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.

Advertisements

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.

september updates.

There’s a lot of posts I have pending, both on this blog and on my travel blog, but I thought I’d give myself the freedom to pen down some intermediary thoughts here. There is some sobriety in this post, something my regular readers would know indicates a significant event or realization has occurred causing me to pause and steady myself again. But I promise there is also my usual bravados and naive optimism, so trust that I am alright.

It’s become something of a regular cycle. You’ll see 2 months of me living an extremely surreal life and then you’ll see one of these posts – talking about the need to slow down or be accepting of painful moments in life. It’s a pattern but I’ve caught myself this time. I realize it’s in tune with my lifestyle. I live passionately. I get bored by routine and let my curiosity run amok. It’s why I make a good traveler, engineer, and entrepreneur. But in my desire to feed my curiosity and need for change, I also put myself in harm. Recently, I spent 4 weeks in Berlin, accelerating my German proficiency and trying to understand the German culture and climate. I have a vested interest in the country – I think it’s in for a big role in the future and I want to have a front seat at its success, both as an individual and as an ambassador for Singapore. I then spent two weeks traveling between 9 different cities in 4 different countries. I’m used to this – chain traveling is something I’ve done for 4 years now, but this time I suspect my age caught up to me.

Physically, I can see my body needing more care. I’m still fit and alive – I can definitely go back to service in the military and get around easily – but I think I need to realize my actions have different results. I actually care about sleep and comfort. More importantly, I’ve seen my mental health needing more care. With the exhaustion of traveling and preparing for my Masters combined with my growing sense of loneliness from being away from so many loved ones, I hit a bottom I never knew existed till recently.

I’m not a lonely guy by the contemporary definition of the term. I have tons of friends around the world and more importantly, I am well connected to them. But it is perhaps this that causes my loneliness. When I move around, I realize that while I can always call or video chat with them, I am ultimately physically alone. It is my choice, no doubt. I choose to travel and I choose to leave one location for the next. My desire for regular change is at odds with my desire to be deeply connected with the ones I care about. Physicality is a component of that connection and over time, the lack of it has an effect.

When I was younger, it was easy to get around this problem. I would meet people on my travels and I could develop snap relationships that were intimate and adventurous. I could survive with the short-term nature of it all. I wouldn’t it call it a maturation process to want more long-term connections, but I definitely found myself cherishing those more. I could probably dig out the specific reasons for this by looking through my older blog posts but in short, I’ve chosen to make bigger bets for bigger rewards and small rewards don’t matter anymore.

I’ve also realized that as a storyteller, I have an incredible strength in crafting visions. I can promise possibilities and I live in the future more than I do the present. Yet, when the same exhaustion and loneliness hits, and a striking event occurs, I am forced to confront the sobriety of my reality and the sadness is painful. I am not depressed, far from it. But I am disappointed.  I sometimes make rash decisions as a result of this, such as just wanting to leave a location, and I end up even more disappointed in myself.

Thankfully, the same friends who I’ve built such deep connections to, from around the world, have been there for me these past two months. These two months, that on all my socials seem like some of the best days of my life (and they honestly, truly land amongst them), were not absent of their struggles. These friends reminded me that I wasn’t lonely, that I wasn’t in my own reality. My family, no doubt, continued to be unconditionally supportive and loving of me. I felt like I was starting to comprehend the mind of an explorer more honestly and completely.

One of my friends asked me the question that mattered – “What are you focusing on this year?”  That’s when I knew why I had lost my way a bit. I had adopted the persona of the wanderer so intimately that I had forgotten one of my key strengths was my ability to commit to a cause undoubtedly. Without a vision, I was without foundation. The wanderer in me must accommodate the seeker. My one year in London is full of promise and opportunity and I cannot let it go easily. I must be both spontaneous and prepared, calm and excitable, the perfect harmony of ironies.

I’m still writing these down and I may have a better update in October (It’s not that far away) – but I think I have gotten myself on the right foot again. Once again, I’m reminded of how blessed I am to have my friends and family from around the world.

