A Brave New World


 

How beauteous mankind is!

O brave new world,

That has such people in it!

 

                                                                                Shakespeare in The Tempest

 Climber enjoys the view from the top of the mountain

“….We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection would lead to great prosperity and strength…. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth.”

Donald Trump in his Presidential inauguration speech, 20th Jan 2017

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“But there is simply no need in the 21st century to be part of a federal government in Brussels……… It was a noble idea for its time but it is no longer right for this country. It is the essence of our case that young people in this country can look forward to a more secure and more prosperous future, if we take back the democratic control which is the foundation of our economic prosperity………. We can control our borders in a way that is not discriminatory but fair and balanced and take the wind out of those who would play politics with immigration.”

Boris Johmson, British politician & “Leave EU” BREXIT campaigner, 2016

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“We launched the Make in India campaign to create employment and self-employment opportunities for our youth. We are working aggressively towards making India a Global Manufacturing Hub. We want the share of manufacturing in our GDP to go up to 25 per cent in the near future.”

Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister, 2016

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The signs are everywhere. Of Globalisation, the beacon that was destined to shape this century, suddenly dimming. Of ‘Walls’ being built to prevent the ‘Others’ read immigrants to come in and usurp work that rightfully is ‘Ours’. Of bringing back off-shored jobs. Of ‘reclaiming back’ what belongs to us.

fair-economic-system

Which brings us to Technology. Now technology has always been  synonymous with productivity and economic progress. From those early days of industrial revolution of the eighteenth century to the mass manufacturing assembly lines of the twentieth century to the global networks of the twenty-first. Over all this period, it has been technology that has created jobs.

Faced with falling economic growth and stubborn unemployment (and under-employment) levels, politicians have been quick to chase symptoms. So the big bad wolf behind joblessness and immigrant inflows is seen as the ‘open doors’ of Globalisation. The Close Sesame formula seems quite straightforward. Close the doors, bring back all the off-shored work and leverage all the right technology. And ‘Hey presto!’ the pathway to economic growth and job creation shall be ours.

So Globalisation, the job destroyer is out……… and Technology, the growth and  job creator is in. Or is it?

Globalisation is all about free flow of technology, talent and capital. So as we turn our backs to Globalisation, can we keep technology, talent and eventually capital on our side?

There is also the other paradox. Of how nations and people get to apply different yardsticks to Globalisation as applicable to oneself versus others.  So Donald Trump sees nothing wrong in the spread of American entertainment and fast food brands globally but hates work getting off-shored. And Britain, the creator of the Commonwealth group of nations worldwide, now prefers to go it alone within Europe. Prime Minister Modi and India cry foul when changes in work Visa rules threaten the country’s IT industry but simultaneously focus on ‘Make in India’ to reduce imports.

And finally there is strong evidence that technology in its present avatar of automation, networks, robotics and artificial intelligence no longer creates jobs, in fact quite the contrary.  It has become the destroyer of jobs!

global_technology

Countries are witness to jobless economic recoveries. The world overall has seen productivity and economic growths far outpacing job creation. What this means is that companies and factories are able to produce more and more goods and services without the need to have more workers. What is it that is balancing the equation? Technology of course!

A major reason for the huge upsurge in start-ups is the widespread access to technology concurrent with the vanishing of  the traditional entry barriers relating to capital, workforce, infrastructure etc. One needs to merely read the stories of millennial entrepreneurs and their creations  like Jan Koum of WhatsApp and Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook to appreciate this.

What technology is also doing is shifting the wealth creation away from the workforce as they lose their indispensability and towards the entrepreneur controlling the technology. So the rich become richer and the Haves and Have Nots disparity continues to increase. In the US, we thus see 1% of the population holding 25% of the national wealth!

