Reflections: The New Literacy

The Trouble with Physics

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“You may be a PhD but you are illiterate!”

In 1981, Rob my painter friend, shocked me with the opening statement. I would have come across to him as one of those arrogant MBA types. He tested me with a few simple questions and proved to me that I am visually illiterate. Later on I came to know that I am illiterate in many other modes too.

Post Wall Street, he would have framed the question differently.

“You may be a Wharton (or some such) MBA, but you are illiterate”

“What were those questions?”
“Making them public would destroy the mystique that I have created around my IP, intellectual property/poverty, depending on the positions we take. I have sent a whisper note. If you don’t grasp it you may be illiterate on some other scale.

I have learnt the hard way that people should not be unsettled from their comfort zones. It might do them good but spoil my reputation. So I play the diplomat but diplomacy came after many hard knocks, over three decades.

“But I am a PhD”

I met Dr. Nazki in 1976. We reconnected on FB some years back.

He is a black swan, a retired professor of veterinary science; but not tired, yes a PhD but better and more widely known for his literary pursuits. I believe poets and painters are literate in a far different way. In an earlier era they would prefer to be in Paris than in the company of the likes of me. Dr. Nazki was the first multimodal person I met. Thanks to him I was already prepared in some way to learn from the shocker from Rob.

Thanks to social media, I can continue in my well (need not go to Paris where I would be even more illiterate) and yet remain  in touch at a distance without being a victim of the porcupine logic.

Most learning happens at the edges.

Farmers and fishermen are insulated from each other by different versions of literacy. There is a perception of stability on land but very little on the high seas. Fisherwomen are not that insulated as men. When the mobile phones came on the scene the illiterate fishermen were ahead of their literate agent in getting them.  Vasco da Gama was more literate than Columbus. He reached where he wanted to go.

Literacy has to be judged against the outcomes.

Edges go beyond the geographic. There exist a divide between the biologist and the physicist as with the farmer and the fisherman, poets and painters and the fictional average goose. Newton continues to influence the metaphors and paradigms of the literate (read, my doc) much more than Einstein or Darwin. The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin) or Cosmology is that the proponents are illiterate about BiologyPhysics is more in fashion than Biology. Both perhaps are illiterate about the lens with which we see the world. We are not talking about seer scientists like Einstein who come closer to poets and painters who see differently and are more in alignment with their deeper selves.

Literacy in a traditional sense is the ability to manipulate symbols and make sense, in other words, read, write and think critically.  I wish it had been read , write and reflect.  Literacy is often equated with modernity and culture. In the beginning was the word and now that we are nearing the end of the word as we knew it, will we turn out to be more literate in the non-traditional sense of the term.  The printing press and the East India Company,  are often perceived as landmarks to beginning of the ‘modern age’. The oral traditions which relied on memory gave in to technology and to those who could leverage technology. The digital frees up much more memory and opens up space for creative endeavor which could also lead to a void open to be filled up by digital noise in no time.

Closed is even better than open at times !

What is the literacy that we are talking about?  I was delighted to see the issues discussed in a classic academic sense by Carey Jewett of the London Knowledge Lab, in Multimodality and Literacy in School Classrooms. I shared the link with the tribe but there were no takers. Contagiousness is king, rather than content. I would have learnt something if I had some feedback and my experiment in community learning and participatory writing would have paid off or else this too would vanish in the cloud. For my  tired senior eyes the article was not multimodal. I played Hitler for a while and forced my children and a few members of the tribe to take a serious note of the article.  They appreciated it but I had to face questions as to why academic writing cannot be simpler sans the mystique. But for my tryst with illiteracy about livelihood security among the top of the pyramid I would not have played Hitler.

Meanwhile Carey writes to us. So kind of her. Participatory is working. Sankar mails and examines some related issues in his post, The slow life. . Aby and Sarah comment. This version of the post owes a lot to them

What we already know is the blinder to further knowledge? The belief that we are conscious is the worst barrier to our consciousness.

