Aadhaar, Twitter and strong opinions, loosely held

We have to deal with complexity—and for that we need space

N S Ramnath

[By Arek Socha under Creative Commons]

Recently, Twitter increased its word limit to 280 characters for some of its users, kicking up discussions on whether it will make the world, at least the world of Twitter, a better place. 140 characters didn't offer room for nuance, which polarised people, and made the social media platform a toxic place to be in.

Benedict Evans, a well-regarded venture capitalist working for Andreessen Horowitz tweeted, “Quite a lot of the rancor on twitter is driven by misunderstanding: no room for nuance or sub clauses. A little more room might help that.” He went on to explain, “The problem is more that you make a point, but don’t have room to qualify it, so people read more into it than is there. Lossy compression.”

The more words you have, the more nuance you can capture. Consider this example from Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, a series of seven statements that increasingly get more accurate in describing efficient market hypothesis.

  1. No investor can beat the stock market.
  2. No investor can beat the stock market over the long run.
  3. No investor can beat the stock market over the long run relative to his level of risk.
  4. No investor can beat the stock market over the long run relative to his level of risk and accounting for his transaction costs.
  5. No investor can beat the stock market over the long run relative to his level of risk and accounting for his transaction costs, unless he has inside information.
  6. Few investors beat the stock market over the long run relative to their level of risk and accounting for their transaction costs, unless they have inside information.
  7. It is hard to tell how many investors beat the stock market over the long run, because the data is very noisy, but we know that most cannot relative to their level of risk, since trading produces no net excess return but entails transaction costs, so unless you have inside information, you are probably better off investing in an index fund.

On Twitter, with its 140 character limit, you will have to stop at No 4. Which means, all the other qualifications that you would have made in the subsequent statements, would go unsaid—giving scope for misunderstanding, often leading to rancour. With the expanded Twitter, you can make the sixth statement without hitting the ceiling.

There are very few things of any value today that one can discuss without adding nuance, without making qualifications. Shorn of these nuances, discussions often become shouting matches, pushing people into taking extreme positions, away from common ground. Besides, many of the issues that impact society are at the intersection of several other contentious issues. We have to deal with complexity—and for that we need space.

Take Aadhaar. Since Aadhaar is a big tech idea, with a potential to impact government, businesses and people at large, our view on the project is to a large extent determined by our views on all these five elements: technology, government, business, big ideas and people. None of these can be looked at through the binary of good and bad. We need a lens that lets us see it in all the different shades.

Technology

It can be a tool for inclusion; it can empower people; but it can also cause exclusion, and disempower people. It impacts the world we live in; but it also responds to feedback from its environment. It evolves.

From wheels to bicycles, from electricity to railways, from printing press to internet, technology has helped more people get access to food, education, finance. It has often disrupted the iniquitous power structures, and made the world more democratic. But technology has also caused pollution. Automobiles have led to more accidents. (Over 1.5 lakh people were killed in road accidents in India last year.) Loss of privacy and autonomy due to digital technology is increasingly becoming a big concern. At the same time, technology also evolves. The first version of iPhone did not even have an app store. In its early days, Amazon accepted orders in negative quantities, depositing money into the accounts of customers. There is an order of magnitude difference between Model T and today’s cheapest cars. It is the same with Aadhaar—the enrolment process has gotten more sophisticated and more secure, fighting a constant battle with those trying to beat the system. The first version of the enrolment kit, for example, was not GPS enabled.

Government 

We need to strengthen the capacity of the government to provide public goods and for it to take care of people left out by the market. But government can also misuse that power.

The big gap between the grand vision of our political leaders—starting with Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi—and the sad reality of the socio-economic indicators in India can be explained, to a significant extent, by the lack of capacity in the government. Speaking at the D.D. Kosambi Ideas Festival held on February 20, 2015, in Goa, Raghuram Rajan made a reference to Francis Fukuyama’s three pillars of a liberal democratic state: 1) A strong government (one that provides an effective and fair administration through clean, motivated, and competent administrators who can deliver good governance), 2) rule of law, and 3) democratic accountability.

He went on to say, “of the three pillars ... the strongest in India is therefore democratic accountability. India also adheres broadly to the rule of law. Where arguably we may have a long way to go, as Fukuyama has emphasised, is in the capacity of the government (and by this I mean regulators like the RBI also) to deliver governance and public services.” But, then, as he pointed out in his speech, a strong government may not move in the right direction.

In the case of Aadhaar, India’s courts have been providing a part of checks and balances. In 2013, for example, the Supreme Court said law enforcement agencies cannot access biometric data without consent. More recently, a nine judge bench ruled that privacy is a fundamental right. The government is working on a data protection law. It will be a tug of war. And that’s how democracies work.

