Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Mubarak Dillemma

In Egypt, this is being called Tunisunami, but this has nothing to do with Ben Ali, and everything to do with Mubarak. This is a moment of people power. We are not colouring the revolution, but if we did, this one might be Green. But, the optimism aside, this is Obama's Tehran moment and he must decide fast and quick to avoid Carter-esque meltdown.

What can he do? He needs to weigh upon Mubarak to leave. America can not afford a Tahrir Square massacre in its hand; with fighter jets flying low, this seems to be moments away now. The lameness of Hillary Clinton's statement that US does not want a take-over which does not lead to democracy shows that it is yet to make up its mind. This is not a moment of such confusing statement: Does she mean that the US remains with Mubarak and she believes that there is democracy in Egypt?

If Mubarak does not go now, he will fall: With him, he will take the whole US policy in Middle East to grave. This would not remain a matter of freedom and democracy for much longer: The first firing on the crowd will irreversibly seal a war of civilizations finally. On the other hand, forcing Mubarak to leave, and getting him replaced even by another puppet, is the only route left to the US administration.

This is a revolution without an Ayatollah, and this is actually more scary. This may quickly descend into chaos. A more palatable solution is to give the big man a chance to flee and seek sanctuary in Isreal, if Saudis won't take him. But the time has come and we have possibly a few hours, only a few hours. Do any comparison you like, Bay of Pigs or Tehran Embassy, or even Reagan's dithering during the Philippines' People Power revolution, but this is one such moment.

On the Fault Line: Living at the edge of Organizational Change

Changing organizations can be a thrilling, all consuming, life enhancing experience. It is not easy, and often it may look quite scary. But, if one's convinced about the pay-off, not just in money terms but the value one would create, every bit of the trouble seems worth it.

But, then, there is nothing straightforward about it. As I told a colleague recently, everything is culturally grounded. This is something management gurus often don't get it, because they are not inside an organization. It is often easy for consultants to see and do things to change an organization, because they see and work from outside. If they have the mandate, they can follow the cold logic of management rationality. However, this de-personalizes the organization, as the logic employed can be only of money and shareholder returns: Such re-engineering can only end up with a narrow focus on stock value at the expense of everything else.

Changing from inside, though difficult, can be more rewarding, in that sense. The change agents inside, and I would like to claim that it is my job title currently, need to work with the whole organization and not just its resources. They need to preserve the image of the organization as seen from inside while changing it at step by step. This is a slow and painful process indeed. But, successful change initiatives are always that.

As Tony Blair recently said, people complain when you propose change, they resist when you implement it and feel nothing changed when it's done. The measure of success of a change initiative is not how much it sticks out, but how normal it seems to have changed. This may be one of the key differences between consultant-led change and change from inside.

However, change from inside has many challenges and I know quite a few of them already. First, the mandate: The change agents inside the organization will always struggle in the face of issues such as vintage (length of service) and understanding of the language spoken in the organization. So, people who don't want change will always invoke the spectre of mayhem if things are done differently, and they will exclude the change agent by speaking their language which a newcomer may have little experience of. Consultants face no such problem, as their very appointment gives them the mandate and their pay forces the issue that their time should not be wasted. But, the internal change agents usually have to devote time to understand the language of the organization and earn vintage, in the way of proving themselves in securing difficult tasks in a new way. Once that is done, they can possibly propose the alternative model with some confidence.

However, change is never easy and it is important to form collaborations. I use the word collaboration rather than politics because how the two words are perceived, but they are essentially the same. Organizations are not governed merely by a set of rules, they are a collection of people governed by collaborative formation among them. When these formations are too rigid, one has a problem of faction and vested interests, and the change agent's job is more difficult. Because, change usually does not come through armies, a set of defined people marching lockstep through an organization; rather, it comes through liquid networks, of people forming groups and alliances on various specific issues, though with the vision of the same end point. This flexibility is important, and so is the change agent's ability to work across a range of people and possibilities.

I have also come to realize that mandate usually comes from inside rather than outside, and one should not too obsessed, at least at the beginning, about the lack of mandate. In a way, one has to earn it. Instead, one should look for intent, in the top management, to change and seize that as an opportunity. The next step after spotting the intent is showing respect and understanding, as this will tell everyone that you are not a ruthless, self-interested operator but one committed to a shared vision. Third, one needs to understand the language of the organization. Different organizations have different yardsticks. I remember arguing with my supervisor in one of my first jobs when she told me that it does not look good that I pack my bags exactly at 5:30 and leave. My point was that I finish work in time; she was trying to tell me that I needed to hang around with my colleagues. I didn't understand then, as I was a cocky youngster. Now, it is much clearer: The organization saw commitment through time spent at office, with colleagues. In my mind, this is an example of organizational language, which everyone must learn to succeed.

In a way, most of these principles work for any kind of change, not just in business context. Change from outside, like Bush's adventures in Babylon, usually does not work. Despite their fame and fortune, consulting companies are far less successful in changing companies than the internal change agents. Hardly any management guru can claim the success of a Lou Gerstner or Steve Jobs in any kind of company. Besides, as I would like to believe, the change agent can be either the doer or the thinker, as long as she or he is able to form the liquid networks that is needed to take the change agenda forward.

I shall end with a personal note. I am in the middle of effecting an exciting change agenda in my personal life, and at work. This isn't necessary, but I have decided to commit myself to change, through learning and understanding other alternatives in life, while I work for change itself. This double change commitment isn't easy, but I would like to believe that these few years can turn to the most rewarding years in my life. Change is painful, but usually resurrecting ourselves at certain times is the most enjoyable thing we can do at times.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Change Arrives in Middle East

About a week back, while we were following the events in Tunisia, I pondered whether this will be the 'Domino' moment. A week on, with protests spreading to Algeria, Yemen and finally Egypt, it indeed seems so. In fact, Egypt seems to be on the brink and Hosni Mubarak, the dictator of Egypt and the bulwark against freedom and democracy in the Middle East, seems poised to go. Finally.

Mubarak indeed is a survivor and it is still too early to write him off. Joe Biden had to eat his liberal credentials only a few hours back to deny that Hosni Mubarak is a dictator. No one pushed him on the point almost out of sympathy: American administrations seems to be completely clueless on what to do.

They are currently opting for a holding strategy. They let Ben Ali run from Tunisia and held the country through a proxy, expecting the crowd power to subside. That did not work. They are on similar paths in Egypt, trying to ditch Mubarak and getting behind the Army or another proxy administrator. El Bardei, the erstwhile Head of IAEA, has flown in, hopefully as a stand-by leader should such a need arise. However, this may not work as well.

Besides, the holding strategy, there is some half-hearted claim to own the revolutions themselves. The usual colour labeling has not started yet. Indeed, the Western media's reluctance to have anything to do with these protests is understandable. They have not shown their usual scorn, reserved particularly for Iran, even after Internet was banned out of Egypt. Instead, some claimed this to be the win of George Bush's democracy export strategy.

