rovik. reads: the present age – on the death of rebellion

Engaging in discussions on philosophy is a useful occasional activity. It improves the rigor of the mind and sharpens the wit. It’s not something I enjoy to a dense degree – I can’t quote Plato or Nietzche off the top of my head, but I believe the main trains of thought have shaped a lot of modern thinking and are worth some consideration, especially as we strive to champion new forms of living. Kierkegaard stands in this line as someone who is worth reading. One of his seminal works, The Present Age is ripe with conjecture and contemplation on the nature of self-reflection and the controversy of the media, providing a solid challenge of perspectives that are relevant to this day.

Kierkegaard lands two main points in this work: the first is that we have become overindulgent in acts of ‘reflection’ and have lost the passion for action and the second is that we all have become leveled by institutions such as ‘the public’ and the media.

Reflecting in lieu of Acting

Kierkegaard distinguishes between two ages – The Present Age which is indulgent in discussions and reflection and The Revolutionary Age, referring mainly to the time before the present when passion drove action.

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm and shrewdly relapsing into repose.”

It’s worth noting that Kierkegaard is an established theological philosopher, passionate about his faith and thus ties much of his thesis to it. According to him, we have evolved as individuals in caring more about the discussion over action instead of the actual act itself. Sometimes, discussing the act satisfies our conscience and provides no impetus to actually engage in the act itself.

“Intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick and reality into a play.”

We can think of relevant examples almost immediately – when we ask someone why they don’t engage in charity, their ability to rationalize it reduces the focus on the fact that it’s simply the right thing to do. Passion is lost, and self-reflection has become an indulgent frivolity of the individual. Kierkegaard makes a relatable snipe to the fact that sometimes we engage in discussion over the topic so much that we choose not to act out of exhaustion.

“Reflection is not the evil; but a reflective condition and the deadlock which it involves, by transforming the capacity for action into a means of escape from action, is both corrupt and dangerous, and leads in the end to a retrograde movement.”

There is, of course, a large area for critique here. Firstly, it is widely agreed that action without thought is a recipe for disaster, especially with politically and economically complex decisions. It’s also worth noting that Kierkegaard himself is subject to his own meta-critique. He is a philosopher who engages in acts of thought rather than action. He is ultimately evidence of the need for reflection. But it is this quote which lands his point the best:

“What is talkativeness? It is the result of doing away with the vital distinction between talking and keeping silent. Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk–and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it. But some one who can really talk, because he knows how to remain silent, will not talk about a variety of things but about one thing only, and he will know when to talk and when to remain silent. Where mere scope is concerned, talkativeness wins the day, it jabbers on incessantly about everything and nothing…In a passionate age great events (for they correspond to each other) give people something to talk about. And when the event is over, and silence follows, there is still something to remember and to think about while one remains silent. But talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.”

How do we engage in a discussion that is valuable and in relation to producing and engaging in action rather than viewing an action as a distant object? How do we stop contemplating and start generating? These are worthy ideas to think about because as society evolves and humans become subject to the ‘system’, our ability to act gets reduced and we become satisfied with the mere contemplation of acting. It is this trap that we must escape from and that Kierkegaard continues to expound on.

The Societal Leveling of the Individual

“In order than everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage–and that phantom is the public.”

Kierkegaard has a known disregard for the media, especially since historically, the media at the time critiqued some of his earlier work to a perhaps unfair degree. But he makes an important claim here: the reflective state is a result of a desire to be appreciated by a phantom ‘public’.

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”

The media is a big pusher of this trend, citing the ever notorious ‘public’ as a reason or cause for desire or disruption. Are we not merely a collection of individuals rather than a homogenous group? How can the public want one thing? Even if it is 60% of them according to a survey, every individual is almost guaranteed to want a different version of the same thing. This societal leveling of the individual reduces the desire to become a passionate being and instead relegates the person to merely a constituent of a larger phenomenon.

“The levelling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual. The levelling process in modern times, corresponds, in reflection, to fate in antiquity.”

This can be seen in art and advertising mostly, where the desire to be accepted and seen by the ‘public eye’ drives work. It is this reinforcing system, where art and advertising are products of the reflective state and yet encourage more of it too. Kierkegaard drives a lot more focus on this point in the direction of religion and Christianity, areas worth exploring if you are a theologist or interested in religion, but these are extendable from the points laid above and not as widely relevant as the application in media.

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This book was a tough read. It’s extremely short (some even call it a pamphlet rather than a book) but it’s very dense and takes a lot of pauses to fully understand Kierkegaard’s main points. Perhaps it is because it challenges almost every major tenant of our modern society which is built on discussion, debate, and rhetoric rather than actual action. It is worth noting that while major actions have shaped our history, the work behind those actions spanned many long and arduous discussions. Is Kierkegaard relevant to our society or is he a dangerous influence? I’d argue it’s worth considering his skepticism of modern society at a personal level. Can we avoid the leveling of society and find passion in our individuality? Can we catch ourselves when we become indulgent in reflection rather than in relation to action? These are worthy checks to add to ourselves to become stronger as individuals. Because our worth comes not just from our participation in a global ‘public’ pool, but also in our ability to be an individual and be unique. We cannot lose the essence of who we are.

