 immune system that is considered natural, and when we inject vaccines to survive from the harms of measles or polio viruses, it is somehow unnatural. But again, are they?

Moving on to the bigger picture, why do we consider even human-caused near-extinction phenomenons such as climate change to be “unnatural” when we considered the Ordovician-Silurian extinction (which wiped out more than 85% of life on the planet) some 430 odd million years ago as simply ‘natural’? If the extinction of the Trilobites or the Dinosaurs was natural, why isn’t the possible extinction at the end of this human era considered the same? It most obviously has something to do with our survival. Were it not about our survival, would we still look at climate change with grave eyes as many do today? (Even so, many others still deny climate change despite the fact that it may spell a radical change in human civilization or even spell the end).

Furthermore, would bringing back species of flora and fauna extinct due to human-caused events and reintroducing them to an ecosystem that has moved on without them, be considered natural or unnatural? Are we merely trying to bring back the Tasmanian tiger or the Dodo for our own solipsistic satisfaction or as a moral repent for our “unnatural” manipulation of our surroundings? Or simply, is it because we can do it and we want to see what it’s like to bring back that part of the biosphere which perished from existence for quite a while? In our general moral code, natural is generally considered ‘good’ and anything made by humans that is “unnatural” seems bad. We live with this dichotomy, probably thanks to our slowly evolving psyche which is clearly outpaced by exponential technological and scientific innovations that most of us simply cannot perceive from beyond our anthropocentric views.

quote-by-challenging-anthropocentricism-and-temporal-provincialism-science-fiction-throws-alvin-toffler-114-4-0413
Alvin Toffler is an American Writer and Futurist

The whole point of my series of questioning is not about the call for withdrawal of ongoing conservation efforts and the global efforts to try and curb the harshest effects of climate change. This essay is not about addressing such issues, but rather something else. From our species’ perspective going-green seems utilitarian and is, but an effort, to survive and grow. It is an effort of mine, to point out the flaws and paradoxes in just the rhetoric surrounding our existence in the nature around us, our survival and conservation efforts. An attempt to just try to present a supra-human insight on the very idea of human progress itself. I simply question whether we should even need to use the natural-unnatural dichotomy in the first place?

While contemplating about such issues, I can’t help but remember George Carlin. Especially that joke where he said that our rhetoric of ‘saving the planet’ was so out of touch with reality because the planet will still be here for millions of years, it’s us humans who are fucked! So we better be saying ‘save our species and other species’ instead of ‘the planet’. Because in my opinion, as much as our manipulating of nature is for our benefit and survival, it is also a part of the process of nature (of course we are affecting other species and ecosystems because of it) but the planet will stand even if we perish as a species from the planet. Something else may replace us, but that will obviously and definitely not involve us.

My ultimate point is that we may be already at a turning point give or take a few decades or for backup, centuries. Perhaps 50 years or 200 years from now, but in our 70,000 years of walking upon this planet, we are closer to the turning point than ever before. That too, exponentially!

The turning point I am talking about is not that which only relates to us humans, but that which concerns the entire biosphere. There may be a multilateral effect pattern after this turning point (or rather turning ‘period’), but I’d specifically like to talk about only two that interest me the most.

The first is that projection which leads to our species’ extinction. As simple as that. Whether a failure to cope around climate change, or a deterrent-bypassing nuclear armageddon in the face of possible wars for basic resources like water and failure of nation states. Or simply an asteroid strike (one with diameter of just 300 meters could start extinction level chain reactions in the atmosphere if it were to strike our planet). Another stream of extinction could likely be extra-human. Like a superior intellectual uprising after the Technological singularity, i.e machines that outsmart us (Sky net from Terminator) who suddenly decide that they are better without us and treat us like how we treat other lesser intelligent beings like ants when they come in the way of cooking food or building houses. This is a possible projection but it is more dystopian and depressing and surely humans, as survival machines, may fight to prevent such from happening. Only time will tell.

The second projection could also be considered an extinction, but I for once would like to consider it as a ‘transformation’ of sort. The singularity will most probably happen in this one too, but rather than the complete loss of our species, we may transcend into the digital world or cognitively marry in part with the AI which compute more creatively than the smartest of us currently do (Cyborgs; this has already begun; how many of us can actually live smoothly without an essential machine such as our smartphone or PC?). This particular projection is, in my imagination, the one most compatible with the Kardashev scale of progression of civilizations. Since we are currently somewhere between type 0 and type 1, the Transcendent singularity may possibly lead us to type 1 where we can effectively and completely manipulate and control all of the earth’s energy sources, including the weather itself (or even beyond to type 2, where we may enclose the Sun within a Dyson-sphere to harvest its energy).

civtypes
The Kardashev Scale. Human civilization is currently between type 0 and 1. We are quite not masters of the planet………yet!

This transformation, may in part assimilate with the biosphere as we see it now, as what we call “artificial” selection or “unnatural” selection may be more dominant than “natural” selection itself. In simpler terms, literally “everything” could be now controlled by a certain class of sentient intelligent beings with precision. The dominant “force of nature” now most probably is not a series of random events but carefully thought up ones by thinking beings, for their own benefit. The previously fully organic biosphere may start to now intersperse inseparably with inorganic or semi-organic entities such as silicon or carbon bucky balls or even impalpable entities such as source codes and binary languages of programming rather than that system previously achieved only through the purely organic DNA. Now again, this might be a good time to interject my lingering question: Will this too be considered “unnatural” by talking-sentient beings like us? What aspect is not a part of nature and what aspect is a part, in this instance?

For those of you who are anime/pop culture fans, here’s an analogy with a thought experiment: Would the sentient Autobots and Decepticons from the Transformer universe be considered “unnatural” just because they are inorganic beings? Could they not be as much a part of the universe that they exist in as the Human characters that they befriend or wish to destroy respectively?

Transformers-The-Last-Knight-Trailer
An Autobot and a Human from ‘Transformers: Last Knight’

So I think in the end, the word “unnatural” fails outside of our human solipsism. Beyond us, it probably bears no logical significance. It might be a semantically useful tool in rhetoric and motivation or for individuals who think going out for a hike might make them “close to nature”, which also may assign a transient sense of meaning to their brisk lives. But they are indeed unaware that the metropolitan concrete apartment inside which they reside, is as much a part of the universe and nature as the rocky hills of a certain national park that they enjoy hiking upon. The only difference is that we shaped resources in a different way to build an apartment, and tectonic plates utilized the same resources in a different way to build the rocky hills. We do it with intention, the seismic movement of earth has no intentions. But eventually, we’re both accidents upon the planet.

In the end, “we are all stardust” to quote Carl Sagan. Such realizations and thoughts give us an immensely broader supra-human perspective of existence and reality. So it’s always worth asking such questions. Daily things that we do, and ideas that we ponder about. What do they mean to us and what do they mean without us?

In this context, I’d like to sign off with two open-ended questions: Are we nearing the ‘death’ (or transformation) of the biosphere? How do we justify environmental conservation efforts, if even human progress is technically ‘natural’?