However, on ground, it looks very much the opposite, and a start of a roll-back of American influence in the region. As the world's grandees conferred in the Swiss resort of Davos, the glo-colonization is on the way back. This may actually be the start of a new era, that of a globalization of freedom, of the real kind, not just the advertised variety.

I am fully aware that my optimism may be premature, and Mubarak may finally convince the Americans that if he goes, it will lead to the eventual defeat of Israel and dominance of Middle East by Syrians, and by extension, Iranians. But it will still be foolish to stand by him, because he will have to go some day soon. The process has started, and it would happen: The American administration has to make up its mind whether it is ready to fight history or play on its side. In a way, Bush is remembered: Either you are on the side of freedom, or against it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Arguments with Myself: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

These days, time is a bit heavy as it is full of reflection, every moment seems to stop before it is over, with a pause almost and a throwback into time I can see but can't get back. My movements, which must follow a routine and crucially, the railway time-table, are laden and almost slow-motion, burdened with the ever-present question of what I could have done. In a way, I am reminded of Katherine Mansfield, like her fly stuck in the ink, forever trying to dry itself and fly again and forever dragged down.

But I also feel light, as if in a train. Time is such a carrier, as if I don't have to move on myself but I am being moved into. As days pass and suddenly I know that January, which turned out to be the cruelest month of my life, is almost over, it seems a different age and time that I was thinking of: Suddenly, with a flick of a calendar, what was my day-to-day reality seems like a movie, where I was an observer and which I mistook for reality. I play silly games: Like saying a Hi to my dead brother on Yahoo Messenger. I play with the expression that I learned from my morning readings during my train journeys: Absent Presence. I think about the flip side - Present Absences - but don't spend time on it. All the momentary shadows and games and silliness fill my time, let the days move on as if by itself.

These are not times of passion or engagement, or of commitment, but of flitting thoughts on heavy subjects, like what the meaning of life could perhaps be, in almost a lighthearted way. Sudden compartments in me feel quite empty; bad bits like jealousy and frustration are gone. I try to make myself feel ambitious, try to steer away from my overarching desire to be unburdened of my loneliness. One relief: I feel unashamedly creative, full of new ideas as if they are low hanging fruits all around me. Words suddenly come to me, as the soothing touches of affection of wrap-around time, and they are fulsome, generous, sticky. I also see that the lord of darkness, doubt, has also left me, finally: Since I have no beliefs, I don't seem to need the effort to hold onto them at all.

Some bitterness gushes out, though. In a passing discussion with a younger colleague, I suddenly sound like a bitter old man myself, complaining that there was so much my generation has to offer if anyone cares to look at us. Is that regret? Or just unease to adjust to my new-found age? I remember scratching onto my notepad only a few days back that a sense of humour should prevent aging, but that seems to be another life altogether. From this point on, it seems that the balance of my life has indeed tipped: Ready for the part ahead but the years behind seems unreal. This is the preparation for graceful aging and final adieu to the refusal to grow up: In a way,this is just-in-time readiness for my absent presence.

So, my fantasies turn, yet again: From what could have been if I was bold enough to hold the hand of the girl I desired then in the eighth year of my school life, to what would be, if I am not around tomorrow morning just in case my sodium or potassium levels suddenly fluctuate. Part of it is, instead of feeling like a bird or some comparable beast, I start feeling like a test tube mixing various chemicals in precise proportions. But, on the other hand, my desire for photographs, which was or could have been taken, give way to my desire for random words, like these here, which must be created. Who cares what I thought at this precise moment in time, just before, in case it is to happen, I turned non-existent: Yes, at least for a passing moment, I would like to believe, these words may become significant only then, if such an event happens, because the meaning of my life will then be transferred from my being into what I left behind. The point, however, is that this is still meaningless if my life meant nothing, even if this is my last testament. Our presence, however much vanity we have about it, is not about leaving things behind, but about moving forward, till one must drop out.

You would say I understand now the unbearable lightness of being, that every moment must invariably made to return. As if instead of moving on this time-train, we falsely assume ourselves stationary and think everything else is moving on. That, after all, is pompousness extraordinaire, taking us to be some sort of immovable center of the world. But, unless the death frees us of our own gravity and grounded-ness, we are forever held to such illusions.

At this time, however, no presumptions: One's life, unless it is about painstakingly spending every moment making a difference to others, is rather shadowless. It is indeed interesting to see the being and non-being as two sides of the mirror image, but we are constantly flipping the real and the shadow and imagining that the non-being is less true than the presumed being. The exact opposite is what one feels when put at the sharp end of the present, as I am now, where there is no road going back to very real past but all exits to the future are open.

The words like these, therefore, are only meant to capture the escape of thought from presumed importance of what I am to the urge to what I can be. They are almost pointless without a future. If I drop dead at this time, they die with me: Their only meaning remains to be created, by me, tomorrow morning. This interplay, of the sketches, words, conversations, relationships, likings, possibilities and lives, is all that is left in our lives to enjoy. Death, only from that perspective, is a distraction, a sort of final curtain to an intensely interesting, unending unfinished movie.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Point of Art

The pointless is precisely the point: I announce. It is one way to live life as it comes, but quite another to be able to stop and talk about it. We are no perfect mirrors, with our twists and turns, and should claim no prizes for reflection. Yet, it is our words and thoughts that make events around us richer, and I claim, significant.

The events would have happened regardless: Let's settle for that. One can say everything happens for a reason, indeed, but to assume that we know the reason or it happens for what we think is designed to happen next, is a foolish attempt to play God. The point I am making is that the events have no significance if it did not initiate us into thinking. Even something as significant as a death or a birth derive its meaning from what we thought about it; An unsung birth or an un-mourned death is just a momentary happening, not unlike a small installment of rain or a tide that was scheduled to come at a given hour.

The significance of writing is to create this significance then, and to preserve this for a while, and spread it outside of its immediate birthplace, the writers mind. So is any art, which grow in the womb of real events but assume an existence of its own, when it meaningfully grows up in the hands and minds of its creator and touches everyone in a shared, though not common, significance. It is an important function. We have become powerful enough now to create the reality: to fly, to defy death, to engineer a birth, to conjure up images, to transmit music through the ether, unbound of its place of creation and time. But this technology creates a reality which will be devoid of meaning if the writers did not create words and meanings around these, or artists did not put them on their easel.

Creation of this kind, sometimes, is perceived to be a lazy pursuit. Meaningless by itself, because it does nothing to change the reality. It produces nothing. Societies climbing out of poverty often tend to see pursuers of Art and Literature as distraction from the path of progress, people fixated on the rear-view mirror of a racing car. The schools, entrusted with the task of creating the scientists and engineers, tend to push its best pupils into the pursuit of the real. Whoever is left, gets ambushed at home or at the college, when the dreaded tuition fee bill arrives. In a way, we want real progress and no more: We need our plates full, heaters running, cars on the road, supermarkets stocked, cities cleaned. In this turbo-speed life, there is no time for art, perhaps. Only the wimps should do it.

