By Frank-Jürgen Richter
I saw, by chance, the first episode of a UK TV film about Afghanistan narrated by Rory Stewart who, incidentally, walked alone across its north-central region in the winter of 2002. He reflects in his series “… some of the parallels between history and the recent past are uncanny. A well-equipped army, full of confidence, swaggers into the country to fight a war against an enemy that some think doesn’t really exist: they have little idea of the horrors that lie ahead. This was not 2001, or even about the Russians in 1979, but the British in 1839”.
In the second part, a Russian general was asked for advice to give to the Americans: he replied “look for the exit as quick as possible!” But this text is not about Afghanistan, nor of the thoughts of Alfred T Mayer who was dubbed “one of America’s greatest strategists” and who revived the idea of the ‘Great Game’ as a troubled world between the 30th and 40th parallels of the Asian continent which includes much of modern Central Asia. No, I wish to reflect on an activity which truly deserves to be called “The Great Game” – the perversity of humans. There are many aspects of this perversion – but the greatest involves ‘fooling oneself!’
To study this, we perhaps ought to follow the advice of Marshal McLuhan, who in 1964 suggested “the medium is the massage”, advocating that it was not the content but the way in which this content is delivered that is important. Look at the fact that millions of people round the world play computer games, and billions strive to buy televisions even when they are starving. This latter point was discovered fairly recently by aid workers who had forgotten that “… the visual massage” assuages the depths of despair, yet they wanted people to eat more nourishing food even though they were very poor.
Returning to the PC games, bought by the rich and the poor (with global market of $20 billion) – they too carry messages! Consumers find they are educational, teaching subtly how to build personal capacity; how to interact better in work and leisure and how to extend knowledge. Others might wish to engage in ‘warfare’ games… either against the computer programme or against unseen other humans through the Internet. Although such activities develop motor and strategic skills, they may feed our dark psyche and be worrisome in case of copycat activity in the real world.
The games support thousands of software developers globally, many in India, who strive to make them more innovative either through paid-use of the games to find glitches, or through writing new code. They are the in-work people, but across India are millions who hardly can afford food notwithstanding India’s relatively good economic indicators across all sectors.
Aggregate indicators hide many aspects: and as with all media massaging, increasing trends are applauded. The greater number of software programmers is a case in point. But India does not note in its economic growth indicators its lengthening delays in resolving Court cases. These contribute significantly to its national inability to curb corruption at all levels and in doing so, force more into the slums that both surround and co-exist between the glitzy buildings of the new India. It doesn’t take much strategic learning to realise that if the Courts don’t get round to a conviction, one may continue to play the ‘Great Game’ – fooling oneself that corruption is a winning strategy.
There is always hope. Sometimes, in these tight-knit poor communities, self-aid and the very local trading will overcome the debasements by encouraging each to pull for the other. We have seen through the essence of the Grameen Bank that has spread widely from its early base – now ‘micro-credit’ has become a buzz word with too much meaning: ‘everything to everybody’. We should put labels to various types of microcredit so that we can clarify which form of microcredit we are talking about.
This is very important for designing appropriate institutions and methodologies, since the most distinctive feature of Grameen-type-credit is “trust”, not legal procedures or formal systems. As we can see in Slumdog Millionaire, we have further evidence that the medium massages us all… anti-cheating is encapsulated therein for our pleasure.
The Economist (June 2, 2012) opened with a leader upon ‘Morals and the Machine’ developing appropriate questions. Yet, it is somewhat ironic that we can’t teach ourselves the answers to these questions when dealing with fellow humans. I feel, sadly, that India is slowly dragging itself down.
It is mired in the stickiness of dithering. Its decision to ‘be independent’ years ago ought to be changed to acknowledge interdependence, and to acknowledge we must trust to defeat corruption. Then India Inc may develop more fully its people, raising its ‘slumdogs’ to more prominent positions and so raising its ‘Great Game’ from fantasy to a richer reality.
The author is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global business community