The Impossibility Conjecture of Humanoid Artificial Intelligence and the Non-Benign Singularity

Abstract

[A Rough Draft of a Work-in-progress.]

The idea of machines which are almost identical to human beings has been so seductive that it has captured the imaginations of the best minds as well as laypeople for at least a century and half, perhaps more. Right after Artificial Intelligence (AI) came into being, it was almost taken for granted that soon enough we will be able to build Humanoid Robots. This has also led to some serious speculation about ‘transhumanism’. So far, we do not seem to be anywhere near this goal. It may be time now to ask whether it is even possible at all. We present a set of arguments to the effect that it is impossible to create or build Humanoid Robots or Humanoid Intelligence, where the said intelligence can substitute human beings in any situation where human beings are required or exist.

1. Humanoid Intelligence, the Singularity and Transhumanism

Before we proceed to discuss the terms of the title of this section and the arguments in the following sections, we first define the foundational terms to some degree of conciseness and preciseness:

1. Human Life: Anything and everything that the full variety of human beings are capable of, both individually and collectively. This includes not just behaviour or problem solving, but the whole gamut of capabilities, emotions, desires, actions, thoughts, consciousness, conscience, empathy, creativity and so on within an individual, as well as the whole gamut of associations and relationships, and social, political and ecological structures, crafts, art and so on that can exist in a human society or societies. This is true not just at any given moment, but over the life of the planet. Perhaps it should include even spiritual experiences and ‘revelations’ or ‘delusions’, such as those hinted at in the Philip K. Dick story, Holy Quarrel [Dick et al., 1985].

2. Humanoid: A living and reproducing entity that is almost identical to humans, either with a human-like body or without it, on a different substrate (inside a computer).

3. Intelligence: Anything and everything that the full variety of human beings are capable of, both individually and collectively, as well as both synchronically and diachronically. This includes not just behaviour or problem solving, but the whole of life as defined.

4. The Singularity: The technological point at which it is possible to create (or have) intelligence that is Humanoid or better than Humanoid.

5. Transhumanism: The idea that, after the singularity, we can have a society that is far more advanced, for the better, than the current and past human societies. From 1910 to 1927, in the three volumes of Principia Mathematica [ 1925–1927], Whitehead and Russell set out to prove that mathematics is, in some significant sense, reducible to logic. This turned out to be impossible when Godel published his incompleteness theorems in 1931 [Sheppard, 2014, Nagel et al., 2001]. During the days of origins of modern Computer Science, before and in early 1930s, it would have been easy to assume that a computing machine would ultimately solve any problem at all. This also proved to be impossible with Turing’s undecidability theorem [Hopcroft et al., 2006] and the Church-Turing thesis of computability [Copeland and Shagrir, 2018]. Since then, other kinds of problem have been shown to be undecidable.

Now that we are supposed to close be enough to the Singularity [Kurzweil, 2006] so that it may happen within the lifetime of a large number of human beings, perhaps it is time to ask ourselves whether real intelligence, in particular Humanoid Intelligence (as defined above) is possible at all. We suggest that there are enough arguments to ‘prove’ (in an informal sense) that it is impossible to build, to create or to have Humanoid Intelligence. We argue that even though the Singularity is indeed possible, perhaps even very likely (unless we stop it), it may not be what it is supposed to be. The conjecture presented here is that the Singularity is not likely to be even benign, however powerful or advanced it may be. This follows from the idea of the impossibility of Humanoid Intelligence.

2 Some Notes about the Conjecture

We have not used the term theorem for the Impossibility and the reasons for this should be evident from the arguments that we present. In particular, we do not, and perhaps cannot, use formal notation for this purpose. Even the term conjecture is used in an informal sense. The usage of terms here is closer to the legal language than to the mathematical language, because that is the best that can be done here. This may be clearer from the Definition and the Story arguments. It is due to a similar reasoning that the term ‘incompleteness’ is not used and, instead, impossibility is used, which is more appropriate for our purposes here, although Godel’s term ‘essentially incomplete’ is what we are informally arguing for about Humanoid AI, and perhaps AI in general. No claim is made as to whether or not a formal proof is possible in the future at all. What we present is an informal proof. This proof has to be centred around the distinction between Micro-AI (AI at the level of an intelligent autonomous individual entity) and Macro-AI (very large intelligent autonomous systems, possibly encompassing the whole of humanity or the world). To the best of our knowledge, such a distinction has not been proposed before. While there has been some work in this direction [Brooks, 1998, Signorelli, 2018, Yampolskiy, 2020], for lack of space, we are unable to explain how this work differs from previous such works, except by noting that the argumentation and some of the terms are novel, a bit like in the case of arguments for or against the existence of God, which question has been debated by the best of philosophers again and again over millennia, which as we will see at the end, is relevant to our discussion.

