Howard Roark Syndrome hits the Indian Government

A critique of the demonetization move by the Indian government from a design perspective.

Thank you Prime Minister Modiji for clarifying that your move of demonetizing the 500 and 1000 rupee notes has a single point agenda of flushing out the ‘black-money’ and fake-money in the form of cash hoardings. And maybe, infusing the banks, which are tottering due to non recovery of bad loans, with some serious cash.

Ever since this move was announced to huge ‘fan’ fare, so much so that I had to mute all my Whatsapp groups for a day, I have been quite skeptical of all the claims of benefits this move will bring us. I am not an economist or a social scientist, so I can never say with the certainty of an expert that these claims will turn out to be true or false.

I am a designer and a researcher involved in and interested in the design and use of digital technology for development. And it is from this knowledge that I think that this move is a sign that the Indian government is suffering from, and not for the first time in past sixty years, the Howard Roark Syndrome (HRS).

Before I get into the details of HRS, I acknowledge my privileges that give me this luxury to sit in the couch and ‘dispassionately’ critique this move, which has erased life savings of so many people. If by this time you do not know who these people are, take a look at this image based recreation of the 16 point twitter thread by Amba Azaad.

Who is Howard Roark?

Howard Roark is the fictional hero architect in Fountainhead, a novel by Ayn Rand. Howard Roark believes that he knows what is best when it comes to building buildings and doesn’t take any shit from other people, for example, people who are going to live in those buildings. When a client makes changes in Roark’s design, and goes ahead and builds it, our hero bombs the building. Of course without harming anybody.

Roark has become the symbol of heroic problem solvers who are geniuses and holders or multiple masterstrokes, at least in the field of architecture and design. They think they use their genius for the betterment of others, but are usually constrained by people and their complex realities. I term such adoption of Roark’s ideal about change as a Howard Roark Syndrome. But I must confess that I am not the first to identify this syndrome.

Many celebrated architects and designers suffer from at least partly from this syndrome. The (in)famous case in point is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by starchitect Frank O Gehry. The shimmering titanium clad building was hailed as ‘bold’ and ‘imaginative’ and was credited with changing the economic fortune of Bilbao for the better. But the building is heavily criticized for the lack of sensibilities to local art communities and its architect’s single pointed focus on iconography losing out on opportunities to develop a public space.

And what was Gehry’s response to this criticism? This:

What are the symptoms of the HRS?

Taking the example of Gehry’s Bilbao, I outline some of the symptoms of HRS. These are:

  1. Demonstrating very narrow definition and understanding of the problem and solution
  2. Taking on the role of a Messiah
  3. Blame the Implementation
  4. Taking an anti-feminist “for the greater collective good” position
  5. Colonizing through ‘disruption’

Demonetization as an example of HRS

Let us see if the way PM Modiji designed the demonetization displays any of these symptoms.

Narrow Definition of the Problem & Solution

Most of the forwards on my Whatsapp groups, facebook posts, and articles in business portals consider the demonetization nothing short of brilliance and a genius move that will have long-term positive impact on the economy. Consider for example, this listicle:

In summary, the major long-term benefits according to the economic experts is a push to financial inclusion initiatives by the government under the jan dhan yojana, a push towards moving the cash-based economy to traceable bank transactions leading to more transparency and accountability, and reducing the share of black money in the market pulling in all that cash to prop up the bank accounts and in turn the government tax coffers.

But as the PM confessed, the main focus is rather a short term goal: Of flushing out the existing black money in cash and fake currency, and infusing the about-to-crash Indians banks with money. While the PM did mention to expect further reforms towards controlling black money namely, to control gold and real estate, and other ‘benami’ investment, but for some reason he focused on going ahead with demonetizing first. Was the reason something to do with the fact that the banks were about to crash without serious influx of cash and the inability of the government to go after the loan defaulters as that would take long-winded legal battles? I leave the economists and other political experts to find an answer to this question. But I see this single-point focus through brute panic and coercion as a lack of having far-reaching and encompassing vision.

Compare this move with that the way the Jan Dhan Yojana was thought through and implemented. According to the article on Mint

India’s unbanked population has more than halved to 233 million in 2015 from 557 million in 2011, according to a report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers India for the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Payments Council of India (PCI).

While about 30% of these accounts lie dormant and there has to be more work on how to encourage people to use their accounts, the policy and its implementation seems to work. Why? My guess: It is a good balance between top-down policy design and ground-up work by bank staff to include people in their accounts.