What if there are faster more efficient and effective ways of direct knowing addressing multiple triggers simultaneously?

In a world that visually unfolds in real time, how long can plain linear static text compete with much higher bandwidths?

“If you are a champion of the text, you would do well to migrate to Indian Universities where they lament about employability where the very same people who create the problem are entrusted with the responsibility of solving the issue. The digital divide results in no small measure from the preference to viewing than manipulating text. If both sides appear to be morons to each other, do not be surprised.”

There is more to the argument that the more literate we are in the traditional sense, the less literate we are from a developmental perspective.

The new literacy is about making sense and meaning of the world around us, physical or virtual; reduce the complexity of cues, symbols and noise which facilitates navigation rather than wandering around without purpose or speeding up without knowing where we are heading.

Sankar sends me the link on slowing down, The joy of quiet Pico Iyer. Amitabh shares the same on FB. We have a conversation as to why we should or not slow down. As if by synchronicity I receive a mail from aphoristic cocktail.

Nature never hurries, yet all is accomplished.”Lau Tzu 

Nature is over designed to be perfect.

We work (?)  by default, not by design. Rahul asks what is your default setting? We are the only species which comes with the default setting to fail, self-destruct. To be literate is to realize this.

When the pace is too fast one fails to see what happens around us. it is all a blur. Slowng down has no intrinsic value unless the slow down helps us to see what happens around us.

The farmer is slow but the fishermen cannot afford to be slow.Not all farmers see and not all fishermen are fast enough.

There are craftsmen writers and scientists for whom writing/science is a career and seer scientists like Einstein who thought about relativity for 10 years and special theory of relativity for another 10 years. The attention span of the career scientist could be limited by the next paper to be pushed out if he has to stay in circulation.

Read The Trouble with Physics for more and better.

We have mastered navigating the physical world. The maps are near perfect though the means could be improved. The virtual remains to be mastered where noise and the ability to make noise rules.   Captain Sparrow with the broken compass is an apt metaphor of our times.Even Pirates have their code. “The code wins arguments”. Silence is restored. Managers are yet to develop one.

Adult education is a mockery of education and proof that the long years of ‘educating ourselves’ in schools and universities don’t turn us into ADULTs, teach us to self-manage instead of mass produce a new version of slavery which certainly appeals to reincarnate Hitlers !

Next: Deciphering the literacy code.

Related articles

The Burden of Normality

The Burden of Normality

What is the First Discipline?

The first discipline is about map making. Disciplines are but collections of maps of physical or virtual spaces. Art, Science or Religion cannot do without maps. Child or grown up, literate or illiterate, we cannot survive without maps.

What is the process of making maps?

The self mediates in the process. We start with models and when the results meet our expectations we elevate them to the level of maps.

What are Meta Maps?

Meta maps connect disciplines. The FDF is an attempt in this direction.

Is there a hierarchy for Meta Maps?

Yes, at the highest level, they connect meta-disciplines, science, religion and art, unifying them into knowledge. The silos get connected.

Explain. .

On 12 October 1492 Columbus arrived in America. The day is celebrated as Discovery Day in the Bahamas. Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, Kerala, in South India on 20 May 1498. It was a happy coincidence that Columbus reached America. It took six more years of effort for the map to be completed and the mission accomplished.

Ancient Chinese sea farers probably had better maps but history was shaped elsewhere. Galileo was struck by the bolt from the blue but complete acceptance came centuries later.

We need a new set of maps for the next phase of the journey. Most maps waste our time and effort. If we have a unified map, it would point us to the solution space. The ship is ready but the captain is waiting for the map.

Maps are many and they multiply exponentially. Aggregation and synthesis within domains and disciplines do happen but less so between disciplines.

Meta maps reduce the search effort to choose the appropriate map/s for one’s journey as individuals, as members of particular communities and for the collective journey of human progress

Environment, development and sustainability are critical and complex concerns that call for concerted community action across the planet. Simple solutions and quick fixes aggravate the problems.