3 The Arguments for the Impossibility Conjecture for Micro-AI

The Definition Argument): Even the Peano Arithmetic [Nagel et al., 2001] is based on three undefined terms (zero, number and is successor of ), which are relatively trivial terms compared to the innumerable terms required for AI (the core terms like intelligence and human, or terms like the categories of emotions, leave alone the terms like consciousness).

The Category Argument: A great deal of AI is about classifying things into categories, but most of these categories (e.g. anger, disgust, good or bad) have no scientifically defined boundaries. This is related to the following argument.

The Story Argument: It is almost established now that many of the essential concepts of our civilisation are convenient fictions or stories [Harari, 2015] and these often form categories and are used in definitions.

The Cultural Concept Argument: Many of the terms, concepts and stories are cultural constructs. They have a long history, most of which is unknown, without which they cannot be modelled.

The Individuality, or the Nature Argument: An individual intelligent autonomous entity has to be unique and distinct from all other such entities. It originates in nature and we have no conception of how it can originate in machines. We are not even sure what this individuality exactly is. However, all through history, we have assigned some degree of accountability to human individual and we have strict provisions for punishment of individuals based on this, that indicates that we believe in the concept of the ‘self’ or the ‘autonomous individual’, even when we deny its existence, as is becoming popular today.

The Genetic Determinism Argument: Individuality is not completely determined by nature (e.g. by our genes) at birth or creation once and for all. It also develops and changes constantly as it interacts with the environment, preserving its uniqueness.

The Self-organising System Argument: Human beings and the human societies are most likely self-organising [Shiva and Shiva, 2020] and organic systems, or they are complex, non-equilibrium systems [Nicolis and Prigogine, 1977]. If so, they are unlikely to be modelled for exact replication or reproduction. The Environment, or the Nurture Argument: Both intelligence and individuality depend on the environment (or on nature). Therefore, they cannot be modelled without completely modelling the environment, i.e., going for Macro-AI. The Memory, or the Personality Argument: Both intelligence and individuality are aspects of personality, which is known to be dependent on the complete life-memory (conscious and unconscious) of an intelligent being. There is not enough evidence that it is possible to recover or model this complete temporal and environmental history of memory. A lot of our memory, and therefore our individuality and personality is integrally connected with our bodily memories.

The Susbstrsate Argument: It is often taken for granted that intelligence can be separated from the substrate and planted on a different substrate. This may be a wrong assumption. Perhaps our intelligence is integrally tied with the substrate and it is not possible to separate the body from the mind, following the previous argument.

The Causality Argument: There is little progress in modelling causality. Ultimately, the cause of an event or occurrence is not one but many, perhaps even the complete history of the universe.

The Consciousness Argument: Similarly, there is no good enough theory of consciousness even for human understanding. It is very unlikely that we can completely model human consciousness, nor is there a good reason to believe that it can emerge spontaneously under the right conditions (which conditions?).

The Incompleteness/Degeneracy of Learning Source and Representation Argument: No matter how much data or knowledge we have, it will always be both incomplete and degenerate, making it impossible to completely model intelligence.

The Explainability Argument: Deep neural networks, which are the state-of-the-art for AI, have serious problems with explainability even for specific isolated problems. Without it, we cannot be sure whether our models are developing in the right direction.

The Test Incompleteness Argument: Perfect measures of performance are not available even for problems like machine translation. We have no idea what will be the overall measure of Humanoid Intelligence. It may always be incomplete and imperfect, leading to uncertainty about intelligence.

The Parasitic Machine Argument: Machines completely depend for learning on humans and on data and knowledge provided by humans. But humans express or manifest only a small part of their intelligent capability. So machines cannot completely learn from humans without first being as intelligent as humans.

The Language Argument: Human(oid) Intelligence and its modelling depend essentially on human language(s). There is no universally accepted theory of how language works.

