Thursday, October 13, 2011

Have some humanity

This article was first published in Entelechy (Issue 29, September 2011), the in-house DA-IICT magazine.

“Technology [is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

-- Max Frisch

DA-IICT is one of the few colleges in India to make humanities courses mandatory for students. It is sad then that most students treat it as a course to pass, and not as a way to gain insight into the world they’ll spend the rest of their lives in. I am going to try to convince you that humanities courses are perhaps more essential than even the technical courses.

Observe the typical young engineer as he gets placed and eventually graduates from college. Engineers used to have dreams. That is why we have the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate bridge. Today the most skilled engineers end up sitting at a desk writing non-user-friendly software for some mega-corp. Or they start a startup which aims to make another form of real communication virtual and ‘social’ without considering the repercussions.

The humanities have always been a has-been simply because they offer no financial value. A poet does not produce a life-saving vaccine or the next Fortune 500 company.

The fundamental schism lies in the fact that engineers want concrete answers to problems, while the humanities never answers anything. It is about concepts and interpretations and I think engineers find that hard to fathom. Trust me, try it once, it is fun.

We engineers are children of the binary, decisions are absolute, choices are fundamental. That is not how the real world works. The humanities teach us to look hard into those gray areas, and how they end up shaping history. I remember in the Environmental Studies class when the professor remarked that in the case of the Narmada project, you could not simply relocate the tribals. An economist or engineer is trained to see the world in terms of resources and equations and profits and margins. Our problems are so simple. We think that by throwing more hardware at it, or building better technology things will fix themselves. That to build a dam, we can simply move the people out and give them good homes. But we have no way to measure social cost. So the moving of tribals seemed a trivial problem. But the land they live on has been theirs for thousands of generations and they associate traditions and religion with it. It would be like evicting you from your home. All technological problems are finally attempts to improve society and the context in which they are implemented is essential.

Even if you don’t want to be the decision maker or ideal citizen or a analysis spewing geek when all that your friends wanted to watch in the movie was the explosions, there is one concrete reason that you should take atleast a few humanities courses.

Writing. The Indian education system especially thrives on canned solutions for much of school. Even the technical courses in college do not require writing papers or projects. But much of real-world engineering today is a team activity where written communication is a very important skill. For all your career you will be writing documentation, making reports and presenting findings to your boss. A good command of English and an ability to deliver crisp writing can help immensely. The humanities courses will be the only ones where you will have to analyse some aspect of art or literature, critique it and back up your opinions with arguments. Since you can’t do a copy-paste in humanities (since it doesn’t have any concrete answers), it is a good lesson in writing.

Finally remember that as bits seep more and more into our lives, our cultures are framed by the file formats and user interfaces and other mechanisms that we will make. And they will enforce the way we think. Do we want to end up in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World? Facebook friends vs real friends, privacy vs sharing, customer-friendly or corporate-friendly, patent laws and other important ‘wars’ are going to start erupting. Yet I find engineers have no awareness for any of this as they sit in their cubes creating the most widely propagated products that ever existed, constantly connected via a medium whose drivers are human. All these are areas where theologians and philosophers and lawyers have been arguing for centuries, in the eternally fluid and muddy concepts of property, privacy and ethics. Except they used to be able to make these decisions before the technology spread. Now App stores and locked-in products arise everyday, social networks grow exponentially and international surveillance is easy as pie, and law makers cannot catch up, so the engineer will have to specify those decisions by product design itself. There you and I will enter into the indefinite world of humanities because these problems have never arisen before. Only someone who understands both technology and humanities can solve this, otherwise we end up with abominations like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act or Software Patent Law based on real patent laws when it doesn’t fit the software model. This requires an ability to mull over these concepts and use the various interpretations debated in the past and the present. In some literary passage somewhere may lie the perfect system you strive for. The times, they are a changin.

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Talk the Walk


A few months ago, on the way back to Gandhinagar from attending I wondered if it would be a good idea to walk from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar to get home. The distance is 25km. The people accompanying me immediately shot down the idea :) but it stayed in my mind as something that had to be done at some point. So no, we didn’t just wake up at 4:30am one day and decide to walk to Ahmedabad. There was a plan. Over a busy semester I forgot about it, but in the summer I knew that the plan had to be executed as soon as I was back to college.

Are you crazy?

When I bounced the idea of a few people, pretty much all of the first reactions where “Are you crazy?” followed by refusal to accompany me. This kind of reaction was disappointing. Only two people stepped forward. One had had a similar idea in her head. The other was ready to do it. After significant rescheduling, the plan was finally put into motion on September 25, 2011. The latter had to drop out due to unforeseen circumstances.

