Bureaucracy as a platform? The power of diversity

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I was born in a house that housed a printing press in its basement. When I first left home, it was in that basement that I stayed. [Not for long: my need of home cooking proved far greater than my yearning for independence].

We left that house around 1960, and I grew up in flats where typewriters sprouted like houseplants. A Smith Corona here, a Remington there, portables mixing with standards, a splash of green here, a dash of black there. Typewriters everywhere. In all sizes, in all shapes. But we still owned the printing press.

I loved going to that press. The way the smell of printing ink hit you right in the face as you walked in. Rows after rows of galleys, some still occupied by erstwhile leaders, the type still burnished and glowing with ink. The rumble of the presses. The hypnotic motion of the paper feeds. The strange attraction held by the gigantic inkpad; the knowledge that you’d be caught red-handed if you touched it. More precisely, you’d be caught black-handed: our press didn’t do much colour in those days.

Yes, I loved going to that press. I think we called it Dorchester Printing Works. I have no idea why, but what I do know is that my grandfather had rooms at the Dorchester in London for months at a time, and that he gave the hotel as his address when he misplaced his passport sometime in the 1930s.

I was aghast when I first saw a linotype machine keyboard.

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Etaoin Shrdlu? Aha. Now I knew why that ghost phrase would occur in partial proofs, the lorem ipsum of a bygone age. And I remarked so.

Yes, etaoin shrdlu indeed, said my father. He then went on to explain that anyone designing for speed and efficiency in typesetting in the English language would build a keyboard based on letter frequencies. And then he said something that shocked me more than etaoin shrdlu, something everyone knows now (given the increased penetration of the keyboard into everyday life since then) and something no one will know in years to come (given the impending obsolescence of the keyboard).

The QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow you down. Not a new idea, yet one that will run and run. For those of you who want to delve deeper into “productive frictions” of this sort, there’s no better place to start than the working papers on Creation Nets by John Hagel and John Seely Brown, published nearly a decade ago. Which in turn should ensure that you get hold of the book that followed, The Only Sustainable Edge. Well worth a read.

Those trips to the printing presses made heavy impressions on the schoolboy that was me in the 1960s. [Yes, pun intended, before you say anything about it]. Even today, my love for linotype, for letterpress, for type (particularly wood type) continues unabated. Just look at the patina on the type below:

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You’ve probably figured this out by now, I think of my childhood and youth with great fondness; schooldays were filled with glee. Which is probably why I am still in touch with so many of my classmates fifty years later; in those intervening five decades, we’ve had a diaspora of sorts and can now be found in the US, the UK, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, the Middle East and of course India, amongst others. And we meet as often as we can.

A Parsee, a Muslim, a Christian and a Hindu walked into a restaurant. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s actually an accurate representation of what happened last month, as a number of us from the “batch of 1975” had dinner in London.

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The Calcutta I grew up in was cosmopolitan; there was something remarkable about the way we represented a heterogeneous mass in “caste, creed and colour” as the saying went. And yet to us it was normal, wholly unremarkable. It was familiar; it was warm; it felt safe and secure.

Why did it feel that way? Because it was safe and secure. In the years that have passed since, I have felt at home in many cities. But not necessarily safe. To get that warm feeling, I had to be somewhere cosmopolitan. Which is probably why I love London, San Francisco, New York, Cambridge (Massachusetts). A feeling of warmth, safety and security, a natural consequence of the heterogeneity of the population.

I’ve travelled to over fifty countries since, been threatened with arrest, beaten up, even pummelled into a coma. Sometimes I’ve felt safe, sometimes I haven’t. And I learnt something.

When everyone around you is different and you’re different, then you’re all the same. When everyone around you is the same and you’re different, then you have a problem. There is a warmth, an inclusion, that comes from diversity.

My fascination with the power of diversity began at an early age, triggered by nascent thoughts about productive friction. I’d never left India until after I was 23. In those days, received wisdom for travellers went along the lines of

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This was told to all would-be visitors to places like India; when I asked why, I was told “gypsy tummy”, “Delhi belly”, “Montezuma’s Revenge”…. the phrases were varied and colourful, but they all described the same condition. And when I asked why this never affected the people who lived there, I was told it had to do with antibodies and immunity.

I was young and I was obdurate. So when I heard all this I could only make one decision, I could only go one way.

I drank the water. And paid for it.

And then I kept drinking the water. Every time I went to a new place, one of the first things I’d do was to drink a glass of tap water. Yes, initially I paid for it. But only initially. After a few years of having tap water in every port, I’d built up the immunity I needed. To put it another way, I was made safe by the “diversity” of the water I drank.

Many years later, I had the chance to listen to someone at a TED conference, speaking about something else that fascinated me. Seed and crop diversity. His name was Cary Fowler; I spent some time talking to him, he even agreed to sign one of his books for me. I was spellbound. Seed banks deep underground. Not just preserving the seeds we used, but going further and preserving those that weren’t suitable for our environment. Because they could be suitable. One day.

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Future-proofing through the preservation of diversity. I loved it.

Over the past decade, I’ve had to understand more and more about the human immune system, as family and friends were afflicted by imbalances of different sorts. I began to appreciate the view that we humans had done well in targeting and eradicating “point” diseases and conditions, but fared significantly less well when it came to handling immune system issues. I began to learn terms I’d never really come across before: biome, biota, even “fecal transplant“. I shall be kind to you and give you the thousand word version rather than the picture for that one.