The Perception Interpretation Argument: Learning requires perception and perception depends on interpretation (and vice-versa), which is almost as hard a problem as modelling intelligence itself.

The Replication Argument: We are facing a scientific crisis of replication even for isolated problems. How could we be sure of replication of Humanoid Intelligence, preserving individual uniqueness?

The Human-Human Espitemic Asymmetry Argument: There is widespread inequality in human society not just in terms of money and wealth, but also in terms of knowledge and its benefits. This will not only reflect in modelling, but will make modelling harder.

The Diversity Representation Argument: Humanoid Intelligence that truly works will have to model the complete diversity of human existence in all its aspects, most of which are not even known or documented. It will have to at least preserve that diversity, which is a tall order.

The Data Colonialism Argument: Data is the new oil. Those with more power, money and influence (the Materialistic Holy Trinity) can mine more data from others, without sharing their own data. This is a classic colonial situation and it will hinder the development of Humanoid Intelligence.

The Ethical-Political Argument: Given some of the arguments above, and many others such as data bias, potential for weaponisation etc., there are plenty of ethical and political reasons that have to be taken into account while developing Humanoid Intelligence. We are not sure whether they can all be fully addressed.

The Prescriptivastion Argument: It is now recognised that ‘intelligent’ technology applied at large scale not only monitors behaviour, but changes it [Zuboff, 2018]. This means we are changing the very thing we are trying to model, and thus laying down new mechanical rules for what it means to be human.

The Wish Fulfilment (or Self-fulfilling Prophecy) Argument: Due to prescriptivisation of life itself by imperfect and inadequately intelligent machines, the problem of modeling of Humanoid Intelligence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where we end up modeling not human life, but some corrupted and simplified form of life that we brought into being with ‘intelligent’ machines.

The Human Intervention Argument: There is no reason to believe that Humanoid Intelligence will develop freely of its own and will not be influenced by human intervention, quite likely to further vested interests. This will cripple the development of true Humanoid Intelligence. This intervention can take the form of secrecy, financial influence (such as research funding) and legal or structural coercion.

The Deepfake Argument: Although we do not yet have truly intelligent machines, we are able to generate data through deepfakes which are not recognisable as fakes by human beings. This deepfake data is going to proliferate and will become part of the data from which the machines learn, effectively modeling not human life, but something else.

The Chain Reaction Argument (or the Law of Exponential Growth Argument): As machines become more ‘intelligent’ they affect more and more of life and change it, even before achieving true intelligence. The speed of this change will increase exponentially and it will cause a chain reaction, leading to unforeseeable consequences, necessarily affecting the modelling of Humanoid Intelligence.

4 The Implications of the Impossibility

It follows from the above arguments that Singularity at the level of Micro-AI is impossible. In trying to achieve that, and to address the above arguments, the only possible outcome is some kind of Singularly at Macro-AI level. Such a Singularity will not lead to replication of human intelligence or its enhancement, but something totally different. It will, most probably, lead to extinction (or at least subservience, servitude) of human intelligence. To achieve just Humanoid Intelligence (Human Individual Micro-AI), even if nothing more, the AI system required will have to be nothing short of the common notion of a Single Supreme God. Singularity at the macro level will actually make the AI system, or whoever is controlling it, individual or (most probably small) collective, a Single Supreme God for all practical purposes, as far as human beings are concerned. But this will not be an All Powerful God, and not a a Kind God, for it will be Supreme within the limited scope of humanity and what humanity can have an effect on, and it will be kind only to itself, or perhaps not even that. It may be analogous to the God in the Phiilip K. Dick story Faith of Our Fathers [Dick and Lethem, 2013], or to the Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984 [Orwell, 1950]. We cannot be sure of the outcome,
of course, but those as likely outcomes as any others. That is reason enough to be very wary of
developing Humanoid Intelligence and any variant thereof.

References

Philip K. Dick, Paul Williams, and Mark. Hurst. I hope I shall arrive soon / Philip K. Dick ; edited by Mark Hurst and Paul Williams. Doubleday New York, 1st ed. edition, 1985. ISBN 0385195672.

Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. Principia Mathematica. Cambridge University Press, 1925–1927.

Barnaby Sheppard. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, page 419–428. Cambridge University Press, 2014. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415614.016.

