Feisal Naqvi

Up the Revolution!

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2012 at 11:08 am

The demise of Steve Jobs some weeks ago produced an extraordinary outpouring of emotion. People from the world over united in hailing him as one of the greatest minds of the ages, a sage who had changed the world as few had done before him.

In the middle of all this Jobs-worship, there were a few dissenting voices. He invented nothing, they said: he was but a tinkerer at the margins, one who did no more than polish and present the ideas of others.

The answer to this debate — at least, in my view — was provided by aMalcolm Gladwell article that argued that it was precisely his talents as a tinkerer which qualified Jobs for genius status. In other words, Gladwell’s point was that ideas by themselves mean nothing, but that it is the application of the ideas — especially the popular adaptation of ideas — which means everything. Jobs may not have invented the MP3 player or the tablet computer or the online music store or even the computer mouse; but what he did do was to take each of those technologies and perfect them so that they stopped being the playthings of a few and started being the tools of the many.

I mention Gladwell’s point for two reasons.

The first is that his analysis has resonance far beyond the status of Steve Jobs in the pantheon of great men. Instead, what it shows is that society unjustly celebrates the new and the revolutionary without giving enough credit to those who make ‘the new’ workable.

The second is that calls for violent revolution are once again ringing the air here in Pakistan, with legions of what Ayaz Amir calls ‘armchair samurais’, some now retired from decades of government service, calling for change in apocalyptic terms. And revolutionaries make me want to puke.

In case I was not clear enough, let me elaborate: I don’t like revolutions. I think revolutions are a dodgy business with entirely unpredictable consequences. They are, in any event, unnecessary.

To digress for a bit, Titanic Thompson was a famous hustler of the last century. One of his favourite tricks for parting suckers from their money was to bet people whether or not he could make a particularly long putt. Since the odds on him making that putt (i.e. rolling it along the ground into a hole some 40-plus feet away) were normally very low, people happily took up the challenge. And invariably lost.

The secret of Titanic Thompson was that he would water the putting green the night before and leave a hosepipe on the green leading to the hole. The weight of the hosepipe would leave a very small depression on the grass, enough so that when Thompson was out hustling the next day, his ball would no longer be rolling on a flat surface, but in the middle of an invisible trough leading to the hole. Needless to say, Titanic Thompson suckered a lot of people out of a lot of money using that particular trick.

People who look to revolutions for salvation are the equivalent of those suckers who didn’t know the way in which the game had been rigged. Power does not flow smoothly across the land as if it had no memory. Instead, generations of human existence have produced multiple invisible paths that channel the exercise of power. These invisible inherited patterns of power operate at a deep level and they change very slowly.

Revolutionaries tend not to disagree with the analysis that power in societies tends to be channelised through established forms. Instead, their usual reply is that revolution is necessary precisely in order to destroy such established norms of power and to permit a more equitable order.

The problem with these revolutionary analyses is that they are not just simplistic but stupidly optimistic. They are the equivalent of arguing that all you need to produce a modern architectural marvel is to blow up an old building in the correct way, so that after tumbling in mid-air, all the bits of pieces of the old building come down to earth in the correct order.

Unfortunately, only the explosion is easy. What happens instead is that the promised new and improved model never shows up and what one finds is a pile of rubble which then needs to be reconstructed, brick by shattered brick, into a new edifice.

Does this mean that we should give up on striving for a better society? Absolutely not. Instead, my point is that true change comes incrementally, one step at a time.

We have now reached the point where the Washington Consensus, the latest one-size-fits-all policy prescription, stands thoroughly discredited. There are plenty of other ‘solutions’ waiting in the wings to be tried but what we need to remember is that none of them will offer a universal answer. Instead, what works is trial and error. And even that approach remains problematic because the pace of change in today’s world is such that a solution identified after years of painful effort can become redundant the moment it is brought into play.

To return then to Steve Jobs, it is true that he did much to change the world that he lived in. But Jobs changed the world not by retiring to a dark room and coming up with brilliant ideas. Instead, Jobs changed the world by taking brilliant ideas and obsessively honing them to perfection, making them simple and intuitive in operation, so much so that the entire relationship between man and machine stood transformed.

If anything, politics is a more conservative field than business. We do not have the luxury of trying to reinvent the wheel every few years and we should give up trying to do so. Sod the revolution.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2011.

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