Finally, we are witness to the phenomenon of ‘tolerating people at work’. Not because they are intrinsically needed but because they work out cheaper in maintaining status quo compared to technology. So warehouses postpone introducing robotics owing to plentiful labour being available to do the work at low cost. Supermarket checkout counters continue to use clerks even though automation is available to do the job. What this of course implies is that there are growing numbers of people (immigrants, laid off workers, new entrants to the job market etc.) out there who are willing to work at abysmally low wages. Even the otherwise technology-mouthing Governments like it as this sustains socio-economic status quo against fears of disruptions which out- of- work populations might foster.

There are however strong indications that going forward the above compromise may no longer work.

Let me explain myself. It is fairly well known that technology gets governed by Moore’s Law. What this law states is that for every dollar spent the computing power (and the corresponding productivity) doubles every two years. Doesn’t seem much, does it? But hang on a minute! Do you know what this does to productivity over a period of time? Over two decades, the productivity goes up a thousand times. Over four decades, it goes up a million times! And computers and computing power have been with us for more than four decades now. This is the power of the exponential law which all technologies tend to follow. Which leads to the technology cost curves coming down fast and over time tending to become zero!

Another change that is being wrought by raw computing power is the unleashing of Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms on a scale unimaginable even a decade back. As you might have guessed, this is leading to machines performing complex tasks which have been the exclusive preserve of professionals. Like medical diagnostics on patients better than the best doctors. Or scanning and interpreting past legal judgments, written contracts and assess risks to make a legal recommendation better and faster than a lawyer. Over the next decade or so, no jobs could be considered safe from being taken over by machines.

Do you see what the above two aspects together would do? Cost of using technology for not only low end jobs but even complex work would keep on spiralling down towards zero. We can’t compete with zero marginal cost can we? The writing is clear on the wall. More and more of us are going to be laid off……. with jobs harder and harder to find. We humans are well on our way to technological obsolescence!

So as I gaze into the crystal ball, what do I see?

I see the process of human work obsolescence accelerating and societal structure changing beyond our wildest imagination. Due to key exponential technologies like the internet of things, machine learning and robotics converging together, wide vistas of traditional human activity have no longer the need for humans. Several projections indicate that over the next two decades, available jobs would decline by 50%!

I also see technology continue to remove money out of the equation by making products and services cheaper and cheaper. This in fact had been happening for a while. Did you know for instance that a one teraflop processor which used to cost forty six million dollars in 2000 now costs below fifty! And the smartphone which we take so much for granted has in fact replaced a plethora of stuff in our lives which would have cost nearly a million dollars a couple of decades back!

 The downward movement of the technology cost curve would only accelerate. So a ‘Car as a Service’ future populated by Uber, Ola and the likes would ensure beggars would also be chauffeured around. The best surgeons would be robots working 24X7 with precision and the records of million past surgeries, at negligible charge. Cost of Housing too would fall dramatically as more and more folks work from anywhere in the world with avatar co-workers in virtual offices. Most people would enjoy energy independence through roof top solar panels and energy stored in vehicles. Rather than spending on energy, they would be earning through trading with the grid. And of course most education and entertainment would be available online for free.

So the future that I see hurtling towards us is of a world of people having little or no work, rather not needing to do any work, with an abundance of products and services available at low cost or free.

As Morpheus says to Neo in the Matrix:

 “……This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you…. believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill……. and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more….”

Our Brave New World too seems to be a story of the blue and red pills allowing us a choice of the path we could take.

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One road leads us to a virtual utopia. Inhabited by people fully able to realise their creative and innovative potentials. A world where people are uniquely free to follow their passions and creative urges. Where innovations are exploding every other day and unimaginable wealth is getting created. Where products and services are plentiful and available to all. Where being wealthy or not no longer matters. A world that has finally come to realise the socialistic dreams of Karl Marx and Lenin, but in a warped way.

The other way is to the land of dystopia. Of people lacking meaningful work and condemned to exist on the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. With not a hope in hell of achieving the higher rungs of potential. Of folks condemned to live on a Universal basic income provided by the Governments of the day. Of large sections of society feeling increasingly dispossessed and spiralling down into drugs, gambling, terrorism and similar madness.

