Bertolt Brecht: Galileo

If not anywhere else, you can be certain that German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s plays have a place in Kolkata, the capital of the Marxist-ruled state of West Bengal in eastern India. There, I remember my college days spent watching Brecht’s plays staged (usually) at the Max Muller Bhavan, as well as in other theatres, both in English and in the Bengali vernacular, with various contemporary interpretations.

Of all of Brecht’s plays, his The Threepenny Opera was the most popular, with Galileo coming in a reasonably-sound second place, both of which had us thinking in our seats during the play and on our feet while walking back home. For, such were – and still are – typical responses to Brecht’s plays. Brecht didn’t just entertain you, he set you thinking about what’s happening around you.

Even his greatest detractors couldn’t deny the fact that Bertolt Brecht delivered a balance of entertainment and instruction. Because, at the heart of every Brecht play and/or production was the belief that the audience had to be entertained (using ‘devices’ such as songs and humour), as well as moved to thinking about the theatre on one hand and, on the other, the society people were living in there and then – making his plays socially relevant with the times.

Image courtesy Bloomsbury via Google Books

Image courtesy Bloomsbury via Google Books

Commenting on European drama in the first quarter of the twentieth century, in an essay titled On Experimental Theatre, Brecht (1898-1956) wrote:

“For at least two generations the serious European drama has been passing through a period of experiment. So far the various experiments conducted have not led to any definite and clearly established result, nor is the period itself over. In my view these experiments were pursued along two lines which occasionally intersected but can none the less be followed separately. They are defined by the two functions of entertainment and instruction: that is to say that the theatre organized experiments to increase its ability to amuse, and others which were intended to raise its value as education.”

Bertolt Brecht believed these two functions of entertainment and instruction can – and need to – be married to produce the perfect play. But even more, Brecht believed that theatre had to make sense to people – to be relevant and contemporary to its audience.

To achieve this, Brecht wrote copious notes on his plays, giving directions to himself, the actors and directors, and even rewriting his plays, introducing his thinking, his responses to and his beliefs about the social and political happenings of the time. For instance, although he had written Galileo (one of his most famous plays) prior to the Second World War, he changed the ending and several other sections of the play after the United States dropped the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

So, in reality, there is a Galileo I (Galileo Galilei written in 1937-38) and a Galileo II (Galileo re-written in 1945-46); although, today, what is accepted and staged as Galileo is actually Galileo II, Brecht’s later version. The effort Brecht put in to make his plays socially and politically relevant to the present times is a practice that is still followed by producers and directors who stage his plays today.

[Citation: 1. On Experimental Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett, quoted from The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 2. The Science Fiction of Bertolt Brecht by Eric Bentley in the Introduction to Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, English version by Charles Laughton, Grove Press, 1966.]

B2B content is highly specialised stuff

Sometime ago, I was discussing content marketing for B2B enterprises with a friend and business associate of mine. We agreed that the industry is yet to take cognisance of the importance of, and difficulty in, B2B content marketing. That, B2B content marketing is a lot tougher than B2C content marketing which so eagerly uses consumer conversations and all available social media channels to its advantage. B2B content marketers are late entrants in this playing field and are somewhat reluctant to pick up speed as there aren’t enough B2B success stories to rejoice about.

Unlike B2C marketing with large universes of consumers, B2B marketing followed narrow targeting, with very few clients and prospects in its focus. Moreover, there were fewer customer conversations to bank on. Yet, there was enough happening in the marketplace to inspire B2B companies to adopt and implement content marketing programmes in their own ways. In a trial-and-error sort of way, you could say. So, everything was new. Everything was experimental. Still, inspired by our discussion, I thought of sharing here what I learnt from our conversation.

My friend (name withheld on request) leads the product and marketing initiatives in the Enterprise & Government sector in a telco, managing existing portfolio of services from product capability and profitability perspective, keeping in mind the company’s growth aspirations and opportunities in the market. His work also involved creation of new products and services in enterprise mobility and in the digital space, and then taking them to market. This involved a combination of product engineering, P&L management, marketing… as well as technical engagement with clients for developing their solution architecture.