But then imagine a city of advanced mechanical transportation, but where no one will offer you a hand if you fall. Because the event of your fall will mean nothing to anyone except you, and yes, the advanced chip in your mobile phone may be smart enough to call the paramedics. The lightening speed transport will get them to you in a ziffy, and the advanced medical treatment will set you right in no time. In this technopia, do you still need the kind old lady who offer a hand to pick you up despite being very frail herself? It is unreal, but one can argue that the same pointless human kindness will make the paramedic drop the unfinished cup of tea to rush to you in the first place, and the nurse to make sure that you stayed in support till you could really walk again, not what the Hospital Board target time for the treatment was. Take away the art, and one day we will take away judgement. Take away the judgement, one day we will take away our ability to decide, and that will lead to our inability to change the reality any longer.

Yes, I am arguing that art makes the reality significant, and there is really no distinction between artistic and scientific thinking. In fact, scientific thinking resides within the cusp of the artistic existence, the ability to pursue truth, the intent to create and above all, being able to decide in a meaningful and humane way. The artists, in their way, are saving the world. The point of art is precisely to create the point.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is this the Domino Moment?

Throughout Cold War, the Western Policymakers drummed up the fear of a 'Domino' effect, when, well, all hell breaks loose. The rationale was, and this was pretty strongly held as the Vietnam War was fought on this basis, that once a major country chose to go the 'Red' way, this may mean every other country in the region will be encouraged to change sides and a global communist movement will become reality. Hence, the efforts were to nip any expression of discontent with the assorted dictators CIA put in place. Ironically, this worked in the name of freedom: A radical secular leader often found himself in front of a speeding truck, or murdered by a bodyguard.

The times changed, but the techniques have not. Indeed, we have scarcely moved a generation. Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carrie may be slightly out of favour, but still alive and still able to churn new novels. The straightforward divide between freedom and evil has not changed much; just the actors now have new names.

But, we altogether forgot about the 'domino' moment. There isn't a global ideological movement of any sort any more. True to our post-modern heritage, our world is fragmented, differentiated. Street anger can not be unified, much to the relief of sophisticated money-machines. From global protests and local dictators, we are in the age of a global empire and local protests. This is a sort of David-vs-Goliath configuration, and this time, divine blessings, technology and media are on the side of the empire. It seemed we could afford to forget the 'domino' effect.

However, unbeknown to us, we came very close to experiencing one in 2008. This was to be financial domino, though, by now, the very real horrors of the Asian Tsunami dominated public imagination and the talk centered around a financial 'tsunami', however inaccurate the metaphor. The 'caving in' of the bankers was much more like a domino, self-justified and self-initiated but unstoppable, than a Tsunami, triggered externally. But words have their life cycle, and it seems the domino imagery is certainly out of favour.

Niall Ferguson, the celebrity historian who indulges in fiction rather than research these days, have made a pointless point about the end of empires recently. He kept everyone happy by finding the rationale of his thesis in a set of paintings (if it was painted, it must be true): He said the end of an empire comes not rationally step by step, but in a moment of chaos. He compared the end of Soviet empire, which ended with a domino effect playing out within a short span of time and which most of us witnessed, and pronounced that all the historians justifications about the end of bygone empires are pointless exercises of reconstruction: When an empire falls, the reasons can't be foreseen or predicted. Indeed, Professor Ferguson's point was that the decline of American Empire is a pointless discussion, as empires don't decline step by step, rationally, but go out of business in a matter of days, caving in the middle of a chaos. His thesis further was that unless you are planning for next Hollywood blockbuster, it is of little use to even think where the end would come from, because it will be unpredictable and all encompassing, just like the domino conjured up by Cold War thinkers (who must have decided that only the paranoid can survive, quite the opposite of Prof Ferguson's thesis).

In a way, however, this unlikely thesis about the absence of a thesis allows us to think about domino more carefully. Even in a David-vs-Goliath battle, do we now see a definite turning point where Street Power is suddenly connecting up and the State Power is buckling down? Enough has been said about Internet utopia and that freedom will not come easy. In fact, Egveny Morozov makes the point in his excellent The Net Delusion, that free information does not mean freedom, and for all the talk about Internet expanding freedom, the agenda is really to spread conformance, the ideas of one global empire based on the principles of consumption of crumbs. The cycle will only break when people free themselves from the cycle of consumption, which it can never do under the Middle Class leadership, a class which believes in scripted lives and have too much to lose all the time. But, there may be a moment, which may follow a nuclear conflagration, or one of financial sort, where people lose everything including the hope: This is quite clearly happening in the Middle East right now.

In a way, the traditional regimes of the Middle East are on a retreat. The Police States of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Kuwait are looking exceptional vulnerable. The pampered dictators, who held down these countries for the Imperial interests, are getting old and out of touch. Even if their troubles are carefully kept out of the media, the middle earth is shaking. The waning of American influence is suddenly very real, and people are on the move. The tinpot Al Queda, it must be said, have no part to play here: This is not about religious fundamentalism, but the inevitable road to explosion of the Middle East, young, poor, unemployed, without hope and without anything to consume. The point, of course, is whether these will remain isolated, or this will indeed start the domino.

Indeed, no scare-mongering and admittedly, we have been here before. But, in a way, America was never so unsure, never so much maligned. The 'freedom' rhetoric in tatters, American Foreign Policy is yet to discover the next big thing. National Interest being a maligned thing for an imperial power, and the democracy being abused and exposed within a space of a few years, the State Power is suddenly losing the advantage. At this time, the only thin line between business-as-usual and unmitigated disaster is the purchasing power of American Dollar; but, the usual, buy the middle class formula may not work in the middle east where Middle Class is non-existent.

True, a different world is emerging and this may stop the domino. George W salivated at the Indian Middle Class for a reason: The middle classes, eternally tied to the slavery of mortgages and pensions, are the saviours of the empires. But while we may believe that we have created a lot of middle class in the last few years (when creation of job became the top government priority all over the world), this may not have been the policy of the dictators in trouble today.

As it should, the setting of a domino does not come from outside, it comes from inside. The conflict between the love for middle classes and the love for complaint dictators is one such thing. This conflict is already in motion and will soon engulf the Middle East. The point, however, is that whether this will spread to other countries where the middle classes are firmly entrenched, like India. The point is that it could, despite the difference in political set-up, and this is because the operating principle of American Empire. These societies, built on illusions of consumption, are deeply dependent on the purchasing power of the greenback. Again, the success has created the fault line: Most of these societies are too consumption dependent and too corrupt to keep the safety valve of democracy operating efficiently. Again, an internal disconnect making these societies ripe for a fall: Will Middle East then provide the trigger?

Random Thoughts on Higher Education 'Business'

It has been an interesting few months at work for me. Indeed, just as I was planning to move towards the next phase - when I start doing things hands on and apply the things I leaned over the last year or so - my personal life became all too turbulent. I lost four people I closely knew in a span of eighteen days, and my life became as uncertain as it ever was. But, then, I have this feeling that I am on to something big at work and would not want to lose my focus at any cost. Hence, I am staying the course, whatever it takes.

