Monday, January 21, 2008

Changing the Rules on the Ruling Class

This year's World Economic Forum in Davos seems to be getting a lot of attention on Huffington Post. J. Carl Ganter has promised us that he will be there reporting to us all week; but of greater interest may be a "prologue piece," written as a blog post by Nathan Gardels, who has been a Media Fellow of the World Economic Forum since 1986 and is a founding editor of New Perspectives Quarterly. Here is how Gardels (who is filing from Davos as a participant, rather than a reporter) introduces his perspective:

As the global elite gathers here in Davos to ponder how "collaborative initiatives" might bring the world closer together, there are a set of deep and broad challenges that suggest the trend is moving in a very different, if not opposite, direction.

First, we are witnessing the end of "the end of history" as a distinct pattern of "non-Western modernization" is beginning to take shape. Second, two decades after the defrosting of the Cold War order, the world is once again dividing into democratic and non-democratic camps. Third, it is increasingly clear that export-oriented emerging markets such as China or Brazil are achieving a sufficient level of domestic consumption that they can "decouple" from the rich economies, continuing to grow even as the US teeters toward recession.

Needless to say, neither Francis Fukuyama's neo-Hegelian take on "the end of history" nor Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis (which also lurks in these three items), can be taken at face value. They have to be held to the same scrutiny as any other passionately ideological position. Nevertheless, when those who believe themselves to be leaders of the world economy (if not the anointed ruling class), show signs of drinking Silicon Valley Kool-Aid with phrases like "collaborative initiatives," that should be a sign for all of us to look into whether or not the rules of the game, if not the playing board itself, are beginning to change beyond recognition. In this light the concept that "modernization" is no longer the exclusive "turf" of "Western civilization," whether in the theories of its philosophers or the practices of its economic leaders, deserves more attention than a knee-jerk it-can't-happen-here response.

My personal take on "non-Western modernization" is a bit out of date but may still be useful as a point of departure for reflection. Back at the beginning of the Nineties, when funding for basic research in Southern California (where I was living at the time) was falling apart due, at least in part, to Bush I policies, I had the opportunity to exercise my own research skills at the Institute for Systems Science (ISS) in Singapore. This move gave me the opportunity to make a clean break from what I felt had been an extremely unproductive (if not counterproductive) approach to artificial intelligence research and, instead, to initiate a multimedia project concerned with the classification and indexing of video content. (This was a time when multimedia consumer products were just beginning to emerge from companies like Warner; but, interesting as those products were, such businesses had neither the time nor desire to adopt "research" into their working vocabularies.) This was also my first real break from "Western civilization;" but, since Singapore was doing such a good job at promoting its own brand of modernism, I had no problem making that break.

The move may have been one of the best things that ever happened to both my resume and my publication record. More important, however, it made me realize that the very concept of "basic research" was quite far from an international cultural universal. When I moved from one laboratory to another in the United States, the major changes tended to involve climate, driving conditions, and cultural opportunities away from work. Nothing in the United States can prepare you for living almost squat on top of the Equator (think about Tampa in August and extrapolate to the entire year); but you could easily forget that difference once you got indoors (although just about everyone there had a sniffle from the kind of cold you catch from radical shifts between outdoor heat and frigid indoor air conditioning). I never drove in Singapore, because I never had to do so. Walking was not a particularly good option (unless you were a mad dog or an Englishman). However, taxis were cheap (if impossible to flag down in the rain); and public transportation was excellent. The cultural opportunities took some getting used to, particularly where censorship was concerned; but I had no problems adjusting to playing by the rules of a country other than my own.

Thus, the most radical change in my life had to do with those semantics of "basic research." Of course I was expected to "discover and publish" according to standards that were basically the same as those in the United States; but I quickly encountered what I felt was a critical "environmental" distinction. Many of the laboratories where I had worked in the United States had close connections to one or more universities; and ISS was actually located on the campus of the National University of Singapore (NUS), which, of course, had a computer science department. However, the Singapore government had an interesting policy of taking their best and brightest and paying them to go to graduate school in North America or Europe, meaning that, while NUS was a "university" in the strictest sense of the word, its graduate school suffered the weakness of a government-promoted brain-drain. Thus, while research laboratories in the United States could be "fueled" by graduate students hungry for thesis topics and opportunities to pursue those topics once they were approved, that whole "graduate student culture" was absent from ISS.

This is not to say that there were no students contributing to our efforts at ISS. We had a steady flow of undergraduates, most of whom were highly skilled. However, their skills were task-oriented, as in software development, rather than problem-oriented, as in research. Let me illustrate with an example: I had one undergraduate whose task was to develop and code an algorithm for a particular image-analysis problem we needed. Within days of my giving him the problem, he came to my office and said, "I figured out two ways to solve the problem. Tell me which is the right one." I replied that I had no idea which one was "right." I suggested that he code up both algorithms, after which we would design and run a series of tests to determine which was better for the system we were building at the time. He went back to his desk and sat there staring at a blank piece of paper for approximately a week. His undergraduate education had been so focused on always having the "right answer" that he was psychologically incapable of taking an action that might lead to a wrong one! (Many years later, when I was working in Palo Alto, I hosted a visit from a director of research for the Singapore Ministry of Defence. He listened to a series of presentations that my colleagues and I gave about our projects and even asked some good questions. On the way out, however, he said to me, "All I really want to know is the answer in the back of the book!")

I do not know how much things have changed in Singapore since I worked there. I know that Singapore itself has changed so much that I might not recognize it any more. (I used the subway system on one of my last business trips there, since it was still impossible to flag a cab in the rain, and discovered that, since new routes had been added, I could no longer interpret the signs to direct me to the right track!) However, I have no idea whether or not my experiences at ISS would still constitute a valid object lesson on the topic of "non-Western modernization." Modernization, after all, is fed by basic research; and basic research involves going boldly where others have not previously gone. Countries like Singapore and, for that matter, China have benefitted from Western societies making (and, more importantly, paying for) those bold moves; but that does not mean that they are now willing to pay for them, however well-endowed their economies may be. My favorite joke about the Singaporean attitude towards really basic research was actually a caption of a James Thurber cartoon, "I want to be a femme fatale, but I don't want to get mixed up with men!"

This, then, is the context in which I read the argument that Gardels developed around the two paragraphs I quoted at the beginning of this post. I am very glad that he is entertaining thoughts about "non-Western modernization," particularly since he can entertain them from the "inside" of the World Economic Forum, rather than as a reporter trying to make sense of it all from the outside. However, because he is on the inside, he still runs the risk of having the basic "rules of the game" pulled out from under him. Thinking about what "non-Western modernization" may actually be and what impact it may have on the world, I am reminded of my favorite quote from Paul Saffo, "The future always arrives late and in unexpected ways." This sort of undermines any attempt we may make to prepare ourselves for "non-Western modernization;" but, hopefully, it will do something for our "sense of reality" with which we contemplate it!

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