Monday, November 29, 2010

The Morality of Wikileaks has done it again: This time a set of US diplomatic cables talking about countries and their leaders without mincing the words.

I picked up from the BBC website some of its content. It says things like :

"US officials are said to have described Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as feckless, vain and ineffective, sharing a close relationship with "alpha dog" Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is said to be thin-skinned and authoritarian, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is described as risk-averse.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is referred to as "extremely weak" and susceptible to conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya always travels with a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse, according to one of the cables.

Concerns aired include the security of Pakistani nuclear material that could be used to make an atomic weapon, while the widespread use of computer hacking by China's government is also reported.

Other issues reportedly covered in the cables are:

• Iranian attempts to adapt North Korean rockets for use as long-range missiles

• Corruption in Afghanistan with concerns heightened when a senior official was found to be carrying more than $52m (£33m) in cash on a foreign trip

• Bargaining to empty the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - including Slovenian diplomats being told to take in a freed prisoner to secure a meeting with President Barack Obama

• Germany being warned in 2007 not to enforce arrest warrants for CIA officers involved in an operation in which an innocent German citizen with the same name as a suspected militant was abducted and held in Afghanistan

• US officials being instructed to spy on the UN leadership by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

• Alleged links between the Russian government and organised crime

• Yemen's president talking to General David Petraeus (while he was responsible for US military operations in Central Asia and the Middle East as head of US Central Command) about attacks on Yemeni al-Qaeda bases and saying: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours"

• Faltering US attempts to prevent Syria from supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon"

(From BBC Website: For more go to

Most of it is not news, we already knew these. So, one would wonder what the fuss is about.

In context, I had to read the story of Clive Ponting, who I remembered for his Green History of the World, but most people in Britain remembers for the General Belgrano affair, where an Argentine Frigate was sunk by British submarines even when it was outside the zone of exclusion and was heading home. More than 300 people died in the attack. Margaret Thatcher, whose government took the decision to attack the ship, lied to the British Parliament about the exact position and intent of the ship, which was later revealed through the leaked documents obtained from Clive Ponting, then a Senior Civil Servant. In the aftermath, the government tried to prosecute Mr Ponting under the official secrets act, but dropped charges later on.

No such luck for US Army Private Bradley Manning, who has been already imprisoned for releasing US army videos showing civilians being shot at from Army Helicopters, and also allegedly, the current set of documents.

A question must be raised whether such leaks, doubtlessly facilitated by the new technologies of information and communication, is morally right: Indeed, one could clearly see that the governments are waging a sort of information warfare on its own citizen. Are the leaks any more wrong than the lies themselves? We have surely arrived at an age where we can, and do, demand more transparency from our businesses, public organizations and governments. However, some kind of imperial mindset still persists in the most democratic of all governments (which, by definition and popular consent, should be that of United States) and transparency and truth seriously threatens government power. If Alvin Toffler taught World Governments use information as a weapon, we are arriving at the age of its anti-dote: The age of democratic information. This will surely demand a re-look at our moral codes, and laws in time.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Real Sunday Post

This is writing about laziness, in laziness.

This is one of the Sundays with no work. And that's a lie, because I have postponed most of what needed to be done. And, have not done some of the work that I should have finished Saturday night. This is authentic laziness, no doubt.

Zygmunt Bauman argued that in contemporary societies, work is the normal state of humans: Not working is abnormal. Life has come to mean work. And, the meaning of work has been usurped, and work means participating in the economy, doing something productive - money! So, even if I am working away on my Mac now, because this post may never be read by anyone, or be of no interest of anyone, and will never earn any money, this isn't work: This is a sheer abnormal thing to do on a Sunday morning.

The usual state is to go out and shop. If I have nothing to buy, I should still go see shop-windows, so that I can find something that I don't need. That way, as The Economist will argue, I do my bit to keep the World Economy going. Or, if it is too cold outside, which it is, I should sit at home and watch TV. That way, I can educate myself on the latest episode of the never-ending soap operas, and use that to chat up the girls at the bar. This is still my contribution to World Economy, consuming views, news and gossip, remaining connected, doing work. These will all count as normal states of life.

But not sitting and writing this pointless blog. This is laziness, this is abnormal. This damn thing does not have a proper copyright message. There is no economic incentive to do this. By being lazy, I am not just wasting my time. I am not fulfilling my moral obligation - that of consuming when not producing - and not ding my bit to keep the world economy.

Indeed, at times like this, I am thinking - to hell with world economy! Laziness is a sort of protest, not to participate in the modern grand narrative called Globalization, and that we must function smoothly to keep the thing going. I would like to believe that there are lots of people like me who are disconnecting as a protest. I am aware that I am not in august company and much of the crowd are too fat to move, or sunk in a drunken stupor, or given up on their lives, or is yet to come back from Marijuana-land. But, then, this half is somewhat better than the other lot sunk in the cycle of consumption, who are flocking the stores at this time, cranking up their Credit Card bills, or are resigned passively in front of the TV which is telling them to flock the stores and crank up their credit card bills. If I have to choose between slaves and madmen to live with, I would rather choose the madmen.

The reason for this - I shall argue - that the normal state of life is freedom. To be unfree is abnormal. The freedom must go down right up to the freedom of being able to spend a Sunday morning typing away a pointless note. The lack of point is the signature of freedom. I keep writing this blog to keep practicing freedom, to be something else other than what my visiting card calls me, or my relatives known me to be. This is what the Sunday Post is supposed to be, even when it appears on a Monday.

God took a break on Sunday. He defied his responsibilities to the World Economy. I am sort of reassured that my act of laziness isn't unique, and is part of an alternative grand narrative of not giving in to the norm.

Isaac Mizrahi on Creative Life

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Working The Next Idea: A School of Digital Media

This is the nearest thing to a Liberal Arts college I can get to do in the Private Sector. So I am interested: In fact, I am completely focused on this now.