The reason I think I am onto something big is because I see the Global Higher Education being a growth industry for the next decade or so, and I believe my company is quite well-positioned to take the advantage. Indeed, only if we play all the cards right, and if at least some of the assumptions that we are making about the business environment hold true. I know this is a big IF and there is a lot of uncertainty in the environment. But, it is reasonable to think that the days of state funded higher education is quite limited, and the private sector must step in to fill the void.

I have debated with myself whether that is a good thing, and whether the social impact of education should be taken into account while looking at the funding model. But, then, this debate can be settled with some amount of finality this way: At the time of limited social provisions, priority should be accorded to school level education than higher education. In the developed countries, universal literacy may have been achieved, but the inner city schools are all but dreadful and vested interests, like teachers' unions, have hijacked the agenda. Resources, if any available, must go to propping up of schools, because failure of school systems will directly result in the breakdown of society. Higher education is more of a middle class thing, and this is about entering into 'professions' above all else. In that sense, funding of higher education may need to have some contribution from the students, who stand to benefit greatly from access to higher education which is still a far way away from being universal.

That way, higher education will become a business and provision through private enterprise and competition will only raise the quality of provisions in the sector. A veteran education entrepreneur recently made a point: He said while the middle classes have expanded tremendously over the last two decades (in China, up from 150 million to 800 million, in India, from 50 million to 300 million), no major country has invested in setting up publicly owned universities. Except India, I should have added, where the government expanded (and is committed to expand even further) the publicly owned HE provisions. However, I would think this is because India's rather arcane regulations have come in the way of creating an Education marketplace, and private sector failed to perform efficiently to meet the demands. Every other major country, including China, have allowed the private sector to step in. The last few bastions of public education, like Britain, is crumbling now and I hope that in the next five years, a globally competitive British For Profit Education industry will emerge. The company I work for now has all the ingredients to be a PLAYER in that industry.

While I am undoubtedly optimistic, however, the journey from here to there is not easy. Higher Education is a resource intensive business, inordinately long term from the investors point of view. The money looks lucrative, but I have seen many education businesses fail just because of wrong type of investors. I would say that only those investors who look for steady longer term returns with lower market risks, like the Pension Funds, are the suitable types for education. I know there has been a lot of Wall Street money flowing into education recently, but I would presume this is happening as a reaction to the uncertainties in the market rather than for the lucrativeness of returns. In a way, the investors are balancing their risk portfolios, by buying into education companies which promise steady state returns over longer periods. However, there is a lot of direct retail investment in education - most education businesses are relatively small in terms of capital employed - and this is where the real danger lies. It is possible to have some sort of Education Bubble, which we have already seen in the early days of prosperity in India, and a sudden dramatic failure of many players bringing the whole industry into disrepute.

The other source of risk for this sector, particularly in Britain and America, comes from the immigration environment. Education has always been a favoured route for migrants, and in an environment which is bordering on being xenophobic, education companies can be vilified as the primary conduit for unwelcome pseudo-students in these countries. The ongoing uncertainties about student visa system in Britain isn't helpful: While some of the proposals on table are good and will help cleanse the industry, the real problem is the indecisiveness of the enforcement agencies and their dwindling resources. Besides, the ongoing uncertainties are hurting the British Education Industry globally and working against its expansion in scope and reach.

I have spent my whole lifetime in For Profit education and do believe that this is not about being ugly capitalists. This is possibly world's largest 'Social Industry' which does not get the credit for what it does. In a way, I did not just have my career in this industry, I am a beneficiary too. Despite my Masters Degrees, which were earned through public institutions, my most useful qualification was my two year long diploma in Computer Programming, which got me first job, gave me the confidence that carried me through the others and equipped me with useful technical skills from the very start of my career. This was through a For Profit company, which charged me quite a sum of money at that time, but it was money and time well spent for me.

So, I am enjoying this journey and feel a certain sense of mission in this. I discover new things about education business every day. Here is one for example: I have come to realize how critical good students are for a successful higher education brand. The significance of what is said of Harvard - it is a place where America's brightest students leave their intelligence behind - began to dawn on me. The job of building a high quality education brand starts with educating high quality students, not end with them. This is a bit counter-intuitive, as the Professors would like you to believe that getting the best professors lined up is actually what this is about, and real estate owners will believe that shiny campus does it; while these are important ingredients, the creation of a high value brand starts with high quality students. This thinking is driving my current strategy. Being a small incumbent brand, my focus is now on product development, which is inherently limited in a regulated industry like Education, and this is one thing I consider as an opportunity. I am now scouting for those market niches which are relatively under-served, but attract the best and brightest from all over the world. I am working on a couple of such areas, and want to make this the center-piece of my strategy going forward.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Remembrance, Yet Again

I lost a friend.

The theme of this year for me is - death.

I lost four people I knew closely in 19 days. This includes my brother, my longstanding political mentor and finally, PRC, as he was popularly known, an ex-colleague, ex-friend (we drifted apart) but most importantly, the person who changed my life.

Without PRC, I would possibly be a company man today, warming some pointless chair in a name-heavy organization in one of the Indian cities. I would live the life scripted for me - built around the cycles of job, mortgage and pensions. I shall possibly be happier, submerged in the ignorance about the possibilities of life. I lived that script once upon a time, but can't any longer imagine what it would be like to go back. In a way, he helped me to free myself, forever.

I was always a dreamer. But in 1998, I had a good job. Things were going well for me. I was married, got a decent raise, a promotion was around the corner; my mentor and boss was very supportive, and she was laying out a carefully constructed career path in a very successful company ahead of me. I understood the training business, earned respect from partners and colleagues, gained visibility within the big-company bureaucratic maze. I was comfortable with number crunching and was articulate, and ended up being a sort of a rising star in the provincial small pond environment of a regional office. Everything was scripted, ready to fall in place.

Except for Internet. I was an early adopter. It was only a slow and expensive dial-up connections, a painful geeky plaything those days; but I had these random email friends in America who I regularly corresponded with. I read Fast Company, an yet unheard of journal in India. A girl I regularly corresponded with was excited about these 'cute little software packages' called Flash and Fireworks, and convinced me Macromedia was the future. However, I could not sell any of my ideas or excitements to my company bosses, who were expanding their computer training network in India at an amazing rate, and was told to focus on the job at hand.

The first turning point in my life was when I was told to shut up because the Senior Vice President who I was trying to convert to Internet did not think it would change what we teach in our centers. With hindsight, I should have shut up and gone home. Instead, I went and shared my frustration to a group of friends (and colleagues) who were all equally frustrated with their jobs for different reasons. This was 23rd September 1998, which I still remember because it was a birthday celebration for one of them and we all drank enormous amounts of Whiskey. And, there was this deja vu moment: PRC suddenly turning to me and saying that he was friends with one of our successful franchisees, who had the money and wanted to invest in creating a new training company.

