The defining edifice of 21st century life is data. We live in a world where data is omnipresent, omnipotent and believed to be omniscient. The ability to collect and process data, at gradually faster and cheaper rate, allows us to measure almost everything. We choose our food based on the calories printed on the pack or the menu card, we step out of our homes for a short ride – only after we know the exact time it will take. A vacation isn’t successful till we count the likes on the photo on social media, and food isn’t prepared ‘swaad anusaar’ (sensing the taste), but according to the exact quantities mentioned in the recipe book.
The need to measure pervades every aspect of business, society and governance. The preponderance of data creates an illusion of control and predictability, in what is essentially an unpredictable world. It doesn’t matter whether we are dealing with human emotions and behaviour, natural forces, social change or cultural progress – data seeks and delivers the one and only truth – the objective truth.
What happens when this search for objective truth meets India’s fundamental belief in subjective truth?
A society built around objective truth has a singular definition of right and wrong. It believes in a singular system, a singular reality, a linear order to life
India today aspires to move to the big league and aspires to be counted amongst the great nations of the world. And in this rush to acquire its greatness, we are in a rush to act and behave like a developed nation. Strangely enough for us, today being a developed nation means being like the Western nations that believe in objective truth. We have a relentless belief that technology has the potential to solve every problem. This now drives public policy making. We are obsessed with rankings and ratings – to the point wherein the government itself is lobbying with rating agencies to improve India’s standing in the global order. Our identities are in Aadhaar, our cities have to be smart, and our economy has to be cashless.
India today is in midst of immense change. But change isn’t new to India. Our history is riddled with empires and regimes rising and falling – almost simultaneously in different parts of the country. And yet, we have a continuum of civilizational history of around 4000 years. That is because we were open to change. The outcome of this change is the immense diversity and dynamism in Indian life – wherein no single definition of what constitutes India exists.
For us change was always gradual and inclusive – and always at our own terms. In India, change happens along the axis of expanding tradition. We negotiate, accommodate, and assimilate. And that is because we are a land of subjective truth – where difference between right or wrong is always contextual. In our belief systems, there has never been a single truth. We have many Gods, many sacred texts, and no single authority. A sacred text like Ramayana itself has hundreds of versions found across the country.
Similarly, life was never measured, but lived in multiple and often contrasting ways. Individual was secondary to the family. Perfection was valued less, brilliance and diversity were championed. Our society was structured on social rather than economic terms. And our modernity and progress was achieved through negotiating with tradition.
Amidst the impetus of change today, a Western mindset of measurement and absoluteness is meeting the Eastern perspectives. We are moving towards measurement and objective truth – whether we are the fastest growing economy in the world, what is the ease of doing business rank of the country, how digital are we – how do we compare with others? This discourse is now being championed in India!
Measurement and comparison creates an illusion of objectivity. But numbers don’t have a life of itself. It is we humans who collect it, process it and interpret it. And the way we do it is grossly subjective, but when done and presented – data seemingly turns objective. Measurement gives us a delusion of validity through our own biases. Above all, measurement leads us into the dangers of simplification. A billion subscribers of mobile SIM cards in the nation, automatically translates into an imagery of every Indian with a mobile phone in their hands. Data essentially captures what we know, even though our life and existence largely revolves around the unknown.
Measurement may help us compete with the world outside. Measurement may lead us to finding a point of perfection or create a path that we must walk and a place we must reach. But how does one measure value that is at the heart of society? How does one measure trust that is at the heart of commerce? How can we consider measuring well-being in addition to growth in GDP terms?
Perfection, homogeneity, absoluteness rarely bring joy. They do not exist in nature and neither in human society. It is in differences and diversity that human civilisation has progressed. A counter-clash against our pursuit of objective truth through measurement and data is imminent. Data is reductionist and restrictive. It reduces humans into a set of bits and bytes and then into a narrow pigeonhole where everyone needs to fit. Every human, by design, is different and therefore unpredictable – even from his or her own self a day or a moment back. That’s what differentiates us from machines. And that’s what the human civilisation will always strive for.