As the anti-globalisation clamour becomes more strident, I am left wondering about the pill that we as Mankind are about to take. What is the kind of leadership we need that would point us to the right pill? Is our current leadership upto that task?

In learning……

Shakti Ghosal

 

Acknowledgements:

 

 

 

 

 

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The Turn of the Screw


“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”

by James Belasco and Ralph Stayer in Flight of the Buffalo,1994

Turn of the screw

China seems to be more and more in the news of late. Well I suppose with its clout as the second largest economic powerhouse in the world, that is hardly unusual. A couple of months back, the country unilaterally devalued its currency Yuan by about five percent to combat declining exports and economic slowdown. More recently the Chinese communist party at its annual conclave announced the end of the controversial ‘One child’ policy, allowing couples to have two children for the first time in thirty-five years. In an environment of economic slowdown, this underlines a heightened fear of loss of competitiveness to countries with better demography.

China degrowth

The Turn of the Screw…….

As Oil prices drop from above one hundred dollars to around forty dollars per barrel, the oil producing nation states in the Middle East led by Saudi Arabia seem to be stumbling, with fiscal deficit rapidly rising to unsustainable 20% of GDP levels. As these countries frantically dip into their reserves to balance the deficit, they fervently hope for oil prices to start climbing up again.

Oil and Gas

The Turn of the Screw……..

I suppose majority of the world believes, just as China and the Middle East hope for, that the economic and oil prices downturn are temporary and the ‘screw would turn back’. China would continue its rise, oil prices would climb back and all would be well with the world again.

My thoughts go back to that prescient article “Marketing Myopia” written by Professor Theodore Levitt of Harvard Business School more than half a century back. The central argument in that was “the history of every dead and dying ‘growth’ shows a self-deceiving cycle of bountiful expansion and undetected decay.” Professor Levitt goes on to say that with the ‘turn of the screw’ in terms of the environment, market and technology, there is always a small timeframe ‘window’ allowing an optimal match between these and an entity’s intrinsic competences. As the screw turns, that fit between such competences and the environment, market and technology starts getting lost. What is needed then is to rediscover and reinvent oneself in terms of ‘What business we are in?’ While Professor Levitt essentially wrote the article from an organisational and industry perspective, I see his concept much more universal and having relevance to nations and Global trends.

myopia

So how do I see the future trending?

For decades, manufacturing from the developed world has been migrating to China, attracted by low costs and productivity. But rising costs in China and development of sophisticated automation are tipping the scales back. Realizing the need to automate to remain competitive, China is implementing advanced robotics. It is constructing the first “Zero human labour” factory in Guangdong which would use a thousand robots to do the work of two thousand humans! But does this not run contrary to the effort to increase the Chinese work force by allowing a two child policy? And what happens to the Chinese manufacturing competitiveness as and when the US and Europe also employ similar robotics to manufacture? Allowing same costs but less the shipping time and transportation costs. Clearly, manufacturing is headed back to the consuming countries themselves. Once again a manifestation of the turn of the screw.

And what about the Middle East and its oil lifeline? For decades now, this region has been enjoying windfall profits from Oil and Gas and resorting to heavy subsidization of its citizenry. Says Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy project at Harvard Business school, “The expensive social contract existing between the Rulers and citizens in the gulf states will get more difficult, and eventually impossible to sustain if oil prices don’t recover”. (A few years back, during the days of the Arab Spring, I had deliberated on this ‘Social Contract’ aspect in my post, “Childhood’s End?”). The question that brooks an answer is when will the oil prices recover? More and more experts in the Energy sector are of the view that with improved energy efficiencies brought in by new technologies and the fracking industry waiting on the sidelines, there is no way oil prices can go up to earlier levels. This coupled with clean energy technologies like the Solar and Wind advancing exponentially means that the fossil fuel industry is headed the way of the dinosaurs. Yet another manifestation of the turn of the screw!

