History under circumstances not of our choosing

British MP Rory Stewart writing this week about western military policy towards Afghanistan:

We can do other things for Afghanistan but the West – in particular its armies, development agencies and diplomats – are not as powerful, knowledgeable or popular as we pretend. Our officials cannot hope to predict and control the intricate allegiances and loyalties of Afghan communities or the Afghan approach to government. But to acknowledge these limits and their implications would require not so much an anthropology of Afghanistan, but an anthropology of ourselves.
The cures for our predicament do not lie in increasingly detailed adjustments to our current strategy. The solution is to remind ourselves that politics cannot be reduced to a general scientific theory, that we must recognize the will of other peoples and acknowledge our own limits. Most importantly, we must remind our leaders that they always have a choice.
That is not how it feels. European countries feel trapped by their relationship with NATO and the United States. Holbrooke and Obama feel trapped by the position of American generals. And everyone – politicians, generals, diplomats and journalist – feels trapped by our grand theories and beset by the guilt of having already lost over a thousand NATO lives, spent a hundred billion dollars and made a number of promises to Afghans and the West which we are unlikely to be able to keep.
So powerful are these cultural assumptions, these historical and economic forces and these psychological tendencies, that even if every world leader privately concluded the operation was unlikely to succeed, it is almost impossible to imagine the US or its allies halting the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan in the years to come.  Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa may have been in a similar position during the Third Crusade.  Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson certainly was in 1963. Europe is simply in Afghanistan because America is there. America is there just because it is. And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact.

Postcards to the future

Designer & blogger Russell Davies has an interesting post about sharing, but he is mistaken about books.   He says:

A mixtape is more valuable gift than a spotify playlist because of that embedded value, because everyone knows how much work they are, of the care you have to take, because there is only one. If it gets lost it’s lost. Sharing physical goods is psychically harder than sharing information because goods are more valuable. And, therefore, presumably, the satisfactions of sharing them are greater.  I bet there’s some sort of neurological/evolutionary trick in there, physical things will always feel more valuable to us because that’s what we’re used to, that’s what engages our senses. Even though ebooks are massively more convenient, usable and useful than paper ones, that lack of embodiedness nags away at us – telling us that this thing’s not real, not proper, not of value. (And maybe we don’t have the same effect with music because we’re less used to having music engage so many of our senses. It’s pretty unembodied anyway.)

No, it’s not that we value physical objects like books because we are used to doing so, nor (a really silly idea, this) because of some form of long-range evolutionary determinism.  (If our pre-literate ancestors only valued physical objects, why did they paint art on cave walls?)   No, we value books because they are a tangible reminder to us of the feelings we had while reading them, a souvenir postcard sent from our past self to our future self.
And no African would agree that music is unembodied. You show your appreciation for music you hear by joining in, physically, dancing or singing or tapping a foot or beating a hand in time. Music is the most embodied of the arts.

Beliefs and actions redux (& redux & redux . . .)

Over at Normblog, Norm begins a post with the words:
“Here’s another in that series: religious beliefs vindicated by being redefined to mean something different from what people used to think they meant. We’ve had religion not being about beliefs so much as about practices;  . . .”
Well, actually, not quite.   Nothing has been redefined, and most people did not previously think the way asserted here.  Unless, of course, by “people” Norm means merely, “educated Westerners since the Enlightenment”.   But that group constitutes a small (and often blinkered) minority of the world’s human population.  For  most of the world’s people,  for most of human history, religion has indeed been mostly about practices and not about beliefs.   I am thinking of Taoism, Buddhism (particularly Zen), large parts of Hinduism, and the mystical strands of Judaism (eg, the Kabbala), of Christianity (eg, the Name-Worshipping of Russian Orthodox believers), and of Islam (eg, Sufism).   In the tradition of The People of The Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), one hears and accepts The Good News and then engages in religious actions such as worship, prayer, and meditation.  In the Eastern tradition, by contrast, it is the repeated doing of certain religious actions (Yoga, Zen sesshin) which may lead the practitioner to Enlightenment, not the other way around.   I have argued this before, for example here and here.
That beliefs should or do always precede actions is a peculiarly western and peculiarly modern notion, part of the prevailing paradigm of post-Reformation Western thought.    That this fact is hard for many modern westerners to grasp is evidence of the strength of the prevailing paradigm on our thought.  However, the strength of a paradigm on the minds of our best and brightest is not itself evidence of the paradigm’s necessity, nor its uniqueness, nor its truth, nor even its comparative usefulness.