E. Nagel, J.R. Newman, and D.R. Hofstadter. Godel’s Proof. NYU Press, 2001. ISBN 9780814758014. URL https://books.google.co.in/books?id=G29G3W_hNQkC.

John E. Hopcroft, Rajeev Motwani, and Jeffrey D. Ullman. Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation (3rd Edition). Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing Co., Inc., USA, 2006. ISBN 0321455363.

B. Jack Copeland and Oron Shagrir. The church-turing thesis: Logical limit or breachable barrier? Commun. ACM, 62(1):66–74, December 2018. ISSN 0001-0782. doi: 10.1145/3198448. URL https://doi.org/10.1145/3198448.

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Rodney Brooks. Prospects for human level intelligence for humanoid robots. 07 1998. Camilo Miguel Signorelli. Can computers become conscious and overcome humans? Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 5:121, 2018. doi: 10.3389/frobt.2018.00121. URL https://www.frontiersin. org/article/10.3389/frobt.2018.00121.

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id=4TmTzQEACAAJ.

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So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)

 

One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

The Roti Riddle

One link on one of the most frequent tags on this blog:

Kafka’s Castle is collapsing

And on a (slightly) different note:

Love in Sunnyvale

And to complete a trio (one for all, all for one), a sociological and ecological riddle with just a little bit of mathematics:

One man eats 1.9 meals a day and three rotis per meal. He leaves half a roti thrice a month, which gets thrown. Another man eats 2.9 meals a day and eight rotis per meal. He only leaves one roti once every three months, which he religiously feeds to a stray animal or to a beggar. Which one of the two men is more socially and ecologically responsible? The sizes and weights of the rotis remain the same for both.

The Elite Strikes Back, Fetishiously

From right after the transfer of power from the British to the local English Elite (the Babus in the broadest sense), one recurrent theme in the Indian ‘National’ press, which translates as the English press, has been to come down like a 16 ton weight on anyone who so much as mentioned the case of the Indian languages and the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by the English speaking Elite in the country. So, for example, if any politician of the Hindi belt suggested that students should be allowed to write some important exam in Indian languages or that English should not be compulsory at the primary level or even something much less radical-revolutionary and world shaking, there would be (without fail) editorials in the ‘National’ newspapers about how the language chauvinists are going to lay waste our great democracy.

With the changes that have happened in the last 15 years or so (some for better and more for worse), this trend became less common. But now the lumpen antics of the Thackerays have given the Elite a golden opportunity to come back with a 32 (or is it 64?) ton weight on the ‘language chauvinists’.

The way the Thackerays have been able to carry on their thuggery (in the Hindi as well as the English sense of the term) is so absurd that only a few things can compete with it. And one of those things is the fact that the English Elite of the country have been so amazingly successful in summarily suppressing all Indian languages including the legally National Language (Hindi), the language that has the most chauvinistic support from its speakers (Tamil) and the language of the most intellectual community of the sub-continent (Bengali). These and many others are not endangered languages (at least not yet). Most of them can be called mega languages in terms of the number of speakers. All of this is so well known and so often repeated that I feel weary of having to write this. Also equally well known is the fact that only a very small fraction of the Indian population is comfortable with English. However, as India is a society whose structure is mainly defined by the caste system, no one except the top caste wants to remain in their own caste. They all want to make the transition to the higher castes, even as they list the reasons for the greatness of their caste. And the highest caste now effectively is that of the English speakers, who have replaced the (literal) Brahmins from their perch at the top (I know, ‘replaced’ is not a good term because a large fraction of the Elite is Brahmin). Naturally then everyone wants ultimately to make the transition to the top caste. This has lead to an extremely comic and absurd fetish about any language anywhere in the world. It is the fetish for the English language. This fetish too is a well known, though rarely talked about in the English media. A recent issue of the Outlook magazine was an exception. (The issue was the exception, not the magazine). The ‘language media’, of course, used to talk about it. Innumerable books have been written about it. Movies have been made about it (a recent one being Tashan, one of whose stars is now living out his character’s fetish in the real world). And sometimes politicians have talked about it for electoral purposes. But most of them have learned that it doesn’t pay much as the Indians (especially the North Indians) are not very keen to be seen speaking their own languages when in respectable company. They don’t even want it to be known to anyone that they are not good at English. Parents who can’t speak the language will parade their English learning children in front of any visitor and have a little performance of nursery rhymes being chanted in English, even if the visitor as well as the child feel tortured. They will also mention with pride that their child is very poor in Hindi (or any other Indian language).