Every scientist faces the problem of communicating his work within the shortest span of time to the widest audience which points to the complexity of communicating science to the masses in contexts where there is no substitute for reason and collective action.

The GUI, essentially a map and a pointer to possible virtual journeys, took   computers to the living rooms across the planet. The web and the cloud open up vast libraries of information and knowledge. The visual framework discussed here was evolved in the process of addressing the environmental, developmental and sustainability challenges in the state of Kerala while working with livelihood and food security issues in primary production (livestock and fisheries) to evolve institutional systems to address them.

The framework was later put to use in addressing similar issues in one of the largest information technology infrastructure projects to connect local communities for development and governance and   in schools, industry and academia as a tool for facilitation of accelerated organizational / community learning. 

Beyond the Burden of ‘Normality’

December 26, 2004

We were rushing to Cape Comorin, the southern tip of peninsular India, two families on a holiday.

Fishermen on the high seas were casting their nets.

People in other parts of the world were asleep, dreaming good and bad dreams

The Tsunami was wreaking havoc on the Cape Comorin shore, on other shores

We knew when we were blocked on the road by the police.

Most fishermen on the high seas knew when they returned to the shore.

Many never knew

When we ride much bigger waves spanning centuries, we are most likely to take them for granted.  It is Procrustean to catch a giant wave into the bell curve in the time span of a snapshot sans the ripples that the wave creates. So is writing a book about it, the damage is permanent. The trees are already dead.

A blog post is better because I can come back and correct this when I know better and if I am alive. Time is a better judge of our power trips.

Copy CATs do not catch mice

Black or white, intelligent or idiots, they should catch mice. They do, in China, it seems.

This happened here in India, the Biggest Bazaar, apologies to KB

Why do we have to clone cats when we make the best mousetraps?

Let us clone the very best cats, go for a bio-tech solution rather than a manufacturing one. It was decided that we will have the Indian solution and the CAT came to be. The first centre was so successful that beating the CAT became the ultimate dream of the slum dog billions. Every panchayat wanted to have one such center. A task force was constituted to decide the exact number of centers to be set up.

There was this farmer from pre territorial independent days who had four sons and 4 + daughters. The female numbers do not really count. One from the + side had only daughters and Nuthan was the youngest of them.  Of the four idiots, three went to the IITs and one took a short cut to one of the CAT centers. He wanted to prove that he was a better idiot than the rest.

One cool January morning Nuthan calls.

Hi, I cleared the CAT and am called to all the centers

Congratulations, you will soon be the newsmaker 2011

Why ?

You are one among 206,000, almost a Black Swan.  We need to wait before concluding that we are getting mature going by the 15% drop in numbers from the previous year.

You deserve the Miss India talent crown. To the best of my knowledge you never went to school or college but spent most of those years in indoor stadia all over the country, having a ball. You never picked up any quant other than balancing the financial statements in your B. Com finals. Yet you did better than the best in School and College.

What was your percentile?


Nuthan, you are the cutest of all the cats. All the top cats with a perfect 100 belong to the male of the species, went to IITs, went to school every single day, did their coaching circus and most of them took more than one shot to make it. You don’t figure anywhere here and you have a work ex of three years playing for the oil company which you claim to have been working for and getting paid for it.

Thank you.  I am scared whether I will convert the calls or not.  Will you give me some tips to make it to the finals, clearing the GDPI (for the uninitiated this expands to, Group Discussion and Personal Interview)

If you can bell the CAT without going to the circus you can as well do this without me. You should be scared that they will make you conform.

I know you have helped some to beat the CAT

Ok. Let me run a small test for you

What is the scope for more CAT cloning centers in the country?

13 more


We already have 13, and there are only 26 letters in the ‘Inglish’ alphabet. Taking the UID route will kill the unique value proposition of the brand. One should not kill the golden goose.