Maps and territories and knowledge

Seymour Papert, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, once wrote (1988, p. 3), “Artificial Intelligence should become the methodology for thinking about ways of knowing.”   I would add “and ways of acting”.
Some time back, I wrote about the painting of spirit-dreamtime maps by Australian aboriginal communities as proof of their relationship to specific places:  Only people with traditional rights to the specific place would have the necessary dreamtime knowledge needed to make the painting, an argument whose compelling force has been recognized by Australian courts.  These paintings are a form of map, showing (some of) the spirit relationships of the specific place.  The argument they make is a very interesting one, along the lines of:

What I am saying is true, by virtue of the mere fact that I am saying it, since only someone having the truth would be able to make such an utterance (ie, the painting).

Another example of this type of argument is given by Rory Stewart, in his account of his walk across Afghanistan.   Stewart does not carry a paper map of the country he is walking through, lest he be thought a foreign spy (p. 211).   Instead, he learns and memorizes a list of the villages and their headmen, in the order he plans to walk through them.  Like the aboriginal dreamtime paintings, mere knowledge of this list provides proof of his right to be in the area.  Like the paintings, the list is a type of map of the territory, a different way of knowing.  And also like the paintings, possession of this knowledge leads others, when they learn of the possession, to act differently towards the possessor.  Here’s Stewart on his map (p. 213):

It was less accurate the further you were from the speaker’s home . . .  But I was able to add details from villages along the way, till I could chant the stages from memory.
Day one:  Commandant Maududi in Badgah.  Day two:  Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar.  Day three:  Bushire Khan in Sang-izard.  Day four:  Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish.  Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-eNau.  Day six:  Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chisme . . .
I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map.  I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as credentials.  Almost everyone recognized the names, even from a hundred kilometres away.  Being able to chant it made me half belong:  it reassured hosts who were not sure whether to take me in and it suggested to anyone who thought of attacking me that I was linked to powerful names. (page 213)

Because AI is (or should be) about ways of knowing and doing in the world, it therefore has close links to the social sciences, particularly anthropology, and to the humanities.
Seymour Papert [1988]: One AI or Many? Daedalus, 117 (1) (Winter 1988):  1-14.
Rory Stewart [2004]: The Places in Between. London, UK:  Picador, pp. 211-214.

The second time as farce

Rory Stewart, in his book about walking across Afghanistan, has this to say about the post-colonial cadres working for the UN and other international agencies in developing countries:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism.   But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer.  Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but no one notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual offices are never in any one place and rarely in one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation or oppression.

Rory Stewart [2004]: The Places in Between. London, UK:  Picador, p.272, footnote #59.

Social surveys in the developing world

Robert Chambers, sociologist of development, writing about social science surveys in the developing world:

As data collection is completed, processing begins. Coding, punching and some simple programming present formidable problems. Consistency checks are too much to contemplate. Funds begin to run out because the costs of this stage have been underestimated. Reports are due before data are ready. There has been an overkill in data collection; there is enough information for a dozen Ph.D. theses but no one to use it. Much of the material remains unprocessed, or if processed, unanalysed, or if analysed, not written-up, or if written-up, not read, or if read, not remembered, or if remembered, not used or acted upon. Only a minuscule proportion, if any, of the findings affect policy and they are usually a few simple totals. These totals have often been identified early on through physical counting of questionnaires or coding sheets and communicated verbally, independently of the main data processing.”

Robert Chambers [1983]: Rural Development: Putting the Last First. London, UK: Longman. p. 53.

Knowing ways

Further to my post about different ways of knowing and recent posts on religion, is this statement from a story in the The Melbourne Age today, about Indigenous Australian footballers:

In her book Yuendumu Everyday, Yashmine Musharbash refers to the Aboriginal notion that knowledge is acquired through ”doing” rather than questions.”