Look out for more reflection posts on content I’ve been consuming – there’s a lot of striking conversations I’ve been a part of that I think will continue to tickle your minds. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments and chatting with you based on your thoughts of my posts and I am motivated to continue writing.

till next time,

rovik. and friends discuss: secularism in politics

The discussion group met up again for a new topic and this time we chose to dialogue about our first sticky theme: religion and politics. If you read the post linked above, you’ll remember that we formed this group to form a safe space for difficult conversations between people of different opinions, and trust was a big part of this conversation – trust that no one in this group was out to invalidate the beliefs or experiences of others. In the same way, this post is going to explore a couple of positions on the topic, and just as our group could not come to a final conclusion, so too will this post lack any form of finality. Additionally, I had the incidental advantage of a long delay between our conversation and this post, allowing the points to sink in a bit more and for me to bring new thoughts to conversations I have with others and refine them. I will reflect that too here. Finally, I will talk about ‘church’ and state, as it is used in popular terminology, but I refer to any religious body by this and not just the church of the Christian faith.

Before we proceed, I will, as previously done, drop the resources we used as preliminary readings here:

  1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Explanation
  2. Political Secularism: Why It Is Needed and Why We
    Need to Learn from Its Distinctive Indian Version – Bhargava
  3. An Atheist in the White House – HBR

The first discussion point that was explored was the history of the philosophy of secularism. According to Bhargava’s paper (linked above), there are multiple types of dynamics that can exist between religion and state, from a religion-led state (similar to Iran’s) all the way to a state that completely devows religion as a function of government and vice versa (similar to France’s Laïcité philosophy). Naturally, a lot of countries lie somewhere on the spectrum, choosing to support religions and their place in society without giving them a significant role in influencing politics.

The role of religion in politics is easily reconciled in cases of appointments and finances – the state can live without the church and the church can live without the state in these regards. The President and Pope can afford to be different people. But reconciliation is almost always impossible in topics of policy. Religion intuitively prescribes a way of life. Policy is supposed to uphold a manner of living. These two forces are so intertwined that the attempted separation of them causes tension. Yet, by the influence of religion on the way of lives of the general population, you inevitably prescribe onto the portion of the population with no religions as well. Anecdotally, I’ve heard many religious folks complain about how politics needs to be aligned with God’s will and policies that seem to oppose the religious laws are sacrilegious. But the contrapositive is seldom acknowledged amongst them – laws that are created solely for religious purposes only favor one group. Yes, it is prescriptive, one could argue. The law is the best for the morality of humanity. But no one group should have a say in that matter. In fact, in the Encyclopedia article (linked above), we see how Rawls argues that no policy should be accepted purely on its religious merit – it needs to stand the test of public debate.

Of course, we also have to consider the inevitability of religion in politics. Religion, with its well-known benefits of charitable service and social cohesion, ultimately becomes the moral compass of those who subscribe to it. Asking someone to keep their faith private and as Richard Rorty states, at ‘an ironic distance’, is nearly impossible. One’s morals are built on their religious beliefs and so asking for input on social policy with moralistic elements will draw out religious foundations easily. How can the secular person ask the religious person to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ – such things are fallacious in moral arguments. A ‘secular’ person believes in his or her own framework and while not worshipping a supernatural being, is still also prescribing a way of life for the general population. The religious person ought to have their right to practice their faith and to see the world as they want it. Repression of their voices only causes more isolation and can build into radicalism. The state must partner with the church to show that it recognizes their place in society.

These opposing forces explain how and why current states exist in the manner that they do. Some states give in to one side more than the other, ultimately for the reasons above, and some states do a better job of balancing the sides. What does an ideal state look like though? What would it take to achieve proper secularism that respects both religious and non-religious folk as well as provides confidence in ‘neutral decisions’.