Image courtesy marketingtechblog.com

Image courtesy marketingtechblog.com

“Content marketing is extremely critical to the success of our digital services initiative,” my friend had said. The availability of relevant information which could help customers relate to their business scenario as well as the ability to play around with the content to create real-life business propositions were of great importance. Content was getting generated continuously through his company’s internal documentation processes, through interaction with customers, through research and market studies. A Big Data sort of scenario in its own right.

His company’s ability to curate such content continuously and then repurpose them for different groups of people, such as employees, customers, regulators, partners and suppliers, played a big role in the company’s communication strategy. His company used internal as well as external resources for producing such content. But, “B2B content is highly specialised stuff,” he had cautioned me. “It can get too technical and can therefore lose the interest of customers, or can get extremely generic and lose the essence of the company’s capabilities. The ability to maintain a fine balance between technicalities and business relevance held the key to success.”

His company used technology platforms for developing digital engagement strategies for themselves and for their customers. This involved a combination of analytics, targeted information and call to action. Such information was mostly consumed by target groups through smart devices such as mobile phones and tablets. However, one had to bear in mind that the regulation demanded that such information was provided only to those customers who were willing to accept such information on their mobile devices. My friend’s company had to maintain complete compliance towards this end.

In the B2B space, his company did not run campaigns that could be compared to consumer businesses. The campaigns they ran were very targeted and customised for various customer groups. As an example, he said, his company ran some successful campaigns around corporate internet services, managed mobility, mobile device management and mobile security. They had a very successful campaign around 4G services for their enterprise and SMB customers. The key learning was that user cases and case studies were the most effective way of communicating with this segment of the market.

Since much of this was experimental, he felt there weren’t too many disappointments to talk of. However, evangelising new ideas was a painstakingly slow process.

Soon AI will be driving our lives

What if we were to tell you that your car is a better driver than you? What would you say? How would you feel?

You would probably have a good laugh over it and say that I was joking. That it was a preposterous thought. Not only because you believe that you’re an excellent driver, and present before me your evidence of an accident-free driving life of the past 20 years; but also because, somehow, the thought of a car being a driver in its own right, and an excellent one at that, goes against the grain of what you have grown up knowing and believing.

And yet, today, news reports are filled with announcements of car manufacturers such as Audi, Volvo, Toyota, to name only a few, not to mention newcomers like Tesla, working on technologies to put commercially-licensed driverless or self-driving or autonomous cars on the road in the next 5 years. Even non-auto companies like Google, NVIDIA and Uber are in the fray, with Google being the first to ‘experimentally launch’ its short-range self-driving car prototype in 2015.

google-self-driving-car-project

A quick visit to Google’s website on self-driving cars is a journey worth taking:

“What if it could be easier and safer for everyone to get around?

To start, we’re building prototype vehicles that are designed to take you where you want to go at the push of a button—no driving required. Imagine if everyone could get around easily and safely, regardless of their ability to drive.

Aging or visually impaired loved ones wouldn’t have to give up their independence. Time spent commuting could be time spent doing what you want to do. Deaths from traffic accidents—over 1.2 million worldwide every year—could be reduced dramatically, especially since 94% of accidents in the U.S. involve human error. ”

To this end, an article published in Fortune Magazine on 5th October 2016, titled Google’s Self-Driving Cars Have More Driving Experience Than Any Human, attempts to reinforce our confidence leading to accepting and using Google’s self-driving cars in the near future from the ‘years of driving experience’ point of view which we normally consider as proof of good driving:

“Google self-driving cars have logged 2 million fully-autonomous miles on public roads, 90% of which were on city streets, the company announced Wednesday. Considering the hours spent on the road, Google’s cars now have the equivalent of 300 years of human driving experience.

And that’s not counting the more than 3 million miles that self-driving car software “drives” every day in Google’s advanced simulator.”

All this is possible due to advanced use of AI or artificial intelligence technology – the ‘brains’ behind Google’s own and all self-driving or autonomous cars to hit the roads. This AI technology empowers the car to make far superior decisions in judgement and skill than what a human being like you and I would make while driving the car. Although the AI technology is complex, it collects and computes massive amounts of data, and interprets and processes it through ‘deep learning’ in a way similar to the human brain works, before taking action.

In doing so, self-driving or autonomous cars are able to move and manoeuvre, respond to obstacles and other vehicles on the roads, react to traffic flows and signals, and remove human error entirely from the decision-making while navigating the roads to provide a safe and superior journey to its passengers. The technology is yet to be perfected in order to receive government approval, but AI-powered self-driving or autonomous cars will soon be an important part of our lives.