Here is my review of the book:

Readability: 2/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 5/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 5/5

Would I Recommend? – As part of a wider philosophical exploration, yes.

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rovik. and friends discuss: gun culture

I know what you’re thinking – “Oh boy, here we go again. The Gun Debate”. Here’s a fair topic warning: we talk about gun violence, mass shootings, and gun culture, in a much wider sense than usual, and with the aim of unveiling how we got to the current state. While the US is the inevitable focus of these discussions, we wanted to understand how gun culture looks like around the world, in countries such as Switzerland and Israel, and compare that to the issues occurring in the US. It was also an interesting conversation because two of the members of the group were actually pro-gun ownership (and also pro-gun regulation). Coming from Singapore where my firing a rifle was pretty much a sacred moment in my military career, it took a massive opening of the mind to be able to understand some of the arguments being presented here.

Here are some of the resources I used to build this post:

  1. Kialo Debate on Gun Control
  2. BBC Article on Gun Culture (2017)
  3. CNN Article on US Gun Culture in Charts (2017)
  4. Switzerland and Gun Laws
  5. Small Arms Survey
  6. Global Gun Cultures – Wikipedia

There were two main focus areas: the evaluation of gun culture and the case for/against further gun control.

Gun Culture

Gun culture “encompasses the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs about firearms and their usage by civilians.” (Wikipedia). Right off the bat in the conversation, one of my more liberal friends declared that he supports the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, standing on the side of the only openly conservative member in our group. My immediate question was to ask why.

Gun culture, like many other social phenomena, cannot be thought of deterministically. Most people have an idea of rationality as cause-effect oriented. If something is good, use it, and if it’s bad, don’t. This makes sense in some regards but we know that there are social conditions that make things ‘sticky’. The concept of social embeddedness reappears many times in these conversations – sometimes history, culture, and habits play a role in ingraining norms into our life and rationality is less to do with cause-effect and more to do with unveiling sociological forces.

The first thing recommended in our group was to decouple our normative judgment on firearms from the actual artifact i.e. think of guns as just an object that can achieve varying objectives.  Firearms are used for multiple functions from security to hunting to warfare. The US isn’t the only country that allows civilians to bear arms. Switzerland is a frequently cited counterexample where civilians (actually only males who have completed their National Service) are allowed to purchase firearms to keep in their homes. However, unlike the US, which declares the right to bear arms as a fundamental right, the Swiss have a dedicated purpose for the distributed ownership of arms – quick mobilization. In a country such as Switzerland which is very spread out and has many remote regions, having every trained citizen be able to quickly pick up their arms, mobilize into militias and protect their country is a strategy that enables reflexive strength. Singapore, for example, only allows trained civilians to draw arms under extremely controlled circumstances from central arsenals because the country is small and mobilization is theoretically quick. The use of arms, even for hunting, is extremely controlled in these countries. The UK and Canada allow firearm use for the purposes of hunting in remote areas, again under extremely controlled conditions.

The ability to hold a weapon for hunting makes enough sense to me. I was in Delton, Michigan two Thanksgivings ago and came face to face with a hunting rifle (and a crossbow). My friend, who I’m very grateful for the experience, told me that they were taught to fire a rifle from a very young age and go hunting as a pastime. Just like skiing is a hobby afforded to those with mountains in access, and skis merely the tool so was hunting to them simply a hobby and the rifle simply the tool. As someone who’s always lived in urban environments, the perspective shift was possible once I was stuck in rural Michigan and understood how things worked here.

But why does the US see security as a justifiable enough reason for firearms? It has a lot to do with its history. The US has always had a natural distrust of authority, and for good reason. Their governing and enforcing bodies, from the British to early governments to current (sometimes) abusive police forces, have time and again proven that citizens need to be vigilant and watch out for themselves. This too is valid enough for my friends to justify bearing arms in both suburban and urban environments. You can only trust yourself. To them, gun culture is less about being ‘gun-crazy’ and more about the ‘responsible use of guns’. Again, this is a massive perspective shift for me.

Why not just ban guns altogether? Won’t you be able to solve inevitably cut gun violence as a whole? That, unfortunately, is the wrong question to be asking. History has already brought us here, where the proliferation of firearms in society is high. Yes, you can provide a normative justification to the ceasure of gun sales, but the implementation of such a concept is not only impossible but possibly problematic. How would you take away guns from a population that has already built their lives on it? How would you ensure that existing guns in society don’t get shifted around to the wrong players? How would you make sure a black market doesn’t develop? These questions provide enough uncertainty that most Americans rather continue to enforce gun culture (in the responsible sense) and focus on gun control rather than gun ceasure.