The Encyclopedia goes on to explain how neutrality can be presented as achieved:

 In one sense, neutrality can be understood in terms of a procedure that is justified without appeal to any conception of the human good. In this sense, it is wrong for the state to intend to disadvantage one group of citizens, at least for its own sake and with respect to practices that are not otherwise unjust or politically undesirable. Thus it would be a violation of neutrality in this sense (and therefore wrong) for the state simply to outlaw the worship of Allah. Alternatively, neutrality can be understood in terms of effect. The state abides by this sense of neutrality by not taking actions whose consequences are such that some individuals or groups in society are disadvantaged in their pursuit of the good. For a state committed to neutrality thus understood, even if it were not explicitly intending to disadvantage a particular group, any such disadvantage that may result is a prima facie reason to revoke the policy that causes it.

Additionally, there needs to be more acknowledgment in inter-faith dialogues and religious conversations, that non-religious ideas are also part of the cooperative framework.

Simply put, there needs to be sufficient debate on various grounds before a morally weighted policy can be passed. No policy should have a unilateral religious foundation, both for the purposes of having a robustly thought through policy and also to ensure that multiple parties are satisfied with the provision of effort. Policies such as legal rights for LGBTQ persons or abortion rights cannot and should not be held hostage by religious beliefs. Conversely, the government should limit its influence in religious practices (see: France’s Burqa law).

It’s interesting to note that a lot of religious organizations have realized this and have taken more public-friendly personas to push their causes (see: Family First-esque organizations). These provide the impression of robust ‘neutral’ debate that the public can stomach better. In my view, that’s acceptable, because the religious organization has taken a more ‘neutral’ stance on the issue and is coming to the debate on everyone’s terms rather than purely their own. However, it also can come off as sneaky or duplicitous, especially if the public prioritizes the appearance of an unbiased decision. The complexity just increases.

So there we have it, an incredibly complex phenomenon slightly simplified. There’s a lot more philosophy and theory that we covered and you can see the references from the links I posted. If you have even more interesting thoughts or ideas, I’d love to hear them. As mentioned, religion and politics to me are in flux, both at a personal and institutional level and we definitely don’t have a comprehensive scope on things. All we can do is try to crystallize the essence of the tension.

Look out for more posts soon!

rovik. reads: hillbilly elegy

I was looking for something different to read from the philosophy-heavy material I had been consuming recently and I chanced upon J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy on a couple of recommended reading lists. The memoir of someone who had grown up in ‘working class White America’ appealed to me as a different narrative from what I was bombarded by in college. After all, I was told to be able to hear someone’s narrative and respect that their experience plays a big role in how they interact with the world. I hadn’t heard too many stories from this part of the US and was curious to what I was potentially going to learn.

Vance starts by qualifying his life a bit, stating that while he truly did grow up in the Appalachian Region (a region I never knew was socio-politically significant as a non-American), he at times has to claim the exception rather than the rule. He did manage to get into Yale Law School and he did sign up to go into the military and those are not things everyone in working class White America does. He also claims that while his story will ultimately deal with class more than anything else, the effects of race are more nuanced than explicit. “There is an ethnic component lurking in the background…sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details…I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northwest. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent” he states, distinguishing that even within whiteness we cannot claim a monolith. These are interesting qualifications because they suggest that the story about to be told has to be read more critically than originally intended. This isn’t just a story of someone’s life – this is an opportunity to piece together some vital clues on why a region has developed to where it is and how one can find his way out of it.

Another useful note about the book is that while it wasn’t written to explain Trump’s election (it was published June last year), it quickly became a tool to understand why the nation voted the way it did. Why did so many states where significant populations of white blue-collar workers exist, vote red instead of blue like some used to? Why did Michigan and Wisconsin turn its back on the Democratic party? It’s difficult to claim some of Vance’s points as foundational reasons because he doesn’t directly draw those connections. He may now act as a pundit on blue-collar white America, but his story has become more of a tool to explain away the 2016 election than anything else. “Here lies the reason!” I can imagine someone claim as they insist the book join the reading list of hundreds of school in the nation. These drive even wider implications into how we read this book. This isn’t supposed to be the bible on the Appalachian region, but it suddenly has become exactly that. There are few if any narratives on life in the area. Off the top of my head, I immediately think about To Kill a Mockingbird and tales of Tom Sawyer, and I’m not even sure if they’re based on the same region. Those are outdated and not immediately relevant to understanding the current profiles of people. One could argue that White people have enough coverage as it is – that minorities require more focus than anything else – but I can only speak to the fact that learning about this part of the US was something I was never given the opportunity to do while in college and in the US.

