Friday, April 11, 2008

Exporting E-Waste: Keeping up appearances of a "Weightless Economy"

Though the bursting of the dot-com bubble some years ago, and the on-going troubles in the US and world economy may have tempered it somewhat, the relentless propoganda on the "new economy", the "knowledge economy" and so on continues apace. The Brave New World of Information and Knowledge apparently breaks the laws of gravity and becomes weightless. What is the "weightless economy"? I found a nice summary of the main components here. The weightless economy comprises four main elements:

1. Information and communications technology (ICT), the Internet.
2. Intellectual assets: Not only patents and copyrights but also, more broadly, namebrands, trademarks, advertising, financial and consulting services, and education.
3. Electronic libraries and databases: Including new media, video entertainment, and broadcasting.
4. Biotechnology: Carbon-based libraries and databases, pharmaceuticals.

The adjective "weightless" seems to be used to suggest a greater importance of ideas over "stuff", intellectual property over physical property, information flows over physical flows and so on. To an extent it is true that reproduction of digital matter is fundamentally different from the reproduction on physical goods, which is the reason marginal cost pricing does not work in this sector. And is also behind the incessant wars over reporduction of music, software and other digital commodities.

But if we look at this "weightless economy" through a materials throughput lens, not only is it not weightless, but in fact it possess a formidable problem both at the source and sink ends of the materials cycle. The high rate of obsolescence combined with increasing use of computers and the internet in every area of human activity, has resulted in an incredibly high throughput of physical waste; discarded computers and other electronics that are high in toxic metal content.

The illusion of weightlessness is sustained in part by a discourse that elides the physical infrastructure that sustains this economy; the miles of firbre optic cables, the computer terminals, big and small that are the nodes of the internet, the ever-increasing manufacture of silicon chips, cathode ray tubes, LCD monitors, the list can be easily increased. And partly also by the exporting (both legal and illegal) of electronic waste to poorer and less powerful nations. The flow of toxic electronic waste from the US and EU to India, China and other smaller countries is now booming business earning vauable foreign exchange for poor countries (export of waste-processing services as it is generously called). Granted that information flows can themselves be many times larger in "volume" than the physical infrastructure that carries them, but that does not make the later soomething to be trifled with. Specially when the full environmental and human burdens are brought into the picture, the weightless economy doesn't seem quite such a light-hearted matter anymore.

A good article on this problem by Jayati Ghosh:

Digital Dumps: A Growing Threat for Developing Countries
Mar 17th 2008, Jayati Ghosh

It is a sight that that is increasingly only too common in urban India, and now even in some more prosperous rural areas of the country: ramshackle piles of dismembered pieces of discarded electronic equipment such as computers, CD players, televisions and cell phones lying around in the odd corners of offices and homes. Or else simply dumped in the open in garbage heaps, and then being painstakingly searched through by rag-pickers of all ages, who look for any elements that can be resold. Read more...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Lesser Known Ghalib (4): The Veil of Existence

This time's entry on the lesser known Ghalib collects two verses, one Urdu and one Farsi, which, in my opinion seem to display connected philosophical features. They both play with the theme that the world of appearance (that which we see around us) is a veil over (Divine) reality, it both gestures towards the Divine presence and elides it.

The first verse in Urdu, is one of my all-time favorites (Ghazal 98, verse 10, rhyme scheme "aab mein"). It goes

ہے غیب غیب جس کو سمجھتے ہیں ہم شحود

ہےں خواپ میں حنوز جو جاگے ہیں خواب میں

hai Ghaib-e-Ghaib jisko samajhte haiN ham shuhood
haiN Khvaab meiN hanoz jo jaage haiN Khvaab meiN

That which we think of as seeing/the seen is the hidden of the hidden
They are dreaming still those who have awakened in a dream

Click here to read Hali, S.R.Faruqi and Frances Pritchett on this verse. As Faruqi notes "the metaphor in the second line immediately captures the imagination with its 'peerless beauty.'" Faruqi continues:

"People who, in a dream, see themselves as awakened, are still in a dream (and asleep). When they consider that they have woken up, they are only in error. What kind of error is this? This error is not devoid of two aspects. The sleeping individual has not had the experience of awakening. When he thinks that he's had this experience, he's only in error. In this way, to consider appearance and shuhuud to be the experience of divine wisdom is an error.But this error is not entirely without reality. The way the experience of waking in a dream is a shadow of the real experience, in the same way knowledge of appearances is a shadow of knowledge of the Truth. The second aspect is that the person who is at that time absorbed in a dream, will sometime or other wake up. Just as nonexistence is a proof of existence, in the same way sleep/dream is a proof of wakefulness."

But as Faruqi also notes, while the second line entices us with the beauty of its image, the first line also packs complex thoughts very densely. Ghaib itself is an incredibly multivalent word meaning "Absence; invisibility; concealment; anything that is absent, or invisible, or hidden (from sight or mental perception); a mystery, secret; an event of futurity; the invisible world, the future state" according to Platts Dictionary. So the phrase Ghaib-e-Ghaib right at the beginning sets us up with an interesting mental construct, the absence of absence, the hidden of the hidden, or the concealment of concealment. If we take Ghaib to mean hidden/concealed then we get the following: Existence, the world that exists, which we consider to be a manifestation of the Divine presence (shuhood) is actually only the concealment of the concealed, a curtain, a veil over the Ghaib. As Faruqi says, "even seeing things in the form of Divinity alone does not bestow knowledge about the true Essence; rather, it only gestures toward that knowledge." Just as waking up in a dream is not really waking up but only a "gesture" towards real waking. So far so good. But I wonder if it would be valid to take Ghaib to mean "absence", then shuhood/appearance/manifestation is the absence of absence, its the non-existence of non-existence, i.e. existence itself. I am not sure this reading works very well in conjunction with the second line, but maybe someone can think of a connection.

Now let us compare the foregoing Urdu verse to the Farsi one below (rhyme scheme "aabi besh nist"):

خویش را صورت پرشتان ہرزہ رسوا کردہاند

جلوہ می نامند و در معنی نقابی بیش نیست

Khvesh ra soorat parastaaN harzah rusva kardand
jalwah mi namand dar ma'ani naqaabi besh nist

Perhaps an Urdu translation would be:
Khud ko soorat parastoN ne bevajah rusva kiya
jise jalwa kehte haiN, naqaab se besh nahiN

In vain have the form-worshipers disgraced themselves
What they call the splendor of appearance is no more than a veil on reality

It seems to me, if I haven't misunderstood the Farsi, that this verse can be read in at least two ways. In one reading Ghalib is saying, "The worshipers of form have disgraced themselves for no reason. They are actually not that far wrong. After all the splendor of appearance is only a veil on reality, it points to reality (just as the shuhood gestures towards the Ghaib or waking in a dream, though not waking in actual fact, is still a reflection of that fact). I would like to read it in this way, but I admit it may be a stretch.
In the second reading, which is less far-fetched maybe, Ghalib says, "Why have the form worshippers disgraced themselves for no reason? Their God is only a veil, a false God, not something you should disgrace yourself believing in, unless you are misguided (i.e. unless you mistake waking up in a dream with actually waking up).

I think it seems valid to claim that time and again Ghalib shows himself to be preoccupied with this Sufi and Vedantic trope or existence being a veil over the essence, what is called maya in Vedanta. His more well known verse,

jabki tujh bin nahiN koi maujood
phir yeh haNgamah ai Khuda kyaa hai?

seems to hover around in the same general space.