Gun Control

Most Americans, as seen in the articles listed above, support tighter gun control. The problem has always been in what that means. From restricting gun sales to people with mental health issues and criminal history to banning sales of assault rifles, the types of controls recommended actually number. If you remember my ode to science, you’ll be familiar with another contributor to this problem – the selectivity and bias of scientific research in supporting agendas. For every measure proposed for legislation, the National Rifle Association (NRA) which is funded by the gun industry, is able to provide ‘scientific’ counter-justifications, normally citing operational ineffectiveness or discriminatory behavior. Funnily enough, the NRA has even used racism as a card to vilify gun control proponents. If you want to tackle something enshrined in the constitution, you’re going to need irrefutable evidence and the NRA only has to poke holes in any major legislation for it to fail.

Objectively, one must ask if what the NRA is doing is actually good. Could it be that the NRA actually has our best interests at heart? Can the gun industry actually be providing guns to support the constitutional provision instead of primarily their own pockets? The history of capitalism should provide clear enough answers to these questions. The social embeddedness of guns, gun legislation and capitalism has swarmed the US into a sticky mess that is difficult to climb out of. The rest of the world continues to watch ineffective legislative process continue and wonder how every other country is suffering less than the Americans. Of course, one must also ask if existing laws, many of which already exist, are even enforced. The complexity of technology (with 3-D printed firearms) and state rule cause legislation to play a catch-up game with trends while enforcement continues to suffer.

Another consideration is the whole ‘gun vs person’ blame game. Many times people cite that the shooter is the problem rather than the access to guns, especially when a mental health scenario is introduced. It does sicken me a bit that this same focus on mental health isn’t seen in legislative coverage for mental health benefits in the US (and more, unfortunately, globally as well). Rather than see it as an either-or scenario, I personally cannot fathom why legislators aren’t able to see it as multi-causal and therefore requiring action on both mental health as well as gun access.

What could possibly be a solution to this all? The US looks like the only country stuck in this situation, but countries such as Canada are seeing an emerging call for more open gun access following US industry performance.  There is enough of a reason, in addition to the extremely unfortunate shootings that occur on almost a regular basis, to focus on policy tackling of gun culture. Working within the Second Amendment and still curbing gun use for nefarious purposes seems like feasible enough of a bipartisan goal, but money first has to be taken out of the equation. Lobbying has to take on new non-monetary forms within the US government, that enable reasonable advocacy without pork-barrel politics. Can gun culture take on a more responsible form? Can we limit gun sales to only those that are licensed and are non-discriminatorily certified? Can we monitor and improve enforcement of gun trade and use? These are questions that can be answered and should be answered comprehensively.

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There are many reasons I’m thankful I call Singapore home – one of which is the fact that I rarely have to think of gun violence affecting either me or my loved ones.  I’ve lived in Chicago and London, and while I haven’t personally seen gun activity, I’ve heard of shootings not too far away. The fear that one day I too could be caught in the line of fear is real and tangible. Would having my own gun help me feel safe? Sometimes I think so and this is how many Americans feel. But many times I just wish no one else had guns, and that’s a future difficult for Americans to envision. Rather, knowing that the law is robust and well enforced is the second-best solution that we should be investing resources on. Operationally, this is what is worth betting on.

 

 

rovik. reads: SPRINT

This would be an interesting book review because not only will I be reviewing the book itself, I’ll also be reviewing the process which the book writes about – the Sprint Week. As part of my LSE MISDI course, we were put into groups and locked (not really) in a room for a week to execute the Sprint Week principles and then some. This was also 50% of the grade for one of our classes. Was this what Jake Knapp was thinking about when he wrote this book? Probably not. But heck if anyone ever followed a book to the tee, we got some interesting results from the process and that’s what I’ll be writing about today.

The Sprint Week is a process developed by Google Ventures to approach designing solutions for problems in a semi-structured and ‘agile’ way. Rather than start brainstorming solutions on Day 1, the Sprint Week focuses on using concepts of convergence and divergence of ideas (almost at a regular pace) to focus and stretch possibilities respectively. A Day by Day breakdown of the Sprint Week can be found here, but essentially the process follows Problem Design, Solution Generation, Storyboarding and Decision, Prototyping and Testing. It’s a simple enough framework and the book goes through the nuances and best practices for each day more thoroughly. Heads up, you’re going to need tons of paper, markers, stickers and flat surfaces for this week. And snacks, lots of snacks.