There are two main things I want to talk about in this review. One in favor of the book and one not so.

Vance makes a number of important claims in his book. He summarizes them well in the beginning, draws example as he goes through his life semi-chronologically (sometimes bouncing into the future and then quickly back), and then drives his point back home. One of his biggest points is the importance of loved ones in your life. This is something I definitely take for granted. I have a family who loves me and is there to show me they love me. I have the privilege of being miles away from home but have parents who will top up my mobile data for me if I’m stuck in the rural mountains just so that they can call me. This is something that I can never appreciate enough but also something that is difficult for people in broken families to empathize with. Vance draws a comparison to black families that are frequently shown to suffer from absent father figures because of crime and drugs. White hillbilly families have similar situations, he claims. Drugs, domestic abuse, and dissatisfaction are frequent themes that appear in multiple forms. These are issues that are innately tied to class. As the main institutions of support – large corporations that required labor and provided good insurance and family support – left these areas, government was expected to fill in the gap and as it regularly has done with the poor, it performed poorly. Vance shows that at the end of the day, the only reason why he was able to escape it all was because of the love and consistent presence of his grandmother (who he affectionately calls Mamaw) and some of his other family members. It was only because there was someone who chose Vance’s future over their own ‘present’, that Vance survived the multiple traumatic experiences he had as a child growing up. These experiences are not just his own, he continues to claim. Multiple other ‘hillbillies’ have reported to him strong feelings of empathy with his experience and learnings.  It becomes even more painful then to learn that the foster care system doesn’t easily permit extended family members from taking over the role of foster parents when actual parents fail. It seems like children raised in the region are set up for failure if they’re not born into the right family.

Which brings me to my major contention. Vance sets all of this up but then displays his own ability to overcome, once again claiming that it was his Mamaw and his aunt and his one dad who brought him to church amongst others who gave him the support he needed to believe in himself. He makes important points on mental health amongst the Appalachian community, talking about how anger is not handled well amongst them. He even talks about how he overcame the rhetoric back home that he couldn’t achieve more with himself. He shows us how he succeeded but then goes back and makes a disturbing claim. This isn’t everyone else. Regular people in blue-collar white America don’t want to work for their pay, they feel entitled to a basic pay. The Appalachian folk hate the Democrats because they give help to those who don’t work, so they feel like they shouldn’t work hard too. Vance quickly paints a picture of the present that dissonates with the picture of himself, one that rubs a lot of readers the wrong way. I personally can understand what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to explain a phenomenon. He’s trying to speak from what he’s seen or heard to justify what is actually happening in his community. But that’s where the book ultimately fails. Hillbilly Elegy is not written by a sociologist or a someone aiming to provide a theorized understanding of what’s happening in America. It’s written by someone trying to tell his story, and I’m glad that he did. But when you use that story as an authoritative piece on what the region looks like, you see a failure that has repeated itself through the history of identity politics. Your experience, while frequently can connect you to others’ experiences, can rarely be sufficient to justify policy or thought change. It’s the dialoguing through the experience and the ability to elucidate clear themes that can be patterned out systemically from other experiences that make identity stories actually useful in addressing real human lives.

We need to hear more stories from people like Vance, and in fact, people not like Vance. What’s the story of Vance’s mom’s nurse colleague, or his beloved uncle? Politics is like popular culture now and while we all want to seem educated, few want to pick up an academic paper. Stories like Vance’s act as proxies to this convoluted and messy world. In its novelty, the book has become both a powerful tool but also a dangerous force. The ability to be critical is important in this regard.

I took 3 weeks to read it, but I was reading very leisurely (one chapter a couple of days) as I was reading while traveling. Here are my ratings for it:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 3/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – Yes

storytime: one

storytime posts are posts that allow me to participate in one of my favorite hobbies – storytelling. They’re for you to enjoy as much as they are for me to engage my creativity. Look out for more of these short stories.