This would be one of the many wildly optimistic moments that I would spend with him thereafter. Our first shot at business, which will eventually be funded after three months of gruelling effort, would eventually mean we would drift apart. But not before we walked out of our jobs, creating quite a stir and afterward discovering that we had been handed out a really bad deal by the investors. They indeed saw through us and bought us cheap, promising equity which never materialized, at half our previous salaries. We would make our mistakes too, like ordering £100 worth of fancy stationery on the first day of business, or recruiting pretty girls to work with us who would later cause a lot of tension between us, and would actually work for our former employer, informing them of every competitive move that we would contemplate. There were other mistakes which I would laugh at later: like ordering training tapes from America and without knowing anything about different VHS standards. But, all through this very difficult time, PRC would remain optimistic, a constant source of courage, a sort of a never say die soul, who would nudge me at moments of extreme despair and would always try to keep everyone together.

Eventually, however, I walked out of the business, but the business we set up would successfully run for a decade (it still exists in some diminished form today, run by one of the founding partners) and the three people who stayed with it would make significant amount of money out of it. I walked out as I objected to various issues, not knowing that these were usual defense mechanisms of a start-up business. A database was stolen from our former employers, which I resented to, and blamed PRC for doing such a thing. However, this database was the key for him to secure the funds that we did (I mistakenly assumed that I charmed the investors). The investors demanded the database as a part of the deal, and PRC risked himself to secure it. In a way, he knew what needed to be done, and did it; I was too full of myself and was left to quibble on the finer ethical points.

However, the action orientation, without much regard to impact, caught up with him later. I walked out of the business in July 1999, at the precise moment when the company started making money. An ethical quibble again: One of the partners secured a contract with a Singapore-based software company which promised to recruit 80 software engineers from us, and we went out to advertise a 'job guaranteed' training programme, which was first of its kind in India (many such scams would follow later). I never believed it was right and objected and left (half forced out by the investors, I would think, who thought I was objecting to a brilliant idea). Indeed, the company would make a lot of money in the next few months, but the whole proposition would go down in flames afterward when the jobs would fail to materialize. The court cases filed by the students would be 'handled' by a combination of better lawyers, a few clauses in the contract (which required the students to attend 100% of the classes and secure a certain percentage of marks to be eligible) and political influence that these investors had, and I would eventually feel vindicated by this sordid affair. But I could never decide whether PRC bought into this scheme out of sheer wickedness that I blamed him of, or his usual, rather blind, optimism. With hindsight, I would think it was the latter.

Afterward, the company would shift away from Internet Training that we set it up for, and start offering distance learning programmes from universities. Again, they were ahead of the curve in this, and I would think they were one of the first private companies in India to do so. By then, I was running a rival company next door, which was all about high quality certified Internet training. I never considered the idea of distance learning programmes, because, to me, those were shoddy and just short of a scam, yet again. However, again, PRC and my former associates would make a prodigious amount of money, whereas my cutting edge company made only a slender profit, forcing me to sell off my stakes in a few years and leave India altogether.

Looking back, I know that I lost. I was far too idealistic, while business is cut-throat, practical and real. I insisted I was doing the right thing, but the environment allowed 'wrong' things to be done (like promising students overseas jobs) and I could do very little to sway investors seeking short term returns. Business is about taking opportunities; I was too much in love with my idea of a top-of-the-line Internet training company to realize that market was not yet ready (the market eventually emerged only after all the big players entered the game). I indeed learned all these lessons with time, and today know that a balance of idealism and market-responsiveness is crucial in any business. I know I was right in insisting on good conduct; but know that one has to work within the environment. PRC failed me in some of these areas, but I should have been more humble and should have tried to strike a balance between our respective paths rather than walking out.

This is a period of my life I never talk about. I have wiped it out from my personal history, and leave a six month unexplained gap in my life while I tell my story. I always considered this period to be a failure. I did not want to maintain any of the relationships from this period, though rekindled some of the friendships fairly recently. But this moment of his departure suddenly brings back memories of those months, intense, unforgettable, unhappy but full of possibilities, to my mind. Whatever happened, I would not be what I am without PRC and those experiments in entrepreneurship. However, I never had a chance to reconcile with him and thank him properly.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Coming of Post-Industrial War

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the first decade of the new millennium, were possibly the last of the industrial wars that we have experienced over three centuries or thereabout. The side with the industrial might, not with most men, won. What counted is the firepower, and the training and equipment that the men carried, not how many men one had lined up. The format, perfected over the last hundred years or so, was to bomb the enemy out of the existence first, before sending out the infantry. In the last years of the doctrine, increasingly, the manned flights are being replaced by the unmanned ones and the race is on to replace infantry, at least in the more dangerous tasks, with robots of some sort. When this transformation is complete, the art of industrial warfare will reach its peak.

But, I shall argue, that this peak will be reached long after the decline has already started. That is not unusual. The technological peak is often achieved often after the social necessity of the particular area or doctrine has started declining. In fact, if market economies are supposed to address one anomaly, it is this: The market economy can be one of the many defenses of a society against wasteful investment in technological investment. The military-industrial complex of the United States and the Western World may soon be up against the norms of market economy, therefore. The fact that the Tories are having a hard time making up their minds on Trident, Britain's nuclear deterrent, is one such thing. They have already let Harriet jets die. The message is clear: The requirements of national defense, and even international adventures, are changing.

While this trend is clear and there is some sort of consensus already on the subject, less clear is the shape of things to come. Alvin Toffler spoke about Information Warfare, but he was not really being futuristic: Joseph Goebbels took the art of propaganda at the heart of the German wehrmacht half a century ago. And, because of this legacy, and widespread practice of information warfare in major wars like Korea and Vietnam, it should be counted very much as a part of industrial warfare than the precursor of post-industrial ones. In fact, if anything, the undermining of information warfare, by the likes of Wikileaks and amateur videos from Abu Ghraib, points to the coming of post-industrial war. If anyone sees the virtualization of war, like the deployment of drones which made combat piloting not unlike the playing of video games, which can be played sitting in a middle class office against enemies who look like ants from the birds eye view camera of the drone, as the post-industrial warfare, it is the wrong categorization. The drones would not be possible without the might and sophistication of an advanced industrial nation. They should be seen as the highest stage of industrial warfare, the one which establishes supreme advantages of industrial production over human heroics.

The industrial warfare needed scale, and the warfare was played out between large entities, states or group of states, pitted out against each other. The bigness of it ended up making industrial war irrelevant. Russians were more powerful than Americans in a way: They could wipe out America ten times over during the cold war days. However, as an American General quipped, America needed to wipe out Soviet Union only once. The industrial war needed industrial politics - a big wide brush to define enemies in a macroscopic scale, something like a nation is the least one could do with.

So, then, what would be post-industrial warfare? In a way, the post-modern conception that difference is the only sameness may be a good starting point. The nations have stopped becoming enemies. While the technologies of war demanded scale, the politics of the war, to be deployed against groups of people meshed within diverse communities, made them increasingly irrelevant. Cluster Bombs became irrelevant before they become banned; Landmines were counter-productive as wars of territorial aggression may become out of date. It is not simply a precision issue anymore; it is a politics issue.