This is an interesting turn in my life. Six months ago, I made a career transition into higher education - but did not exactly know what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach, do research and write a bit, but living inside a Private College 24x7 meant more than that. I entered with an open mind, never said no to any work and learnt many things. About now, I am ready to pursue my ideas yet again.

This is an interesting and scary time in British private education. Government clearly wants to shift to private funding of higher education. They have come up with a middle of the way review report, which seems radical and slightly woolly at this time. (Alan Ryan in Times Higher Education is sceptical that the recommendations will ever be implemented) But I would rather take Browne report as a statement of intent and a hint rather than a policy announcement: I do think students in this country will eventually face a much worse situation than envisaged in this report.

There are these hidden bits in the report which will eventually bring about that demonic future. It is not about the funding: This is indeed the bit being highlighted and fought over, but that indeed is the gentlest part of the report. What is not so gentle is the corporatization of the higher education sector, by linking education too closely with productivity and final salaries and creating a super-quango with a CEO who may decide which courses may or may not get the loans. This means cutting off the humanities and social sciences to a large extent, exactly as it is happening in developing countries with emergent private sector higher education. This means the rise of a technocratic society and eventually an undermining of democracy, but this, for the moment, will lie in the future.

We will come back to this discussion in a moment, but there is another interesting change happening in the private sector education in Britain. Private, For-Profit education in Britain is a sort of murky business so far, primarily attended by overseas students who have to pay a much higher fee if they have to go to the public universities. Private sector colleges, which mostly cut their teeth in delivering professional qualifications, have recently moved with the government policies and started offering franchised undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes, primarily to keep their overseas audience happy: These degrees earned a Post-Study Work visa in Britain which most of these students anyway wanted.

But this business is now on the verge of extinction. The British economy is reeling from the recession and the government is making big cutbacks on immigration numbers, particularly in student numbers. It is expected that the number of student visas issued to people coming from outside EU will halve, which means that many colleges will close or will have to change their business models.

This is therefore a time for change. At one end, an university sector in turmoil and in search of efficiencies; on the other, a private for-profit education sector desperate for a new business model for survival. This setting makes a great case for a good and profitable public/private partnership, and creation of collaborative courses which are more flexible and efficient.

This is why I see an opportunity. And, not just a financial opportunity, which is there: There is a social opportunity of maintaining the balance in an overtly technocratic society and a chance to preserve the soul in a crowd going dizzy about materialism. A space for art, parallel thinking, of innovation and of relationships: An interesting fusion between the efficiencies of the for-profit and the high-mindedness of liberal arts. I think this is exactly the sort of opportunity that gives me energy.

Over the past few weeks, I have visited and observed some of Britain's best media schools. The range of new ideas there are refreshing. There was hardly a meeting where I didn't learn anything new. Contrast that with the stifled bureaucracy of the business departments with the universities, and the desperateness of management education to find a new, sustainable paradigm, and one almost knows where the future will belong. This comes hand in hand the government's enthusiasm about what The Economist calls The Silicon Roundabout, the rather derelict Old Street roundabout and the neighbourhoods of Camden and Hackney where new Internet and Technology entrepreneurs are suddenly releasing a host of exciting new products and ideas. This For-Profit meets Liberal Arts meets the Future is more exciting than I initially thought.

So, I am now set to do what I love best: Create a school of Digital Media and Internet Technologies in East London under the aegis of my current college, but with a new ethos and possibly identity. The idea is to combine a high energy team of different talents and a range of courses on Digital Media; all this in the context of the emerging limitations to our freedom and democracy and a commitment to be free. I think this commitment to freedom will be as important as the technologies we employ in the new school, because, creativity and progress is indeed about people and beliefs rather than technological possibilities.

Where Do You Go To Work?

Immigration in Britain: Time to Make Sense

Theresa May made a statement in parliament which was remarkable for being so unremarkable: Almost everyone in the country knew what she is going to say, and she did.

In some ways, politicians feel happy when everyone is forewarned. In fact, this is a common practice today to release the texts of major speeches of world leaders to press well ahead of the actual speeches. But, Ms May should not draw comfort from this: Her lack of impact does not come from meeting expectations, but failing them.

If anything, the speech continues to show the 'fudge' that this government made its signature policy. The fact that they make big pronouncements backed by little tinkering of policy is by now well known. So far, for all the talk of reform, direction changes, big ideas, David Cameron's government is New Labour in Wolf's clothing. Most of the 'big' changes are not that big, most of the direction changes are actually the usual turn of the road, and most of its revolutions are destined to end in whimper. Ms May's speech is one more example of much ado about nothing yet again.

Let's stay out of detail at this time. What Ms May said can be summarized into three or four sentences. First, she implied that the government does not know how to keep its promise on reducing migration to Britain to 'tens of thousands by 2015'. The only way she knows is by hurting the economy and reducing Britain to an unattractive, ghetto state, and she intends to pursue the path. Second, she did some tinkering of numbers without attempting to explain why she is doing it. She said she intends the route from temporary migration to permanent settlement but showed very little how she intends to do it. She declared the government would stop Tier 1 General and possibly also the Post-Study Work visas for students, but did not make any attempt to review the existing numbers in the two categories, and any efforts to curb the abuse that has already happened. Third, she picked up a soft target - international students - and made some incoherent and impractical pronouncements about halving the student numbers from outside Europe, in complete denial of the realities of the outside world, like the things called globalization and knowledge economy.

If anything, the speech revealed confusion rather than clarification. One can make out the government may be deeply divided, as evident in the case of university funding, but this also revealed the gravitational tendencies of the ruling Conservative Party to drag Britain back into the Seventies. There was nothing liberal about Ms May's speech, not in content or the tone; the ideology was as clearly from Daily Mail as possible, with just a hint of irony that an intelligent human being would be forced to notice even when ideologically brain-washed.

