Month: September 2019

The Future of How We Live

One of the topics that fascinates me is the way we are adapting our lives to respond to the changes wrought about (largely) by technological advancements. There is a generation growing up that are technology natives and who might not know of a life before social media, smartphones, video and music streaming, etc. We are already hearing about how, led by this generation, people are:

  • Purchasing less cars, preferring to use shared mobility services
  • Delaying (perhaps indefinitely?) the purchase of real estate for personal use, preferring to rent instead
  • Looking for interesting and fulfilling work to do, rather than a job
  • Preferring to spend on experiences, instead of assets (live music concerts, niche travel, etc.)
  • Exhibiting greater awareness of willingness to lead a more sustainable life

I am not sure if all of these are definite long-term trends or a short-term reaction to the present stimuli. I am also not sure if all of these hold true globally, or are specific to a country’s state of development and specific economic conditions.

I hope to read and learn more about these trends and be able to express some views over the next few weeks.



India’s hidden architectural heritage

I was casually browsing the Outlook India website the article when the headline of an article caught my eye. Save Chambal’s Angkor Wat, it said, and it was sufficiently intriguing for me to click on and read the article.

Chambal’s Angkor Wat turned out to Bateshwar temple, located in Morena district of Madhta Pradesh. Locates about 30 kilometres to the north of Gwalior, this is located in the Chambal valley area, notorious for it’s (now in the past) history of dacoity.

While it is commendable that former dacoits have now turned heritage preservationists, I was struck more by the fact that I had never previously heard of this piece of our country’s heritage. It shouldn’t have surprised me given India’s vastness, diversity and, as yet, underdeveloped heritage movement. While there are many very well-known monuments in the country, I am sure there exist hundred of Bateshwars in the country that are possibly known by a very small population. Most likely these would include the local populace, well read travelers and heritage enthusiasts.

I have previously written about a similar site closer to where I stay, the Bhoganandishwara temple at the foothills of the popular Nandi Hills. Even though I had been living in Bangalore for a few years and had visited Nandi Hills a couple of time previously, it was only when a cousin of mine mentioned this place did I visit it for the first time. And I was blown away by what I saw. And also saddened that most visitors to Nandi Hills would possibly never venture just a few kilometres off the main route to visit this hidden gem.

I am fascinated by the rich heritage of our country and would love for more people to know more about such fascinating places. I am thinking of creating a series of such places. Let’s see how it goes!

Bateshwar temples in morning sunlight

Development by Empowerment

Continuing on from my previous posts (Greed and AI for Human Happiness), this is the third (and final) post inspired by the recent New Yorker article (Imagination Could Save the World).

A large part of the article is devoted to Mr. Ledgard’s attempts to use drones to solve community problems in Eastern Africa. The article doesn’t really mention if he was successful in this or not, but the sense I got was that the project didn’t really tale off.

And the reason for this, I believe, is that the solution was developed and presented in an outside-in process. Here is a foreigner, with funds, trying a novel approach to solve a problem for the not so well off in an African country. I am sure Mr. Ledgard has the best of intentions and genuinely wants to help. But this is not the first time I have come across a group of relatively privileged, funded and well-intentioned people trying to solve problems for a totally different audience to whom they might barely be able to relate.

I was recently invited to a Focused Group Discussion to brainstorm ways to increase participation / entrepreneurship in the social development sector. This is a field I am interested in. But I was a bit disappointed to find that there was no one in the group representing the audience whose problems were being aimed to be solved. As such, I am afraid I found the exercise rather pointless.

I strongly believe that without active involvement of the population whose problems are being tried to be solved at all steps of the process, including problem definition and solution design, most interventions, however well-intentioned they might be, might not sustain themselves once the initial enthusiasm wanes. Let me immediately add that I have no research to back this, hence this is purely my personal opinion.

I believe that, for sustainable development interventions, the policy has to be one of empowerment. We need to enable the marginalised / needy to understand how resources could be utilised best to solve their problems in a sustainable manner, rather than pitching up with a solution and hoping / coercing people to adopt it. There is no doubt which approach I would prefer, and I assume most people might prefer the same.

As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.”


AI for Human Happiness

As I posted last week, I came across an interesting article that prompted multiple thoughts in my head. I wrote about one of them (Greed and Development) last week. Here is the second.