However, I am not suggesting that this means an end of hard power. Indeed, there is more violence in the world today than ever was, and the ubiquity, not rarity, of weapons possession is a feature of every modern society. Just that the war has become personalized, and reached beyond the army lines to homes, buses, schools and airports, and everyone has become a combatant of sorts, in the post-industrial warfare. The nations as defined, and definable, enemies are melting away, as in Afghanistan, and a confusing mesh of Yemeni tribes. Somalian Pirates, Russian Mafiosi, Irish Anarchists, Japanese Cults, American Corporate Armies and Pakistani Warlords are running the business of today's warfare. The politics of non-state actors have reached the supremely industrial game of warfare, and the rules have already started changing.

Sadly, ideas change slower than the reality, and our thinking is still defined by yesterday's constructs. So, it is still fashionable to see the Chinese and the Americans competing, either directly or through proxy powers such as India and Pakistan. Notwithstanding modern economics, which is driving the nations towards peace (economic interests, rather than 'shared democratic values, keep nations away from war most effectively), some of the nations continue to invest heavily in the technologies, armies and institutions of mass warfare. They have already been caught completely unprepared when they were drawn into today's warfare (Mumbai Massacre in November 2008, for example). The lines between internal and external security of a nation is irrelevant now, and in fact counter-productive, as Americans painfully found out in 2001. But such structures continue to persist, and so does the rhetoric of securing one's borders, as if that is a fixed thing.

I am no futurist, but I see the post-industrial war being played out on the networks, Internet and the mobile. Not unlike the Die Hard movie, the war will arrive not on a rogue North Korean missile, but from the transport, utility and mobile networks. The destruction will not be played out in lives, but in the minds. The modern state is a trust network, and trust runs everything, from financial networks to the legal systems. The undoing of trust will undo nations (as it almost did for Greece), and imagine the new warfare to be based on trust factor more than force factor more than ever.

Friday, January 14, 2011

About My Brother

I did not write the blog last few days because I could not. My brother, who was my constant companion for all my life, my partner in business, someone subjected to all my advice and my suggestions, decided to die. I could not write another post without first writing about him.

Lest I give the impression, it was not self-inflicted death. It was a combination of illness and depression, as well as his drinking habits and a recent abstinence, not least due to constant advice from our sister, my father and me. But, if retiring to death has any meaning, that was his. I was on the other end of the phone, listening to my tearful father who was all too aware of the inevitable meaning of his collapse long before a medical professional has seen to him. In a way, we all knew: He just gave up and retired into sleep.

I have never been so alone. As I said, he was my constant companion. When I started working and my office hours stretched late into evenings, he was the patient chauffeur who waited for hours on the sofas for me to finish work. Gradually, as I developed the reputation of being late at work, every member of my family refused any sort of pick-up request if I ever made one (I did not drive those days); except him, because he never missed a chance being with me. Finally, when I gave up my job and got into some sort of dotcom-fuelled entrepreneur career, he was naturally with me. In fact, when I left India exactly ten years ago, I wanted to go away from him – just to allow me space to do my own things, and I assumed that he grew up enough to take care of himself. I did not know how he felt: Perhaps, just as I feel now, abandoned.

He was an imperfect man. He was temperamental. He often lied. He became alcoholic towards the end. He had women's attention but always chose unwisely. He was a bit pampered by my mother, who always thought he would leave family and become an ascetic when he turns 37 (that’s what the astrologer said). I resented this, and laughed at my mother’s obsession of trying to make him happy. I preached principles, and hard work. I always judged him by own standards, and he failed on many counts.

Just that, as I know now, I missed quite a bit with my narrow ideas of principles and what a man should live for. I did not see how perfect a brother he was: He never ever failed me. While I resented his lateness in meetings, I forgot his constant patience. He forgave all my delinquencies, while I constantly preached at him. And, he left me not with a sense of regret, but the feeling of that sort of defeat which fulfils you and lets you know what you got wrong.

In his life, he has always beaten me in getting love and affection from everyone around us; in his death, he let me know how much he loved me. In his life, his imperfections came between us so many times; his death left me wiser and I know that did not matter. While he was alive, he was my only bond, my only love; by dying, he set me free.

Last time when we spoke, we had a disagreement. He said he is disappointed that I do not understand how unwell he was, and the fact that he was physically unable to make the visit to Mumbai that I was requesting him to do. He said he was sorry and I must make an attempt to understand that.

I now have to carry around my apologies for rest of my life.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Over the World: Facebook Vs Internet

Web 2.0 versus the Web itself? With Facebook valued at $53 Billion by Goldman Sachs (who invested $450 million in the company now) and taking over the No. 1 spot for most popular website (dethroning Google), the question is getting louder: Is Facebook (and the likes of it) a threat to the Internet?

After years of optimistic predictions about Internet changing the world, it has become fashionable to talk about the threats to Internet over the last year. The Economist ran a story about the Internet breaking down into various national networks, each with different rules. Then, Tim Barnes Lee and other founders of the World Wide Web spoke against the various Walled Gardens, such as Facebook (and Google), which are sort of private gardens in the cyberspace, each again with its own rules. In a way, these seem to be the 'old' society gnawing back into the cyberspace, and shackling its free for all flow with the the usual borders and fences that we are used to.

How much of this is really a threat? I must admit that I spend a lot of time on Facebook these days and keep playing The Kingdom of Camelot on one window as I do other things (as I am doing now). Indeed, my friends and family are on Facebook, and my self, as constructed on Facebook (and on Google sites, including Blogger), is quite as valuable as my own, real, self. Last year, when my ex-employer usurped my mobile number, I would have lost my connections altogether had it not been for sites like Facebook or Linkedin. In a way, I spend more time on these sites than I do at either home or office (because I surf from both places, as well as from trains and airport lounges). If there was a such a thing available, I should have given up my British passport and opted for a Facebook one.

This says Facebook draws me to the Internet, rather than driving me away. But, here is the other side: Facebook is closed. You have to be on Facebook to be seen, or connected to. You can't be on Facebook while your friend is on Orkut. And, hence, a multitude of problems: Multiple identities, as one has to maintain Facebook and Linkedin and Orkut perhaps (particularly if one is from India or Brazil) and may be even hi5; and, of course the fact that the gate pass to these private gardens is your identity itself. They let you in if you let them have yourself, all the details, photos, relationships, flirtations, movements, conversations everything. Kingdom of Camelot is exciting, but the opportunity cost is the loss of sight of the entire Internet.

I am indeed not blaming Facebook alone. This debate educated me to think about how my Internet usage changed so significantly. I was an early user, going on to Bulletin Boards and participating on the chatter, moving from link to link when the Web came in. Most of my time, then, which was much shorter durations during the day of dial-up access, was spent in jumping from one place to another; these days, even counting the mistaken clicks, I do not visit more than 10 sites. The address bar history reveals a short list: My blog and two tracking sites, my company website and email, Gmail and Yahoo Mail, BBC, Amazon and Abebooks, Facebook and Linkedin and occasional visits to magazines and journal sites (which are mostly done through my mobile now). The problem is that there is no difference between the short and the long list. The variety on the Internet may be dying.

