Tyler Cowen has a point when he proclaims that 'innovation is over' and that we live in an age of 'copy and catch up'. Indeed, one can take issues with this and show that 'innovation', as it is meant, is not about big ideas but more about finding better ways of doing things and making lives better. But that would be missing the real point: That despite all our claims of breakthrough progress, we are often mere tinkerers, satisfying ourselves being recipients of lost property and creating the illusions of progress. Rather provocatively, Dr Cowen takes the point further that claims that middle class life has got worse, despite the zillions of apps, smartphones and ubiquitous Internet, with failing education, uncertain jobs, fragile health and worsening security, and only more and more debt kept us afloat. He is somewhat dismissive about all the emergence of the emerging economies, which are playing the 'copy and catch up' game, he says, merely throwing their cheap labour at yesterday's problems.
Even the optimists who scoff at our habit to conjure up bleak futures usually base their arguments on our collective ability to come up with ideas and solve problems, but this is exactly where this hits home. My favourite example is the 1898 International Conference in New York for Urban Planning, which deliberated seriously on the terrible pollution problem of the cities due to transport - it was horse manure then - and failed to come up with a solution; the solution appeared within a few years in the form of electric cars and automobile and the problem completely vanished. What Dr Cowen is saying, though, is that there are no big ideas like automobiles (in this case) in sight right now, and while we may be being good at making improvements, we may be failing behind in creating breakthroughs.
There may not be anything to worry about, because big ideas happen over a large period of time, while looking back at them, we take a compressed view of history and they appear entirely magical. We may complain that we don't have a Socrates, or a Jesus, or a Budhdha, among us, but then we only have one each of those great thinkers in the thousands of years of human history. So the lack of breakthrough progress does not automatically mean that we are not going anywhere, but this may just be one of those gap-years in history, entirely trivial periods of time given the span of time, and this may be all leading to another great flowering of human ideas.
However, this view, that we are in a gestation and great ideas will again appear, is just as speculative as the assertion that we are in a great decline; this makes it a pointless debate. It is better to engage in the debate exploring what, in our contemporary culture and the institutions we built, comes on the way of big ideas. Dr Cowen, provocative as usual, is really trying to draw attention to this point.
First, one may argue that there is a lack of ambition in popular imagination. The talk of changing the world has become cheap: These days, one talks about changing the world by making indecent photos self-destruct in a few seconds. The brightest individuals from finest colleges dream of making millions selling start-ups producing apps, or even worse, designing derivatives which no one can decipher, rather than spending their lives in seeking the cure for cancer. The Higher Education industry below the top-tier colleges churn out graduates in love with themselves and their degree certificates, but otherwise without a clue what to do in the world. Blame it on post-modernism if you will, but the ambition that one can do something significant is really gone.
Second, this may also be connected with the withdrawal of the state from various social functions, including education and research, and handing these over to private capital. With their typically short time span of expectations, this has resulted in the quest of tinkering and copy-and-catch-up culture that Dr Cowen bemoans. Add to this the disappearance of monopoly positions and the cut-throat world of public capital markets, and the nature of things that we could think up has changed. Google's 20% time is gone because it is not consistent with the culture of capital markets, not because it was not productive. Increasingly, the universities are trying to make them 'result orientated' without necessarily reconciling this with the idea of 'research'.
Third, the rhetoric in public life, the advent of the art of saying more than doing, undermine the big ideas: Leadership is now less about making a difference than making people feel that there is a difference. In this world of nudge and fudge, the big ideas are really at a disadvantage. Even if one may claim that there is greater public scrutiny now than ever before, the long tail world of the media puts cult practices ahead of hit shows, as the ownership gets increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, subject to the same dynamics of the public capital markets which prize returns overs revolutions.
So, in summary, the Copy-and-Catch-Up world is perhaps one unintended consequence of how we have structured our society: With the monochrome incentive of more money, we are increasingly focused on incremental tinkering rather than risky departures. With an education tailored to maintain social status quo, and with a polity that eschew any possibilities of change, our world is relegated to become a hyphenated period in human history, the invisible time between big ideas.
But standing still is also decline. The essential life force of all the progress we celebrate today came from the ordinary folks being able to challenge the orthodoxies of the establishment, rather than being suppressed by the establishment. That is indeed the lesson from the divergence of history of the East and the West, of Argentina from the United States. If we comply, we decline. But this age of copy-and-catch-up is an inexorable journey in the status quo, we go round and round, with the power elite accumulating wealth and even controlling our minds and our rhetoric, getting to the point of breakdown.
Globalisation also makes it worse. In fact, it suppresses rather than generates ideas. Emerging countries accept meekly that there is only one way to develop - the sequential path traversed by the rich nations of the West - and fashion their policies faithfully to commit to copy-and-catch-up. In India, all capital gets diverted to provide cheap backoffice services; in China, people focus on getting things made. Bangladesh revels on its garments economy, though this may lead to accentuating the rich and poor differences even further. Africa, late in the game, gratefully accepts the Chinese colonies, trying to kickstart a mining economy to the benefit of the Dictators' Swiss Bank accounts. And, students in the universities in these countries merely aspire to be the cannon fodder of this globalised economy, and would rather leave their creative selves at home because there is no money in creativity.
While Dr Cowen warns about the despondency of being average in these desperate times, this is what it is exactly about: Everyone, countries, societies, institutions, families are in a desperate run to become average. The escape, I shall argue, is defying this lure of the average and trying to reimagine the future. The route runs through education, indeed, and a new kind of imaginative action, based on cooperation and volunteerism. The age of average has not completely swamped the human spirit yet, and there remains the hope that the big ideas will come from undying idealism. In this, lies our great hope, and the end of the era that we got used to.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Religi
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen was gui
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic ( read here ). While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacu
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
As India's democracy reaches a critical juncture, with a very real danger of a authoritarian take-over, Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary is a perfect occasion to revisit the founding idea of India once again. There are many things in his politics that we may need to dust up and reconsider: Tagore's political ideas, because of his inherent aversion of popular nationalism and enthusiasm about Pan-Asianism and universalism, were outside the mainstream of the Indian National Movement, seen as impractical and effectively shunned. He was seen mostly as the Poet and the mystic, someone whose politics remains in the domain of the ideas rather than action. Tagore himself, after a brief passionate involvement in politics during the division of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, withdrew from political action: He never belonged to the political class, despite his iconic status and itinerant interventions, such as returning the Knighthood after the massacre of Amritsar in 1919.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.