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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On YouTube: To my current pupils

A new post has just been put up on my YouTube channel. Just type in Suvro Chatterjee on YouTube, remember?

And I shall be glad to have more subscriptions and more comments, it goes without saying. To those comments which have already come in, I shall respond soon. Meanwhile, many thanks to those who have taken the trouble to subscribe. To all the others who have visited already but haven't subscribed yet, why haven't you?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

My channel on YouTube

This is something I have been thinking about doing for a few years now, but after uploading one or two posts the project somehow languished. Meanwhile not a few students and ex-students have been urging me to start posting on YouTube on a regular basis. Let me see whether I can get another good thing going.

Just go to YouTube and type in Suvro Chatterjee in the search bar. It will take you straight to my channel. Do start by watching the post called 'Making this channel regular'. All intelligent feedback will be appreciated. The best way you can show me that you want me to carry on - I have hundreds of ideas about what to say next - is by clicking on 'Subscribe'. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Homo Deus

As a historian, Harari should have known better than most people (actually I am sure he does, but he is being disingenuous because he has an axe to grind) that people have been predicting that the doom of humankind is near for several thousand years, each time more sure of themselves than the last, but that has not happened, not due to floods and earthquakes and world wars and nuclear weapons, not due to God’s wrath or Mary Shelley’s 200-year old warning (Frankenstein’s monster), not due to rapidly dwindling natural resources (despite the Club of Rome’s very gloomy prognosis which is soon going to be half a century old). Indeed, mankind has handled and emerged from every crisis stronger and better off on the whole. So his basic threat – that by 2030 or ’40 most traditional professions, including doctors and teachers, will be obsolete thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence, and within a hundred years at most humankind as we know will cease to exist, thanks to the rise of autonomous non-conscious intelligences which will be vastly superior to us (what he calls the Internet of All Things) – really need not be taken very seriously. This is what I decided after closely reading and mulling over an otherwise quite readable and (at one level, at least) deeply disturbing book. Robots will do to us what we have done to weaker animals, he writes almost gleefully, and it made me feel only that like many self-righteous vegans/vegetarians, he hates the majority of mankind because it still insists on eating meat and fish. Loving animals and hating humans – what kind of human does that make you, even though pigs and rats and roaches might love you for it?

He doesn’t start off by sounding so gloomy, of course – probably because his editor warned him that nobody would buy his book otherwise. He says that thanks to our multiplicity of special skills, we humans have within a few thousand years nearly conquered our greatest scourges, to wit famine, pestilence and war – nothing very original about that realization, though many like me are glad that it has happened – and we are on the verge of the grandest epoch in history, when  we can reach out for immortality coupled with bliss, and thus become as gods: hence the title. I turn up my eyebrows very high at this, because, and Harari himself acknowledges this quietly, right now even old age is a curse to the vast majority of people who live that long, and scientists would be (I hope they are) far better occupied in just learning how to keep people from becoming decrepit in their 80s and 90s; in any case, I don’t think immortality is either desireable or technically achieveable any time soon; and as for bliss, the vast majority of people neither know nor can agree upon what makes and keeps them happy for any length of time, so achieving bliss, however defined, without enormously changing our basic values and developing our spiritual strength would be well-nigh a pipe dream. I have written enough about this elsewhere, even if tangentially, so I shall desist for now after just suggesting that the reader look up Tennyson’s poem Tithonus.

Of course, Harari admits that our folly (allowing obesity through overeating and lack of exercise to kill off too many of us early, for example) and imminent dangers such as those born out of rapidly growing economic inequality, which, without sane, concerted global social re-engineering might soon become intolerable enough to create an explosive situation, combined with catastrophic environmental degradation stemming out of climate change, might seriously threaten even known levels of peace and prosperity soon, and need immediate attention and corrective action. Again, nothing very original here, though it is indeed sad and worrisome that too little is being done yet.