One might wonder that with such inevitable turn of the screw, what is the kind of leadership that would succeed in the world. As I think of this, I realise that such leadership needs to have the ability to envision and embrace a future unencumbered by the present- be it the technology, the geopolitics or the economics. A future which addresses core concerns rather than transitory symptoms. And a leadership which comes to live into such a future as it empowers others to deal with the socio-economic and other changes needed to realise that envisioned future. A future that was not going to happen anyways……….

In learning………….. Shakti Ghosal

Reference: Marketing Myopia by Theodore Levitt, HBR July-Aug 1960.

Entropy and the Age of Consciousness- Revisited


Few Days back, President Barrack Obama , when asked about his plan and perspective about how to deal with the ISIS militancy engulfing Iraq and Syria, said, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: we don’t have a strategy yet.” Was this response coming from a rising reluctance by the US to get involved in rest of the world matters? Or was it from a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to deal with newly emerging geo-political crises?

As I look around , I see other stress points and fissures opening up in the globe. The Crimean conflict in Ukraine. The on-going Palestine imbroglio. The Indo Pakistan stand-off on Kashmir. The emerging China Japan flexing of muscles. And so on….

What is it that leads to such stresses and conflicts in the world in this twenty-first century with its immeasurably higher globalization and information flows compared to the last? What could be that big picture vision that could lead mankind to a way-forward path?

My thoughts go to a piece I had posted two and a half years back. As I re-read it, I realise its perfect relevance to what is happening today. I am re-posting it here and at the end I have put forth some questions that come up for me at this point in time. So folks read on…..

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All life revolves.  The world is awaiting a great awakening, which will occur with
the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  This great awakening will take place in the months and years to come and bring significant changes to our consciousness as human beings.

                                                                      The Age of Aquarius, Starts 21st Century

A couple of weeks back, I watched President Obama’s State of Union address. Erudite and all encompassing as always, the President stressed issues of China and outsourcing. But what I really heard from the most powerful man on the globe was insecurity and fear. Of the slipping away of competences and strengths and not knowing what to do. The other day as I watched the BBC debate at the World Economic forum in Davos, I once again sensed the underlying hesitation and concern.

The competence and knowledge advantage which the US and developed world enjoyed from the beginning of the industrial age is fast seeping away. Other nations and societies are catching up faster. And the genie of Globalisation is only accelerating this trend and making the world flatter (to use Thomas Friedman’s famous terminology).

So what are the reasons for such competence and knowledge loss? What can be done to stop the hemorrhaging of this life blood? My thoughts veer towards Entropy, a concept in the realms of Thermodynamics. Entropy is a tendency towards disorder and Science postulates that this can only increase over time. So any “order” peaks, be it in energy, competence or knowledge, can only dissipate, seep away. Ultimately leading to a steady state in which random and uniform soupiness exists all over, the highest level of Entropy.

I recall Isaac Asimov’s Last Question, a haunting science fiction tale of a future reality. Of a Universe slowing down and coming to an end due to Entropy. As the last of Mankind and the last VAC (a super computer) fail to answer that last question, “Can Entropy be reversed?” The story goes on to tell us that as Entropy rises to its final resting level, all individual knowledge coalesce and join into one universal consciousness.

I reflect on what we are experiencing in the world today. Is it the entropy effect on the competences and knowledge possessed by the developed world? Of the inevitable seeping loss to the rest of the world. What would the next turn of the screw bring? As we see Asia rising today, would we not see Africa rising tomorrow? And so on, till a flat world achieves steady state of uniform competence and knowledge levels all over.

But do we see what this seeped competence and knowledge is doing? It is raising the level of awareness all over. Awareness of social and political realities, awareness of heightened aspirations, awareness of the need to keep on improving and improvising. An awareness which is getting accentuated by rapidly evolving communication, networking and database access technologies. And with this heightened awareness has come the inevitability of consciousness.

So what do I envision going forward?