It’s not that no one in the English speaking community has noted this. Even Nayantara Sehgal had mentioned this in one of her novels long ago. More recently Arundhati Roy had written about the oustee villagers from the Narmada dam site being scolded by Maneka Gandhi for not writing their petition in English, after they had travelled all the way, enduring hardship and hoping to save their lives. There have been others like Namita Gokhale among the (English speaking) writers and artists who have at least hinted at the absurdity of the situation.

But, by and large, the Elite has managed to suppress all talk about any fairness with regard to Indian languages which account for the overwhelming majority of the population of India. They have used diversity as an argument for maintaining the hegemony of English. They have used chauvinism as an argument. They have pitted one big language (Tamil) against the other (Hindi). They have pitted small languages (the so called dialects of Hindi) against big languages. They have pitted Dalits against the upper castes: no matter that most of them belong to the upper castes themselves. They have used linguistically spurious claims about the superiority of English over the ‘less developed’ Indian languages. They have steadfastly refused to concede even a pinhead worth of territory to the Indian languages.

Talk of divisiveness.

Unfortunately for them, The Market (whose praise they are now singing, be they from any part of the political spectrum) may be a brutal place, but it has allowed the Indian languages to gain some territory. As had the linguistic reorganisation of the states, which also (like the demands for linguistic fairness, not like The Market) they have always kept riling against.

When Pepsi and the others came after The Reforms, they didn’t give a damn about what language can get them more customers. Before that, big companies in India preferred to make commercials in English, unless their product was some low brow thing that no one would want to talk about. It is understandable why: the top advertising agencies are mostly dominated by the elitest of the Elite. It must have been hard for them to get used to the presence of Indian languages in their midst. To give the devil his due, they have managed the transition quite well, at least on the public front. It has turned out that these underdeveloped languages can be used ‘creatively’ after all, whatever may be the purpose. I don’t know what to feel about this.

The people may be ashamed of their own languages and of being seen reading books in them (chauvinism indeed!), but they are hooked to the movies and T.V. serials in those same languages. The movie scene is not any less hilarious either. The people involved in these movies may be making their career, earning huge amounts of money and generally being the gods of urban life in India (along with the cricket stars) through Indian languages, but they too are equally ashamed of the languages they make movies in. The scripts of Bollywood movies are written using the Latin alphabet. More than one big Bollywood Hindi movie star has been on record saying he hates Hindi. One of them said he didn’t want anyone around him speaking in Hindi. Offscreen, all they want is for their lives to be copies of Hollywood stars. And they are prepared to pretend that their mediocre work in ‘foreign’ English movies (to the extent they get such work, the chances of which are increasing now as the real superpower focuses a little bit more of its attention eastward this side) is by far better than their best work in Hindi movies. They will tell you the reason for this too: English movies give them far more exposure than Hindi movies (if they do, what does quality matter?). As for the criticism which suggests otherwise, well, ‘it will die its own death’.

Another of the cards the Elite uses against any demand for linguistic fairplay is that of communalism. The fact that the Jan Sangh/BJP and the Sangh Parivar in general have been shouting the slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ has been used time and again to put down (and discredit) any such demand. This time they are vehemently talking about how the ‘Hindi fetish’ of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has brought about the Thackerays’ Marathi version of the same. One of them has grudgingly noted, though, that there are differences between the two.

The only part of the slogan in which the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are interested in is the Hindu part, and they have made a travesty of even that. The preferred name for India for them is Bharat, not Hindustan. India is referred to as Hindustan (or Hindostan) more in the Urdu literature than in the Hindi literature or in the literature of these right wingers.

As a person whose mother tongue is Hindi (standard Hindi, Khari Boli) and who wants to write in Hindi, I refuse to surrender all the rights of this language or the terms Hindustan, Parivar, Sangh (or even Hindu) etc. to the Sangh Parivar conglomeration. The Elite has done its best to give exclusive rights for all these to the conglomeration. I keep the rights to these as an individual, not as a member of a group. I also keep the rights to contribute and participate as an individual, without being a member of any group.