One can indeed counter this and say that the dynamism of the Internet keeps this a fair game. I spent an inordinate amount of time on eBay buying various photographic equipments and books about 4 years back; it has all but stopped now. I have not logged onto MSN Messenger or Yahoo Chat (except when I am in South East Asia) for a while, and started using Gtalk or Facebook chat instead. My ICQ account may have been deactivated, but increasingly, my family is on Skype. As I moved out of India, my custom shifted from Indiaplaza to Amazon and my news reading from Rediff News to BBC. So, unlike the nation-based fragmentation that The Economist is worried about, the commercial private gardens are far more transient and dynamic.

But, think of this company which has $53 billion in valuation (but a private company, so its business practices may not be scrutinized closely and 500 million users: It is too powerful an entity to give away your data too. In fact, all you give becomes their property, and you can hardly come out of it. The dynamic nature of the business is actually a problem: My personal data suddenly become like Pakistani nuclear weapons, I need to know who has access to them and what guarantees do I have that they will remain safe if and when Facebook implodes.

This is no way a pledge that we should go back to pre-Facebook phase. We can't. But what can happen is that the consumers can express a preference and move towards an Open network. The problem is that till the time Facebook remains this powerful and everyone worth their salt believe that closed networks are actually the way to go, no one can or will move towards an Open model. Imagine this problem in the context of Telecom and you will get it: Let's say, one player, gets 80% of all market and decide not to connect to anyone else (which would have happened, without public regulations). This may not just kill off the competition. This may eventually undermine the telecom systems (as everyone then needs to find another system of communication for the 20% who got left out) or create a social divide. This may not happen in Telecom, for regulations exist. This will not even happen on the Web, as this is an open and ubiquitous standard, and regulations indeed exist. But this can very well happen in Facebook-land (or Google-land) one day, because this is unregulated and only left to be governed by the profit motive.

On another scale, this transformation of Internet into private communities, is in line with the McDonaldization, to follow George Ritzer's formulation. The dimensions of the system, efficiency (Facebook is indeed self-service), calculability (everything is measured and boxed), predictability (the API standards, the politically correct environment under the watch of the big brother) and control (it owns us) are present. If Internet was our great hope to escape such straight-jacketing, the Facebook et al are eating away that hope and turning the cyberspace exactly like the old media space. This is indeed what we should be watching out for.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Arguments with Myself: Why I Write This Blog

Holidays almost over and work has returned to my mind in full blast. In a few days, I travel - to Malaysia first and then to familiar Manila. This, as I said before, promises to be a busy year, and hopefully a meaningful one. And, as I prepare myself for the work, and the change that must inevitably come with it, I had to question all the things I do, and see if it is worth doing. Why I write this blog, indeed, is something I had to ask myself.

This is an important part of my life. I have been writing this blog for 5 years now, and have written 600 notes and posted another 100 odd from somewhere else. That indeed is quite a bit, and considering that almost 500 of these entries have come in the last two years, this is indeed becoming a bit of addiction. So, I usually blog early in the morning, rather than browsing a newspaper or watching television. And, some of the evenings, and most definitely Sunday afternoons, like now. This means eating away the time I could see movies, read books or go out drinking with friends. Despite investing in some gear since I came to UK, I have hardly pursued my other hobby, photography, and now the cameras and scanners are lying in a state of disuse. All for this blog, and therefore, I must find myself a good reason to continue investing on this.

Revisiting why I started writing the blog, I remember Julia Margaret Cameron and her suggestions about writing 'morning pages', random writing that one should do to combat writers block and get to the habit of writing. Her suggestion was to keep this writing private, so that it remains uninhibited, but I have kept diaries before and this time wanted to experiment with technology. This was the background of my starting this blog at some point in 2004, just after I arrived in Britain. Then, I wrote sporadically and kept the blog private, but this never gave me much joy. Finally, I gave up on private writing, deleted all previous entries and made this blog publicly available as a part of my 2006 New Year resolutions.

That changed things quite a bit, but two things persist: First, I could not really stop writing about private thoughts and reflections and often they feature in my posts. I soon realized that though this meant I expose my vulnerabilities, but people treat me kindly when I do so. Unexpectedly, I built friendships with people who I never knew before and never met, and discovered the kindness of strangers. This was quite a discovery: My blog, a random thing, gave me a more positive outlook about the world and other people. My writing exercises, amateurish as they are, gave me connections, however distant, which all my in-person friendships failed to give. What's more, these connections were based on interest and a sort of shared view of things, a completely different matter than the coincidental friendships I entered into purely based on being at the same place at the same time with other people.

Second, I kept practicing. In the meantime, I read Malcolm Gladwell and his '10,000 hour rule', that a cognitively challenging discipline (such as writing) takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master. Roughly, that translates into 200 days full time work for approximately 10 years, and I am surely not putting in full days here. But that 10 year idea stuck with me: I am only 5 years down and hence I have miles to go, I said. So, to the great annoyance of my sister, who was finally forced to take an Internet break by my prolific output, I kept writing.

However, apart from being the place to build friendships and connecting with people, and to keep practicing my writing, this blog helps me in another way: This is indeed my scrapbook of ideas. This is where I capture interesting moments, ideas, reflections, things that I come across and think about, or passionately believe in (at least for a passing moment). This is a scrapbook I may never open in the future, but for the brief moment that I end up lingering with the thought as I try to put it in writing embeds the thought in my person: By writing, the thought becomes more real, somewhat more permanent.

For all my dreams, I don't know what the future holds. I am the optimistic kind, so I am starting this year with great optimism and energy: And, indeed, with lofty resolutions, including not to touch Alcohol for a year (after all the seasonal drinking, this one keeps coming back every year), but also more serious and more realistic ones. As I write this note, I know that this blog is part of my self. However pointless this time spent is, my life revolves around this space now: All my significant friendships, conversations, hopes and dreams are here. This is one bit I can't let go.

Over The World: Euro-stonia

Estonia joins the Euro. The announcement is greeted, as expected, not with joy and announcements about the fading of nationalism, but the exclamation: What timing! What timing indeed, as the European single currency is up for big tests in the coming month. With Portugal and Spain tottering at the brink of bankruptcy, this may not be the best year to be anywhere near the Euro. However, as the Estonian Finance Minister explained, rather resignedly, one can't choose the timing of such events.

Indeed, this may have meant years of negotiation and preparation, printing of currency and calibration of information systems. One can't really withdraw from the process once committed, without great cost: A cost the poorest economy of the European Union can ill afford. Besides, this is a political decision. Giving up the national currency is in a way giving up a lot, a lot of power given up by the national ruling classes (I shall refrain from the word 'bourgeois' ) in favour of a supra-national arrangement like the EU and the European Central Bank. Obviously, not everybody will ever be happy and arrangements would have been made to compensate, at least temporarily, those who lose out. Such arrangements can not be reversed overnight. Besides, last minute withdrawal from the Euro could have sunk Estonia, as those bond-holders who have put money on Estonia on the basis that they will join, would have fled. And, finally, if Estonia decided not to join, or at least to wait, this would have further weakened the Euro: The political pressure on the Estonian government must have been enormous to go ahead with this deal.