Business

We need businesses for innovation, for efficiency, for responding to customer needs fast. But, businesses can be too focused on profits, and ignore externalities.

Two sentences from Adam Smith captures the complexity of the relationship between businessmen and society.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” (The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2)

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” (The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 10.)

Few would disagree that Adam Smith made one of the best cases for free markets, and thus, for businesses, and yet it’s hard to find a single favourable mention of businessmen in the entire book. The lesson from The Wealth of Nations is simple. Welcome businesses, but be aware of the risks.

Big ideas

We need big ideas to effect dramatic improvements in a short time. But large interventions often face policy resistance, and have unintended consequences.

Big problems seldom get solved by applying band-aid. Delhi needed a mega project like the metro to solve at least some of its traffic woes. Mega infrastructure projects—canals, roadways, railways—are known to have reshaped world trade and geopolitics. But, big projects have also faced intense policy resistance (Decree 770 in Ceausescu’s Romania) and unintended consequences (One Child Policy that China followed for years).

Aadhaar is a big idea in many ways. It gave a unique, digital, biometric identity to more than a billion people in record time. But, together with other elements of IndiaStack—eSign, eKYC, DigiLocker and the Consent Layer—it has also built a digital infrastructure, upon which solutions can be built, innovations can take place. It’s a big move from, to use a term from Sangeet Paul Chaudhry’s work, a pipe to a platform.

Government programmes traditionally followed a pipe model: design a solution, pilot it, roll it out at scale. With Aadhaar it offered a platform—letting the local government bodies and private players to build the pipes to deliver value to citizens and customers. Big ideas often confound people with their scale. In addition to scale, Aadhaar demands a change in the way we look at government projects. It’s not just Aadhaar, it’s also what the ecosystem does with Aadhaar. What Andhra Pradesh does with the platform might be different from what Telangana does with it.

People

By and large, people want to do good. But they are also prisoners of their own worldviews and mental models shaped by their identities, backgrounds and experiences.

Ultimately, everything is about people. One cannot think about Advaita without thinking about Sankara, or Communism without Karl Marx. And discussions around Aadhaar inevitably turn towards Nandan Nilekani (and Narendra Modi, for the kind of push his government is giving to Aadhaar)—and sometimes even down to specific people involved in the project in different capacities.

People are complex. There are many theories that attempt to make sense of that complexity—as individuals, and as a society. Two frameworks are specifically useful. One is the ladder of inference, referred to in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, which encourages us to explore facts, beliefs, mental models instead of decisions and actions.

[The Illustration is from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (page 243). The idea of "ladder of inference" was propounded by Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris.]

The other framework is important too, because our views on technology and policy are to a large extent determined by values we believe in. Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundation theory helps us understand why two perfectly reasonable people might violently disagree on a specific issue.

Here’s a good explainer by Haidt himself.

Even as I read the paragraphs above, it strikes me that even these additional layers of nuance and conditionalities don’t really capture all the shades of a complex issue. That will need more space.

All complex issues demand space. But, is it only a question of space?  Is the rancour on Twitter driven only by misunderstanding, or people’s unwillingness to accept they could be wrong? When the issues are so complex, how sure can one be that they are right and the other party is wrong?

That the issue is so complex is no excuse for not having a strong opinion. The world is complex, and still, we have to live with it, construct theories, take decisions and follow it up with actions, even if it is as banal as expressing an idea on Twitter.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has often made a case for having a strong opinion: “Most people go through life and basically never develop strong views on things or they go along and basically buy into the consensus,” he said in an interview with Tim Ferriss. But founders and investors need to have a strong theory, a strong conviction, he said, because “you’re making a very big bet of time or money or both.” People who put their skin in the game, have strong opinions. They form their opinion—not based on consensus among their social group, not because someone they admire said so on a television channel or on Twitter—but based on the best information they gather, and the best analysis they could subject that information to. They read up, they ask around, they think hard, and they make up their mind. People with strong opinions can sustain long hours of questioning, without resorting to ad hominem.

At the same time, Andreessen also stresses the importance of the willingness to change one’s mind, because the world can change, new facts might emerge. Hedge fund managers, he says, do it all the time. “…they love when you tell them if they’re wrong. They get all excited, their eyes light up, and they’re like, ‘Oh why do you think that?’ And they’re genuinely interested because if you’re right and they’re wrong, they will change their minds. And they will literally reverse their trade. If they were long a company they’ll flip around to go short on it, they’re totally fine with that and that’s how it works,” he says in the interview. Or as John Keynes put it succinctly, “When facts change, I change my mind. What about you, sir?” Interestingly, changing one’s mind also comes down to having one’s skin in the game.

Andreessen’s solution, his philosophy is simple: have strong opinion, loosely held.