Yasmine Musharbash [2009]: Yuendumu Everyday: Contemporary Life in Remote Aboriginal Australia.  Aboriginal Studies Press.

A good woman in Africa

Marbury reports on the reaction of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to a question asked by a university student in Kinshasa about her husband’s opinion on some issue.  She appears to have taken umbrage at being asked for Bill’s opinion, as if she would have  no opinions of her own.
If the questioner were an Australian journalist (Norman Gunston, say*), then she would have been correct to take offence. But the questioner was Congolese, and the question could have been asked sincerely.  Perhaps no aspect of African culture is more distinct from contemporary, post-Protestant, western culture than the relationship between individuals and families.  In traditional African society, individuals would not normally have their own opinions; rather, they would defer to the group opinion of the extended family to which they belong.  These family opinions are reached in different ways, in some cases by discussion among the adults until a consensus emerges, in other cases by diktak by the most powerful family member (who may not necessarily be the eldest male).   The means of reaching shared opinions differ from one society to another, from one family to another, and even, within a single family, from one occasion to another.  In short, the locus of decision-making is not an individual but a group.  Traditional Catholic culture has more in common with this idea than our post-Protestant western culture because in Catholic belief, it is the Church, as a whole, that mediates communications between Man and God, and which is the recipient of Christian grace.  Protestants allowed each person to speak to God him or herself directly, thus promoting (or perhaps examplifying or accompanying) the trend to individualism that has been a feature of western life these last two centuries or so.
This fact of African life has implications for anyone doing market research or opinion polling in Africa, since the standard method used for random variation of respondents within households in sample surveys (the so-called Kish Grid) does not work.  People speaking to sample surveyers, if they are willing to speak, want to give their family’s opinion not their own (if indeed, the concept of “their own opinion” makes any sense to them), and usually they want the designated household spokesperson to do the speaking. Depending on the specific culture, this designated person might be the eldest male, or it might be the youngest child, or the person with the most formal education.   I know this from my own experience doing market research surveys in Southern Africa, and I wrote about this experience for an anthropology journal.   Similarly, there are important implications for anyone designing and executing marketing campaigns or public health information campaigns in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere in the world (eg, Latin America).
On balance, I think Mrs Clinton should probably not have taken personal offence at the question.  But the fact that she did take umbrage points to the very profound cultural difference at play here.
* At a US press conference given to announce a movie about Watergate, Norman Gunston asked if the film would have any 18.5 minute gaps in it, as Nixon’s secret Oval Office tapes did, and whether former President Nixon would receive complimentary tickets to the film.
P. J. McBurney [1988]: On transferring statistical techniques across cultures: the Kish Grid. Current Anthropology, 29 (2): 323-5.

A salute to Thomas Harriott

Thomas Harriott (c. 1560-1621) was an English mathematician, navigator, explorer, linguist, writer, and astronomer.  As was the case at that time, he worked in various branches of physics and chemistry, and he was probably the first modern European to learn a native American language.  (As far as I have been able to discover, this language was Pamlico (Carolinian Algonquian), a member of the Eastern Algonquian sub-family, now sadly extinct.)  He was among those brave sailors and scientists who traversed the Atlantic, in at least one journey in 1585-1586, during the early days of the modern European settlement of North America.  Because of his mathematical and navigational skills, he was employed variously by Sir Walter Raleigh and by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, both of whom were rumoured to have interests in the occult and in the hermetic sciences.   Harriott was the first person to use a symbol to represent the less-than relationship (“<“), a feat which may seem trivial, until you realize this was not something that Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Islamic, Indian, or Chinese mathematicians ever did; none of these cultures were slouches, mathematically.
Yesterday, 26 July 2009, was the 400th anniversary of Harriott’s drawing of the moon using a telescope, the first such drawing known.  In doing this, he beat Galileo Galilei by a year.   The Observer newspaper yesterday honoured him with a brief editorial.
Interestingly, Harriott was born about the same year as the poet Robert Southwell, although I don’t know if they ever met.     Southwell spent most of his teenage years and early adulthood abroad, and upon his return to England was either living in hiding or in prison.  So a meeting between the two was probably unlikely.  But they would have each known of each other.
Previous posts  in this series are here.   An index to posts about the Matherati is here.