rich picture
Our Rich Picture

Our Sprint Week was developed in conjunction with Roland Berger, with the provision of VISA’s corporate goals as our problem environment. Essentially, we had to consider how to help VISA achieve its goals of millennial outreach and merchant buy-in. SPRINT instructs to start with setting goals, key questions and assumptions to consider, before developing a flowchart of sorts to map out how the goal can be achieved in broad terms. The MISDI program replaced the flowchart with a rich picture, something included in the wider Soft Systems Methodology we employed, to identify where problems and opportunities lay.  It’s a difficult thing to do initially because you’re trying to capture complexity without making your picture complex. It was also difficult (and this is a critique of the program rather than SPRINT) because payment systems are a whole world of knowledge that very few have a prior understanding on. So rather than mapping something out, our team had to take a timeout to research, clarify and understand before coming back to map the system out. I assume that SPRINT participants should have an understanding of the problem scenario before coming into the week and should have done basic research to hit the ground running – a key prerequisite not afforded us and that I’d find very useful for future iterations.

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Solution Generation

After converging on the problem, it was time to diverge on the solution. SPRINT employs a series of masterful and ‘fun’ activities that allow participants to stretch the possibilities of what solutions can look like, drawing from both inspirations as well as just permutating through ideas (through their Crazy 8s activity). Eventually, through the use of stickers and post-its, participants vote and comment on ideas and avoid opening areas of conversation. This is almost an endemic part of the process – conversation and debate distract from the product which is ultimately a perceived object and so if another participant can’t immediately understand your point, it’s not held as valid. There are opportunities for discussion but they’re timed, facilitated strongly and meant to be purposeful. This form of directed teamwork is highly effective but requires a reframing of people’s points of view especially if they’re used to dominating airtime. There are only two main roles in the group, the Facilitator who manages time and process and the Decider who makes executive decisions. Everyone else is held to an equal and fair standard of contribution.

storyboard.jpg
Storyboard

The next step involves attempting to converge back on the proposed solution, and in order to do that, the team must agree on a storyboard that captures their vision. There’s a lot of references back to previous documentation such as goals, rich pictures, and solutions, to identify exactly what the ‘user’ aims to achieve and how they interact with our product to achieve them. This inspires the product and the features that must be embodied for success. This became an important by-product of our process as we kept using it to focus our features and not get distracted by next-phase or frivolous features.

osd
Object Sequence Diagrams

Finally, we develop the prototype. I haven’t put a picture of the prototype just because it used theoretical VISA branding that I wouldn’t want to misrepresent, but I used Marvel, a prototyping software I love, to build it out. This was what SPRINT directs you towards, even suggesting paper and pen prototypes as equally satisfactory in achieving the goals of this stage. What was additional for our program was the inclusion of Unified Modelling Language schematics to describe our system. We had to produce a Use Case Diagram, Class Diagram and the bane of my existence, the Object Sequence Diagram (OSD). I can appreciate the purpose of the first two types of diagrams, but I could not find any relevance nor use of the OSDs. In fact, I had a candid chat with a friend who used to work in an IT firm in India that handled outsourced work and he remarked how business executives would use OSDs to communicate the mechanics of the system  to little avail. The IT folks would simply ask for the specs and iterate through it instead. In fact, quite ironically, OSDs seemed quite inhibitive to the agile spirit of the week. It seemed more like a tool for business majors to feel like they have a grasp on the system (which they probably don’t, let’s be honest) and something I rarely see myself employing in the future. Then again, I’ve caught myself eating my own words before, so I’m open to being proven wrong.

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The Team

All in all, at the end of the long and tiring week, our pretty international team came together to develop a very impressive product that we were proud of. There were a lot of times where we had to trust the process and stick to it but when we saw our final product, we knew it had been worth the effort. There’s definitely gaps and inadequacies in the SPRINT process, especially since it was augmented and adapted so much for a program of 120 people in a room with not that much space. The combination of being graded for it and having to manage friendships within the program also altered the preferred dynamics of the process, but these are factors that cannot be escaped within the consideration of the course. I think the SPRINT process is a great foundation for teams and organizations seeking to solve complex problems in a structured way – it brings a design mentality to engineering and the book is a very reliable and useful companion for the team. In fact, one could even think of the book as an extra member, providing the structure necessary to navigate the complexity of the target problem.

Here is my review of the book:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 3/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – If you’re in the design/tech/engineering space, absolutely!

november updates

I have the option of taking the bus or the Tube every time I commute between home and school, and almost always I choose the bus. One of the biggest perks of living in London is the ability to take in the sights, and I’ve had plenty of moments where I look up and get a quick thrill knowing that I’m living in quite honestly one of the most magical places in the world. The trifecta of Singapore, Chicago and London have embedded in me a deep sense of magic, and I’d be damned if I lived my life any other way.

