[Continued from Part 1 of this series.]
Made Up Stuff
Naturally, I was not part of the organizing committee and so I can’t know how they chose the keynote speakers of Dec 23rd at the Pan IIT 2006 meet. Therefore, I give in to wild conjecture. Consider this a sort of “reverse process engineering.”
“We need to choose a keynote speaker.”
“Yes, but to attract a wide range of audience, we must have more than one. Let’s set the parameters first. How about someone who appeals to technologists, as we are all techies. At the other end of the scale we have to have someone who widely regarded as a spiritual leader. Most of all, we must have famous personalities.”
“I guess that is a great strategy. We must have complete and comprehensive coverage of the entire spectrum. We need the commies as well as the capitalists amongst us satisfied. So, we must get a money bag to be a keynote speaker. Married speakers as well as bachelors.”
“OK, I get the idea. Let’s see: we have married, unmarried; commies, capitalists; spiritual, commercial; desi, foreign; political, apolitical; national, universal; pseudo-secular, communal; majority religion, minority religion; good speakers, bad speakers; good writers, bad writers; young, old; sensible, idiotic—anything else?”
“Yeah, how about gender equality?”
“IITs don’t graduate too many of the female persuasion. We could consider those famous female anti-globalization activists. But they are busy being anti-growth. We don’t want them. They may turn off too many people. So we have to give that gender equality thingy a miss, unfortunately.”
“We missed an important dimension. Economist. India is going to be an economic superpower. We need to get that famous Bong economist. No, not that one who writes that dismal blog but the other one who won that huge pile of cash.”
“Actually, he is booked till 2008. So we will have to go with someone who makes pseudo economic claims.”
“That settles it, then. We have the winners. These four are the minimal set that most comprehensively covers the entire set of dimensions except for that gender bias. Ah well, you cannot have it all.”
Having gotten the non-serious stuff out of the way, let’s get back to what matters.
For the record, the four were President Shri APJ Abdul Kalam, Sashi Tharoor, George Soros, and His Holiness Pujania Gurudevji Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji. I wrote briefly about Kalam, Tharoor and Soros the last time and ran out of steam before I could get to SSRS. So here goes.
Container and the Content
After having read so much about SSRS, and having received so much mail from his ardent followers, I was really psyched up to actually see SSRS in person. Of course, I had seen his picture plastered all over India a million times—on billboards and flyers, in newspapers and magazines. I was expecting to react along the lines of
Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
It was a terrible let-down for me. SSRS delivered his well-worn homilies in a faintly feminine voice, pausing frequently for effect while he smiled benevolently at the crowd. I was in awe of the man. He has got to be the world’s most successful marketing genius, a brilliant strategist. I should make it absolutely clear that what he talks about, apparently teaches, and packages is not snake-oil: it is some of the best that India has to offer, such as yoga and meditation. That sort of stuff doesn’t have to be sold and for selling it, you don’t have to be a genius. And therein lies the answer to why he is so successful.
Here are two questions I try to answer whenever I buy something. What am I being sold, the container or the content? And, which is the container and which is the content? What I buy may often not be what is being sold. I may buy the content even though they are merely selling the container, or vice versa.
Yoga and meditation are the container. What is being promoted, in my opinion, is the content, His Holiness Gurudevji Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. People are attracted by the container and the content gets spread. Gurudevji wraps himself in ancient Indian wisdom and promotes himself to the hilt. The marketing genius is in figuring out that yoga and meditation are a golden container and encasing oneself in it.
So how do I feel about the Art of Living and SSRS? Very positively. His self-promotion is actually spreading Indian ideals and ideas that I value across the world. From a consequentialist point of view, I value the service he ultimately provides to the world, never mind what I consider his motivation to be.
The Social Good
Which brings me back to the larger issue of the PanIIT meet. What was being sold there? What is the overall impact of such an exercise? From a free market perspective, the event is like any other voluntary exchange and therefore socially beneficial (because when private parties engage in free exchange, social welfare is enhanced.) There are externalities, of course, that arise from most private transactions. For instance, the negative externalities of, say, a celebrity speaker whose attendance causes public inconvenience which is a social cost that is not compensated for by the private parties involved in the event. But one should not discount the positive externalities as well.
Self-confidence and an optimistic can-do attitude are valuable traits in an individual which make success more likely. So also collective self-confidence and optimism can lead to preferred outcomes. Events such as the PanIIT 2006 can raise the collective consciousness if directed properly.
I went through their souvenir publications which collected some of the best contributions of celebrated and accomplished Indians. There is a lot of reporting there but no real analysis of what should be done and why. That is in my opinion an unfortunately widely accepted practice: doing too much and calling for action on many more directions without adequate thought to why we are where we are and what must be done to get to where we should be.
Positive analysis must precede normative recommendations. That is, you must understand what is and why before one recommends action to reach a future desired state. I saw very little positive analysis and too much call to action.
I will continue this line of inquiry in my next bit.