_______

“Are you sure this is the spot? I’m not the kind to complain but I may have overestimated how far I can walk with this foot”

“We’re almost there, I promise. Jake has always been accurate with his directions and I trust him on this. Remember the photo he showed us, that view is going to make all of this worth it”

The pair paused for a break. The Man turned around towards the Woman, leaned in and kissed her.

“I’m sorry about your foot. If you really want to stop here, we can always catch the sunrise instead.” the Man said.

“I’d much rather camp on a cliff today. We’ve already spent two nights in the forest. Don’t worry about it, I know when my foot is going to give and it’s not now.” the Woman replied, smiling.

“You better feel lucky you found me, I’m probably the only one that can stand spending this long with you and still beat your ass to this cliff” she added as she walked past the Man and onwards.

The Man laughed and followed behind her.

“I am a lucky man. This trip has me feeling even luckier” he shouted ahead.

“Shut up and try to catch up!” the Woman said, this time she too joining in the laughter.

___

It was 30 minutes before sunset as the pair finally broke out of the forest. The Woman was the first one onto the cliff.

“Wow” she said, staring out onto the view.

“Are we there…” the Man started before he too broke out of the forest and was stopped in his tracks.

The pair held each other’s hands as they joined the silence of the surroundings. It was a scene out of a storybook. Mountains towered above them and the forest enveloped the base. The rocks jagged upwards from the cliff, and the fresh moss on them added to the musty sensation.  The sun was about to set on the horizon and the beautiful orange mixed well with the green and silver.

“Jake said that just as the sun was about to set, he saw a flock of birds fly out of the canopy. I don’t think we’ll be that lucky, but let’s hope” the Man said, moving forward.

“This is more than enough. I can’t believe no one else is here” the Woman said.

Someone else IS here, a voice sounded.

Both the Man and the Woman quickly turned to their right. From around one of the jagged rocks walked out a strange man, brown-skinned with short hair and a deep voice.

“Such beauty is hard to hide from the world, but I’m glad it’s a reward only to those who truly make their way up here” the Wanderer spoke.

The Man and Woman looked quizzically at each other.

“You’re here for the view too?” the Woman asked the new stranger.

“You could say that. I’ve been here for a while,” the Wanderer replied.

“You mean, you live here?” the Man chirped in this time.

“No, no. How could I? No, I’m only here for a while. I wander around. This is just where I am now. And it so happens, so it is for you too”

The Man stepped forward and extended his hand.  “Well, in that case, my name is…”

“That’s not necessary, I’m not likely to remember it. But I will shake your hands, fellow wanderers” the Wanderer interrupted and shook both their hands. “Also, the sun is about to set. The best spot is right about 4 feet from the edge of the cliff there. It really is spectacular.”

The Woman and the Man went ahead and sat near the edge of the cliff.

“That’s a strange man.” the Man started.

“Shhhh. Let’s focus on this sunset. Look, you can hear the birds. They’re starting to come out of the canopy” the Woman pointed out.

As the orange sun melted into the forest, a large flock of birds flew out into the sky, screeching as they occupied the real estate amongst the clouds.

“Jake was right. His photo did not do any justice to this moment” the Man said.

“Yea, this was amazing,” the Woman said as she leaned onto the Man’s shoulder. “I’m not sure if it’s a sin that we’re not taking a picture ourselves”

“It’ll be fine. I don’t think this memory is going to leave me. Especially with you here”

The Woman sat up and looked at the Man. “Look at you being all smooth and stuff” she said cheekily. They leaned in and started kissing.

The Man stopped and held the Woman’s hand. “The Stranger could be watching us. Are you sure you trust him?”

“I want to say yes. Why don’t we talk to him? We have to cook our dinner anyway, we can invite him to share food with us. He might not kill us then” the Woman said, smiling.

The Man hesitated before finally nodding in agreement.

The Woman walked up to the Wanderer and waved her hand to catch his attention.

“That was special, wasn’t it?” the Wanderer shouted.