Good, you are already half way there to half the centers

What is Indian about the Indian Institute of CATs

I don’t know

Very good, that is why you are going there. You are almost there for 75 % of the centers

Next one, if they ask what if you don’t make it this year?

I will show them my GRE score which is even better than my CATS and tell them that you will have to face me next year with a still better CATS

Congratulations Nuthan, you will convert all the calls

Here is the last one. Suggest a few titles to the passage above

  • Normalization and the True Normal
  • Copy cats Do not Catch Mice
  • The Bell Curve in Indian Life
  • The Fourth Idiot
  • Talent Mania and The War For Talent
  • What is Indian about the Indian Institutes of Management?
  • MCPs and the Revenge of the Underdogs.

Great, don’t go back to school. They will make you conform to the other idiots, crucify = normalize you on the Procrustean bed. Gates and Zuckerman and the other natives of the connected world graduated from the market, nothing but a different version of the same. Copy cats do not catch mice.

Nuthan:  What is Indian about the IIMs?

I don’t know dear

Thanks. (Thank God, I didn’t go to school)

Similitude to living and dead CATs is intentional

Thou shall not Judge…but

The procrustean is the bedrock of modernity (mediocrity), the generator of pyramids and the hierarchical.   Procrustes is a monomaniac, a Narcissus who sees that he fits his frame perfectly and uses the same to sit in judgment. I am intelligent and the other is less intelligent. I am normal and the other is fit for the madhouse.  I am civilized and the other is primitive. I am a native and you are an immigrant. Mine is the only faith that guarantees salvation. He is the economist who says the American is 35 times more ‘developed’, since the Indian has an average income of 1000 dollars against 35000 for the American. Has anybody met the average Indian or the average American?    The happiness index is outside his frame of reference.

Our Mr Talent does not take to fools easily. He thinks the mainstream media is trash. To reply to the fools who read his books is not worth his time, the real resource, according to his own frame. He finds his dollar worth pocketing since that is the price he fixes himself for his intellectual accomplishments. He declares himself a flaneur, a Black Swan, Prophet in the making.

Prophets ‘normally’ come from the east.  Lao tsu, Buddha, Christ, Mohammad, Sankara (from Kerala) Our Mr. Talent could be a candidate for the elite corps of Black Swans. The rest of us are white swans. That sums up the HIStory of 2500 years.

Prophets can be understood only against their contexts. Christ and the society which created him are so interdependent, that to strip them and to judge them in isolation is procrustean. So is Lao Tzu, Buddha, Prophet Mohammad and Shankara. Black makes sense only against the white.

Mr Talent the immigrant rides the American wave better than the natives beating the natives in their own game and nearly transforms himself to a bridge figure.   Uprooted by the Procrustean and forced to flee, let us hope that he will not sacrifice himself on the bed of Procrustes. Gladwell starts on a very promising note highlighting how community contributes to the health of the Rosettto but very soon succumbs to the compulsions of conforming to the recipe to make it to the best-seller list and goes after what constitutes the success cocktail.

All of them are male?

This is part of the reason why we have the silent unseen wars between,  the female against the male,  the unconscious against the conscious, the revenge of the underdogs,  and why the Built to Last fall apart no sooner than they are built.

Black Swans to Black Sheep?

Throughout these posts we refer to people, not books. The books take us to the people since work defines the person. In the same spirit we look at the living rather than those long dead and still not buried.  What we see depends on where we stand, our positions. One could take the Wall Street perspective or the Bangalore Perspective. The Black swan from the New York perspective turns out to be a Black Sheep from the Bangalore position.

Some books, people and books yet to be written J

  • The Fifth Discipline, 1990, Peter M. Senge
  • If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, 1974, Sheldon Kopp
  • The Bell Curve, Intelligence and Class structure in American Life,1994, Richard  Herrnstein, Charles Murray
  • Outliers, 2008, Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Black Swan, 2007, The Bed of Procrustes, 2010, Nicholas Nassim Taleb
  • Can Asians Think?,1999,Kishore Mahubani
  • Three Idiots,2009, Movie from India
  • Tunnel Vision, TV. Yet to be published
  • The WFT and the Future History of the Modern Pyramids, 2111. Yet to be published – it takes a gap of around 100 years to normalize our achievements and  to put them in perspective.

