Necessity may be the mother of invention but it’s remarkable how easily we humans are willing to settle for doing the same thing over and over again as “necessity” becomes a relative thing. Critical mass theory says that once an invention reaches a sufficient amount of adopters it’s growth becomes self-sustaining and the impetus for innovation diffuses. But the mantra, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rides a fine line between contentment and complacency: two sentiments that are antagonists to the impetus of invention. While the former has many merits in the wisdom of acceptance that we can spend our lives striving to attain, the later could be considered a state of laziness that goes a long way in contributing to the glacial rate of societal progress.
The fallacy of this grotesquely clean distinction lies in the last word. “Progress” is exactly what the developing world is concerned with, but no matter from what world you are coming, progress is an entirely fluid term with multiple perceptual agendas and ideologies that render it essentially meaningless. The subliminal contradictions of cultural values, social prejudices, and governance underlying extreme social inequalities undermine any ambition to succeed, illustrating just how complex and counterproductive “progress” can be.
Mumbai is a city of human capital but according to a report by the Times of India in 2011, over twenty percent of the people here are below the poverty line. There is nothing progressive about that. Redundancy is more than just a threat to invention, it’s a cultural motif. It’s perfectly normal to find five or six waiters standing around a few tables at a local small-scale restaurant doting on your every need even before you realize you need anything, or 4 guys behind the counter at a vendor equivalent to something like a mini-mart, only smaller, or a doorman at every medium to high-end shop. The city seems to have reached a critical human mass that is sustaining itself based on virtue of quiet acceptance of the condition of many that enables the complacency of the few they serve. This cultural phenomenon is no different anywhere else in the world, it just happens to be painfully apparent, accepted, and entrenched here.
Necessity is not the mother of invention here, she is the mother of habitual maintenance.
Thus the rate of progress is a very slow process indeed. The constant pressure an individual faces just to stay on top of the demands of his or her own daily necessities in this city easily consume any opportunity for invention, much less the time to consider how one might change the status quo. Living in this environment where nothing comes without either difficulty or cost has helped me truly appreciate the value of systematic practices and foresight - qualities that govern almost any urban realm, but are especially transparent here. The acquisition of basic amenities, sustenance, and good health depend on a pre-meditated production process that the society in some capacity, save the top 2 or 3% who have the means to effectively subvert the system by opting to pay for personal drivers, cooks, cleaning maids, and apartments in luxury towers above the fray, has to uphold.
I am thoroughly loving it. The transparency of the connection between the process and final product is so vivid and refreshing. It gives new meaning to the appreciation of good things great and small. To illustrate this point let me give you a first-hand account of a routine that I practice at least twice daily in order to enjoy a basic necessity that here feels like a great privilege: clean water.
Step one: Turn on wall-mounted water filter with pump and wait 2 minutes for it to engage.
Step two: Wait 3 minutes to fill two large pots with the filtered water (the pump is slow)
Step three: Bring the water to boil and continue boiling for 3 minutes until the bacteria is good and dead.
Step four: Allow water to cool (a long time).
Step five: pour water into glass bottles for refrigeration and consumption.So yes “progress” is a fluid term. I say this as I drink a large glass of freshly made beet, carrot, and apple juice (that in New York or San Fran would have easily have cost 6 or 7 bucks, but here cost me $2 at this little cafe around the corner from my apartment) knowing first-hand what went into the production process of its incredible deliciousness. I wouldn’t be able to buy a coolaid for that chap in the US. So what is progress really? Is it being able to afford the 2 dollar juice that was made at a reputable vendor that uses clean water? Or is it developing the immune resistance to the bacterias that are floating in the water here? Or is it just developing a taste for prepackaged goods with processed sugars and artificial flavors?