We’re entering my 8th week in London and I’m probably much better settled in than I expected. It’s good timing then for me to go back to Chicago this week for a reunion with the old friends. I’ll be honest – I’ve been feeling a bit lost in London. The LSE is a very different type of institution from Northwestern, and while both have their pros and cons, I’m much more akin to Northwestern’s mix than the LSE’s.  One of the biggest challenges has been finding an institution-centric purpose.  For example, in Northwestern, I could trust that I’d have the time to work towards creating sustainable change within and across the organizations I was a part of. Here, the LSE’s student organizations are vastly separated and disjointed. The city-centric nature of the program forces me to find new purpose and I felt like I was lost in the forest (a feeling I actually know about from the army). I’ve struggled to pen down my goals for my year ahead, and going to Chicago is my way of getting back in touch with some of the energy I left behind and hopefully getting the space to decide my goals.

The direction I want to head in has always been clear though. I want to be a good person and I want to do great things. I’ve struggled with this more and more. Being good should be a simple task, being great should be the goal that gets you working. But I find day to day that in order to be ethical, socially responsible and also make bold strategic decisions, you lose a lot of hair. Being good and great is tough because being good is going beyond just being kind or friendly. Being good means recognizing I live right above a street where homeless people sleep out in the cold – and doing something about it. Being good means recognizing that there’s a conflict happening in some part of the world and I am connected to that experience. These are values and feelings I choose to ascribe to my existence, not because I believe humanity was designed that way, but because I think they open the doors for the right kind of work to be done. Being great at being good means thinking about these complex problems and understanding that it’s not just an optimization scenario. I want to be a better person. I want to do good.

The last thought that has occupied my mind is well…that of my mind. As a combination of the vast amount of academic papers I’ve read for my program and the stuff I do for Deliberate Evolution, I’ve been stretching my mind. I’ve had to dissect, analyze and form opinions on so many things to the point where I believe this is the most I’ve ever been intellectually stimulated. It’s a good thing – I think I’m finally realizing the benefit of a college education, but I also keep pushing myself to not lock myself up in an ivory tower. Sometimes I get very annoyed with all these models and generalizations because while I can empathize with the need to simplify to understand situations, I fear we become too comfortable with the models and don’t see reality as it is again. The conversations are becoming more professionally oriented as well – how will these topics relate to what I want to do in Singapore. How will I champion these ideas in the context of my country, my workplace and my home? I’ve always been a practitioner and these questions need people to answer them. I’m getting very excited to go back and work with people in my country (and abroad) on these big-idea projects.

So, there it is. October has been a bit of a mish-mash of things, mostly good with splatters of struggle in between. Things will peak and culminate soon, and perhaps this is the month for that. I have trips to Oslo and Copenhagen planned, and I’ll be back in Singapore next month, so there’s lots to look forward to. You’ll hear from me soon.

rovik. reads: born a crime

I don’t know too much about South Africa, but when you look back at history, the country has had one of the most important lessons to teach us about humanity and our ability to reconcile evil. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, the next book in our book club series, provides an intimate and personal picture of both Noah himself as well as the South African context in which he grew up in.  We may know him as the funny yet incisive host of The Daily Show, but in this book, we get to see a tragically hopeful backstory of how he became the man who he is today.

There is some context necessary to understand the book. Each chapter sits as a standalone story into Noah’s life, and while there are connecting themes of religion, family and race throughout, the book does require some appreciation of Noah’s inclination to be an anecdotal storyteller rather than someone who is tracing a grand journey. Perhaps that also provides insight into Noah’s own view of his life – a series of disparate yet connected events that have collectively provided the backbone for his narrative.  One of the members of our book club noted that Noah does tend to make grandiose claims in relation to his life events, connecting seemingly unextraordinary events (by the radical standard of living in the extraordinary world of South Africa) to large cosmic and political themes.  I agree to an extent, but I also sympathize with Noah. Noah is a recently brandished TV celebrity, building on years of hard work as a comedian, and this book is probably an attempt to provide an emotional connection for his fans. He needs to balance his TV persona with his own personal history, and by driving some of these political notes, Noah satisfies both objectives. Also, as someone who personally experiences a heightened state of living, I can see how large cosmic themes help provide sense and direction to a complex and difficult way of living. Noah and I both fall back on these influences to cede control away from ourselves, in an attempt to maintain sanity.

There is one major storyline that I found especially interesting from Born a Crime, on the topic of race intersectionality.  Noah is the son of a black woman and a white man and even that is a gross simplification of the nature of his parenthood. In South Africa, where your race determines your class, Noah has to bounce around between his blackness and whiteness, and in this specific context, also his coloredness. He has to be a chameleon, relying on his whiteness when it aided him and depending on his blackness to find community. He was never completely a part of either group but he also gained from all of them. Conversely, he suffered from all of them too. The first time Noah explicitly made a decision with regards to his race was when he asked to be placed out of the top class in his school, a class reserved only for non-blacks, and to be placed in the class where his friends were. He essentially chose to be black, despite knowing that he was losing the privilege of being given better resources.