This is better than the other options.

Weak opinions, loosely held, is the position of a drifter. Here, you form your mind because it was politically correct in your social group, and you change your mind, when you go to another social group, or when the group itself changes its mind, for whatever reason.

Weak opinion, tightly held, is the position of a troll. Here, you run out of reasons faster than you can spell the word ‘troll’, and start abusing or mocking people who hold different views.

Strong opinions, tightly held, is the position of an ideologue. Here, you fall for confirmation bias. You end up processing only the information that is in line with your views. You don’t see any reason to change your mind, because, in your own filter bubble, the ‘facts haven’t changed’.

Strong opinion, loosely held is the position of a pragmatist, of a person who has skin in the game (if not in the form of money and efforts, at least in the form of reputation and integrity). Here, you don’t let your ego come in the way of your bigger goal. You don’t let your biases blind your broader vision.

A pragmatist, like the hedge fund managers that Andreessen talks about, love talking to people they disagree with. (Not all criticisms of course are equal. If I am a troll, who hasn’t thought about an issue seriously, or an ideologue whose only job is to gather facts—or conspiracy theories, big or small—that confirm my opinion, I shouldn’t expect a pragmatist to take me too seriously.) A pragmatist knows that the best way to take things forward, to make any progress at all, is through deliberations and dialogues. 

Andreessen describes ‘strong opinions, loosely held’ as a mindset. And, he is right. To have a strong opinion, loosely held, demands humility. It demands intellectual integrity. Peter Drucker once defined intellectual integrity as “the ability to see the world as it is, not as you want it to be.”

We live in times when we have to ask serious questions about the role technology, government and businesses play in our lives (Aadhaar is definitely one of them). Being on Twitter gives us an illusion that we are having an open and free dialogue, and we blame Twitter for not creating enough space to discuss ideas deeply. But, if the problem is with our mindset, if the problem is one of falling into a wrong square in Andreessen’s matrix, there is nothing that an additional 140 characters can do to change the direction of the discourse. 

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namaji blog on Oct 01, 2017 4:52 p.m. said

One more aspect that needs to be considered is how each profile in that matrix is perceived by others. A pragmatist quite often has the risk of being viewed as a drifter. This can happen more, when ideaologues look at pragmatists. Trolls look at everyone as Ideologues or Drifters. Drifters look at Ideologues as Trolls. Pragmatists understand ideologues somewhat, because they may look at themselves as the practical, mellow-down, operational parts of blending multiple ideologies. How these profiles view each other will have an effect on their responses to each other's actions, and if they are part of the team, it can hamper the delivery of goods depending on who sits where in the team.

This can happen within the same person. Someone could be an ideologue on vegetarianism, pragmatist in his career, drifter in relationships and a troll in an online discussion. I wonder if there is also some transition that happens between the profiles. May not be true between drifter and troll, but probably between pragmatist and ideologue. When an ideologue becomes a pragmatist, he gives an impression of just "being" a pragmatist, not becoming one, because the transition is not too observable and change is at the heart of pragmatism. A pragmatist can, rarely, turn into an ideologue, when he is depressed or disillusioned with the society's response to his pragmatism or being challenged or flooded by drifters and trolls who hamper him from delivery. Every pragmatist has a couple of ideologues within him, he probably turns to them at these times. These transitions can be life-altering, like the rich people turning communists or Siddhartha walking away into the forest.

Somewhat of an over-emphasis on pragmatists and the celebration of change, must be pricked, however. It must be pricked with the defining goals or values of one's existence or the society's existence. What parts of our lives should be allowed to change, just because "change is the order of life" ? Which parts, if we change, will affect the very goals of existence but not for the better ? What's "better" loops back into what we value. We can see this in questions like sustainability, family values and softer layers of human life such as art. People who value these, will pursue a "truly wholesome pragmatism", while the regular understanding of pragmatism usually degenerates into economic/administrative pragmatism, nowadays fuelled by technology. Such pragmatists who insist on wholesomeness, will tend to be set aside and labelled as ideologues by pragmatists, even the regular pragmatists failing to understand that they are standing inside a limited idea of pragmatism, like in a Matrix. For example, you hear: "Let's be "practical", we'll shift the parents to an old age home. They'll have everything they want". Someone refusing to give a bribe may be called as "being impractical".

What you practice today, and again and again, becomes practical. Leaders often practise what they truly feel about, sometimes alone, playing the band to empty chairs for a while, at the risk of being dismissed as ideologues. At that point, they are loners, it's only later they become leaders as the world sees more and more, the wholesomeness in their pragmatism. By definition of a pragmatist, one would expect that he is being open, and loosely held, towards enhancement of his pragmatism. But it can so happen, he loosely holds within a tight balloon.

About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Journalist

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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