I see mankind fast reaching a new level of human consciousness. As more of us become consciousness- conscious, as our thinking DNAs get re-programmed, we would start seeing and dealing with the world in significantly different ways. Most of the challenges and conflicts of today’s world stem from our beliefs and fears residing in the depths of our sub-conscious. Be it through the manifestation of ego, false fronts or preconceived judgments. But as we gain in consciousness, we gain the intent to shine the spotlight on these hidden drivers of our thoughts and behaviour. And under the light, these beliefs and fears shrink away and lose the capacity to run our lives.

Can we visualise the exciting times we are getting into? As the world witnesses consciousness rising like a tide all over with knowledge flows and heightened awareness. As the human brain starts utilising more of its unconscious capacity. As our new consciousness allows us to “see” our path towards enlightenment. As we herald the dawn of a new age, an Age of Consciousness.

Will this Age of Consciousness be the ultimate evolutionary goal of Mankind?

We are beginning to understand that what exists at the essential core of matter is information and energy. I hope and believe that the Information Age is going to be the stepping-off point for the Age of Consciousness  

                                            Dr. Deepak Chopra- spiritual writer & speaker, 2007

 

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I am left wondering about what could make the big picture happen and expedite the dawn of ‘The Age of Consciousness’.

• What is that critical mass of knowledge flow and dissemination which would lead to heightened awareness of the big picture?
• What could each one of us do to reach that level?

In Learning……..                                                                                       Shakti Ghosal

 Acknowledgements:

1) The World Is flat: A brief history of the twenty first century by Thomas L. Friedman, 2005.

2)      The Last Question by Isaac Asimov, 1956

Indian Elections and the Law of Integrity


Over the last one month, the screen images continue to focus on that greatest show of Democracy on Earth, the on-going national elections in India. Close to a billion voters being wooed by a fractious, cacophonous political lot.
Indian elections
I notice contrasting articulations.

On one hand, I see political parties investing a lot of energy and resources to disseminate what they stand for. Their manifestoes drip with great intentions that they are committed to fulfill if voted to power. Candidates vie with each other for that once in five years photo opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder clutching their copy of this ‘intention bible’.But when a politician is confronted with non-fulfilment of earlier electoral promises, he is quick to ascribe causes. Of how the opposition was non-supportive in the parliament. Of how resources and funds were not made available. Of how, inspite of all such great challenges, he continues to remain totally committed to usher in development, both economic and social.

On the other hand, I see the man on the street expressing his disenchantment with the political class, even the political process. Of his ire at the lack of fulfillment of election manifestoes in the past. Of his perception that election promises are meant to garner votes and quickly abandoned thereafter. Of his perspective that politicians exist only to feather their own nests in terms of aggrandizing power, influence and money, giving scarcely a thought to the welfare of the citizenry. Of his fervent hope that at least this time around, the politicians coming to power might be motivated to focus on development, both economic and social.

I muse about this lack of alignment between the politician and citizenry even though both speak of the same goal viz. development, economic and social. Do I sense a loss of faith in the workability of our political system? What is at the core of this failure?

My thoughts shift to the Integrity model which I had read about recently. Authors Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen and Steve Zaffron present this model to demonstrate how Integrity, as defined by them, is intrinsic to the workability in any situation.
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As per the authors, Integrity is all about our word being whole and complete, both to ourselves and to others. What is the meaning of word being whole and complete, one may ask. It means “Honouring our word” which is keeping our word and in case we are not able to do so, be willing to be held responsible for clearing any mess caused by that. The Law of Integrity states that as integrity (honouring the word) declines, workability declines, and as workability declines, the opportunity for performance declines.’

As I look at the Integrity model in the context of the Indian elections, I wonder about the contradictions the political process throws up. Could it be that the contradiction we see of espousing integrity but not honouring the word is a trait that exists in each one of us? So,what is it then that stops us seeing this contradiction? As I think of this, the following thoughts fleet through my mind.