But then Harari goes off in another, wild direction, trying to terrify his readers with dire predictions that AI is developing so fast that very soon, the robots are going to take over. I shall skip over the several hundred pages that he has written about this, because I have been reading science fiction and watching sci-fi movies from the days of The Time Machine to 2001 and the Matrix series and beyond, and I am now too old to take these things seriously: Harari should have grown up too. Indeed, if you look up my old blogpost titled How my world has changed, you will find that I am actually quite disappointed that most things that the best scientists confidently predicted in 1980 were sure to happen within 25 years haven’t happened, while on the other hand a lot of things happened which virtually nobody anticipated (Keynes the great economist wrote that by the time my generation grew up the economic problem would have been solved once and for all, and mankind would at last be able to turn its full attention to things that it was really created to think about, to wit matters of the spirit, such as love and justice and art; but today billions of people are having to work harder and longer like drudges than ever before just to make a living well into old age) – but the point is, while the trajectories of individual lives always vary too greatly to be predictable (which is why people like me have to fall back upon ideas like Providence and karma to understand what is happening to us), humanity as a whole has coped pretty well enough, and barring the poorest billion, are better off and safer than ever before.

I don’t take this ‘prediction’ (or, as Harari says almost towards the end of the book, possibility) seriously for numerous reasons. Firstly, Tim Berners Lee is already building Solid to protect data privacy, so Google, or some latter-day clone of it, will not be able to watch us like Big Brother and learn more about us than we ourselves do for much longer. Second, contrary to all dire predictions from two decades ago, more people are writing more good books and more people are reading them than ever before, both in print and on electronic readers; all those writers and readers do not seem to be seriously frightened that they will become outdated within a decade or two: ask J.K. Rowling or Amitav Ghosh. Third, the techno-billionaires are sending their kids to virtually gizmo-free schools and strictly limiting their screen time; they know what is good for their children’s future, and very soon millions of people are going to learn the same (I just heard of a very successful coaching class in Mumbai run by father and sons who openly say that they do not believe in ‘smart classes’: like me, they find chalk, blackboard, brain and speech quite enough, thank you very much). Fourth, despite all the hoopla about going all-out digital in monetary transactions, most POS machines in millions of small shops all around India are gathering dust unused, and cash shows no signs of ‘vanishing’ by 2021 anywhere in the world, as some geek predicted in 2016. Fifth, despite all the talk about robots taking over, I don’t think that anywhere except Japan have robots become visible in households or offices, and when it comes to human teachers being replaced soon, my own experience and that of vast organisations like FIIT-JEE tell a very different story still. Fifth, statements like ‘for the first time in history our schools have no idea what to teach’ make the whole book begin to sound silly, because what is far closer to the truth is that millions of schools around the world are happily stuck with almost-ancient curricula which could greatly benefit from some serious updating. Sixthly, I really do think that environmental disaster triggered by drastic climate change is a far more immediate and serious concern. Seventhly, despite all the talk of vanishing jobs, there are lots of places I see every day, my banks, for example, or the hospitals or the police force, where there is an acute shortage of competent staff, and no, robots powered by AI are not showing signs of rapidly filling up those spaces. I could write eighthly, ninethly, tenthly, but I already think I have been taking Harari far more seriously than he deserves.

What is really galling about the book is that Harari says so confidently till almost the end that scientists (who he believes have the last word on everything) are all agreed at last that all organisms are nothing but algorithms, and life is nothing but data processing, and we humans, though far better at that than all other life forms seen so far (I don’t know – bacteria and ants might strongly disagree, and they rather than robots might eventually inherit the earth!), are sure to be superseded soon by superior intelligences which were originally developed by ourselves, to wit, computer programs.  I shall not deign to waste time, energy and words refuting this puerile absurdity because I have seen and read and thought too much of this sort of stuff already. Far too many ‘wise’ men for too long have claimed to have discovered once and for all, many with far more messianic confidence, that man is ‘nothing but-’, life is nothing but-, history is nothing but this or that simple idea. Man is nothing but a reproducing machine, for example, history is nothing but the story of endless (and very boring-) class struggles. The individual is nothing but an insignificant, ineffectual and evanescent blip in the cosmos. You get the idea. Yeah, sure: if you know nothing, respect nothing, believe nothing, create nothing. You are simply stupid, or sick. A team of monkeys on a set of typewriters, given sufficient time, will come out with all the plays of Shakespeare, certainly. The Buddha didn’t matter, nor Newton, nor Michelangelo or Mozart or Gandhi or Tagore. Sure, Richard Dawkins doesn’t matter, and Harari doesn’t either. Let’s leave it at that.

