Sunday, October 16, 2011

Stirring the melting pot

How well do you know your neighbour? There was a time when our neighbours were almost like extended family. We trusted them with our homes, our children and sometimes even with our money. Over the last decade, however, we seem to have lost touch somewhat, especially in the urban set up. Issues like privacy and choice of disclosure are important today and additionally, the hectic pace of urban life does not allow us the space to take the time out to even walk across to say hello. Nonetheless, the need for us to interact with those who live around us has never been more acute, especially in today's globalized, multicultural and multiracial world. Much of what we think of other people is in reality largely an unreliable notion, picked up from internal prejudices or social conditioning. This is precisely why it is important to get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. Tolerance breeds where knowledge and mutual respect are present in good measure. And this was what some Singaporean citizens were trying to achieve recently through the ‘Cook a Pot of Curry Day’.

A local newspaper had recently reported that one Chinese family, recently arrived from the mainland, took serious offence at their Indian neighbours' cooking habits. The family apparently resorted to mediation because they could not stand the smell of curry. The Indian family, who were mindful of their neighbours' aversion to the smell of their favourite dish, had already started closing their doors and windows whenever they cooked the dish, but this did not seem to work as well. Instead, the Chinese family took their neighbours to Singapore's Community Mediation Centre to seek a ruling on the matter. The mediator eventually ruled that the Indian family could only cook curry when the Chinese family was not at home. In return, the Chinese family promised to try the dish. The judgment infuriated most Singaporeans, many of whom have eyed the recent flood of mainland Chinese immigrants with some exasperation. The positive outcome from all of this was an idea for all Singaporeans to host a ‘Cook a Pot of Curry Day’ for their neighbours and friends, as a protest to the insensitive and almost xenophobic tendencies the Chinese family had displayed. The idea went viral, with almost 60,000 locals pledging support on Facebook in a matter of days. The day itself was a huge success, with Singaporeans standing up for an inclusive and compassionate society. I myself was invited to a barbeque meal by my neighbour and was heartened to see the healthy turnout – there were Indians, Malays, Chinese and Caucasians as well. For the first time in many years, I actually spent some quality time with the people I live in close proximity to, but hardly know. The curry, (a local blend of the less spicy variety) was great, but in the end, just an excuse for a wonderful cross cultural exchange. The evening was cordial and genuinely warm, and made even more informal and lively by our gracious host, who by the way, we learnt later, has scaled Mt. Everest… twice. There is now talk amongst citizens, of making this an annual event, and one can’t help but be in complete support.

On one level this event was about getting to know and appreciate each other’s cultures and backgrounds and promote tolerance, and on the other it was actually about just getting out of your house, knocking on your neighbor’s door and saying hello. I can’t help but feel that we in India’s large and increasingly impersonal cities can learn a thing or two from this. When was the last time you introduced yourself to your new neighbour or invited him over for a meal? Our parents did this often enough, but currently we don’t have the time, apparently. Either we’re working too hard or we’re relying entirely on home based entertainment to amuse our selves which takes us away from communicating with one-another on a human level. This means that we as individuals are slowly losing basic communication skills, which will cause us to withdraw into ourselves, and also, more dangerously perhaps, cause festering feelings of separation and loneliness to manifest themselves into something more debilitating. And one can already see the growing physical distances. Yesterday’s ‘adda’ is today’s Blackberry IM and the 140 character tweet. How does this prepare kids and teenagers for tough years that lie ahead? Not very well. More seriously, we clearly still harbor inherent prejudices about our fellow citizens - north Indians are bhaiyas, those from south are Madrasees, those from the north-east are often called ‘Chinese’ and far worse…and so on. The pluralist society our founding fathers envisioned will remain a distant dream if we refuse to interact and understand each other. Living in culturally homogenous ghettos will do us no good. We should be aspiring to a community where everyone, regardless of origin, knows one another well – like the good old days. We can easily make that happen - one hello, one handshake and one footstep at a time. And perhaps, we should be cooking loads more curry.