The plain fact is that injustices are committed on a large scale every day in this huge country in the name of languages. However, there can be no doubt that the largest number of these injustices are in the name of English. Time and again I have seen (first hand) how careers of even brilliant students go the steep downward path because they are not so good at English. And careers are a just small part of the picture. If you are involved in a court case, you are unlikely to be heard if you use an Indian language.

I am not talking about a polish person’s case not being heard properly in France because he can’t talk in French. Even that, as a lot of the members of the Elite perhaps know, can be a valid grievance.

The plain fact is also, as a prominent Hindi writer said in an interview on Doordarshan, that ‘we’ (the people talking about the Indian languages) have accepted English as an Indian language and as our own: the question is whether ‘you’ (the English Elite) are prepared to accept the Indian languages as Indian and as your own.

She said this when the first great lit-fest was held a few years ago at a former royal palace near Jaipur where the guest of honour was V. S. Naipaul, who came with all his knightly glory. And where hardly any Indian language author was invited.

If you don’t listen to people like her, then some day you might have to listen to people like the Thackerays. And you might have to pretend that you like what they are saying.

Another plain fact is that most of the mainstream literary writers in Indian languages (whatever might be their other shortcomings) are neither chauvinists nor communalists. In fact, they are the most committed opponents of the right wing politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. And hardly any of them has ever been able to survive from literary writing alone, except perhaps those whose books become textbooks, which is itself a long story. Dismissing the whole idea of linguistic fairness by waving the communalism card is something that we usually expect from unscrupulous politicians, but the Elite (especially of the Left variety) has been doing exactly this ever since the transfer of power to them. Absurd as it may sound, one can understand this if one realizes that they have always felt threatened that some day the vernacular hordes will take the power away from them. There is a great deal they have at stake. I suspect part of their initial vehement opposition against the BJP was motivated by this. And the BJP saw this and made good use of this: they started talking about political untouchability being practiced against them and they gained a lot of sympathy votes on this point alone. The same Elite later became much more tolerant of the BJP once it came to power. Perhaps they accepted it as the fait accompli.

Fait accompli is another card that is heavily used by the Elite. English is the most powerful language that can give you any chance of a decent career and the possibility of some kind of justice so just shut up and try to improve your English. As one strategic think-tanker recently wrote about the Taliban, if you really want to get something done, then you have to go and talk to the people who have power.

As a not so irrelevant aside, consider the paid news affair, which is causing quite a stir these days. Newspapers have been always been used as weapons by both small and big power mongers. While the big newspapers are used more subtly, the smaller ones (with exceptions and to varying degrees) have either been directly owned by the powerful political and corporate people or have been available for hire. But after the Great Indian Reforms and Liberalisation, some big newspapers like the Times of India started the business of paid news quite openly. Till recently, however, there was only a little murmur of protest from the rest of the English Media. Then the ‘vernacular’ newspapers (for whom it is much harder to compete as they get less advertisements and at lower rates) started following the example of the TOI, but they did it more crudely. Suddenly it became a big issue, with even Dilip Padgaonkar telling us what a scourge paid news is.

Why would the editor of a National daily spend the time and effort to write an editorial about every non-committal language related statement from every two penny politician?

The Left part of the Elite is prepared to talk about all kinds of injustices except those related to language. Except when it is Indian language vs. Indian language. In that case it’s great fun for them.

What we actually have is a strange kind of fanatic language chauvinism practiced by the Elite against all Indian languages: more than just fetishist chauvinism. It’s so real that you only need to walk the roads of any Indian city and read the posters (among other things) of English teaching joints.

Not that there are no injustices in the name of Indian languages. The situation very much fits the big-fish-small-fish metaphor. There is also the infinitely indecent situation in Indian villages of there being separate upper caste and Dalit languages. The Dalits are not allowed to use the ‘upper caste language’. Language is used as a tool for domination, oppression and daily humiliation. In this language-eat-language world, the biggest fish by far in India (as in most parts of the world) is English. Even if it is spoken by a miniscule minority.

Trying to cover up this situation with slick diatribes about chauvinism and communalism might go on paying for a long time, but it might also lead to more dangerous situations than what we already have.

