7.8 Billion People. And Thoughts? Not So Many.

The past few months have borne witness to large swaths of human population being asked to stay at home or shelter in place. In some parts of the world – total lockdown.  This was unimaginable a few months ago.  

As a consequence heated discussions arose about an alarming situation – where our bodies are not our own but belong to the state. We stay in when we’re asked to stay in and we get out when we’re asked to get out. What next? If they ask us to get vaccinated, do we obey? Will this be a matter of choice? Or will there be none?

Whose thought is it anyway?

Take a step back and cast a wider net – ignore your physical body for a moment and consider your mind. What does it do? It thinks. What does it think? Whatever it has been taught to think. When did you last think as an independent? As a free thinker? Freedom is an illusion unless you have freedom of thoughts. Freedom of thought is the seed from which all else germinates – your perceptions and actions. 

From the moment a child develops cognition, her views and observations are conditioned by people surrounding her. In school, the set curriculum forms the boundaries and shapes her views. Universities too expect students to concur with whatever has been taught and instructed. There are classrooms with more heads that nod in agreement that those with hands raised in confusion.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character –  That is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

Consider the course of history mankind has traversed – history itself has a major impact on our thoughts. We reflect on situations where we succeeded and instances where we failed and establish doctrines. Time and again we go back to them and try to fit them to our present reality – and we fail. One time too many. Every opinion that we hold, every framework we have developed to think – is a subset of all the information we have collected in our repository . 

Freedom of thought and expression revolves around the principle that One is free to hold one’s own opinion and expression. Though it is not necessary that the said opinion is right. Who determines the right one? – Majority of the society and the times we live in. In Ancient Rome it was heresy to question the Church even with scientific evidence. Fast forward to the present – the Pope sides with gentlemen in white coats on many occasions. It was accepted without question that the Earth and Man were the Centre of the Universe. This too was disproved and it is common knowledge that we are neither.  

Similarly, numerous beliefs that seem valid today will seem absurd centuries down the line. We can see such examples in the laws that we have decreed. A law is a law till the majority of the population believes it to be. Once they stop believing in it, there is a procedure where the law is repealed and a new one takes its place. Slavery was common place in history. Now it is barbaric and illegal. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, are things any different at all?

The efforts in education now lean towards building a framework for students and having them conform to the same framework. We’re making square pegs round so they can fit in the round holes. The need of the hour is to lay a solid foundation that enables students to ask questions, think for themselves and assert whether the arguments presented to them are reasonable. Requiring everyone to ascribe the same theorems, proof and corollaries has resulted in a large section of students thinking the same way, working the same way. To do this we do not need students, we can build an army of robots. Robots would accept the same without any questions. An added benefit is firmware updates for robots are cheaper than University education. 

Go one step ahead and you will notice Billion Dollar corporates too have lost this train of independent thought. You can see the same cafes in Bangkok, Bengaluru, and Boston. You can see people donning the same fashion in Mumbai, Milan, or Manila. You travel to different cities to experience what is unique to it – but we get uniformity instead. The problem of not thinking independently is evident on multiple fronts. 

Information overload also deals a big blow to independent thinking. The noise bombarding people from all directions is overwhelming. It is an arduous task to separate the signal from the noise. Facts may get lost in this chaos and one may take decisions based on garbage picked up from the noise. Like our pre-historic ancestors who always kept eyes at the front and ears at the back to remain aware of any dangers lurking behind them, we need to be cautious about what we consume, how much of it we consume and what do we make of it.

In a World mired in thinking the same thoughts, moulding everyone with the same mindset – it appears independent thinking has taken a backseat. The desire of an individual to convince himself/ herself that the information being presented to them is true/ reasonable forms the crux of independent thinking.  

Those which are valuable, are the toughest to measure

How do we measure the quantum of independent thought? Can we use a yardstick to understand whether there has been progress on this front? One metric that could give us an idea on how people are thinking independently could be based on new technologies we create. This metric is available to us in the form of new applications for new patents. It may be erroneous to consider the overall number of new patents that were applied/ granted. We can optimise this to the number of patents per million individuals in a country. Here’s how the statistics look for the world’s ten largest economies.

The number of patents filed on the Y axis is on a logarithmic scale to base 10. The data is available from 1980 – 2018.

Source: WIPO Statistics Database

The number of patents applied for remain stagnant in some cases. China (These numbers are contested here and here) and India being the outliers. In the case of Japan, France, and Canada we are a flattening in the number of patents that have been applied for.

Could this mean that the pace of innovation is slowing down? Are independent thinkers becoming conformist thinkers?

We cannot rest on our laurels for the best it yet to come

One may feel the majority of the independent thinking ‘has already been done’. The “big” discoveries and inventions have been made, laws have been posited and have been proved. This is akin to what the layman during Renaissance also thought. But the likes of Leonardo, Copernicus, Galileo have proved him wrong. 

To keep the innovation engine chugging, we need to encourage future generations to indulge in independent thinking. To not ascribe ideas because they’re there, but to ask questions – to hack away till they reach the core. Every time we have seen someone going back to first principles based thinking – a revolutionary idea has come to the fore. Elon Musk did that at Tesla. Steve Jobs and Paul Wozniak did that at Apple. Newton and Darwin posited theories that catapulted science and technology while asking fundamental questions. 

Where do you get ideas from? You get ideas when you encounter obstacles. Every successful idea was a solution to somebody’s problem. People wanted to share information in a quick and robust manner – this gave birth to the Internet. People wanted to be reachable always – mobile communication was invented. People wanted to buy books at cheap prices – but no one could stock all the books in publishing. Jeff Bezos solved this problem with Amazon. Every problem enabled people to break free from conventional thinking and rise up to the occasion. We must embrace obstacles, view them as a path to progress. Without doing so, we will be conforming to views of mediocrity and stagnation. 

There are no barriers to learning now. With a decent internet connection and a smartphone, even the most complex theories are available at your fingertips. We can leverage this to our advantage. Except that we need to bring our own ideas to whatever exists and create something now. 

The time is ripe for another Renaissance movement – in independent thinking. A leap from conformist thinking to independent thinking. We forget that we are unique creatures. We have the power to create. We rewrite the world and forge our own destiny. 2000 years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” I would write the same in 2020.

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