Do we see Integrity as some kind of a virtue to aspire for rather than an underlying condition for performance? When we see integrity thus, we rarely think twice before sacrificing it to ‘succeed’.
• Do we suffer from self deception when it comes to our own out-of-integrity behaviour as we are quick to put the blame somewhere else but fail to see how our own failure to perform is linked to this violation of the law of integrity?
• What is it that stops us from admitting that we will not be keeping our word? Is it from a fear that we would be responsible for ‘cleaning the mess’ and thus look bad in front of others?
• Do we realise that having given our word, any attempt to subsequently link that to a likely benefit for us makes us look untrustworthy?

As I think of the divergence between words and deeds that has rendered our political system (which also includes us!) untrustworthy and undermined its workability, I am left wondering at the kind of political language that may be used by both politicians and citizenry alike. A language that would align the commitments. A language that would ensure that owning upto our commitment failures and taking responsibility of the clean-up becomes the norm…….

In learning………….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: ‘Integrity: A positive model’ by Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen and Steve Zaffron, Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 10-061, Revised May, 2013

Connectedness – My takeaway from Avatar


“….and unless we touch others, we’re out of touch with life.”
– Oliver Wendall Holmes, American physician & poet. 19th Century

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Most of us remember the James Cameron directed 2009 epic Avatar as a technically brilliant Sci Fi extravaganza. But what fascinated me about the story was the vast neural connectivity between every living organism on that beautiful world of Pandora. A network which allowed the humanoid species called Na’vi to not only connect to every other flora and fauna on the planet but to an evolved and higher planetary consciousness called Eywa. Eywa apparently is all about deep connection , bonding and balance, termed in Na’vi language as tsaheylu, and this alone becomes responsible for the defeat of the otherwise technologically superior and better armed human army.

Sometime back I had mused on the influence of internet and social media connectivity and the shift it is bringing to our society in ‘A World of Tweeple’. A shift that is moving large swathes of humanity from traditional groupings of ethnicity, community and religion to individual ‘Me- Self’ connectivities that satisfy emotional and social needs. My crystal ball gazing showed up two paths. One leading to a frightening Matrix like future where wired to central intelligences, we access information at will in return for our innermost thoughts and beliefs on display for others to examine. The other path holding the promise of our individualism being empowered by the power of networks to achieve a utopian future.
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What is it about these visions of connectivity that fascinate so? Does such connectedness somehow, somewhere, signify an aspect of yearning, an area where we see a lack? I dwell upon this. I see myself connected to every life form through that double helix structure called DNA. I see my connections in the symbiotic relationship of the air, food and water that I take in. And I also see my connections in my social needs to bond and belong.

So what exactly is lacking?

I decide to do a reality check. What is it that makes us prefer Facebook friends to real ones? Could this be because deep down we remain diffident and uncertain about our ability to ‘connect with our hearts’, so essential to blossom a real friendship? Could this be because Facebook and such social media technologies allow us to calibrate and control how much, when and where we choose to share? Something which real friendships and connections could never tolerate. Could this be the reason that as technology gives us the means ‘to connect’ more and more, we see increasing evidence of disempowering disconnect all around? As we try and escape by shifting our connectivity to gadgets and technologies than to each other……….

I once again come round to the thinking that we have indeed become obsessed with a “Me- Self” mindset. And have chosen to forget all that had our forefathers had learnt to reach this stage of societal development. Aspect of being there for each other. Aspects of trust and empathy. The need to reboot our ‘operating system’ back to “Us –Selves” from the recently acquired “Me- Self”

So I come back to the question about what could we do to steer onto the alternative path promising that utopian future?

In a recent graduation address, Nipun Mehta, the 32 year old founder of CharityFocus.org and a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, speaks of three keys that helped him to return to a place of connection.

• Key number one ‘To Give’: Contrary to what the corporate world teaches, Nipun started with the hypothesis, “Maybe Greed is good but Generosity is better”. His experience with several projects has shown that (in his own words) ‘People consistently underestimate generosity, but human beings are internally wired to give.”