An interesting section of the New Yorker article spoke about Artificial Intelligence (AI). This is a topic I am ambivalent and frankly, confused about. We hear about this all the time. While the majority of views are positive, there are a few dissenting views around. I believe this is a significant issue that demands us to pay a lot more attention and engage constructively around.

Most of the discussion around AI is driven from a technology point of view. It is no doubt creditable that technology has developed so rapidly that AI / ML is now increasingly impacting our daily lives. And yes, I have no doubt that it’s making and will increasingly make our lives easier and possibly more comfortable.

What concerns me, though, as the article implies, is that I am not sure that stakeholders in this (and that includes all of us) have given much thought to what is the end goal that we would like AI to solve for? Private players, for the most part, have vested interests that would impact the direction they would like to AI to move towards. And, at the moment, that seems to be towards maximising corporate profits. While I have no qualms about that, I do worry that we are not thinking enough of how we could leverage AI to make people happier.

I am not sure that making lives easier automatically equates to making us happier. I am not a pyschologist nor a sociologist and therefore, do not have a good answer to exactly what would make us happier. But here are some points that, I believe, are relevant:

  • Sense of connection / belonging: We humans are inherently social animals. The more we feel a sense of connection to the community at large, the more I believe it would make us happier.
  • Sense of purpose: We are increasingly, in a digital world, trying to find out what our purpose in life is. I believe a lack of purpose leads to unhappiness.
  • Feeling connected with nature: This might probably not resonate with everyone, but I believe spending time with nature can make us happier.
  • Health: No explanations required here, I would imagine.

The good news is that there are qualified people grappling with, and expressing their opinion about, this topic. An article on Pew Internet called Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humans includes the views of many experts in this field. I particularly liked the views expressed by Baratunde Thurston, futurist, former director of digital at The Onion. A few of his comments below:

  • “The problems to which we are applying machine learning and AI are generally not ones that will lead to a ‘better’ life for most people. That’s why I say in 2030, most people won’t be better due to AI.
  • By 2030, we may cram more activities and interactions into our days, but I don’t think that will make our lives ‘better.’ A better life, by my definition, is one in which we feel more valued and happy.
  • To create a different future, I believe we must unleash these technologies toward goals beyond profit maximization.
  • We need to ask that they ask us, ‘What is important to you? How would you like to spend your time?’ But that’s not the system we’re building. All those decisions have been hoarded by the unimaginative pursuit of profit.”

Let’s hope that we see some more public discussions around this topic in the near future.

Image of Nature

Imagination Could Save the World

It’s not often that one reads something that sparks multiple thoughts in one’s head, prompting one to dig deeper into each and come out with one’s own views on these topics. A recent article in the New Yorker by Ben Taub called ‘Imagination Could Save the World‘ is precisely one such piece.

I am not going to summarise the entire article here. Please do read the entire piece yourself, it will be well worth your time. But, I will, over a series of articles, aim to provide my thoughts on the topics raised by the author and the subject of his article, Jonathan Ledgard.

The first point I want to address is the question that appears to be driving Mr. Ledgard’s projects – “What if human greed could be harnessed as a kind of natural resource, and redirected to mitigate its own effects?”.

Greed is a complex topic. We are, typically, taught that being greedy is not good. However, we cannot deny that greed (or rather the desire for consumption) has come to be accepted as a part of our lives, at least in strongly capitalist economies (which is now most of the world). The reason for this is not too difficult to see. The more one desires stuff and consumer it, the more businesses need to make this stuff. The more businesses need to make stuff, the more they need to employ people (and resources). The more people are employed, the more money they can make, improve their standard of living, and, of course, consume more! I believe consumption has a vital role to play in redistributing wealth from the rich to the not-so-rich. And this has, no doubt, worked very well in the past and helped raise millions out of poverty across the world.

In addition, I believe greed (or desire) to be different, famous, successful, rich also helps drive innovation. I would argue that most of today’s large tech organisations that play such key roles in our daily lives might not have developed if not for this ‘greed’.

However, there is a fine line between ‘good greed’ and ‘bad greed’. And we have seen a few instances recently of this line getting crossed, leading to turmoil affecting a disproportionately large segment of the population (the dot-com bubble, real estate bubble).

I no not believe that greed, as a human emotion, is going to go away anytime soon. Sure, there are the beginnings of what one might call a reaction against rampant consumerism, but the majority of us are going to be driven, at some level, by this emotion. The key question that we have to ask, as Mr. Ledgard seems to be, is if we can channelise this greed to make our lives more equitable and sustainable.