Britain is facing economic ruin, not because George Osborne says so. It is facing the prospect because of its old country lifestyle and social expectations, while the world is changing. Whether or not we believe that the system will go on as it is even beyond the current global recession, Britain has little prospect to emerge as a winner. In fact, its social and economic decline is all but visible already. The only bright spot of Britain is its people, its knowledge and culture and its universities. There is a hint of realism in this otherwise medieval government when they talk about the emergence of a culture economy in Britain. That's the only thing that can keep Britain going.

But, at the same time, the government is up in arms against the forces that can get this culture economy thing going: Talent. They are not just against international students and knowledge exchange, but also British middle class students and even the study of humanities and social sciences in the universities. If the squeeze on funding of universities is not enough, they are adding the barriers to students coming to Britain day by day and removing the inducements. They have forgotten that the universities are not just supposed to be a posh club: May be Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne spent too much time playing Polo.

Britain's migration system is messy and open to abuse. Indeed. But anyone who ever had a brush with the system will point out that this is because of the way it is implemented, mindlessly and bureaucratically, and because of the lack of thinking and perspectives in policy-making. Playing with an absurd cap in numbers may sound politically convenient and may make the tabloids sell a few copies, but governing a country has more to it than running a good Public Relations company. What are Ms May's ideas about cracking down on abuse? What about more resources to the Border Agency to do their jobs properly? What about in-depth consultation with people in the know, those university officers and education businessmen, in what can be done to curb bogus migration but keep the UK education system open and vibrant? What we have got so far is a rushed, crowd-pleasing tinkering of existing systems: Surely the problem of migration is a complex issue to deserve more attention.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Limit of Internet

Tim Barnes Lee warns that Internet is now threatened by the very beast it helped to create - virtual communities. He singles out Facebook, for its vast number of users and closed fence network, but this could be equally applied to the other darling of the Internet age, Apple. His points out that Facebook collects a vast amount of information which then is retained privately, which was not what Internet was created for. He calls upon everyone to 'defend' the Internet's Open standards and neutrality, and argues that this is essential for our liberty and continued progress.

There is a lot of concern about the future of the Internet now a days. Jonathan Zittrain has written an engaging book on this, and The Economist recently wondered whether the Internet will soon be breaking down into smaller national networks, each nation demanding control over what information is passed on.

This is a somewhat perfect antidote of the euphoria about the arrival of the network age. Call it by whichever name, we have surely overdone the revolution quite a bit. In fact, the revolution has been talked up so much that the real progress, which is quite astonishing by any measure, has somewhat failed to meet the expectations. A new type of Pundits, Futurists, has somewhat taken over the public discourse and predicted that everything that we know of, will change. Surely, some of it did: However, an astonishing amount of it did not, and life in these fault lines of age-shift can actually be extremely disconcerting.

For all the talk, take the IT Usage of any average SME in Britain: How much of it has fundamentally changed the way people work? Yes, we have the electronic clock-in system, and some electronic surveillance, but that is not the New Age enthusiasts' vision of changes in the workplace. In fact, what Internet has actually delivered many a times correspond to dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley than the rosy assertions of Alvin Toffler.

I am obviously not preaching that technology does not change life: Sure it does. But its social promise isn't fully delivered unless life starts following technology, rather than the other way around. For Facebook and Apple, the walled gardens of the past are now being recreated with new age regalia, but its essential themes, the walls, are the same. A better mousetrap still a mousetrap, though promises are being made for the arrival of a pied-piper.

I would theorize that the concerns for the future of the Internet is valid, but that stems from the current limits of the Internet and its evolution from a more academic, publicly maintained commons to a collection of privately owned walled gardens. Technology indeed can change the society, and it does; but the process is neither automatic nor straightforward. In a way, technology plants the seeds of self-destruction in a society as it gets consumed by it. A social system wins up to the point when it consumes all available and emerging technologies with the sole aim of maintaining itself, and in the process, creates possibilities for various actors within the society to over-optimize and over-consume the technologies, thus bringing down the edifice of social relationships with them. Internet is currently in a 'being consumed' phase, and the fights between its various private masters are peaking. One would hope this undoing of Internet is also the start of disseminating its broad goals, open standards, neutrality, information access, more universally.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Churchill's Genocide

Madhusree Mukherjee has written an important book. Churchill's Secret War chronicles the story of the Great Bengal Famine, a famine almost deliberately engineered by the British War Administration, under the excuse of supply to British troops, but also with a deeper agenda of crushing the Indian Independence Movement beyond repair.

The 1943 famine in Bengal killed three million people. The famine affected a generation and accentuated the city/village divide which persists even today. Economists, particularly Amartya Sen, has made efforts to prove that this devastating famine did not happen due to shortage of food. Ms Mukherjee argues that this had happened to a deliberate policy of the British War Administration of diverting food supplies from Bengal to Ceylon and then onto the British troops in Burma and elsewhere. Professor Sen has talked about the 'entitlement problem' and Ms Mukherjee also points to the practice of British Administration of buying grains at an inflated price in the open market, thus driving the gain out of reach for the peasants and workers.

The event remains etched in the memory of Bengal, in its literature and politics, in its social divisions, in its collective anger. Churchill was directly in charge; his only response to the report that the streets of Calcutta were littered with dead bodies was to ask why Gandhi had not died yet. This was his little Auschwitz, and he could do what he pleases with the poor Indians at his disposal. (This is a great example of what Slavoj Zizek will call Objective Violence, as opposed to Subjective Violence unleashed by Hitler and his henchmen, but which had similar results)

Post-war, we fashioned our world in line with Churchillian imagination. He indeed said that the History would judge him kindly as he intended to write it: So he did. He wrote a history of war, silently wiping out those unfortunate Indian victims from his tale. He fashioned a world by his rhetoric and actions - making up the vision of an Iron Curtain, helping to curve out Pakistan out of India so that British strategic interests in Central Asia can be guarded, fighting for access to oil at the cost of destroying the democracy in Iran, and fighting a brutal war out of tribal rivalries in Africa - and our world is shaped by the consequences of those mis-steps.