• Key number two ‘To Receive’: In Nipun’s words, “With any act of unconditional service, no matter how small, our biochemistry changes, our mind quietens, and we feel a sense of gratefulness. This inner transformation fundamentally shifts the direction of our lives.” It is in giving that we receive.

• Key number three ‘To Dance’: Contrary to what most people do, Nipun says that we should never try and track what is being given or received. Instead we need to let go and tune into the rhythm. The real reward of the give and take lies not in the value of what is being exchanged but the connection which flows underneath.

To Nipun Mehta’s three keys, I wish to add a fourth one.

• Key number four ‘To be Conscious’: As conscious beings, we are uniquely endowed with awareness and imagination. Aspects which allow us to connect to the Universe. As we do this, using vehicles like Science, Art and Religion, we are able to gain the unique understanding of the “spirit” that permeates and connects all things. Much like the connectivity in Avatar, it is this spiritual consciousness that becomes our ultimate connection to everything in the universe.

zen-of-connectedness-hands-frame

So, are we ready to give, to receive, to dance and to be conscious……… and to connect as we move through our lives?

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan, 1990.

In Learning…………………… Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: Miserable & Magical: A Graduation Speech for Paradoxical Times– by Nipun Mehta, May 27, 2013.

Age of Discontinuity and the Chinese Shi


Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live   

                                                                               – Mary Catherine Bateson, 1990.

 The other day, I sat leafing through the yellowing pages of that half a century old Peter Drucker classic, ‘The Age of Discontinuity’. This book never ceases to amaze me at the prescient feeling it can generate even after so many decades. Drucker of course could not have envisioned the internet and today’s information flows but his book does ask the question, “As technology becomes ubiquitous, how would we need to cope?” He also challenged us “to be prepared for the complexities”. Big discontinuities that he saw so many years back……. as yet unresolved.

Since the dawn of history, Mankind has experienced discontinuities brought in by adoption of learnt skills and technology. As the first human learnt how to seed and grow plants, Mankind did a makeover from a wandering lifestyle to that of settlers on land. Then with the successive arrivals of the steam engine and electricity, the agrarian lifestyle started morphing into industrial clusters and an associated urban way of life.

And so has been the cycle. A periodic massive disruption of the way we live, the way we work, the way we trade, all leading to a discontinuity. But always, Mankind returned back to stability. Adjusting back into the equilibrium of a new socio-economic format, till the next bout of discontinuity.

But methinks we now have reached a different arena. A space and time where technologies are no longer stabilizing. If at all, they seem to be changing at a faster and faster pace. One needs to just see what is happening to computing, information and communication to appreciate this.

As I reflect, I am left wondering if we are facing the mother of all discontinuities, a shift to a world without stability. A world in which extreme social and economic disruptions become the norm. Be it the ongoing financial turmoil in the global markets. Be it increasing volatility in commodity prices. Be it companies losing out their leadership positions at an increasing rate. Be it product life cycles becoming shorter and shorter. I wonder if these indeed be the symptoms of a world becoming increasingly unstable.

So how do we, the individuals, cope with such constant discontinuities and loss of stability? Wired as we are to cherish stability and continuity in life, how do we retain our balance and sanity?

I think of the Chinese concept of Shi. Simply put it signifies a propensity based on situation. So whenever there is the propensity to play out to an extreme, there also occurs the tendency to self correct and reverse course. And herein lies the magic of Shi- embodying the spirit of dancing in the moment.

Shi is a belief. It promotes lightness and a dynamic view of our world. In Shi, everything is in a state of becoming. So as we focus on the flows and the lightness of the moment, we lose our obsession with discrete people, objects or situations. Shi allows a holistic appreciation of the complex webs of relationships among people, objects and the broader environment.

In a world fast losing traditional reference points, the future may well belong to those who adopt a Shi mindset. Those who embrace the lightness of relationships and flows rather than the heaviness of resource ownership. I believe it would be these ‘dancers of the moment’ who would lead the world in this era of uncertainty and discontinuity.

Acknowledgements:

1  The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to our changing society

by Peter F Drucker,1969.