The route

Our definition of ‘reaching’ Ahmedabad was to walk along the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway till Iscon Mega Mall. The Google Maps distance is 24.5km. The Google Maps walking estimate was 4 hours 58 minutes. The anticipation itself was a major stimulant.

We left the DA-IICT main gate at 5:23am. Here is a log of all the landmarks, distances, and when we reached there.

Start                  |  0.0km |  5:23
Adalaj                 |  7.3km |  6:45
Waterside              |  9.0km |  6:57
Sardar Patel Ring Road | 12.8km |  7:40
Nirma University       | 13.8km |  7:50
Gota Circle            | 15.3km |  8:25
Gujarat High Court     | 19.2km |  8:53
Gurdwara (Acropolis)   | 23.2km |  9:35
Iscon                  | 24.5km | 10:15

At Acropolis we took a 15 minute restroom break. We did not sit. If I had sat down, I probably wouldn’t have gotten up again. We were now officially in Ahmedabad, the rest was just a formality to satisfy predecided constraints.

The last 2km leg was finished in about 20 minutes. To be precise, we went up the south escalator and touched the glass door. The time was 10:15am. 4 hours 52 minutes with a 15 minute break.

The feeling: priceless!

(We took an auto back to DA-IICT after resting for 10 minutes.)


  • Don’t think about the distance, or how much is left and where you are. There is a difference between observing and thinking. We observed landmarks and kept a log, but if you keep thinking it’s 20 more kilometres, now it’s 10 more kilometres, especially when you are starting to feel the fatigue, you will want to give up.

  • Company is good – Not only is it an excellent way to pass some of the 5 hours, but it keeps the encouragement flowing. Again, avoid talking about the route, try playing games.

  • Less food, more drink – I had expected to be incredibly hungry through and after finishing the walk. This turned out to be wrong. Between 2 people the only food we had all morning was 2 chocolate bars and 4 biscuits. I don’t remember feeling hungry for atleast 3-4 hours even after the walk. So don’t bother carrying too much food (fortunately we didn’t). Carry a lot of water (fortunately we did) and some sugary drinks. Each of us had 2 litres of water, and about 500ml of mango drink. The lack of salt was noticed though, and we should have carried some salty drink like lime water. That said, even if you aren’t feeling hungry, keep snacking lightly after the walk.

  • Take care of your feet – Wear good shoes. I was initially planning to wear my Vibram Five Fingers, but didn’t because I have never walked more than 3-4km in them. I was a bit skeptical about the Saucony Kilkenny XC4 when I bought them 2 months ago, but they turned out to be brilliant shoes, never feeling uncomfortable or a burden. You will get blisters. Wear soft socks. If you tend to sweat a lot, powder your feet before you leave. Since we refused to take a break, friction did eventually catch up. I think my first blisters appeared about 15km in. By the end I had 6 reminders of the walk :) Carry flip flops to change into at the end of the walk. Your feet will love you for it.

  • When you reach the Wall, ignore it – During my first 8km run last year, I realized what I had only heard from others. The Wall exists, and it is all mental. Your body is an exceptional piece of engineering that can keep going for a lot more than a mere 25km. But eventually your mind will start cribbing and noticing the pain and say things like “I’ve already done 15, this is enough for now”. That is your Wall. Punch a fist into that wall, gather up the pieces and stuff it in a little corner. Left foot, right foot.

Awesome! Call me the next time you go

We succeeded. Objectively 25km is nothing, but subjectively it was the longest I’ve ever walked, and more than most normal people ever walk and so I consider it an achievement. When people found out, the “Are you crazy?"s were still the first question, followed by awe, followed by "Why did you do it?” and then “I want to do it too. Call me the next time you go”. Why did we do it? There was no point, no success to be achieved, no money to be won. It’s just that for me, life is about pushing myself. Where people shy away from pain, I embrace it. There is a difference between the pain of pushing oneself and the pain of real injury, and I think everyone should try for the former, but not push on till the latter. It turns out, that as soon as somebody proves it is possible, people see that and they go ‘I can do this too’ Till then, negativity keeps gnawing away, however much you explain it in terms of distances and times. The shortest answer is doing. That’s enough preaching :p

There is unlikely to be a next time. I enjoyed the journey, but there was no end goal, and there are better ways of reaching Ahmedabad :) This challenge is done, it’s time to move on.

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