Now my own relation to race isn’t that similar, I’m Indian by a 100%. My parents are Indian, and in fact, I was born in India. I was brought to Singapore, a majority Chinese country when I was 4, and have supposedly lived in a ‘multi-racial’ environment my whole life. In reality, I lived in a majorly Chinese-influenced environment my whole life, with splatters of Indian and Malay influences and a growing generic Western influence. As an immigrant who needs to survive in new environments, I chose to co-opt Chinese culture to fit in better with my peers. This also meant abandoning parts of my Indian heritage, choosing to celebrate Chineseness instead. It worked – I was able to adapt to overtly Chinese-influenced institutions from the workplace to the club, and depended on my Indian-ness only when it was tokenized. Unlike Noah, I chose to shed more of my born identity in favor of a chameleon identity. Do I wish I had the courage of Noah to embrace my background more intimately? Yes. I’ve been trying over the past few years to rediscover what being Indian means to me, especially because I’ve had to continue adapting to new environments in Chicago and London, now interacting with Whiteness as a force of homogenization as well. I struggle to feel connected to any one culture, a fact often vilified by many strong cultural thought-leaders, but instead, I feel connected to a general yet adaptable heterogeneity of cultures.

Noah’s book is a fun read, filled with comedy and color (pun intended).  It also has tragedy, reminding us that Noah’s laughter often masks deep pains and hurt in his life, as is the case with most comedic geniuses. You’ll learn about South Africa, racism, family and youth all in this short read. I listened to the audiobook and was done in a week, with 1-2 hours of listening to a day. Here are my ratings:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 3/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – Yes, especially if you’re into autobiographies.

 

rovik. and friends discuss: gender bias

#MeToo is trending and it’s a sobering reminder (as if we needed any more to start taking it seriously) that people, especially women,  face sexual abuse and harassment at a prevalence rate that’s way too high. My discussion group talked about Gender Bias in Society at a recent session, and while we didn’t talk explicitly about sexual harassment and assault, the themes are still relevant and related. This was a stickier topic for various reasons, the first being that we only had one female member out of six who at many times had to speak to her experience to validate or invalidate points, but I feel slightly more comfortable now navigating some of the nuances around this topic.

I’ll start with something a bit more personal – my own male experience. I first recognized my power as a male in college. I would be able to go to parties and due to the fraternity-favoring culture, I would have attention given towards me, both from men who were trying to recruit or evaluate me as well as from women, for various reasons. It took me a lot of exposure to different platforms and educational discussions to realize the socially embedded power I held as a man, and more importantly, to realize that I had taken advantage of them already.

While I cannot claim to understand a man like Harvey Weinstein and how he can force women beyond their pleas simply to satisfy his own selfish desire, I can speak to being in the grey area in my development as a man. That grey area where being in male-dominated spaces made me comfortable talking about women as something to be ‘won’ rather than people to be engaged with. That grey area where my masculinity was more prominent in my thoughts than a women’s foundational sense of self. That grey area where I could excuse away aggressiveness as ‘being a man’ instead of a problematic behavior. I was there and thankfully, I was quickly dragged out of it, both by good friends and ironically enough, by members of my own fraternity. I’ve always spoken of the power of gendered spaces to be transformative if channeled to the right resources, and to this day, I am happy that I was given the opportunity to check myself and recognize the toxic influences that I had allowed to permeate my life. If you track my blog, you can see that I started writing more about equality, being in support of feminism, masculinity and various other gender-related topics around this time. These are anchored in real experiences, both mine and from friends who have had the courage to share.

I speak of these influences as if they’re unusual, but they’re not. I know many male friends who have gone through this development, in some form or another. Some are still stuck in the grey area and need a lot more work to knock out the toxicity. These influences appear in our televisions and books, in our family discussions and in the performativity of society. They’re everywhere, and many are also stuck in the grey areas. In fact, they’re not even grey, we only distinguish them as milder because they stop short of physical assault and rape, but they’re just as damaging in both men and women sense of selves. We require good role models and a cultural shift to rethink how males and females and the non-binary operate within our society. It is scary writing about this, especially in a blog where people from various backgrounds come to, but I think it’s important to know that my development has not been without its problems and I must learn to be responsible for them, and more critically, work to right the wrongs.

That’s the connection to our topic. Recognizing, firstly, the roles gender play in society and rethinking them to achieve a better society.

Here were our readings for the discussion:

  1. Exclusive: Here’s The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google
  2. Gender Bias in Science- Psychology Today
  3. Gender Bias in the News – The Atlantic
  4. Proskauer Gender Bias Suit – LegalWeek
  5. Study shows Gender Bias in Science is Real – The Scientific American
  6. Unconscious Gender Bias – The Huffington Post

As a simple metric, I also encourage everyone to take this test by Harvard’s Project Implicit that tells you where you stand on unconscious gender bias.