2.   The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China

by Francois Julien,1999.

Coming of the Second Wave


So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter,
The fear that is within you now that seems to never end,
and the dreams that have escaped you and the hope that you’ve forgotten,
and you tell me that you need me now and you want to be my friend,
and you wonder where we’re going, where’s the rhyme and where’s the reason?

                                                                   John Denver, Rhymes and Reasons, 1969.

  

Is it not ironic that at times when we stand close to a momentous event, seeing it unfolding in all its HD brilliance, we tend to miss the wood for the trees in terms of its future impact? So it was when the Berlin wall came down; most folks saw it as the factual German reunification rather than the tectonic ideological change about Communism it portended. So it is with the Occupy Wall Street protests, mostly being seen as anger against job losses and lack of economic opportunities rather than something more structural.

As I look around, I see a march of seemingly unrelated trends and events.

  • Declining social and political trust arising out of a growing global inequality and a deepening fiscal crisis. This has lead to a crisis for pension, healthcare schemes etc. dependent on debt burdened states.
  • A heightened perceived insecurity in the developed world. For the first time in generations, people no longer believe their children will grow up to have a better standard of living.
  • More criminality. Be it cyber crimes, drug trafficking or acts of urban terrorism. Symptoms of rising youth unemployment and disenchantment.

During this year’s Davos meet of the World Economic forum, failures of the globalised market economy and an ‘uncertain future’ of Capitalism became the main issues. Ironic when you consider that over the years, Davos has become a byword for Globalisation.

I notice that Capitalism and Globalisation, those two economic pillars of the last few decades, appear to be losing flavour. So, is the world at some kind of an inflexion point?

I believe we have begun grappling with a massive socio-economic change. A change ushered in by programmable machines, networks and the World Wide Web. I had spoken of this in some detail in an earlier post. I say again that technology implementation is resulting in massive shifts at the work place as also how the very concept of work itself needs to be viewed. For the first time in history, technology, without human intervention, is adding economic value and wealth. So those getting in ahead of the game in terms of controlling technology are the new millionaires, displacing the aristocrats and industrialists of the last century. And these millions are being created thick and fast with hardly the need for additional employment generation. Not only is this fuelling a widening wealth gap and disparity, it is leaving more and more of the population behind, unemployed and dispossessed.

Small wonder therefore that a recently published global Wealth Report indicates that most of world’s richest people became richer through the recent economic downturn and into 2011. When in fact the average middle class family actually saw its income fall in real terms. According to Economist Paul Krugman. the current disparity gap in the USis the biggest since the 1920s. Clearly we have entered a landmark period of inequality where the gap is widening to unprecedented levels.

But do you know where the core irony of this whole situation lies? Well it happens to be our much vaunted economic models that not only failed to predict but also to come up with solutions to handle the inequality problem. Worse, if we were to go by economic theory, it is possible to show overall economic growth while significant part of the population is facing a recession or mired in poverty!

So if the predictive reliability of modern economics cannot be relied on, what do we as a society fall back upon? I sense fear as political leaderships all over brace themselves against increased social and political backlash of a growing global inequality. In the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the Arab Spring uprisings. In the resurgence of Marxism in the Indian tribal belts. In the eschewing of the rugged Thatcherism by the British Conservative party as it swing towards leftist policies.

There remain vestiges in our societal psyche of what happened a century back. The chasm between rich and poor opened up by the industrial revolution had been one of the main factors that led to the massive unrest in the first half of the twentieth century. Reaction to this had culminated in adoption of the Communism model in large parts of the world.

I believe we have once again reached that inflexion point where conditions are ripe for the coming of Socialism’s ‘Second Wave.’ I see this as a reaction to the perceived failure of the Capitalistic model and the kind of Globalisation and growth it has spawned. This Second Wave would need to show us ways of re-distributing the wealth created by that part of technology working without human intervention.

Would this be the way Inequality would give us our rhyme and our reason for the future?

In Learning…………..                                                                                        Shakti Ghosal