Published on 12th June, 2015, in The Economic Times.
In the Vedic system of dharma, every human has to live his life in four phases: the first phase as a student, the next as a married man, the third has a retired man, and the fourth as a hermit. These phases did not begin or end abruptly but phased into each other gently. And so the student gradually learned a skill, then he gradually moved into household life, first as husband and then as father, providing and protecting his family, until his son got married and had a child of his own, after which he was expected to retire and spend his time training the grandson. When the grandson had a son of his old, he had to be hermit, and watch from a distance how the world continued without him. This phasing idea is based on the idea that humans gradually pick up a new skill and need time to break free from old habits and routines. There is no abrupt termination of a leader; he gradually eases a new talent in and gently makes himself redundant. That is this dharma, his obligation as a leader and as a human.
However, increasingly, we are seeing human being as programmable plug & play software patches. Organizations change structure at rapid intervals, and expect people to fit to their new role in the least amount of time, with minimum or even no training, and certainly no time to phase into the new job or phase out of an old one. One is expected to function at 100% efficiency and effectiveness from day 1 till the last day, when you are replaced by an equally competent human being who will do exactly your function the way you did it. In other words, you become ‘equal’ — like everybody else, easily programmable, replaceable, and transferable. In other words, companies want people to be no different form tools that can be used, upgraded or discarded. The new purpose of design and technology is to create such moldable employees.
Traditionally, Vedic technologies were classified into three: the mantra (that works on the ‘mana’ or mind), the tantra (that works on the ‘tana’ or body), and the yantra (that technology or instrument that is independent of the mind or body). Mantras sought to create conceptual clarity or emotional stability. Tantras were behaviors (chanting, fasting, celibacy, pilgrimages, postures, breath control) that used the body to solve problems, without placing any demand on the head or heart. And finally there were the yantras (idols, images, and geometrical patterns) located outside humans, designed to impact the world around us without putting any pressure on the mind or body. Yantras were about plug & play: just wear the talisman and see fortune turn.
Every organization needs mantra (conceptual clarity and emotional security) to create leaders, tantra (behavioral modification) to create a compliant workforce and yantra (technology) to do repetitive jobs that do not need human intervention. Of these mantra is least predictable but most effective, especially for handling shifting contexts. Tantras work only in fairly homogenous ecosystems and there is constant need for ‘change management workshops’ and ‘retraining’ every time there is change in organizational structure, business processes or technology. Yantras can either be used to enable people (tool), or to bypass people completely (robots). Companies, faced with the pressures of targets and expectations, tired of human defiance and unpredictability, are increasingly betting more on yantra, less on tantra and even less on mantra.
This is a technocratic view of the world, where the whole idea is to create technology that replaces human beings completely, hence the obsession with algorithms and robotics. Instead of making tools that are human-friendly; humans are being expected to be tool-friendly, aligning to the computer, so that the outcome is not marred by human intervention but instead the computer ensures consistency and predictability of output. Employees are seen as problematic. The vision is to create technology whereby there is minimum human interface between the shareholder and the consumer. It is as if, since slavery was banned, we are turning to technology to remove our dependence on wage-demanding unpredictable and demanding humans. It is this mindset that values processes over people, and technology over thought.
We are becoming a world where we are more likely to be talking to a screen on a computer or mobile device than a human face. We are becoming a world where decisions are more likely to be taken by computers than people. We are becoming a world where we want people to consume our products and services but we want these products and services to be created by a minimum number of employees. We want responses to customer queries to be more an outcome of technology than people. Few are questioning the sociological impact of this approach. And that is a dangerous trend.