Churchill is one of the most over-rated statesmen in the history of world, someone whose 'spin' obfuscated action and confounded generations after him. I shall argue Churchillian myth has been cultivated by the media and the politicians of later generations to maintain the inherently unjust, and unsustainable, world that we built thereafter: His rhetoric helped us imagine the threats that were not, conceal crimes with the talk of high purpose and created untold miseries for unseen millions.

Ms Mukherjee's book is an important contribution in undoing this myth.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Irish Crisis

The crisis that did not happen, will possibly be the way history will remember this. Indeed, if there is a history to be written still, and if the events of last two years are to get a place in the usual boom-and-bust ride of the market capitalism. I say this because this may just be the end of history, no return to life as usual may be around the corner; or, may be that's just too pessimistic, we will just be unleashed in a brave new world where such things won't matter.

One would love to think the Irish crisis, which didn't happen, won't matter. After all, we have now learned to be prepared. The lessons were learned when one had to get Greece out of water, and we almost always knew Spain and Ireland were coming. It is after all, just a monetary thing, which can be solved by pumping money in. And, it was.

The trouble is, it does not end there. When you pump money in, you are plugging a whole today by taking away the wealth of the future generations. Or of people's of other nations, who already do not have much. This mechanism of bail outs are about giving money to wealthy bankers and builders and protecting pensions of people who already have quite a bit, and in turn, turning the day's labour worthless for an Indian clerk or a Chinese Factory Worker or of efforts of a future day of an unnamed yet kid in Russia. The bail-outs are part of a crisis, not its solution: It is a mechanism of spreading, exporting, the crisis rather than rooting it out.

So, Irish crisis did happen. And this may still fundamentally alter the course of the economic crisis that we are in. We have learned lessons from the previous crises and we are so far applying the formulas to the current one: But in a game of so many actors and factors, doing more of the same old thing may not mean getting out of the crisis. In fact, it may mean sinking deeper into it.

I am so gloomy on an otherwise cheery Sunday evening is because I see even more burdens being passed on. I see that the 'money economy', the capitalist one we know of, is increasingly diverging from people's aspirations and daily lives, and while the economic boom in the first few years of the new millennium came out of integrating new geographies and people into the money economy, the bail-outs and emerging inward-looking political arrangements will soon make people withdraw from the system.

Let me clarify this. Participating in an economic system is a voluntary activity, somewhat. Indeed, there are cultural and social inducements spread around us all the time - in terms of what you should own or do - as well as harsh penalties to those who wish to drop out. The system is a well-planned, structured activity, with a structured education inducting people in the system, the popular culture sustaining the expectations and driving people on during their productive years and finally, a sort of pension/ social care system taking care of those who have done enough and can't do any more. However, it is so far a voluntary system - one joins in after being persuaded, not forced. However, if participation in the system means giving up a bit of my rewards (and culturally, my rewards come first I am taught) for a distant Irish landlord I don't know or care for, an increasing number of people will opt out. And, they are opting out.

This is of course not seen kindly. The governments are trying to persuade the NEETs (Not in Employment, Education and Training: The drop-outs from the society) to get back to work, for their own good! The pension age is getting further stretched. An increasing number of people are deciding every day not to participate in the production-consumption cycle that keeps going. We may mock the kids in Madrassahs, and think of them as terrorists, but they are possibly the biggest single chunk of the population dropping out of the Production/Consumption cycle.

So, the biggest threat to our way of life does not come from hurtling missiles, but people withdrawing from our way of life. Indeed, if the problem gets worse, which it will, we have to leave our democratic pretensions and force people. Voluntary unemployment is the surest step to bring in fascism. I would like to think that the days of big national wars are over; but they can make a comeback. But I have put my money whether it will be a China-India contest this century, I shall rather not: I would think we are shifting away from national wars and getting into an era of conflict of participants/ non-participants in the economic system.

Such conflicts can start with the bail-outs such as this. A bail-out simply means a national government has given out more than it could afford, and they must depend on other people's generosity to make ends meet. The funny thing is that this generosity comes easy, as those other people have already trusted your banks to keep their money (which is equivalent to doing the work today and voluntary accepting a chit for a later payout) and you can use the money for the moment to pay your bills. Indeed, you will have to pay back, but you may not later on, because you can change the rules. Till the time the other party throws up their hands and say that they won't play, you can go on.

If the end of history has to arrive, it will arrive in this way. Fukuyama imagined it to be happy ending, and it may still be happy ending, depending on who you talk to. It may not be how he imagined it, though: Happiness is usually defined in terms of your ability to consume but you can be happy by consuming less. History has moved on the back of the economic man - a rational human being, who toils hard in office and goes crazy in the shopping malls - and he may just be abdicating (if he ever existed). The Irish crisis may be one more step towards that more general crisis, a step further down.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Journal Entry: Waiting For New Year

I said before: This part of my life is about WAITING. But this year-end is a wonderful thing. Nothing will change on 1st January morning but you can sure imagine to be a fresh start. You can do that every morning, indeed; but, on 1st January, your fresh start meets fresh starts of almost every other person, and except the very cynical, most of them meet you with an instant readiness to start again. This makes it such a potent day for making a real break. And, since you know the date well in advance, you can plan ahead a little.

So, as I approach the end of November, it is time for me take stock, close chapters and prepare myself to move on. 2010 has been a better year for me than 2009. That matters: I shall feel happy that at the end of this year, I am far more stable and forward looking than I was a year back.

But, then, 2009 was an exceptionally bad year for me. I had a frustrating job, my credit card debt (primarily due to my travel commitments and less than regular reimbursement patterns of my employer) spiraled out of control and due to uncertainties whether I shall continue to live in Britain, my personal life was lacking direction. While this meant I was quite active on this blog, this hampered my reading and relationships in general, prompting me to make several bad decisions.