It is difficult to see how this helps Estonia, though. A stronger currency will work against its exporters at this difficult time. At the same time, it would not raise the confidence of the International money-men by much: Euro itself has to first pass the tests. As we have seen, giving up controls on the monetary policy eventually comes to the surrender of fiscal independence, as we have seen in Greece, Ireland and Spain already. Besides, exporting the monetary power somewhere outside the borders undermine the democratic priorities of maintaining social balance to the technocratic requirement of keeping deficits low, something that a fragile society like Estonia may not be able to afford.

But, despite all this, the deal is done and Estonian Kroon is no more. Latvia and Lithuania are next in the line. These economies are bigger and more significant, particularly Lithuania, the once proud imperial power of Eastern Europe. The march of Euro is one, notwithstanding its troubles. One can see an alternate economic and political model of influence, the European one, emerging head to head with the American one. Despite the hiccups, this is the soft and successful version of spreading power, of the Western European powers (mainly France and Germany), as against the power, of the more hard version, of the United States. One can argue that the world has moved onto the post-nationalist phase, but may be not, as a closer scrutiny of the sayings and doings of the leaders like Angela Markel clearly demonstrates.

Looking at it from that angle, here is a prediction: We shall see expansion, and not contraction, of supra-national formations like European Union in 2011 and beyond. What we saw in 2010 (and a similar crisis in 2009, between Dubai and the UAE) is the painful next steps that the national ruling classes of these weaker countries must take as a part of the deal of keeping them in power. In a perverse way, the crisis in Ireland and Greece were pre-destined, and the fact that they did not have the option of bankruptcy protection, just the option of changing their ways of life, tells us about the fall of nations, and not about the return of it.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Over The World: War of Civilizations

It does not take long to undo civilization. An insightful urban myth, as told in India, involves a High Level Japanese delegation and the then Chief Minister of Bihar, one of India's poorest and most lawless (at least then) state. The Japanese, for whom the Buddhist shrine in Sarnath (allegedly Buddha's mausoleum) is one of the holiest places on earth, were dejected looking at the state of Bihar and offered to help: Give us Bihar for seven years and we shall turn Bihar into Japan, they said. The Chief Minister, famous in India for his quips, reportedly answered: Oh, give us Japan for seven minutes and we shall turn it into Bihar.

But my context for today's post is not Bihar, nor economic development, but Egypt. Watching the television in the comfort of the Christmas break should be a pleasurable thing, but it is not. The stories of violence keep monopolizing the headlines. Today's news tells me the bombings in an Egyptian church which killed a score of praying Coptic Christians. This follows the stories of violence against Christians in Pakistan and Iraq, and comes at the back of the stories of bombings in Nigeria. The war of civilization is reaching the grassroots.

The reactions to this is an invariable sadness. I watch Hosni Mubarak ranting against 'wicked terrorism' but we have been here before. That model of keeping corrupt geriatric autocrats to keep a country in dominion has failed, and people like Mubarak, corrupt Cold War era Dictators who has lost control over their own people (indeed by betraying them), is the problem. He will possibly arrest some random people and torture and kill them, but that will only farther fuel the war. The war of civilizations, if there is anything civilized about it at all, has started and these tinpot dictators can't stop it.

So, is this the beginning of the gory end for us? Admittedly, human beings are indeed eternally inventive, able to pull up a miracle just when things look so bleak, and move up to the next level just when we reached the age. As John Cleese says in the remake of the The Day The Earth Stood Still, we are capable of change at the precipice. In fact, he says, ONLY at the precipice. However, it must be said that our ability to redeem ourselves is only matched by our ability to self-destruct, and at moments like this, the latter is a reality while the eventual redemption is only a hope.

But this self-destruction and redemption cycle must also be understood more closely. It seems that human societies flourish and move forward when they are diverse and generative, while they invariably comes to a point like this, when certain societies suddenly shut the door and try to stem the flow. This is point when the inevitable self-destructive degeneration takes hold; the slippery slope to abyss opens up. This is why, so far, history has moved in cycles; there was always a door opening somewhere when the window closes. We had world wars, which sucked in most of the world's armies into a long period of madness, but even then, there were those spots in the world which was progressing towards freedom and openness, there was a man standing in the middle of all that and preaching non-violence. However, today - we are now in the middle of a truly global war, not just involving nations but people, and the media and messages are across the world are indeed so uniform. This makes one wonder where the generative diversity will actually come from.

Also, these self-destructive cycles of violence invariably occurred at times when a group of people leave their individual judgement at home and opt to become an willing slave to some over-arching group identity. In fact, mapped in parallel, one can see the rise and fall of societies almost exactly in line with the construction of such identities. This is one such age, and the prevalence of war of civilization in every sphere of life and in every corner of the globe is too real to ignore. For all optimism about human inventiveness, this is a 'global' all-encompassing affair which must be addressed soon.

The point is that this war of civilization, despite its recent eruption in the Middle East, is underway everywhere. The Our Way/ Their Way divide is all but evident in Europe. The Swiss banning Minarets, the French unnecessarily banning the Burqua, insisting on free speech when the Danish cartoons clearly hurt people's sensitivities (Would a newspaper in Europe put a cartoon with Jesus leering, from his cross, at Lady Gaga in her Christmas dress?) - are all the bits of the same war. When you have the power and the money, you use power and the money; when you don't have them, you use a bomb. Neither is justified, but none of these are more justified than the other.

I am not trying to be an apologist of Islamic fundamentalism, nor trying to create an impression that the violence against Christians is a reaction to the treatment of Muslims in the Western societies. This is only a statement of my sadness how we are bringing the war of civilization unto ourselves, undoing the thousands of years of civilization with the inescapable self-destructive rage as we have done so many more times in the past. My theory of history as a pendulum is prescient indeed; just when we are about to break free, we are driven back home and even swerved the other way by the inevitable gravitational pull. The Openness/ Closeness cycle of the societies is one such thing.

In the end, Amartya Sen makes a point which must be remembered at times like this. He says, human beings have many identities. We are at the same time, father and son, husband and lover, Hindu and Technologist, Owner of a house and lover of music, blog-writer and car drivers. A Life built on flexibility and openness, when we can move from identity to identity depending on the context, is what keeps a society going. But, the moment we allow one identity to take over all our other identities, like being Pastor Jones who believes he can solve the world's problems by burning a Koran or those terrorists who kiss their daughters good-bye and blow up other people's daughters in search of their own martyrdom, violence becomes the way of life. In a way, surrendering to this sort of meta-existence is a violence against yourself: Subjugating my identity as a reader of English books to my identity as a Hindu Indian could be the first blood for my murderer self.

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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

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