This article first appeared in the October 2011 issue of KINDLE.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

SuperHeavy (Mick Jagger / Dave Stewart / AR Rahman / Damien Marley / Joss Stone) – Music Review

Empirically speaking, supergroups have never been particularly successful, either critically or commercially (The Travelling Wilburys and Velvet Revolver notwithstanding). So when Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart put together a band of successful and diverse musicians (Joss Stone, Damien Marley and our very own AR Rahman) and called the band SuperHeavy, one hoped that the band would not collapse under the weight of expectation. This band does manage to do alright, putting together an eclectic bunch of tunes, which as a genre can only be termed as 'indo-reggae-rock'. That said, their debut record never truly manages to soar, seemingly tied down by commercial interests, with the superstar band members getting too self-conscious about their respective musical heritages.

The band apparently recorded 29 hours of music and then whittled the album down to 12 songs. Not all of them are album worthy though, with 'Energy' sounding like something U2 got bored with and passed on to Jagger and Co to play around with (and Jagger makes it worse by rapping on it, believe it or not), and 'Unbelievable' being anything but. Jagger however redeems himself as he leads the vocal efforts with the rasping 'I can't take it anymore' (a track the Stones would have been proud of) and 'I don't mind', an atmospheric duet with Joss Stone. Reggae scion, Damien Marley shows his pedigree in most of the tracks he lends his voice to, with the languid 'Rock me gently' and pulsating album opener 'Superheavy', being standouts. And how does us our Mozart of Madras do, you ask? He largely mumbles through his vocal duties on the album, and comes across as a bit awkward, but it’s his desi string arrangements which, when backed by Stewart's synth sounds and Marley's Jamaican beats and vocals, produce some of the album's best moments. This is abundantly clear on the peppy 'Satyameva Jayate', if you can forgive Jagger's singing in Sanskrit as an act of excessive cross-cultural exuberance.

The band should get ample radio time with the airwave friendly raggae-pop 'Miracle Worker', but otherwise they could have done better than to try too hard. At times the sound comes across as too orchestrated, with the producer going, "hmm, ok, we've had some rap, here's some soul, and now we'll have some of that Bollywood stuff". The lineup is as culturally varied as you can get, the talent is grade A, (barring Joss Stone's sometimes one dimensional crooning), but the result in the end is at best middling. The record does hold some novelty value, but I fear that will quickly wear off on the second and third hearings. And this is why this band should definitely come up with another album. To spend more time together, to get more comfortable with each other's styles and to express themselves more freely. Now that would be super heavy.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Are jobs obsolete?

Douglas Rushkoff asks if 'jobs' in the traditional sense should be becoming obsolete. This is interesting because the western world is throwing whatever its got at the big 'jobs' problem. If you think like Doug here though, it is apparently time we re-imagined what productive work was all about and stopped making a huge fuss. Interesting. Read on.

The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology's slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether. That's 600,000 people who would be out of work, and another 480,000 pensioners facing an adjustment in terms.

We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit - at least in this case - is e-mail. People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did four years ago, opting for electronic bill payment and other net-enabled means of communication over envelopes and stamps.

New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures - from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs - as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don't have enough stuff -- it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

Jobs, as such, are a relatively new concept. People may have always worked, but until the advent of the corporation in the early Renaissance, most people just worked for themselves. They made shoes, plucked chickens, or created value in some way for other people, who then traded or paid for those goods and services. By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.

The only ones losing wealth were the aristocracy, who depended on their titles to extract money from those who worked. And so they invented the chartered monopoly. By law, small businesses in most major industries were shut down and people had to work for officially sanctioned corporations instead. From then on, for most of us, working came to mean getting a "job."

The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we're in the digital age, we're using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.

While this is certainly bad for workers (an artificial construction, in my opinion, such as "slaves" "peasants" "aristocracy" "serfs" - that can be transcended as our relationship to work and consumption changes, and we no longer consider ourselves "consumers" or "workers" or "management", which are all artifacts of the Industrial Age. You are not a worker; you are a person.) and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can't capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.

But there might still be another possibility -- something we couldn't really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do - the value we create - is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another - all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.

For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.