Tag Archives: greed

Luddite Thoughts

For all its pretentiousness, French cuisine is pretty amazing. Sure, I’m no degustation connoisseur, but the French really know how to eat well. It is little wonder that the finest restaurants in the world are mostly French. The most pivotal aspect of a French dish usually is its delicate sauce, along with choice cuts, and, of course, inspired presentation (AKA huge plates and minuscule servings). The chefs, those artists in their tall white hats, show off their talent primarily in the subtleties of the sauce, for which knowledgeable patrons happily hand over large sums of money in those establishments, half of which are called “Cafe de Paris” or have the word “petit” in their names.

Seriously, sauce is king (to use Bollywood lingo) in French cuisine, so I found it shocking when I saw this on BBC that more and more French chefs were resorting to factory-manufactured sauces. Even the slices of boiled eggs garnishing their overpriced salads come in a cylindrical form wrapped in plastic. How could this be? How could they use mass-produced garbage and pretend to be serving up the finest gastronomical experiences?

Sure, we can see corporate and personal greed driving the policies to cut corners and use the cheapest of ingredients. But there is a small technology success story here. A few years ago, I read in the newspaper that they found fake chicken eggs in some Chinese supermarkets. They were “fresh” eggs, with shells, yolks, whites and everything. You could even make omelets with them. Imagine that — a real chicken egg probably costs only a few cents to produce. But someone could set up a manufacturing process that could churn out fake eggs cheaper than that. You have to admire the ingenuity involved — unless, of course, you have to eat those eggs.

The trouble with our times is that this unpalatable ingenuity is all pervasive. It is the norm, not the exception. We see it in tainted paints on toys, harmful garbage processed into fast food (or even fine-dining, apparently), poison in baby food, imaginative fine-print on financial papers and “EULAs”, substandard components and shoddy workmanship in critical machinery — on every facet of our modern life. Given such a backdrop, how do we know that the “organic” produce, though we pay four times as much for it, is any different from the normal produce? To put it all down to the faceless corporate greed, as most of us tend to do, is a bit simplistic. Going one step further to see our own collective greed in the corporate behavior (as I proudly did a couple of times) is also perhaps trivial. What are corporates these days, if not collections of people like you and me?

There is something deeper and more troubling in all this. I have some disjointed thoughts, and will try to write it up in an ongoing series. I suspect these thoughts of mine are going to sound similar to the luddite ones un-popularized by the infamous Unabomber. His idea was that our normal animalistic instincts of the hunter-gatherer kind are being stifled by the modern societies we have developed into. And, in his view, this unwelcome transformation and the consequent tension and stress can be countered only by an anarchical destruction of the propagators of our so-called development — namely, universities and other technology generators. Hence the bombing of innocent professors and such.

Clearly, I don’t agree with this luddite ideology, for if I did, I would have to first bomb myself! I’m nursing a far less destructive line of thought. Our technological advances and their unintended backlashes, with ever-increasing frequency and amplitude, remind me of something that fascinated my geeky mind — the phase transition between structured (laminar) and chaotic (turbulent) states in physical systems (when flow rates cross a certain threshold, for instance). Are we approaching such a threshold of phase transition in our social systems and societal structures? In my moody luddite moments, I feel certain that we are.

Systems and People

One of my friends found my post on Bill Gates and his philanthropic efforts less than persuasive. He said Bill just couldn’t be a good guy. It may be true, I just have no way of knowing it. I am in a benevolent and optimistic mood in the last few years, so I tend to see the rosy side of things. My friend’s objection was that Gates would squeeze blood out of a stone, if he could, while what he probably meant was that Microsoft was as ruthless a corporation as they came. Therein lies the crux of the problem with our modern era of greed and excess. We see the figureheads standing in front of the soulless corporate entities and attribute the evils of the latter to them. True, the figureheads may not all be innocent of greed and excesses, but the true evil lies in the social structure that came with the mega corporates, which is what I wanted to talk about in this note. What is this “system”?

It is a complex and uneasy topic. And this little analysis of mine is likely to draw flak because it is going to point right back at us. Because we are all part of the system. So let me spell it out right away. It is our greed (yes, yours and mine) that fuels the paychecks of those fat cats at the helm of large companies because they can and do exploit our unreasonable dreams of riches and creature comforts. It is our little unkindnesses and indifferences that snowball into the unstoppable soullessness of giant corporations. We all had our little roles to play, and nobody is innocent. There, I have said it.

Before I accuse you and me of being part of the system (a possibly evil one), I have to clarify what I mean by “the system.” Let’s start with an example. We buy a coffee from Starbucks, for, say five bucks. We know that only a couple of cents of the money we pay will actually go to the farmer in Africa who produced the most important ingredient — the coffee. Now, Starbucks would tell you that it is not just the coffee that they are selling, it is the experience, the location, and of course, high-quality coffee. All true. But where does the rest of the money go? A large part of it will end up in the top executives’ compensation. And why do we find it normal and tolerate it? Of the many reasons, the primary one is simple — we do it because we can afford to. And because we want to feel and show that we can pay five bucks for a cup of coffee. A bit of vanity, a bit of extravagance — some of the vices we don’t like to see in ourselves, but the soulless giants cynically manipulate.

The trouble with the system, as with most things in life, is that it is not all white or black. Look at Starbucks again. Its top brass is likely to be enjoying obscene levels of rewards from our foibles and the remote coffee farmers’ helplessness. But they also employ local kids, pay rent to local landlords, and generally contribute to the local economy. Local benefits at the expense of remote pains and personal failings that we’d rather not see. But the remote pains that we distance ourselves from are real, and we unwittingly add to them.

The system that brings about such inequities is much more pervasive that you can imagine. If you are a banking professional, you might see that at least part of the blame for the coffee farmers’ unhappiness lies with the commodities trading system. But it is not something that stands on its own, with no relation to anything else. When you get your salary through a bank, the money in the account may be used for proprietary trading, resulting in huge profits and price volatilities (in food prices in the third world, for instance). But you prefer to leave it in the bank because of the conveniences of credit/debit cards, automatic bill payments etc., and perhaps for the half a percent interest you get. You certainly don’t want to harm the poor farmers. But does the purity of your intentions absolve you of the hardships caused on your behalf?

The thing is, even you see this involvement of yours, decide to pull all your money out of the bank, and keep it under your mattress, it doesn’t make a goddamn difference. The system is so big that your participation or lack thereof makes no difference at all, which is why it is called a system. I feel that the only way you can make a difference is to use the system to your advantage, and then share the benefits later on. This is why I appreciated Bill Gates’s efforts. Nobody took more advantage of the system than he did, but nobody has more to share either.