There were two main discussion themes: 1) Is Gender Bias rationalizable? 2) What can we do about unconscious Gender Bias?

Is Gender Bias Rationalizable?

As a thought exercise, the group felt that it was important to be unanimous in our justification that gender bias was not rationalizable. We knew that for the social justice mechanism to work, it must be able to stand the biggest argument from critics: that men and women are inherently different and are suited to various capabilities. This is the primary argument pushed by the Google Software Engineer in Reading #1, and one that I’ve heard many times. The common tropes are that women are ‘more empathetic’ and are suited for ‘feeling-jobs’ while men are suited for ‘analytical-jobs’. It’s just coincidental that these ‘analytical-jobs’ are also better paying and more closed off to women regardless.

Here, I take a side-step to criticize science.

Hey Science. I think you’ve been pretty cool for the most part. I’m an engineer by training, and so I’ve always depended on you. But your openness and unabashed love for exploration also can be problematic sometimes, especially when you present views that aren’t properly reviewed or justified. The media sensationalizes your bad findings to make them seem groundbreaking, when in fact, it’s just poor research. How can we trust you if we’re not academics but still want to believe in rationalized truth?

Yes, a lot of the science cited by these ‘controversial’ articles is incomplete and equally refuted by other scientists. More importantly, it’s important to note that many of these anatomical differences rarely can be mapped to function. A women’s inclination to be more empathetic should not be sufficient rationale for her inability to get an analytical job she deserves. Someone’s anatomical and biological functionality is different from functionality that is tied to skill and ability. Only women can give birth but both men and women can (and have) made discoveries in new fields.

The same rationalization is important to be taken the other way. As the rhetoric goes, equality is both a men and women issue. We talked about how men are less likely to get jobs in childcare simply because women are seen as better caretakers and men are seen as sexually aggressive. This is where it gets tough. We have seen systemically how men have been enabled to take advantage of women if they so please. It doesn’t surprise me then that a lot of parents aren’t keen to let men be their babysitters, but it’s a question worth exploring. The ideal is men can be allowed societally to take on roles that are traditionally seen as ‘less masculine’ if they are roles that the men find purpose and fulfillment from. How then can you convince parents to allow men to be their babysitters or work in their childcare centers if the statistics show men in high numbers accused of sexual assault? I would argue that the sexual aggression of a man is more of a societal/cultural trait rather than a biological trait, and there are questions that can elucidate if the applicant is truly fit for the job and not problematic. It again distinguishes the individual from the stereotype, which is how it ought to be for every job.

What can we do about unconscious Gender Bias?

Everyone in the group agreed that we don’t agree with Gender Bias in society. It took us some maturity to recognize that we still unconsciously bias ourselves when we encounter gender, even with females on other females. When someone tells us about a doctor they talked to, we imagine a male instead of a female. When someone tells us about a secretary they had issues with, we immediately think of a female instead of a male. We’ve engendered roles to the point where we struggle to imagine a society where men and women both have a fair shot at each job.

This explains the pay gap, the glass ceiling and various other gender-based phenomena in society. This is extremely tough because a lot of these thinkings permeate our lives through popular culture, religion, and conversations with our friends and family. How do you fight the subconscious?

I think the first step is to simply accept that gender, just like race, SES and other identity factors, play a role in our society and our workplace. That starting point allows us to see that we can do more to enable equality of access, ascension, and adoption for women in any industry and field.  Women-centric spaces can be created, not to alienate men, but provide women who are already underprivileged in terms of resources, the ability to compete equally with men. Open conversation in pay and position negotiations allow superiors to realize that such conversations have different implications for men and women based on their unconscious bias. Enabling women to play an influential role in decisions, simply by not mansplaining or blocking them, provides the maximum utility both for the individual and the firm.

The full participation of women in the workforce is good for everyone. The only people that are negatively affected are the men at the top who don’t want to lose their jobs. But as a consumer, we should be excited that fair competition for roles allows the best person for the job. We need to reframe our thinking and work from the point of view that recognizes gender bias as an unfortunate part of our lives.

____

There’s a lot more that was discussed and more nuances to unpack but these two themes summarize the major themes pretty well. As we can see, it’s a topic that has been addressed for a long time and the fight is far from over. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about all of this is that we discuss these topics so thematically that we forget that we’re ultimately talking about real people. These are peoples with feelings and aspirations, and yet we distill them to concepts that allow us to be abstract in our engagement.

