The Tangled Web — Part 2

Talk to Me

You can learn a lot from talking to people. Long train journeys were a prefect setting to have long conversations with perfect strangers, people who have a different point of view, a different set of life experiences. Now that these days there are very few train journeys, long cab rides are the substitute setting for me to conduct an impromptu interview. Books and other publications generally give you a macro-level view of the world. For a micro-level understanding, you have to talk to people who you would not come across in the pages of a newspaper or a book.

My innate curiosity about how others see the world overcomes the introvert in me. On my journey to Mumbai recently in a cab, I spoke at length with the driver. He did not appear to be terribly upset that he was forced to (indirectly) pay the cops for the privilege of plying his trade. He considered it as part of the cost of doing business, just like paying for diesel or the road tolls. He was just a very small cog in an immensely large machinery. He had no mental model of how intricate the system was but that ignorance did not prevent him from being an integral part of it. He did the best he could and had a resigned attitude towards what was beyond his control. He was willing to settle because even though things were bad, they were tolerable enough. Raging against the machine was not part of his thinking.

Hard Candy

Systems that gradually deteriorate over time allow people to adjust and accommodate themselves as best as they can within it. Along each point of its slow deterioration, the system degradation is matched by equally slight changes in the expectations of the people. Finally, one settles into a state of such diminished expectations that getting next to nothing is acceptable because it is still better than the nothing that is the only conceivable alternative.

A colleague told me this story. In a recent survey of social services in a particular district in Bihar, he found that the government social worker was not doing her job. The scheme is called “Integrated Child Development Services” (ICDS) and is supposed to provide a comprehensive set of services: from nutrition to preventive healthcare to hygiene instruction. At least some part of the funding to deliver these services must have been there. Yet he found that all the social worker was doing only this: every morning at 11 AM, the worker would hand out one piece of hard candy to every child. That is all; nothing else. And for that, the children would dutifully wait till 11 AM to get their one piece of candy.

He spoke to the people and to his surprise realized that they were willing to defend the social worker and were not prepared to complain about the lack of services. He explained to me later that it could be that they were afraid that if they complained, the social worker may lose her job, and they would lose the one piece of candy they were getting. Furthermore, he was just an outsider and merely passing through. He had nothing to offer them. The social worker was someone who at least gave them something and was therefore less of an outsider.

Soft Power

The role of diminished expectations is absolutely fundamental in the emergence and persistence of sub-optimal system we see all around us. Changing expectations is fundamental to breaking out of this vicious cycle. Our expectations determine what is normal and therefore acceptable.

Last Thursday, there was no power supply between 10 AM and 6 PM in my part of the town. It was an inconvenience to me, just like it must have been to a few thousand people. But it is a regular inconvenience and we have all factored it into our routine. Initially I used to get worked up about it. I would rave and rant about the sh**-heads who managed the whole power infrastructure for their incompetence in not being able to plan for and provide a basic necessity such as electricity for a city in the 21st century. Now I take that as a given. I am thankful that there is power much of the time.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who had warned that one should not live too long in California. He said that it made you soft. In my case at least, that’s what happened. I had become soft. I expected service that I had paid for. Now I have revised my expectations downwards and after paying for the service, I pray that I get something and don’t demand more than say 50 percent of what I should get.

Let me tell you a story of what my experience with VSNL TataIndicom has been. Next time.

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “The Tangled Web — Part 2”

  1. Just as expectations diminish in the face of worsening circumstances, I think similarly, they shoot up as the conditions get better.
    For someone in bad conditions, some things may have appear to provide the ultimate satisfaction if attainable. But as their conditions improve, and as they achieve these things, some more things appear on the horizon which seem completely neccessary.
    So, its just the adaptability nature of the human mind, dont you think?


  2. Some game theory in play here… the other reason for diminishing expectations is that each person thinks that whatever she does individually will fail to make any substantial impact. So why bother.


  3. You have run into the basic entropy governing the system. The base assumption that power will be available when you want is sort of flawed given the state of affairs. Sometimes diminished expecations are based on the right reading of the prevailing scenario.
    The numbers in the link below will allow a more realistic goal setting.
    Its not like california is exempt from power cuts though their concept of a cut (and why it happens) is very different from ours…


  4. Nice post! I think that Expectations from a system are directly proportional to the effectiveness of the system of redressal of grievances which in turn lends voice to and empowers the people. Another case is those of affluent and powerful who wield effective influence on the system and effectively don’t need the system much.


  5. The thing about society (anywhere) is the incredible pace at which it undergoes change. Change leads to physical and emotional turbulence. It is possible then that during the course of things evolving, there is a certain expectation to expect the worse. I think though, that this expectation is associated with societies evolving for the better and for the worse. Not primarily the latter.


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