“Yes, yes it was. Thanks for the tip” the Woman replied, reaching closer to him. “We were about to cook our dinner and we wanted to know if you’d want to join us”

The Wanderer gave a chortle before replying, “I was about to ask you the same. I’ve already prepared a fire here. Feel free to use it to cook whatever you want.”

The Woman started laughing. “We were scared you were going to kill us but honestly, I don’t even know why we thought that”

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t know how to kill you even if I wanted to.” the Wanderer said, joining in the laughter. “Come, I need to add more wood to the fire. Why don’t you and your partner help me?”

___

Dinner had been amazing. The Wanderer had collected a bunch of herbs from around the cliff and added them to their canned beef. The fragrance was already enticing but the taste made the pair forget that they were even far from civilization. They were now just sitting around the fire, sharing stories.

“So, what’s your story stranger?” the Man asked the Wanderer.

“It’s a long one. And contrary to what you might think, we don’t have enough time for it” the Wanderer replied, standing up to add wood to the fire. “If there is one thing to know though, it’s that I’ve been moving around for the past six years.”

“You’ve been traveling for six years?” the Woman asked, astonished.

“Not traveling. I’m not staying in hostels and eating good food. I think the term is closer to ‘wandering’ ”

“So you just left everything behind and became a nomad?” the Man replied, a hint of judgment seeping through.

The Wanderer walked towards the fire, added the wood to it and sat across the pair. “Let me show you something.” He took out some powder from his right pocket and sprinkled it into the fire. The orange flames turned purple, becoming more violent all of a sudden. They danced, moving from left to right before turning back to orange again.

“I don’t really know what the plant is called, but I burnt it accidentally while adding it to my food.  It was truly wonderful – not only the sight, but the feeling of discovery. I had chanced upon something beautiful here. Perhaps science has an answer to what and how this happens. But I didn’t really care – all I loved was that I had found this myself.” the Wanderer remarked before leaning back.

“I used to have a life in the city.  I used to work and it was a good life. I was paid well and I was able to travel decently enough… but I knew that this wasn’t my story,” he continued, “You know what’s the scariest thing in the world?”

“Death” the Man quickly replied.

“I used to think the same. But immortality is scarier, isn’t it? If we were to be able to live forever, what would we do? We’d never retire – there’d always be some way to make use of our lives to churn out capital. No, I realized at some point that the scariest thing in the world was beyond death, it was a life that was not my own.” the Wanderer replied, staring deep into the fire.

“So you left to travel the world?” the Woman asked.

“Not really. There were small steps. I disappeared first for 3 months before coming back to work. My boss was livid but he gave me back my job because I was good at what I did. My family was even more angry and I promised them I wouldn’t leave them in the dark again. I can’t afford to see my mom and dad in pain that way.”

“So when did three months become six years?” the Man interrupted.

“It just did. I disappeared again after another work trip, this time in Xi’an. And then I went north towards Mongolia. Next thing I know one week had become one month and then one year, and soon enough I was no longer used to one place for too long. But I wrote letters to my family and my friends. I didn’t want them to find me but I wanted them to know I was alive. The world must be a stranger place for them than it is for me because of that.”

There was silence now. The Man and Woman stared into the fire the same way the Wanderer was too. His stories seemed to dance along with the flames and now the silence was deafening.

“It’s late. Why don’t you guys call it a night? Not many animals come out here but I don’t sleep this early anyway. We’ll talk more in the morning” the Wanderer broke the silence.

The Man and Woman nodded in agreement and made their way towards their sleeping bags.

“That was a weird man, but he’s definitely not dangerous.” the Woman said to the Man.

“No, definitely not. But I’m also not sure if he’s even lonely. He seems like he’s found the life he wanted” the Man replied.

The Woman smiled at the Man and held his hand. It was time to sleep.

___

The next morning, the warm rays of the sun woke up the pair. The Man was the first to be up, and got out of his sleeping bag, stretching his arms. The campfire was dead and the Wanderer was nowhere to be seen. All that was left was an envelope and a note on top of it.