My achievements in 2010 simply consist of recovering myself from the abyss. I chose a sector, Higher Ed, and was lucky to find a senior level job within the industry, giving me a ringside view of what goes on. I could resolve to stay put in Britain, a rather big achievement because I could never make my mind up in the preceding 6 years that I have been here. Together with my studies at the University College on Adult and Higher Learning, I started teaching and gained valuable perspective in the practice. Most important of all, I could get back a regular life, which allowed me to get back my reading habits. My health improved, and judging by my blog posts, my thinking became far more consistent. Overall, a sense of purpose returned in my life (which, I discovered, whatever I think of middle class life, is difficult to achieve under credit card debt).

There is indeed a more forward-facing achievement this year, and I am only beginning to realize this. I may have stumbled upon a growth industry as it begins to peak. I have learned timing matters a lot. I have been in growth industries before: In fact, I would say that my life story was somewhat defined by being able to move from one growth industry to another over last twenty years. In India : Telecommunications in 1993, Computer Education in 1995, Internet Training in 1999; and then e-learning and international education, I was somewhat on the growth crust of all these industries and my career moved on this. The only time I settled for something less exciting, selling English language training material to Indians, my career went on reverse. This is the big takeaway for 2010: Moving on to Forward Gear yet again.

I must say at this time that I remain a believer of social values of education and therefore, of social funding. My greatest discomfort with the same changes that put my chosen industry on the growth curve is that these take a very narrow perspective of education - of enhancing individual productivity, that is - and I would believe policies based on such a definition are likely to have a disastrous impact on society. However, social funding of education does not necessary mean social execution: I shall advocate that a combination of private execution with social provisions is the best way we can move forward. In fact, this is not a new model, but indeed the most successful model of education. States got into running educational establishments only in the modern times. They surely had a positive impact, particularly in terms of facilitating the shift to mass adult education as opposed to the elitist paradigm which persisted in Europe for a long time. We are now at that inflection point in Britain, and indeed in much of the present world, where private mass education backed by social funding becomes a reality. I would like to believe I have chosen wisely and I am in the right industry at the right time.

I must admit I have started making plans for 2011. I am very optimistic at this time. I have cut ties with my past irrevocably, but a few loose ends remain. One lesson I have learned in 2010 is to be selective in who I do business with. I have made some bad choices before, and I now know that you can never do the right business with wrong people. So, I am careful now in committing my time and energy into anything, without first having a sight of right kind of people. My current job allows me the leverage of assembling a set of high calibre professionals together, and I am able to see the benefits of working with smart people. The closing weeks of 2010 are therefore dedicated to build even more powerful partnerships with smart and intelligent people with shared purposes; this would be a truly significant break in my life.

Among other things in 2011, I have decided to stop teaching. I enormously enjoy teaching and have started getting the feedback that I am a good teacher: But I have realized that I can not manage the demands on my time that the teaching commitments impose. I have decided to focus on research, content writing and reading, rather than teaching in the classroom. I shall, however, be able to maintain my public speaking opportunities as I keep receiving requests for odd workshops. I would want to go back to teaching some point of time yet again, but I shall first give myself an year to organize my affairs before I do so.

The other thing I shall do in 2011 is travel (this is the other reason I must stop teaching). Yes, again, as I am already beginning to feel claustrophobic staying in London. But, I am hoping, I shall travel less for pure work and more with the purpose of learning about the place and its culture. I am looking forward to 2011: And, yes, preparing for it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the Politics of Student Fees

Last weeks riots in London, if it was ever reported, largely went unnoticed in other countries. Indeed, no one died: Just a few disaffected students with support from serial troublemakers ransacked the Conservative Party Headquarter and threw, in totality, one empty Fire Extinguisher from the roof towards the police. Such things happen, particularly in the context of severe 'cuts' that the British society is going through. We shrugged this off as a minor event.

It should be, coming after the Tube Strikes in London the previous week which caused more disruption for a greater number of people. And, also, seen in the context of the proposed (but later canceled) strike by Fire Wardens on the Bonfire day, this incident snapped up less Column space in the newspapers. BBC mentioned it in the passing: Most of people moved on, including the protesters. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic party leader and the Deputy Prime Minister, whose party got elected after signing a pledge not to raise the student fees and now rather indifferently singing the other tune, went on TV saying that he made a mistake by signing the pledge in the first place and he would not have done so if he knew how bad the public finances are: Indeed, he did not talk about the pointless politics, at the hindsight, he indulged in for the past few years on the subject and that his party does not stand for much other than the pledges, now disowned, they have signed.

I would, however, argue that these protests have some significance. This is the equivalent of Miner strikes in the Thatcher Era, and have some similarities of the battles between Rupert Murdoch and the unions around that time: They are symbolic, another page turning in the British society. This is much less violent, much more marginal than the protests of the Thatcher era, but may end up having a deeper significance: This is because it was about marginalizing the act of protest in the 80s with the connivance of the Middle Classes, but this is a slight return of the protest, by the Middle Classes, may be the first signs of disaffection with the dominant Capitalist discourse.

I am possibly wrong. It may not be any comeback of protests, but may be the last stand, which ended not with a bang, but a whimper, of any disaffection. The agenda for New-Toryism is to take the Thatcherite revolution to the last remaining corners of non-conformism, to complete the victory lap of industrial capitalism: To the domain of the resigned, the disabled, the mad, the pervert, and even the dead. The capitalist exploitative system must be completed: The ideal of disciplined workers in offices and factories and the wild consumers in the shopping mall to be infused in the same body and soul, a neat wished for organization that defied all kinds of social engineering since the 80s, can only be achieved by a systemic dismantling of liberal education and construction of a new education system. With some weirdos still interested in Sociology and Politics (and various other subversive disciplines like Education, Politics and Literature), the universities are the blind spots of an otherwise homogeneous Capitalist system. After the unions, newsmen, judges, politicians have been won over, this is the last remaining frontier territory of contrary thinking. Before the new technological possibilities, such as the Internet, reduces the cost of publicizing one more time (printing press had a devastating effect on authority, so did the Telegraph and Modern news-making), such possibility of contrarian thinking must be ironed out of view. What is more effective than pushing students into a debt burden, which is an idea so consistent with the middle class morality and utilitarianism, but so richly productive in making any discipline that encourages critical thinking unviable. This taking over of education is really at the heart of the 'new-toryism', the cornerstone of its legacy and its attempts to end the history, of the social tensions leading to radicalism and of any dissenting discourse.