The other aspect of this HRS symptom is pushing down one ‘radical’ solution as the only option left. “Desperate measures for desperate times” or something like that. The government and its supporters justify the move by the same logic: This was the only option left to the government. Yes, it is radical, but only this was the possibility.

I agree with Arvind Lodaya as wonders if the government has done some

“‘scenario-based planning’, a known technique in complex & systems innovation that originates in military strategy.”

If so, I wonder if they had considered the scenario of announcing that the 500 and 100 rupee notes will be invalid after a notice period of one month? And after the reforms in reality, gold, and benami are in place?

So yes, people hoarding cash would have attempted to move it or disburse it. But it would have given the government and the ground-level implementers more time to plan and work towards creating awareness, put in-place tracking mechanisms, etc. Whenever people hoarding cash move it into buying gold or property, wouldn't it have been easier to track for this omnipotent and omnipresent government, provided the reforms in gold and real-estate allowed for this? Why create a panic situation and put all the other population (who are in hundreds of millions) who hardly hoard any ‘ill-gotten’ wealth, but deal mostly in cash under severe stress and duress for a ‘short-term’ period of 3–4 weeks?

But then, when you can still deposit your old notes in your accounts till the end of December, effectively the old notes are not “mere paper” after the midnight of 8th November as announced. Then why create this panic? The answer to the question is the next symptom.

Taking on the Role of a Messiah

I have no evidence to doubt Modiji’s intentions in the move. Most likely, and this is my hope, he has the intentions of reforming the Indian economy for good. But his actions of the way he intends to do it reveal to me that he is desperately trying to satisfy our great need of a Messiah, a RobinHood, a Sivaji, who will, with one swipe bring in all the black money and redistribute it among the poor.

Watch from 0:30 to envision Sivaji developing everything around as he simply walks

The way the move was announced and talked about, it looks like that Modiji wanted to come across as our saving messiah, without whom the nation would have gone into the dark ages of economic crisis.

That we might have gone into the dark economic ages by next year may be true or false, but in his earnestness to be a hero, the move has turned out to have a major impact on hundreds of millions, needlessly. Democratic politics, as I understand it, is a process of negotiation and compromise, always a process of cost-benefit analysis and cutting out the costs while increasing the benefits to as many people as possible. Now it looks like the government, by mounting this cluster bombing (mistaken as surgical strike by experts) has shown that in its cost-benefit analysis what is important is that it gets whatever cash into the banks as quickly as possible. To hell with people who survive only on cash. Considering that 233 million are unbanked, their only way to survive the 50 days is to exchange the old notes with the new ones at the nearest post-office, and that is if they have valid IDs.

And most of the 233 million will lose out on their daily wages if they have to stand in a queue. It is very easy for us, the educated middle-class, with salaried jobs and leave options to take leave and stand in queues, but not for people whose time is clocked in money, and paid in cash. According to the way demonetization was announced, such people will have to pay for the crimes of black-money hoarders. Reminds me of group punishments in Sainik School, back when I was a student: One did a prank, everybody gets punished. Or this meme going around on Twitter:

Blame the implementation

What matters to the government that its banks are flushed with 2 trillion rupees, if you trust this report which quotes only the official government release, and some of the fake currency network is neutralized merely for couple of months.

What seems to not matter is what happens to its people during this period, and even later. Here is a list of all those martyrs who have been forced to sacrifice their lives for satisfying the government’s need:

Now, you can argue that I should not blame it on the government’s plan, but lack of proper implementation and enforcement. This argument is put forward not only by the government and its supporters, but even by the people critical of the way the government announced it, as captured by this tweet by Nikhil Pahwa

I agree with the sentiment expressed in this tweet. But from my perspective it is rather a lack of proper design than implementation. Blaming the lack of implementation and enforcement is another symptom of HRS.

It goes back to what designers ought to do: try out different scenarios, pilot, test, iterate, drive consensus, anticipate, and plug holes. Good government policies have this process integral to their design and implementation. But here I guess, the government had no option but to go for a disruptive move for the greater good?

Taking an anti-feminist “for the greater collective good” position

“Do it for the greater collective good” is another mantra chanted by the folks afflicted with HRS. I do not disagree that there is a greater good for this nation even in such a short term move: We will most likely get lot of breathing during the next budgetary session, and we do not have to worry about our banks going kaput. But at what costs, and whose lives?

Over the years user-centered design and human-centered design, both approaches that argue for considering the needs and desires of end-users in the design of systems, products and services, have been criticized, particularly for their attempts to generalize from a very limited study of representative people. One such critique, termed as Feminist Human Computer Interaction (HCI), forms its basis in the feminist theories.