“Help me mail this to my folks, please. The wandering continues, for me and for you.”

The Woman also woke up and shouted across to the Man, “Is everything okay? The man didn’t do anything to us, did he?”

“Not quite. Nothing’s wrong, but wherever he is now, he’s definitely left a bit of himself behind,” the Man said. “I don’t think we’ll travel the same after this”

___

fin.

 

rovik. reads: the second machine age

Part of my preparation for my Master’s program in LSE includes going through a reading list. The Second Machine Age was one of the books on the list and it spoke to me because after reading Sapiens, I had developed a new curiosity in evolutionary theories. As a self-declared technologist, this book seemed like a good way to carry on the research into how our world is evolving in tandem with the growth in technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee are MIT professors who have separately published books and studies on technological development and their effects on societies. Coming together to produce this book consolidates some solid insights into how technology is rampantly transforming our world and what we ought to be thinking about moving forward.

As a quick summary, the authors claim three main factors as the drivers of technological growth and advancement in the past few years. The first is the increase in cheap hardware – something we’re familiar with through Moore’s law and the miniaturization of products. The second is the digitization of a vast number of resources and processes – making it much easier to think of anything as manipulatable by a computer program. The last is recombinant innovation – the ability to remix, recreate and to iterate through infinite possibilities, of which each promises to possibly change the way we interact with the world altogether. Think about Instagram, for example. Instagram took advantage of the mobile smart-phone (cheap hardware) to digitize the process of taking photos. While there were already photo publishing apps online (such as Flickr), Instagram is now the leading photo sharing app simply because it made a seamless mobile app that was socially integrated.

The consequences of these trends are what I find especially interesting in this book. The authors claim that because of the internet, markets these days belong to superstars who create a product that is only marginally better than the next best product. Why would anyone choose a second best product when resources are abundant in the digital sphere and one provider can supply an infinite number of clients/customers. While the first machine age, known popularly as the Industrial Revolution, allowed anyone who took advantage of productivity tools to gain an increase in their market access, the current machine age is not as simple. It’s a winner-takes-all market these days and with the transference of capital to owners of digital products, the aggravation of an increasing poor-rich divide is even more prevalent.

The worst note about this future that is painted is how far behind people are economically if they don’t even have a habit of trying to catch up with technological trends. Because of the nature of exponential growth in the sector, by the time skills are learned to manage the current state of technological needs, the next innovation is introduced and a whole new set of advanced skills are in demand. For example, right now there is a burgeoning demand for data scientists who actually are able to engage with complex and large forms of data and make clarity out of it. Data scientists are not only lacking, but those who exist don’t have the courage to make sense of data beyond standard statistical tools. Schools these days are offering courses in data science and handling, but technology firms that have a solid data science team are already moving on their next challenge. There’s really no promising what is or isn’t possible with technologies these days, simply because of the nature of exponential growth.

The authors do provide a lot of suggestions for solutions, from a range of levels. The most interesting was to teach everyone to start working alongside with robots and technologies rather than necessarily compete with them. It seems like an easy enough recommendation, but I truly believe we need a paradigm shift amongst the entire workforce from the moment they start education to see computation as a skill just as essential as mathematics or language appreciation. By learning to understand how to embrace technology and how to work together with trends rather than compete with them, the labor force is much better prepared for an economy that is changing at a much faster rate than ever before.

The book does lack some focus on how to push some of its policy recommendations past their current constraints. Most policy recommendations aren’t new and in fact, I skimmed through most of these, looking for only those that seemed novel, which were few. What would have been useful is a more honest discussion of why some of these policy ideas are stuck with lawmakers and not moving towards becoming fully implemented.

At the end of the day, Brynjolfsson and McAfee have taken a number of known and established ideas and put them together in a cohesive and readable manner, drawing connections that elucidate larger trends and patterns in our economy and society. In that way, this book is an important reading for any technologist wanting to understand what’s happening around them and how to ride the wave moving forward. It took me two weeks to finish reading this book and it’s easily readable in a shorter time if you want to give it the effort. Here are my ratings for it:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 3.5/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – Yes