He has the decency (or sanity) to say nearly at the end of the book that perhaps he and his ilk have got it all wrong, and perhaps the rest of the story of Man will be different after all. My point is (and I have told hundreds of people to read the notes at the end of another such utterly sensational but pointless book, The Selfish Gene, which has mercifully been all but forgotten now, to find out how the author himself has virtually cancelled out all the tall claims he has made throughout the book with a long litany of ifs and buts and thoughs and howevers in the Index), why write such a book at all, then? He also takes some pains to insist that he has not tried to make prophecies, but only give indications and warnings about the shape of things to come. Which would always be welcome from any informed thinker around the globe, provided they didn’t make their books sound like The Day After Tomorrow. Protesting too much only weakens your case, whatever you are trying to do. Otherwise I should have said I am glad that he has written a warning like this. Mankind keeps writing and rewriting its own history because it keeps heeding warnings like this. Which is precisely why it is impossible to predict the twists and turns that history is going to take. I can guarantee that the world of 2030 will be far from ‘unrecognizable’. As for what it is going to be like a hundred years later, Harari knows as little as I do. And anyway, I don’t care what it is going to be like by the time my great-granddaughter is an old woman. Her generation can take care of itself.

Didn’t I like anything about Harari’s book? Of course I did. The very best thing that he has said is that mankind lives on ‘stories’ it creates for itself. Religions, nations, corporations, money, these are at bottom only stories we have convinced ourselves to believe in. When some stories don’t work any more, we start doubting them, then rejecting them, then replacing them. I am betting that that will go on indefinitely. Alas, even this is not really an original thought – as Muriel Rukeyser wrote, ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms’.

Here are one or two other reviews of the book you might be interested in reading: this and this and this.

[Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Youval Noah Harari, Penguin/Vintage 2017, ISBN 9781784703936, pp. 499, Rs. 499]

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Pseudo introverts

I have been mulling over the two successive posts I wrote about introverts and extroverts in connection with Susan Cain's book, ever since Shilpi suggested that I should mention that pseudo-introverts exist just as pseudo-extroverts do. And I think she is right. A lot of people do pretend to be introverts because of this silly notion that if they are solemn and aloof most of the time, others will be impressed by them as thoughtful and wise people. 

This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Shakespeare warns in The Merchant of Venice (Act I, sc. i) that only fools try to impress other fools that way. And one of my favourite quotes from Bertrand Russell is a fixture on the other blog, 'I should not be thought to be serious only when I am solemn'. But maybe the tendency has been aggravated in this age of the internet, where everybody is desperate to project some sort of 'impressive' self on social media, and some - a significant number - of people feel that pretending to be introverted (which has been in their minds made synonymous with 'clever', which is actually very far from the truth, as an old boy, Subhashis Chakraborty, has rightly pointed out) would make them a little more impressive than they actually are. Shilpi says that it is a very common thing in academia, and she should know, having spent a whole decade at a famous university. But I see such people all around me too, even among teenagers, and widely among people above forty, especially among Bengalis (aantel is a disparaging term invented by Bengalis themselves for this type). It is fairly easy to make out who is faking it, though. A true introvert will not be gushing all the time on twitter, or be more interested in shoes and clothes and dancing and selfies than in books and mathematics and hard sustained thinking of any kind, and there are many other markers which I would rather not discuss in public. But if you want to know how to catch them out, you can talk to me.

One last thing in this context. Merely being able to categorize people into the introvert-extrovert binary does not make you a know-all. Ms. Cain has over-exaggerated the importance of this one way of judging people, as anybody with a favourite hobby horse will. The human personality is far too complex for that. Those who are really interested are welcome to read the chapter called On Personality Development in my own book, To My Daughter. They might be led on a very rewarding voyage of discovery, and motivated to read many more important books by many different scholars on this most interesting of all subjects.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Eshechhe shorot

Which means, as every Bengali should know, that (the Indian version of-) autumn is in the air.

It's still hot in the daytime, but the sky is turning azure, the rains have virtually stopped (though we are still expecting a few showers), the air conditioner is no longer strictly necessary, and though I am still sweating profusely whenever I go out for a walk, which is every evening, I can feel an ever-so-slight chill in the air if I go out on the scooter late or very early. The winter is coming, though it might still take a whole month to make itself seriously felt. I live for the four months November to February. Please God, let it be a good winter this time round.

I have been reading several interesting books lately. About one or two of them, soon. I had begun to feel that the blog had been going unattended for too long...