I really haven’t believed for one moment that the Thackerays have any love for Marathi. It’s their only possible ticket to power as of now. If they find some other better ticket, they will gladly drop the whole Marathi Manoos issue. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are a bit more serious about the Hindi part of their slogan, but as their conduct while in power has shown, they care about Hindi only as much as the Bajrang Dal cares about the Indian culture. And everyone knows how much and of what kind that is. I abhor all kinds of chauvinism, but I still think it is an insult to the real chauvinists (like the ones who took part in the anti-Hindi riots a few decades ago) to call the Thackerays (or even the Sangh Parivaris) language chauvinists.

(1) What people like the Thackerays say, goes something like this:

  • Give licenses to taxi drivers only if they are Marathi speakers.
  • If the above is not done, we will get us some North Indian migrants kicked.
  • We will not allow anyone to do whatever we might decide they shouldn’t do.
  • We will thrash anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

(2) Here is what a real chauvinist might say:

  • Marathi is the greatest (or one of the greatest) language(s) in the world.
  • No Marathi speaker should use any word borrowed from any other language.
  • Hindi is actually a corrupted version of Marathi.
  • There is some evidence that the languages of Central Asia are derived from Marathi.

(3) A Marathi fetishist (if there are such people) might say this:

  • I am afraid to read English (or Hindi) books because they bring bad luck to me.
  • I must have a temple in my house to worship Marathi.
  • If my son doesn’t speak Marathi, I think he will become a pervert.
  • The captions of the Playboy centerfolds should be pasted over with Marathi ones before one looks at them.

(4) Then there could also be demands like:

  • English should not be compulsory at the primary level. It should be left to the parents to decide.
  • Students should not be punished for speaking in Marathi.
  • Knowledge of English (or Hindi) should not be compulsory for certain jobs.
  • Marathi writers (and newspapers, magazines, books) should be treated in the same way as English (or Hindi) ones.

There can’t be any debate about (1), (2) and (3), but as far as I can see, the three still have to be treated differently (say, for moral, psychological or political discussion). But there can (and should) definitely be debate about (4). That is, if by democracy you mean something substantial, not just a protective shield to keep your hold on the power indefinitely. If you put all four in the same group and dismiss them all, then there is some chance that this might lead to some bad things, even if Indians are ashamed to use their own language for higher purposes.

To touch upon another taboo topic, a great great deal has been written about Bombay becoming Mumbai, but I don’t remember anyone pointing out that Bombay had already been Mumbai for the Marathi speakers (not to say that it was and is Bambai for Hindi speakers), just as Calcutta had been Kolkata for Bengali speakers and Delhi has been either Dilli or Dehli for Hindi speakers. Is that completely irrelevant?

If we were to take the English Elite’s rhetoric about chauvinism seriously, one would have to call even Orhan Pamuk a language chauvinist. And Satyajit Ray. And Tolstoy. And every French writer. And so on.

In many places in his books Tolstoy resentfully showed how French was treated as the superior language among the Russian Elite and how no one among them wanted to be seen speaking Russian. Except may be when talking to the inferior people: servants, peasants etc.

As one member of the Elite (in a moment of frankness) living in New Delhi narrated in a ‘middle’ in The Hindustan Times several years ago, she was embarrassed when a foreigner from the West came to visit them and tried to talk to them in Hindi. Because for her and for the people in her class, Hindi was a language to be used when talking to vegetable sellers.

Most members of the BJP would love to make a transition to the same class. Some have already done that.

There are schools in India where students are punished for using an Indian language. Not in the class room. Not just for any formal or academic purpose, but even in their private conversation, say while playing in the playground.

So much for chauvinism.

Not to mention the Fetish part.

As for the Thackerays, I wonder why they don’t write their surname as Thakre.

They are defiling the name of one my favourite writers.

Walls have Fears

On walls live creatures
They don’t just have ears
They have eyes and they have teeth
And they sure don’t have tears

What adds to their terrors
Is that they can’t be easily seen
But you can feel their presence
If you are one of their victims

They can communicate with each other
With a system more sophisticated
Than that of elephants or whales
It’s so sophisticated that only
Intelligent Design can explain them

They have concrete manifestations
But they are mostly abstract
No wonder so is their food
They don’t eat your meat
They eat your lives and your work and your protestations

You can be safe from them if you want
It’s all a matter of belief and loyalty and obedience
As it has always been through the ages
With other kinds of fearsome creatures

The question is whether you accept
The benevolent supremacy of the Intelligent Designer
Who put them there to watch over you

Just believe and abide and salvation can be yours
Don’t and you, with your work and your life
Can be completely mucked up, inside and outdoors

Milk as Karma

Someone called someone milk
Milk as noun or milk as verb?
Milk as the subject or milk as the object?
Milk as the karta or milk as the karma?