While feminist HCI has a lot to offer towards the design and development of digital technologies for development, a key thing it puts forward is the concept of ‘self-disclosure’. Simply put self-disclosure calls for a design of the system that enables each and every individual to be their own representatives in the system. Traditional user-centered design reduces heterogeneous people into a group of user-categories (mostly in the form of personas) and hence constrain the possibilities of using the system for some individuals while overwhelming others. As a feminist principle self-disclosure calls for attending to each and every individual needs in the design of complex digital systems and infrastructure. Particularly the marginalized individuals. Apart from the twitter thread by Amba Azaad, here are other stories of how demonetization is affecting women, which also quotes how 80% of women in India are unbanked.

Now this is quite a challenge when it comes to a population of a billion and half. And particularly when it comes to flushing out hidden and hoarded cash. But a blatant disregard of genuine concerns by marginalized populations? That is nothing but another symptom of HRS. Women homemakers who saved their survival money in cash have now to either open a bank account, which they cannot do without their husbands knowing, and use it if they have one, again making them vulnerable to their husband’s taking over their meager savings. Did the demonetization move consider such women home-makers problems? Of course not. Why? Greater collective good, of course!

Colonizing through Disruption

There have been much work critically looking at how not only nations, but also the corporate businesses and global NGOs, aided by designers and technocrats colonize local, indigenous, and heterogeneous practices through the language and rhetoric of ‘disruption’. Lucy Suchman, a professor at Lancaster University offers one such critique here in this video:

The notion of disruption is inherently aided by a sense of technological revolutionizing. Namely, following the principle of:

“That given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, effectively making life “frictionless” and trouble-free.” (Evgeny Morozov)

I see this move of demonetization doing exactly this. Taking a technological quick fix, and imposing it on a much larger, complex problem of Indian economy. For example, Gurbachan Singh argues that demonetization need to work in a larger ecology of policy and ground level initiatives to shift our economy towards transparent and accountable. However, by focusing explictly on the heroic disruption created by the move, before discussing and planning & implementing the needed policy reforms and ground level initiatives, this government seems to be caught in the same neo-liberal logic afflicting the silicon valley and some of the big NGOs of the global north.

And how does this move colonize? Colonizing seems a big academic word, but is essentially enforcing or coercing a change in peoples practices and shifting them from their multiplicity and plurality towards a monolithic system, which can then exploit the people.

Consider that if India moves towards a cash-less economy, as one of the large term benefits as proclaimed by some of the supporters, does indeed happen due to the demonetization. What will be the options for somebody to pay for a service: Debit / card, mobile payments. All require a stable internet, and all collect data about the person in depth. Have we ever asked the questions of what happens when these cards or the internet does not work? And more importantly, who will have access to this data and what will they do with it? Ever considered why companies like PayTM can offer their services for ‘free’, and what they do with all your financial and other data?

And I am only again talking here of people like you and me, who can write and read stuff on the internet. What about people who do not want to be tracked, whose life depends on not being tracked?

A Jhony Ive does not have to give a damn about people who criticize the lack of user concerns in the design of the new Macbook Pro, but can a democratically elected government afford to do so? If you say yes, then well, the diagnosis is you suffer from HRS.

Lost Opportunity to Demonstrate Care

Finally I think the government and its supporters have lost a great opportunity to show that they ‘care’.

If only the government had thought through, consulted with experts, not only of the technical kind, but also of the humanist kind, and maybe brought in the other reforms as promised by PM before the demonetization move. If only the government had gone for the demonetization giving the public a notice period of one month or so. If only it had focused on its vast omnipotent and omnipresent network of intelligence to list actual cash-hoarders and struck them with accuracy rather than carpet bombing. Maybe it would have collected lesser than 2 trillion of cash. Maybe some black-money hoarders would have escaped the net. But so many of innocent, already marginalized people would have been saved of the stress, and more importantly been saved of the feeling of utter loss of ground under their feet.

But then that would show that the government cares. And in the logic of care there is no space for taking heroic messiah positions. As Annemarie Mol explains the logic of care works on a principle of constant and collaborative tinkering of the possibilities between people. Possibilities of solving the problems while reducing the costs and maximizing the benefits for all, not just for some. This process of tinkering happens over a period of time, not overnight.

Whereas the government has demonstrated the ‘logic of choice’ by pushing the no-choice narrative. The logic of choice works on the principle of people choose a solution, which is already designed. And once they choose, they are on their own. Any issue with the solution, either them or the people who implement the solution are to the blamed. Not the designer. Not Howard Roark.