Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Understanding Socialism

A few days ago one of my colleagues had expressed the idea of decreasing the pay gap between the highest paid employee and the lowest paid employee in our organization. I didn't give a lot of thought to that at that moment.

Yesterday morning YouTube showed me a video of Sunil P Ilayidom in which he talks about Gandhiji. I'm embedding that one here. It is in Malayalam.

Somewhere in the middle he talks about how Gandhiji was in South Africa till his 40s and didn't know how the poorest Indians lived and then how once he returned from South Africa Gandhiji walked into the hearts of Indian farmers. He talks about how Gandhiji's political campaigns always started with the real life problems of the common person. And he talks about how Gandhiji's first Satyagraha in India - the Champaran Satyagraha - was fought with the simple demand that farmers should get compensation for their crops.

If you can understand Malayalam, Sunil Ilayidom's talks about Gandhiji (powered by YouTube recommendations) makes you sit and listen for hours and hours together.

Another point that Gandhi made which SPI reiterates is "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed."

Yesterday evening we had our weekly ECHO session in the primary healthcare fellowship and Dr Vivek Kumar from BHS told the story of a lady who was diagnosed with Tuberculosis a second time in the last 1 year (after taking 6 months of ATT the first time). Her haemoglobin was 6.9, weight was just 35kg, and it seemed like even if she took ATT continuously forever, her body might not have enough strength to protect herself from tuberculosis. In that context he described how the average haemoglobin in men, women, children, everyone in the villages he serves in is about 8-9. For about 5 minutes I could simply not believe that this could be explained by nutritional deficiencies alone.

So I searched online and found out a paper by last years' Economics Nobel Prize winners about fortifying grains to reduce anemia. This study was done between 2002 and 2009. Which means this is a well-known problem. People live in abject poverty and there is absolutely nothing that seems to work.

Our discussion rightly turned to policy changes that maybe required to bring change. Dr Vivek mentioned Aajeevika Bureau as an organization that was working with farmers to help them secure livelihood.

We also talked about community based participatory research which is the idea that any kind of research should begin from the community, be designed and developed by the community, and be owned by the community to be ultimately useful for that community. People from outside have their limitations in understanding what works, and what doesn't. When I was making this point I was imagining Dr Vivek as an insider, and me as an outsider. But then Dr Vivek replied reaffirming the point and considering even himself an outsider. And I had the realization that even being co-located with the community doesn't make you an insider.

Today morning on the bus I was reading Che Guevara's "Global Justice: Liberation and Socialism" and a paragraph stood out at me:

"The way is open to infection by the germs of future corruption if a person thinks that dedicating his or her entire life to the revolution means that, in return, one should not be distracted by such worries as that one's child lacks certain things, that one's children's shoes are worn out, that one's family lacks some necessity.
In our case we have maintained that our children must have, or lack, those things that the children of the ordinary citizen have or lack; our families should understand this and struggle for it to be that way. The revolution is made through human beings, but individuals must forge their revolutionary spirit day by day."

I should probably be reading carefully the Pedagogy of the Oppressed soon. But this paragraph in the context of yesterday's discussion made me think about poverty and the reasons why we are struggling with elimination of poverty.

Two related points.

The "combined total wealth of 63 Indian billionaires is higher than the total Union Budget of India for the fiscal year 2018-19 which was at Rs 24,42,200 crore."

Pirate Praveen had once said this:

"Every privileged person thinks its their god given mission to help the poor and show their kindness. They do not want to acknowledge that their privilege is the result of historic oppression and they are part of the reason why they remain poor. They think poor people needs charity and kindness. What we really need is a conscious collective effort to end systematic oppression of people and that will need questioning of our own roles and privileges. Accepting our role in creating the poor is much harder than feeling good about helping poor."

Putting it all together made me finally understand the problem. The problem is us. The capitalists. The people who believe that a software engineer's time is worth 10 times more than the farmer's. The people who believe that it is okay to accumulate wealth and make profit.

The free market will never pay a farmer well. The free market is stacked against farmers. Why is it that way? Why are things priced based on their demand and supply rather than their intrinsic value?

Because that works well in favour of those few who are privileged to accumulate wealth. For things like food, they won't have to pay a lot. And they can use that money to spend on things like AC cars. They can hire a home-help for 4000 rupees a month and get them to cook for them. They can hire cheap labour and sell the combined thing for much higher value. And they can keep all the profit.

The farmer may spend all their time in the farm. Like a full time employment. But if you can pay not for that time, but for the onions they produce, it may turn out to be much cheaper. Which means you can buy more onions for the same money. And you sell those onions at a higher price. So, your profit increases. While the farmer remains poor.

This is how it works. The entire system of capitalism is based on rich becoming richer and poor becoming poorer. "Specialization" and "rare-resources" are ways to become rich. And once you are rich, you have the license to exploit the poor.

Socialism is where the farmer sets the price. (And not a "free" market). The farmer demands what is their due. The farmer does not have to give up their life to produce a season of crops. The farmer can say their "full time" is equivalent to that of a software engineer. And who would you be to deny?

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Saturday, January 4, 2020

Good Riddance, WhatsApp!

I took the jump. Deleted my WhatsApp account.

Yes, I know. There are too many important groups. There are people who can't use email or other means of communication. Coordination of so many things will become difficult. What harm is there in keeping the account, and not using it? What if there is an emergency?

But, I am sorry. I deleted the account.