The answer appears as a vision
Of huge torrents of something
(It could very well be milk
Of, you know, something)
Flowing from one end
Of the Zipf’s Law curve
To the other end

Rhetorical Questions on Ownership

If I compose a poem
While visiting your home
And having a post-meal nap
In your home
Does the poem belong to you?

If I write a poem
On the last page of the notebook
That you gave me and
Which contains the addresses
Of the people to whom I deliver
Items of furniture
As a means of survival
Does the poem belong to you?

If I live in a small room
Crammed with all my current
And parts of my old life
And I pay the standard rent
Regularly for the room
Like everyone else
Does a poem written in that room
Belong to you
Because I used a room owned by you?

If I burn my blood
Day and night, apart from
Doing my work under your pay
And manage to finish
A life sapping and lifespan reducing epic
Does the epic belong to you
Because I wrote it while working for you
And sometimes using your pen and ink?

But you didn’t pay me for writing it
You didn’t even ask me to write it
Most probably you didn’t even want me to
Because you don’t care for things
Written by nobodies who are working for you
And which are not worth much in the market

It may be a two penny epic
But does it belong to you?

If it happens to become a million dollar one
Does it then belong to you?

If I sit on the railway station
While waiting for a train
In the station restaurant
And write a poem on the tissue paper
Provided to me by the restaurant owner
Does the poem belong to the restaurant?

If my laptop is not working
And I borrow yours
And while I am using it
I write a poem using your laptop
Does the poem belong to you?

What if I even used
One or two words written
On the calendar hanging on your wall
Written on the cover of the notebook of addresses
Or on the hoarding visible
Only from the window of the room
Rented by me and owned by you
What if I referred to images
I see on the railway station
Or flashing on the T.V. in the restaurant
Something on the screensaver of your laptop
Or a line written on the notes
With which you paid me
Does the poem belong to you?

The poem that you keep reading
And may be keep damning
But don’t have to pay me extra for
Does it belong to you?

It does, does it?
Well, as a reader
Or as a property owner?

झगड़ा नको

चलो बहुत हो गया
कसाई और बकरे का झगड़ा
अब हाथ मिला लेते हैं
आज से हमारी-तुम्हारी दुश्मनी खत्म

आगे वही बढ़ते हैं
जो साथ मिल के चलते हैं
अब से हम-तुम भी साथ-साथ चलेंगे
मिल-जुल के सफ़र करेंगे

बहुत से हैं दुनिया में
जो झिक-झिक में वक़्त ज़ाया करते हैं
या फिर बड़ी-बड़ी बातें किया करते हैं
जहाँ भाई-चारे से काम चल सकता है
वहाँ बेकार की बहस में लगे रहते हैं

हमने भी यह ग़लती की अब तक
चलो आज से इसे सुधार लेते हैं
एक-दूसरे से कड़वी बातें नहीं कहेंगे
प्यार-मुहब्बत से ज़िंदगी भर रहेंगे

न तुम हमें काटो
न हम तुम्हें काटेंगे
ये एक-दूसरे को काटना खत्म
एक नये युग की शुरुआत करेंगे

दुनिया है और दुनिया में ज़िंदगी है
तो कटना-काटना तो होता ही रहेगा
पर अब मिल-जुल कर काटा करेंगे

कभी बकरा मिलेगा तो कभी कसाई मिलेगा
पर एकता की ताक़त के सामने कौन टिकेगा?

शहीदों को नमन

शहीद दिवस पर हम करते हैं
तमाम शहीदों को हार्दिक नमन

बेशक बहुत शुभ रहा है
हमारे लिए जितना उनका जीवन
उतना ही उनका असमय मरण

तो आइए करते हैं इस दिन यह प्रण
भविष्य के हम जैसे लोगों के लिए इसी क्षण
निभाते रहेंगे हम दुनिया की प्राचीन रीत
बनाते रहेंगे हम नये-नये शहीद

 

[2009]

Name Dropping

Ignorance has a blessing
And it’s called Name Dropping

When you meet people
Who know less than you
You can just drop Names

And to take care of those
Who know much more
You can drop Name Dropping

 

[2009]