Weekend Readings: Paired Meanderings

It’s been a beautiful week here in the Netherlands: green everywhere, and flowers of all sorts are blooming, including tulips.  Tourist buses are roaring into the country to shuttle visitors to tulip fields and the Keukenhof.  If you are in the area, it’s well worth a trip. We went around some fields last weekend for a quick trip and really enjoyed the view and the nice weather.  I’m off to the the park this weekend, fingers crossed it doesn’t rain.

All that aside, here are some readings that caught my attention this week.

1. Masters of history or mastered by history? Two accounts of Pakistan’s troubles. Can Pakistan Be Governed? and Pakistan’s Fatal Shore

NY Times arrives at the man on the throne by tracing events in recent years that have made Pakistan particularly volatile. From his dispatch, we see institutions and processes have changed little since Musharraf. Many point to the original sin of its founding over 60 years ago. While India emerged as a champion of democracy, Pakistan was founded with little identity other to create a sanctuary for Muslims from India.  As founders fell by the wayside, power became concentrated in the hands of soldiers.  Recent year instabilities come from the demands for systemic changes, not another partisan shift. Can the people and leadership of Pakistan triumph the burdens placed on it by history?

Robert Kaplan attacks the same question from a map.  He pinpoints the root of instability to the cultural and geographic particularities of the nation, and finds feuding ethnicities and loosely-guarded borderlands reduce the legitimacy of Pakistan as a state.  Will territorially-based ethnic groups tear Pakistan apart?

2. Technology continues to change us. Whether for the better or for the worse, it’s up to us. How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write and Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The rise of Kindle means that we now have a bookstore that follows us wherever we go.  Other than the obvious observation that: 1) we will read more books, 2) we will succumb to more impulsive purchases of books, will anything else change?

Steve Johnson suggests that the total immersion we previously enjoyed with books will no longer exist.  Basically, the social media-zation of the girls’ book club will make reading a much more crowded and noisy experience than ever before.  He also thinks writers will become increasingly SEO savvy and paying per chapter is imminent.  Agree or disagree, those are points worth pondering.

This led me to revisit an article from last year that caused quite the ripple. Looking back, this is extremely relevant when examining the business case behind Kindle.  Nicholas Carr found deep reading, and the act of uni-tasking,  increasingly impossible in the age of Google.  Many of us concurred.  Now Amazon has provided a better platform through we can read, without the readiness of the keyboard and the myriad of other distractions that trick out minds away from the task at hand.  The computer is merely one access point of information, the success of Kindle has proven that the act of reading is best performed through another device.

3. Can the world stop interacting with Africa through ideology? Why Africa Is Losing its Dignity and Why I Left African Studies

I like this article by die Spiegel, because the writer has clearly toiled in the international development community.  He understands the argument put forth by all the bleeding-hearts that line the halls of Social Studies campuses all around the developed world, whom can not fathom the quantitative significance of billion versus million, but have watched the Constant Gardner one time too many.  He has also witnessed enough development progress made by nations outside of Africa to ask why we don’t see any “Made in Togo”, or “Made in Uganda” iron, bicycles or hair clips.

The cycle of dependency depicted here bears eerie resemblance to the plight of Natives in some parts of the world, where hands are outstretched despite the loss of dignity. In his opinion, the urge to succeed simply isn’t there, and economic policies are short-sighted and unreliable.  He also mentions various socio-cultural phenomenon: sharing of economic success by a community and the subsequent impediment for one to accumulate wealth and enjoy the fruit of his labour, the entrenched beliefs in spirits and other pseudo-religious symbols (see last week’s round-up for article on African missionaries and their brand of Christianity).

Gerhardt also objected to the use of externally-imposed quotas to measure progress.  In his view, progress must come from internal dynamics, not Washington or Brussels.  Lacking the ambition and the will to develop from within, the return to our aids to Africa thus far isn’t zero, it’s in fact negative.

From the little knowledge I have of African development, this is hardly surprising. African intellectuals up in ivory towers readily embraced and pushed forward western theological principles, without realizing that such political and social enlightenment did not come in a vacuum, but accompanied centuries of economic development.  The blind application of abstract ideologies seemed alarmingly disconnected from the maddeningly primitive realities on the ground. And the lack of social depths doomed the continent to repeated failures.

Then I remembered an article I read last year, just before I quit graduate school and abandoned my class in African studies.  I think Mr. Gerhardt is turning into Mr. Kitching. This disillusioned academic explained in a particularly heart-felt and genuine essay why he left African studies after toiling in the field for thirty years.  If you scroll down towards the middle of the page (it’s long, printing is highly recommended), in his long list of “maybes” to why Africa is still in such bad shape (look for the word concatination, alternatively spelled concatenation), I think he might have answered the perennial question after all.  This was written in 2000, and he came up empty with solutions. I went to school during 2008, not much has changed.

4. Geography and global conflicts, plus a blast from the past. The Revenge of Geography and The Coming Anarchy

Robert Kaplan’s been pretty busy lately.  He’s written the above (#1) article on Pakistan, and another on Palestine in this month’s The Atlantic. He also penned the one here in Foreign Policy.  I came across book The Coming Anarchy a couple of years ago, and have been an avid reader of his works ever since.

His works appeal to me for two reasons. One, he’s a mesmerizing story-teller.  As a dedicated traveler, he has been to some of the most remote corners of the world.  Unless travel writers like Pico Iyer, who write of his travel experiences in relations to social-cultural issues, Kaplan steers his travel writings in the direction of geopolitics. Two, he puts contemporary socio-economic happenings in perspective through his tireless research in history and geography.  So instead of merely answering the “where” and “what” of a place, he probes the “why” and the “how”.  I have yet to come across another writer whom can move this effortlessly across so many disparate fields of social sciences.  To report information is easy.  But to connect contemporary issues with as many threads of historical and cultural legacies as he has, is hard.

Kaplan examines the world through the lens of geography, much like the way someone looks at the world through the evolution of religion, or the north-south/Occidental-Oriental divide. This conscious application of analytical construction leave me weary of one shortcoming. Because it draws so much from history, it can be too deterministic, if not dogmatic at times.

In his view, geography dominates people and events.  It is an over generalization, but no more simplistic than the way politicians view the world through political frameworks (Kissinger and realism, Thatcher/Reagan and neo-liberalism).  In the current article, he highlights some potential flashpoints on the world map.  But I enjoyed his 1994 feature much more.  His analysis of scarcity, overpopulation and tribalism re-introduced Thomas Malthus and Halford Mackinder to the general discourse.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.LearnFinancialPlanning.com Shaun

    “Is Google Making Us Stupid” was an interesting read. I’ve always argued that the world’s problem* isn’t a lack of information, but a lack of a way of digesting information. Bits and pieces of information are fine — so long as we know how to handle the information. Anyway, just a thought. :)

    *At least in the more developed areas, such as much of Europe and North America.

  • http://www.LearnFinancialPlanning.com Shaun

    “Is Google Making Us Stupid” was an interesting read. I’ve always argued that the world’s problem* isn’t a lack of information, but a lack of a way of digesting information. Bits and pieces of information are fine — so long as we know how to handle the information. Anyway, just a thought. :)

    *At least in the more developed areas, such as much of Europe and North America.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Exactly. Now we have the info at hand, we need to find a way to organize the information. Perhaps that’s where values might be created going forward.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Exactly. Now we have the info at hand, we need to find a way to organize the information. Perhaps that’s where values might be created going forward.