The idea isn't new. Pirate Praveen doesn't have a Whatsapp account. Prashanth NS doesn't use Whatsapp. Cal Newport advocates digital minimalism. All in all, plenty of people have done well without WhatsApp and actively inhibit WhatsApp usage. But I won't ask you to uninstall WhatsApp just yet. Maybe at the end of this post.

WhatsApp is a good chat app. It has a simple interface. It works consistently in poor connectivity areas. It has various features that make chat easy. It may not be the best. I personally prefer Riot (a client of Matrix protocol) and Telegram for chat. But, WhatsApp still does its job.

Maybe it is chat that I do not like. Synchronous messages create a sense of urgency. The delivered/read ticks on WhatsApp forces me to respond quickly to messages. Maybe I'm not ready for that. Maybe I want to respond to messages when I want to.

Yet I use other chat apps. I use Telegram extensively. I use slack. What's the difference?

Perhaps I should start from the beginning. First, we invented the telephone. We could talk to each other at a distance. That is a definite value addition. You no longer had to travel long distances to talk to people.

Then there was internet. With that came email. The good thing about email was that you could send it across very quickly to large number of people (like mailing lists) and people could skim through many many emails very quickly.

There also was blogging. Blogs are like books. People may read you. People may not read you. A million people may see it. Nobody may see it. Blogs fulfilled the role of people wanting to reach out to the world and influence the world.

Then, there was the mobile phone. And with that came SMS. SMS was sort of like email, and sort of like phone call. It was designed to be short. It was designed to be direct. That allowed for quick, non-distracting, short message updates.

That is the point at which chat apps come to the picture. The biggest feature of a chat app is the group chat. Individual chats are just like SMS, but with pictures and videos they could be called SMS on steroids. But group chats is an entirely different paradigm. Group chats let people talk to multiple people at the same time. Sort of like a broadcast, but multi-way broadcast. That allows quick coordination of large groups.

I almost missed social networks. Social networks are like the sum of all the previous innovations. They combine the intimacy of group chats with an experience similar to walking through a virtual world and influencing a large number of people.

All of these are not without consequences. Firstly, our attention is now deeply fragmented. We have a thousand things we can engage with at any point in time. In the attention economy everyone has to shout louder to be heard. Soon everyone is shouting even more loudly. It becomes like a party floor where nobody can hear nobody else.

Secondly, it is so easy to bombard each other with messages that sooner or later people get strong opinions about things. And that makes for a heavily polarized world because people always tend to have differing opinions.

Thirdly, and most importantly, people are unable to work on hard problems with their mind into it because that requires focus and peaceful mind. I have a very big hunch that this is the biggest reason why economies world over are failing - because people simply aren't productive any more.

All that said, now I can state the reasons why WhatsApp and Facebook (and more recently twitter) are especially to blame.

The way Facebook is designed, you connect to your friends and family. And then you hear from them. Sure you can connect with various organizations, etc. But yet, nobody keeps their connections devoid of family and friends. This "social" prat of the social network makes it a very mediocre place. There is a very good chance that the best people you can listen to on any particular topic is not in your social circles. The best writers, thinkers, or analysts on the planet probably didn't go to the same high school as you did. Therefore, if you wanted to put your attention on the best things on any topic, Facebook is a very bad place.

Similarly, WhatsApp is designed for people who know each other well (well enough to have each others' phone number) to communicate. Even with group chats, you are probably not going to share groups with very smart people. WhatsApp, therefore, has the same pitfall as Facebook. It encourages mediocrity and conformation.

Apps like Telegram and Reddit do not have this problem. (Although the attention economy is still a problem there). And therefore WhatsApp gets an extra negative mark there.

And then, there are all the other reasons. WhatsApp is not free software. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. (And since the last update it clearly shows on the splash screen that it is owned by Facebook). And Facebook is evil in various ways.

Of course this post would be incomplete without me telling how I actually managed to pull this off.

First, I had notifications turned off for WhatsApp through Android settings. It had been that way for months. Essentially, I would see WhatsApp message only when I opened the app.

But, about a month back, right around the time CAA was passed, I started doing another thing. I used a firewall app called NetGuard (which doesn't require root) to block internet to WhatsApp. And I hid the WhatsApp icon in the Niagra launcher I use. And I turned off background data (just an added measure because NetGuard anyhow stops background data). And I changed my WhatsApp status to let people know that I won't be online. And I changed my profile picture with a message that I won't be online. And then I kept silent for days.

The first time I did that, it was in solidarity with the people suffering from internet shutdowns in India. When I logged in after about a week, I noticed that I hadn't missed a lot of important messages at all.

So, I tried it again. This time I did it for two weeks. And this time too, I hadn't missed anything important. My patients could either directly call me or my clinic manager for appointments. My colleagues could message/call/email me any important thing from the WhatsApp groups. And I was insulated from all the "Merry Christmas and Happy New year" gifs.

The only reason I wouldn't go ahead and delete WhatsApp was that I wanted access to the past messages. Or so I thought as you will see in the next paragraph.

Today I thought I would install WhatsApp Business and set up an "auto-respond while away" message for giving people who contact me a fairer warning that I won't be reading their messages. But turns out that feature works only if you turn WhatsApp on and let it receive messages. While trying to switch to WhatsApp Business, I also lost the chat history (because for some reason it restores only from Google Drive backup while switching between WhatsApp and WA Business). And then I realized that I probably don't need access to my chat history.

To sum up, I had enough time away from WhatsApp and I was convinced that WhatsApp was an unnecessary evil and that life without it would be as convenient, if not more. And so I just went into the settings and deleted the account.

Now, nobody can inadvertently wait for a response from me because they won't be able to message me. And I can do my own deep work.

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