[Citation: Google Self-Driving Car Project; Google’s Self-Driving Cars Have More Driving Experience Than Any Human by Kirsten Korosec, Fortune Magazine dated 5 October 2016.]

The commodification of education in India

Although many people believe Indian institutions of higher education are some of the best in the world, university rankings from independent university ranking organisations such as The Times Higher Education (THE), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Shanghai Ranking place Indian universities in much lower ranks than expected. As a result, for those students who can afford a foreign higher education, studying abroad becomes an increasingly attractive proposition.

Questions arise: Can this brain drain be reversed? Can Indian institutes of higher education take up the challenge to improve their standards and rise above the mediocrity that dogs its very essence? And most significantly, where would they start?

In an excellent article on the state of universities and higher education in India, titled Learning and intensity: the crisis of intellectual engagement in higher education, in The Telegraph newspaper from Kolkata, India, dated 4 September 2015, Prabhat Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, brings to surface one such essential element of Indian institutes of higher education. He says,

“There has been much lamentation in the country of late over the fact that no institution of higher learning figures in the list of top 100 prepared by The Times Higher Educational Supplement. But this is not the real problem, which consists rather, as already mentioned, in the absence of any intensity of intellectual engagement in Indian institutions of higher education.”

Image courtesy theviewspaper.net

Image courtesy theviewspaper.net

Later in the article, Professor Patnaik describes an obvious impediment in Indian higher education which fuels this mediocrity that dogs Indian higher education. He writes,

“The university now is seen increasingly as an extension of the higher secondary level where students are expected to learn, assiduously no doubt, the material available in some text-book, and regurgitate it as competently as possible in the examination hall. The emphasis is not on questioning, contesting, thinking for oneself, and thinking creatively, but rather on excelling in mastery over a “package”, which allegedly constitutes “knowledge”.”

Professor Patnaik goes even farther to address the ‘commodification of education in India’ with these words:

“The commodification of education presupposes the commodification of the products of education – that is, of those “buying” education; and, for them, education becomes a mere input that should aim to give them command over the largest possible sum of money. The proliferation of private profit-making universities on the one hand (which invariably claim, illicitly, that they are not profit-making because their profits are being ploughed back into the institution). And of students, on the other, who see education entirely as a means of commanding a larger income, are the twin features of a world where education is getting commodified – and this ethos affects public universities as well.”

[Citation: Learning and intensity: the crisis of intellectual engagement in higher education, Prabhat Patnaik , The Telegraph, Kolkata, India, 4 September 2015.]

India’s expectant economic turnaround

An economic recession is bad news. A long-ish recession such as the one we’re experiencing now is far worse as feelings of uncertainty creep into our minds as the days go by. We look up to our government for a solution, but the best we find is a toss-up between growth and inflation, a hype over GDP, and promises of job creation.

In free markets like ours, entrepreneurship helps; but that too has to be funded for sustainability and growth. Banks can loan money only when the money supply is fluid and their ROIs are met. Consumers can spend only when they have money saved. And, printing more money (which is a government intervention) may only add to the inflation.

The question is, what can the government do to drive economic growth (which, in India, is happily hovering around 9% – way ahead of most other economies globally) and create wealth for everyone to enjoy?

In the illusion of boosting GDP, what the government in India seems to be doing is re-distributing existing wealth to the already-rich and the politically-favoured. The middle-class is experiencing some benefits, but the poor in India still can’t make a decent living. The existing economic divide seems to be widening further.

This has been true for India since her Independence, in spite of adopting a socialistic form of government. Although India has been Independent for close to 70 years now, she has failed to sustain her investment in developing the manufacturing sector, choosing instead to build the IT sector from the early eighties.

Manufacturing seems to be in focus now under the Narendra Modi government, but benefits may not accrue for another 10 or even 20 years. The Western World and a few Asian countries like Japan, China and South Korea which had invested in both manufacturing and IT for many years now seem to be on the brink of an economic collapse.

So, who can tell which strategy will work? Yes, innovation and entrepreneurship are important for India, and India may follow USA’s footsteps in building a significant economy from startups. But the venture capital available in the market today is not yet a significant portion of the total capital needed for India’s economic turnaround.