It’s important that we keep talking, and more important that we keep doing. The good fight must have its champions.

rovik. reads: ways of seeing

The book club met again and this time we chose to discuss the book Ways of Seeing by John Berger. This was a really interesting book for me, primarily because it was the first time I was intellectually exploring art beyond the spontaneous discussions I would have in museums. In fact, critical appreciation of art was not something I was exposed to, either in my family or school. It was my travels and own innate curiosity that drove me to develop an appreciation for the visual arts, and I’ve found a place for it in my life. John Berger’s book came at a good time then, because as I was traveling through parts of Europe and visiting some of the world’s most spectacular museums, I realized there had to be more than what just met my eye. What started out as just aesthetic appreciation was now enthralled in the drama of politics, sexism and pop culture.

The discussion was thankfully led by a member of our club who is an art history major so he provided tons of context and challenges to the text. Ways of Seeing exists also as a TV show that you can find here, and with the year it was released, one can infer some political leanings to the material. Berger was a prominent Marxist, who in his critique of art, was making a stand to the bourgeois culture and society.  While he was brilliant in identifying themes and patterns in the art of the Renaissance movement and comparing them to recent (then) trends, he also was pushing an agenda that in itself needs to be examined.

Berger explores three key themes in the book. The first is the notion of context and how the meaning of a painting (or the way we see it) is a function of our own mindsets and the environments in which we consume them. Paintings were made with the notion of a location in the past. For example, a church would commission an art piece to be put above an altar and so the eyes of the subject would glance towards a physical statue of Jesus known to be placed there. Take the painting out of the church, and now the direction of the eye stare can suggest something else altogether. The reproducibility and mobility of art played a huge role in the new modes of perception presented in Cubism to Impressionism and suggests why we have inherited such a diverse range of interpretations for Renaissance art. With film and photography, the art piece itself is now simply an object rather than a portal into a singular moment in time.  The value of art is now less a function of its purpose and is more a function of its uniqueness.

 

susannah
Susanna at her bath – Tintoretto

 

The second theme and perhaps the most impactful is the notion of the female self and nudity. Berger makes a strong claim that while in most Renaissance art, men were portrayed in terms of the power they held, women on the other hand were presented as how they wanted to be observed. The language still escapes me so I’m going to quote another critique I found online:

On the other hand, Berger says, a woman’s presence is always related to itself, not the world, and she does not represent potential but rather only her herself, and what can or cannot be done to her, never by her. The sources of this identity are for Berger the age old notion that the woman was destined to take care of the man. He argues that as a result the woman is always self-conscious, always aware of her own presence in every action she performs. The woman constantly imagines and surveys herself and by this her identity is split between that of the surveyor and that of the one being surveyed – the two rules that she has in relation to herself. For this reason, Berger notes, her self value is measured through the manner in which she is portrayed, in her own eyes, in others’ eyes and in men’s eyes.

This was a very revealing explanation as I started to notice the prevalence of women starting at either the viewer or a reflection of themselves in a lot of classical paintings, as in the painting of Susanna at her bath above. He goes on to explain that classical art also pushed the idea of nudity beyond just nakedness. Nudity encouraged an appreciation of the naked form, designed to be visually appreciated and indulged in. Berger states that while in other forms of art around the world, mutual attraction is present between the male and female form, in classical European art, it is mainly the female nude form that is adored and stared at.

The implications of these are incredible because they prove that objectification of the female form has been codified in our history and subliminally always been part of our consciousness. There is some valid pushback – that the male form also has its share of nudity and that men too are victims of objectification – but it’s easy to see that from the various (actually, numerous) pieces of art that womanhood has been given a worse serving of this artistic phenomena. Many claim this to be one of Berger’s biggest contribution to the feminist moment in realizing how much we have been indoctrinated.

Berger’s final point combines elements from the first two in stating how art now is a tool to indoctrinate desired traits and realities. With the advent of oil painting, art took on a role of providing luxurious and indulgent depictions of reality, causing owners to see art as a way of improving their social worth. He goes on a bit of a rant here, describing more on how this ultimately benefits the wealthy class and planted the seeds of capitalism (the industry of desire), before finally tying it to the culture of advertising we see these days. Art and advertising are intertwined intimately, in their shared intention to create prestige and project new realities. Ultimately, art has moved from depicting real objects and people in a context-laden environment to being context-flexible material designed to be stared at, indulged and used as a tool for material wealth.

The level of generalization in Berger’s work is stark and anyone who has visited a sufficient number of art museums will be able to point to a piece of art to contest any claim Berger makes. But I think that improves the importance of this book – it’s another tool in your toolbox to understand the world and the cultures we inevitably are a part of. It cannot answer all questions but it can answer some, and that’s more than we can ask for sometimes. The reading level hops between being easy and jargony and the context is old so there is some active understanding required. However, it is a short book and can be read in one day. Here are my ratings:

Readability: 3/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 4/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – Only if you’ve developed some basic understanding of art and an appreciation of their contexts.