The assumptions, as I said, are breathtakingly simple and beautiful. It is weaved into the assumptions of our society: One can have an argument on how much the fee goes up, but not with the basic argument that one must pay for one's education because the sole or at least the primary objective of education is to create a vocation (so that the person can earn, take out a mortgage, pay the debts through his life and keep producing). This is an war of idleness of all kinds, by making slavery universal and all pervading: One must be irretrievably shackled in the cycle of obligation to produce and obsession to consume, with no hope or suggestions of freedom.

The Education Businessmen have arrived in town and education innovation are already in the air: The gap year will fall through the cracks, two year degrees will compress studies into digestible chunks and the market for degrees will determine the fees. More power to the business-owner, that is, to decide what's needed or not, what should be thought or conceived.

But my knowledge of history, a seemingly useless knowledge in the new marketplace, is redeeming: In fact, even pointless mythologies have a few things to say about such well thought out plans to constrain the seeding of social change and contrary thinking. Baby Moses in a basket survived within the same palace that went out to destroy him; even Herod's desperate attempts to slaughter all Jewish babies failed spectacularly. While the imperial powers of money-makers are more pervasive than these ancient kings, there is no reason to believe that they have become powerful enough to stop historical change that invariably remains buried in the womb of complete success of a system.

This is why I see, or at least, expect the come back of protests in the student trouble, rather than the last stand of a discredited left (unlike the Tube strikes). I see a slight opening, a breaking of ranks, a sudden exposure of the treachery of the ruling classes to their compliant middle class subjects. It is heartening to see Nick Clegg and his mates exposed too: Often, desires for social change is thwarted not by the power of the antagonists but by the persuasion of the pretenders. The mod-Left ilk of Tony Blair, continued in style by Clegg, have contained the rage and frustration of the middle classes and held them, handcuffed, on the production line. They made us wonder in the fairy land - when war is not a war, a banker's bonus is more morally justified than a disability payment, someone over 65 must spend a working day in a degenerating job but one must be allowed to keep a greater share of million dollar inheritances, and immigrants must be hauled in to replace the missing slaves but must learn the Englishness of their masters. But, this is hitting the fault line now - suddenly the thrown fire extinguisher is deeply symbolic - it keeps missing the targets but let's its emptiness known.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Journal Entry: Getting Back to Reading

I am now struggling to write. I do intend to post everyday, but ideas are now quite difficult to come by. I am left guessing the reason: I am extremely busy and engrossed at what I am doing; the winter is suddenly severe and given me an unseasonal flu; and the commitments of study has eaten away the little time I had left. But, I would argue, none of this will keep me from doing what I love doing: My fear is that I am slipping into a waiting mode of some description.

The state of my life at this time can be called - WAITING. I have committed myself to Education, and made significant progress in the last six months. My lack of confidence, arising out of my failures in the last couple of years, is quite safely behind me. I have discovered a new set of skills: The ability to engage a class and teach them something is giving me enormous pleasure; the ability to drive concrete change is another, and despite its slowness, progress always makes all efforts worthwhile. But, all of this seems to be another wait, for a life-changing moment, a moment of freedom and achievement. I am no lottery-ticket buyer and have convinced myself that work, not luck, will get me there. But, then, I believed I shall get there, no matter what happens.

If there is another sublime theme in this phase, Giving Up. This is not about giving up trying, but putting the past firmly behind. Now that I have stayed home for a period and had time to reflect what I have been doing, I have noted the mistakes I made. I realized that travel got me; I have been too desperate perhaps during 2008/2009 to focus and do things in an organized manner. I am still living with some legacies of the time: Some projects started but unfinished, some wrong partnerships, some commitments which I could not fulfill. No regrets, there are a number of positive things that happened to me during the period: I got to know a number of people and built some relationships which will possibly last. But it is important for me not to be stuck in legacies and move on: This is what I am doing now.

One silver lining amidst all this: I am getting back my reading habits. I love books and live surrounded by them, but there are times, when I am distracted, when I can't read with satisfaction. These are times when I move from one subject to another, leaving books unfinished after a few pages, not getting pleasure in continuing to read. I noticed that many a times, this happens because of me and my state of affairs, rather than the quality of the book itself (as an experienced reader, I hardly ever go beyond the Page 2 of a truly boring book). But at times like this, I feel attracted back to my solo luxury, the ability to read, and reading books do help me an escape from the trivialities of my day to day life; in fact, an escape into possibilities.

I am sure my changing mood will be reflected in this space, so I write. May be my posts will now drift into reflections and comments on the books I am reading, rather than my journal or ideas. I said this earlier: I let it flow. This isn't the space for essay writing, and I don't even try. All I try to be on this blog is myself, and a keep a narrative log of my years of living in Britain. I know a few people read this blog, and even if I don't know them, I consider them to be my friends: This blog is intended to be a conversation and nothing more. I am sure a little advance notice where the conversation may go next is surely in order, and hence, this post.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Journal Entry: Licensed to Dream

I wrote that I am no businessman and many people agreed. But a friend kindly reminded that may be no one is born one. I tend to agree, it will be wrong to say that there is just one kind of person who can succeed in the world of business. That will be cynical.

Perhaps, I was indeed cynical: After my disappointments in the recent years, I may have been generalizing the specific. But I must now liberate myself from my own experience, and not generalize: Despite the narrow focus on money, business in general has been a force for progress in our societies and entrepreneurs in particular can bring about social changes, for better.

This view is quite heartening: I got drawn into the idea of business not because I was drawn to money, but because this seemed to be the only vehicle of bringing about social change. There is a bit of mythology around this, which I have possibly unwittingly bought. But, given that social change is usually brought about technological progress (or violence, in other cases), and not by philanthropy or any change of heart, entrepreneurship, and if I can borrow a concept from Clayton Christensen, disruptive entrepreneurship is usually the best way to bring that about.