The above passage was circulated to the tribe. The comments:

  • Does normal exist?  Yes, when we are true to the design, we are truly normal. It has nothing to do with the fleeting ‘normality of the time’.  The compulsion  to conform to this stupid normality is the burden of normality
  • Based on the ‘normal’ perspective Nuthan would not have been able to get a CAT call since she did not tread the beaten path. She had meaningful answers for the sort of absurd questions that are asked at GDPI, questions tailored to fit the standard profile of those who clear CAT. Despite not being on the conventional bell curve Nuthan was able to crack everything designed to fit the standard CAT profile.
  • Exceptions point to the truly normal and only the truly normal can aspire to be super normal.

Thou shall judge… but keeping in mind the other 51 posts in the series.

P.S. 19 April 2011. Nuthan calls again. She did make it to the one she wanted.

What the Dog Saw…Did not See

Visualizing Knowledge

From the lowly perspective of a dog’s eyes, everyone looks short – Chinese proverb

From knowing to SEE ing

All dogs do not see the same

Stray dogs see better  than domesticated dogs

The latter become less intelligent in the process.  Leveling?

They may not be very ‘lowly’ as the Chinese say

We haven’t fared any better than them

On Community Intelligence !

Even the dog sees that we have gone astray !

silence Is

silence Is

silence Is

System Thinking, Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, Process Thinking, Matrix thinking, Lateral thinking, Whole Thinking, Integrative Thinking = No Real Thinking !

Do they meet somewhere ?

Accelerated learning, Team learning, Accelerated Community Learning, Transformational Learning

Emotional Intelligence, Gender intelligence, Community Intelligence

Mental models, Mental maps

Skills, Competencies, High Performance Competencies, Sustained High Performance Competencies, Talent, War for Talent

Change, Positive change, Improvement, Process, Continuous Improvement, Business Process Improvement, Renewal, Continual Renewal, Regeneration Therapy, ……..

Entropy, Negentropy, Atrophy, Decay,

Shared vision, values.

Complexity, Simplicity, Variety, Variety attenuation, Requisite variety, 🙂 this gets interesting.

More juggling

System of profound knowledge, Transformation, Personal mastery

Metrics, Valuation, at 50 billion, FB is more valuable than Boeing!

Efficiency, Effectiveness, Excellence

Inputs, Output

Internal, External

Positive, Negative, all quadrants, all levels, …..

Hot, flat, crowded. fried, man, the top hundred and the bottom billion, ‘inclusive’development, bunchy top and root wilt…

Blue ocean, limits to growth, sky is the limit, no limits….

Where do all these meet? Is there a common ground, somewhere, sometime ?

How do we wade through all this semantic swamp, do not miss the woods for the trees, make sense of the babble that lead to the crash of the tower of Babel, connect the earth and the sky ? Built to last or built to crash? Finally the east meets west after west meeting the east. Is it going to be any better ? Who can afford the luxury of a prolonged discussion when the quarterly is waiting, retain the hope of reaching the common ground ? We could do it in B- School when we were students and teachers. I don’t remember to have arrived at any common ground. We made a lot of noise and picked up a lot of jargon and dumped them as soon as we started connecting with the ground realities.

Can we have a one page brief of all of this and those other buzzwords yet to come? We might kill the noise and hope to get in touch with the silence, for a moment. This is what the visual is. We developed it in 1990. Nothing has changed except that the noise is louder.

silence Is


Knowledge visualization, KV, Sabrina Bresciani, is open ended, infinite, and exploratory. Visualizing Knowledge,VK, is finite but flexible, with an output/metric focus and is a Meta -competency framework