There were strange ideas floating around, fascinating in their strangeness. Was it possible that the dahi that formed part of the classic Indian diet, the thayir-shadam of the TamBram, was an elegant way of replenishing the immune system? More outrageously, could it be possible that the appendix was originally a boot disk for the immune system?

Health through diversity, this time in the micro-organisms ingested.

The last thirty years have seen increasing damage done by viruses of a different sort, the cyber kind. And words like monoculture have often been used to explain why one platform was more vulnerable than others. While at Salesforce, I marvelled at the technical brilliance of the core platform: one codebase to serve all customers, regardless of their market segment or size and style of operation. As I looked more closely, I understood something, something important. The variety of the customer base was an intrinsic part of the strength and stability of the platform — the codebase was “exercised” in umpteen ways, something that could not happen without customer diversity.

Platform stability through variety in usage patterns, again strength in diversity.

Hmmm. To the platform hammer of my mind, everything looked like the proverbial diversity nail.

And then. And then.

And then, while reading some quite diverse things (yes, diversity strikes once again), I began to toy with some ideas that others were already exploring.

How come India emerged as a “stable” country post-colonisation, in comparison to many others? The Partition riots were appalling, dehumanising, tragic. But the country moved on. Every now and then, there have been warning signs of monoculture, of “ethnic cleansing”, of homogenisation. But so far those attempts have been fruitless.

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Was it possible that one of the essences of India, the babu-dom of Writers’ Building, the bureaucracy-taken-to-an-extreme of the Indian Civil Service, the gargantuan offspring of the Imperial Civil Service — was it possible that the bureaucracy was itself a source of stability?

The Civil Service in India was built to cope with diversity in its customer base, drawn as they were from at least fifteen different languages, hundreds of dialects, worshipping pantheon upon pantheon of gods, colourfully variegated in their clothes and diet and united in their love/hate affinity with the English language.

That civil service, that pinnacle of bureaucracy, may itself be one of the core reasons India remains united today.

Strength and stability in diversity. Even bureaucracy can be a platform.

Just some of the stuff I’ve been mulling over. Let me know what you think.

6 thoughts on “Bureaucracy as a platform? The power of diversity”

  1. JP – Amartya Sen has a different answer to why India is stable, described in his book “The Argumentative Indian”.

    I would think the notion that we have over centuries developed a culture that is open to diversity that is reflected in its beliefs systems, social structures and practices, manifests as a bureaucracy, is responsible for why we survive and are resilent.

    Our resilience perhaps comes from the fact that we are not only collections and aggregates, but at some deeper level a melt (in a 3000 year old melting pot). Linguistic lines have often blurred, with many overlaps, except between the north Indian and South Indian languages. there forms of integrative elements have appeared too – the role for example that Bollywood might have played. Cultures blend into each other as you know from your Calcutta experience and I from my Bhopal township of social engineering experience.

    For diversity to c-exist, I think we must have porous boundaries and identities. India does that well and does not put too high a price, at least in most modern cases, on maintaining rigid ones.

    Using the Causal Layered Analysis model (Sohail Inayatullah), while the ‘Litany’ is diverse, it is our deep beliefs and myths that nourish it.

  2. Sudhir, I read Prof Sen’s book when it came out, and it probably influenced me. I’m also fascinated by some of the stuff that Justin Farrell is looking at, when he writes about the Yellowstone politics. There’s also someone in Dublin who’s working on some very interesting arguments to do with diverse electorates.

    What you call “porous boundaries and identities” is to me the diversity of an open multisided platform, the porous boundary is an API/publisher structure and the implied porous nature of identities is a strike for diversity….. but as I said, right now I have a hammer-nail problem so I have anchors and frames that drive me to a particular viewpoint.

    Having seen your comment I will re-read Argumentative. I think Sunil Khilnani said something similar in The Idea of India. The culture is definitely heterogeneous. My question is “but did the structure of colonial bureaucracy help persist that culture in ways that made India different from other postcolonial states? I am reminded of Amy Chua’s World On Fire in this context to review alternative scenarios

  3. JP – it’s only 6 Jan and I know this will be one of the best pieces I read all year. Thank you.

    I share many of your thoughts on diversity, though sadly often without the science or other proof.

  4. “My question is “but did the structure of colonial bureaucracy help persist that culture in ways that made India different from other postcolonial states?” –

    I agree the bureaucracy had a significant role to play for sure.

    People have talked about how the architecture/design of the bureaucracy was particularly interesting given the size of the country and its diversity, and how such a humongous task was managed with a relatively small enterprise. I might think that such a minimal structure actually gives it a flexibility that we do not expect in bureaucracies and allows it to be a formal structure giving agent while at the same time accommodating variance. It serves I think as a ‘design system’ that allows new forms to flourish as one might expect would be necessary in a fledgling democracy.

    So, I agree that the bureaucracy did play a role, but by being a very minimalistic non-b so to say.

    I have to read some of the other authors you refer too.

    I did not mention this in my earlier response – I loved the whole post and its reference to printing presses, typewriters and etaoin (I had forgotten).

    Thanks

  5. I like the “strength through diversity” message. I have always seen some friction as the understood price for a solid diverse underpinning. And I suspect so do most Londoners. Counter to that, many urban families choose to move to the boonies in order to bring up their young in ‘safety’ – a well meaning mistake I suspect for many reasons you touch on.

    Mono-cultures can be stable to the point of inertia – I think modern Japan is now an example of that. (Japan is famously very safe to walk around). New York is an example of a fairly safe cosmopolitan city hiding within the grisly shell of it’s former issues

    Vive la différence.

Let me know what you think