I do think that business is all about making money is essentially incorrect. That's the sort of 'essentialist' proposition one needs to avoid all the time. People do businesses for all sorts of reasons, including for freedom and identity. The claim that Business is only for making money is the speculator's attempt to attain high grounds, and change everything into a dragon's den. I have spent enough time with a range of entrepreneurs, successful and not so successful, to know this bit: In fact, the not-so-successful ones usually can't tell a reason, other than making money, why they are in business. For the successful ones, there is always a purpose. Money always comes later.

So, I may give up being a 'tycoon', but it will not be equal to giving up all my entrepreneurial pursuits. Rather, with a bit more reflection, I see the need to team up with other people, who have complementary skills. I know I have to watch out for a common minimum ground: Those who are united in the sense of purpose, and not merely trying to seek out something to make money. But, once that is agreed, I think I can work well with other people, and together with others, I can indeed create an enterprise worth its purpose: A disruptive enterprise, as I put it earlier.

This thought gives me a lift. I am pursuing my dream of setting up an Online World College, and making progress: This is not the time to give up. Despite different kinds of difficulties, things are coming together, and I am enjoying what I am doing after a long time. I have now started cutting down on my commitments, particularly those which are not intellectually satisfying, and focusing on creating a new life, friends and all, altogether. I am quite conscious of the long term nature of this enterprise: I have committed myself fully to what I am doing now for the coming three to five years. I have started anchoring myself: Given up on going back to India in next five years and committed myself completely into acquiring skills and experience in the Higher Education sector, including that of teaching and education management. My studies at UCL, which should be completed next year and allow me to get, hopefully, a Masters degree in Adult Learning, which should be helpful. But, more than anything else, I shall want the World College project to be successful - which will be an inexpensive platform to expand access to Higher Education for a large number of people around the world.

I now know one change that I have gone through, since I wrote that last post about being a businessman. I stopped caring about the speculative investors. Whenever I talked about the World College, I was bugged by the comments that this was neither new or novel. I now know, that does not matter: It is needed and it is meaningful. Above all, this is something I am passionate about, and don't mind spending my whole life working on it. Once I got that, it does not matter anymore what the investors may think about it.

Globalization or Localization?

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Nature of Violence

I am reading Slavoj Zizek's Violence: Six sideways reflection and affected by the idea of three kinds of violence - subjective, objective and symbolic.

Indeed, Subjective violence is what we know as violence, where a violent act is carried out by an identifiable actor, which disturbs the status quo. This ranges from institutional to personal, from individuals fighting to genocide to atomic annihilation, and this is what attracts the maximum attention. Zizek says, we have a frontal view of subjective violence, and we either condone (as in state sanctioned wars) or condemn (as in violent acts of peace breaking) this violence.

The objective violence, as Zizek points out, is the state of peace itself. This is a difficult concept to accept, but not to see. We indeed live in an apparently 'unfair' world. The unequal consumption is one of the most visible aspects of this unfairness; the inequality of opportunity is its most damning proof. But, the system is still kept in its place, by the acts of 'keeping the peace', the sort of state-sanctioned system of violence and intimidation that goes on. The reason this effort to maintain this status quo will still be counted as violence, and not peace-keeping, is because the system is inherently unfair: This is only based on a few arbitrary and self-serving rules imposed upon all by a few. The rules themselves are repressive, and the fact that these are built into the structure, expected to be taken for granted, makes them omnipresent, more repressive than subjective violence, more degenerative than the aftermaths of an imagined dirty bomb outrage.

The symbolic violence - the most sublime of all - is built into our language, symbols and values, in our ideas of success and life, enmeshed in conversations, our expectations, our system of right and of wrong. In one way, this is historically fossilized objective violence, carrying over the lineage of an unfair society past the limits of state power and beyond specific historical periods. This is the violence of 'high' culture, embedded in the history of nations and nationalities, in the way dialects are formed and identified, enshrined in cathedrals and temples and carried forward in sermons and sacred texts. This should be violence, rather than redemption, because this creates a structure of unfairness - even when giving a sense of 'false generosity' - and sustains it.

I started all this because I wanted to write a small study of Gandhi as a teacher. I thought his great achievement was to attempt to teach people to change, even those 'unschooled' people as Howard Gardner will put it. Zizek made me stop and think - and discover a new aspect in Gandhi. We tend to interpret Gandhi's non-violence as against the 'subjective violence': This is where it is examined most keenly, and also rejected most vigorously. But, strangely, now that I see - Gandhi's non-violence was directed against objective and symbolic violence of powers that be as much as it was a rejection of the subjective violence. He was undermining the state's hidden sanction of subjective violence in the mask of peace-keeping, as exemplified in a policeman's baton; he took away the moral justification of stopping the protests in the name of keeping the peace and laid it bare. Suddenly, his strange dress sense, which earned him the epithet 'naked fakir' from Churchill, assumes a new dimension: It was his struggle against symbolic violence, a cultural system of segregation and privilege endowed on the better dressed and the English speakers, which continued unabated in the Independent India.

So, I am enjoying this deeply - my studies of education for violence. All of a sudden, it seems all education is geared towards a certain kind of violence - a curtailment of human spirit and freedom - and the task of a modern day educator is to consider the issues closely and critically: I am finding Gandhi is a great place to start.

The Nature of Travel Writing: Guest Contribution by Maria Rainer

How does one define travel? There are many different definitions to choose from, but ultimately, the decision is personal. Objectively, travel is almost analogous to making a journey, or changing one’s physical surroundings by moving outside of them. Another definition calls travel a way to proceed or advance. This second conceptualization of travel implies some sort of mental progress or learning, and the first idea of moving outside of one’s surroundings can also be subjectively applied to the human mind.

Why We Travel and Write

For many travel writers, the act of traveling can be both a physical journey and mental progress at once, and sometimes one or the other separately. Additionally, there is the possibility of mental travel, practicing out-of-body experiences in the literal sense. But no matter how I define travel for myself, I use it to make inquiries into my own human nature and individuality. These two entities are at opposite ends of the spectrum – human nature is ubiquitous, and individuality is very private – but what I learn about them can often be transferred between them. In my culture, it’s easy to feel that I’m losing a little bit of my humanity every day, but by traveling and interacting with others, I’m able to realize that there are more dimensions to me as an individual.

Defining Travel

If I were to define travel for myself, I would call it expansion. It is possible to literally expand my horizons by physically traveling, and it is also possible to expand the “contact zone” (a term used by Mary Louise Pratt in her celebrated book Imperial Eyes) in my mind, where new ideas meet long-held ones and provoke growth. Traveling in either sense often means dealing with conflicting information and resolving that conflict personally. By doing so, and defining the “other” (to use Pratt’s term), I expand my understanding in three different dimensions: the physical world, human nature, and my individual self. It’s a natural response, wanting to identify the “other” – but in many cases, the “other” is all too familiar once I make the effort to truly understand it.

Why We Read Travelogues

However, I am also of the opinion that traveling and travel writing aren’t about throwing terms around, taking without giving. I have the travel bug, but I’m also conscientious about my impact on the people and places I visit and I try to maintain an awareness of their impact on me. In order for travel to be successful, there has to be an exchange – of ideas, of resources, of ourselves – and this makes travel worth writing about. Many readers are interested in our travel writings as opportunities to vicariously visit the places we’ve seen. But many others are hooked on travelogues because they highlight a human element that’s familiar rather than exotic.

The Future of Travel Writing

In Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan’s book, Tourists with Typewriters, they mention Evelyn Waugh’s statement that “the end of travel writing, and of real travel itself, [is] drawing nigh”. Waugh believed that “a certain approach to travel and the travel book [was] no longer possible.” It is obvious that Waugh was considering travel in the literal sense: the ability to grab one’s passport and travel to a foreign place. Waugh’s postwar prediction is now outdated and debunked, but it still raises an interesting question about the nature of travel: will there ever be one ubiquitously accepted definition of travel, or will the number of definitions continue to grow? With so many definitions of travel, it seems virtually impossible to state that the end of travel writing is approaching. There will always be someone publishing a travelogue or other nonfictional travel work because there will always be authors redefining travel itself.

Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education and performs research surrounding online schools. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Can India's Future Be Taken For Granted?

There is a lot of talk about India as a developed nation. Developed nation by 2020, that seems to be the consensus everywhere. In India, every businessman or policy maker you meet are absolutely convinced that this is going to happen. Already grand plans are being made to accelerate the speed of growth: The Chinese benchmark of 10% GDP growth is what Indian government wants to beat. In the West, commentators are going one up on the debate: They are not just talking about India and China and their growth, they are talking about how this century will be shaped by the rivalry of China and India, and whether we will have the rerun of the great wars that afflicted the last century.

All of it takes Indian prosperity for granted. There is ample reason to do so. The young population, English speaking urban class, huge natural resources, all of it may count towards it. In fact, no one knows what the unlocking of this vast economy has in store: India's villages and millions have hibernated for ever under the might of empires, domestic and alien. It has never been freed. Its great power is expected to hold the world in awe, its enterprise is to change this century as Americans did the last, and its vast power of people - raw hands - is to lift the world's productive capacity manifold and earn India its rightful place.

And, also, it is critical that it must happen. This is to be the last great frontier of market capitalism, bringing about 40% of the world's population in the fold - the final stage of diffusion of industrial revolution. Once India and China are in the fold, prosperity reaches its billions, that will be the end of history. China is already getting there: India must catch up. In all the talk about India's emergence, there is this expectation mixed with fear: It must happen, otherwise it would not be.

But that's the fear I shall echo here. It is indeed flattering to be compared with great industrial nations of the past century, but India's path is fraught with danger. For all the talk, India today looks much like Argentina in the beginning of the twentieth century - large landholding, a system of privileges, power in too few hands, too many barriers to individual freedom - than the Golden Age America. We consistently underestimate the cost of corruption: The feeling is that this is going to go away if the country grows rich. But, instead, with every bit of prosperity, corruption strengthens its hold, it becomes more pervasive, condemning institutions hitherto untouched - like judiciary and media, not to mention military - and its pettiness pervading all aspects of daily life. More than anything, the corruption may stop that ultimate leap to prosperity, just as it did for Argentina.

Corruption and the culture of privileges go hand in hand, and in that respect, all the efforts in India are misdirected. India wants to be in the top league almost wishing away its poor, just by making the rich richer, by speaking English, and by putting up its cities in front of the world. There is almost no recognition that its great power can only come from waking up its forgotten villages, the unlocking of hidden capacity: Its fragile cities, its cocky middle class, its dated education system and its privileged and pampered urban babus do not give it any great advantage or lift to compete at the top table. Not just this, the current development model adopted by India in fact is tearing it apart: Its society is being pulled from all sides by an emerging technocratic privilege system, and an undecided and weak coalition for a government is slowly ceding power to a fanatic nationalism of sorts. Without a deliberate act of political imagination and action, India may soon be consumed by the self-destructive rage of the fascist Europe, and the inward violence of similar sort may soon erupt.

India has a great promise, but it should not take itself for granted. One thing for sure: This is India's moment. Its success or failure will determine where capitalism goes next. The fragility of it all makes one nervous: Possibilities and Challenges are both so enormous, that they can tear India, and along with that, the current Capitalist consensus, apart. The fear is contentment. Like a typical adolescent civilization, Indians are taking the progress for granted. A false sense of history is being created; a false sense of presence is being promoted in the public life. In its pressure, India is becoming the most staunchly nationalist country, and a wild west of Capitalism. And, in this land grab, we are facing the real risk of wasting it all, the promises and the possibilities - much like Argentina, and a little like Fascist Italy by the day.

Popular Posts

How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License