Category Archives: participatory models

Politics from above and below

A bus journey from Bangalore to Mysore shows interesting patterns – until the periphery of the urban sprawl, which extends nearly to Ramangara, you will see walls painted advertising the protectors of Kannada, of which there are more than desirable – Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, Jaya Karnataka, Pratidhvani Vedike, Kasturi Janapara Vedike and so on. They mysteriously disappear near the villages, where the walls are painted with advertisements for consumer goods and appear regularly at all the major towns in between. Maybe since their fight is against the English and Hindi speakers, they stay where such riff-raff tend to gather. Or maybe there is simply no interest for their cause among the `simple-minded, ignorant’ villagers. who knows.

These organisations, along with the collection of miscellaneous Senes, and the more established Congresses and BJPs, represent the `sexy’, visible side of politics in India. Whatever the theoretical aims of such people, all they do nowadays is power brokering without any particular ideology guiding them. Power is required to acquire money and more power, nothing else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, the common person is both attracted and cynical toward them. Attracted, since they seem to matter the most, and hence can be a source of leverage when need arises, and disappointed since in most likelihood, they are not responsive to his needs.

If politics is a process of rearrangement of power, then these organisations simply have no proper method by which to devolve power to those they claim to serve. They would claim that power in a few hands will be more effective for the battles of today. Unfortunately, not so in the ultimate war against prejudice, hatred and misunderstanding.

Is it really that hard to empower individuals? Take the example of computers for Kannada speaking people. There isn’t a single Kannada font out there worth its name. The best one is from, god forbid, Microsoft. Can’t any one of these outfits with their enormous reach pressurise the government or themselves undertake the task to make one? A computer completely usable by someone who does not know English is still a dream.

Similarly, those who go on protests to protect Kannada culture, however one may define it, don’t seem to want to take it forward by putting in the hard work to become established poets or authors or even decent journalists or expositors of famous works. Wonder where Carnatic music would have gone if Tyagaraja had started going on dharnas to save traditional music.

Similarly, taking out processions and discussion meetings about slum dwellers or farmers or tribals or whoever is going to create a very aware, sympathetic, but ultimately useless set of armchair philosophers. Unless one has the commitment to stay in a place for years on end and bring about the change within themselves and the world around them, there is no hope that anything constructive will ever happen. In a place of contrasts like India, the challenge not only lies in outreach to the less priviledged, but also in forgetting whatever one knows about ideas of desirable and otherwise, and try and see the world from a point of view as alien to you as a person from the Amazon.

This is a more subtle, constructive politics that allows a person to assume charge of her life and gain the confidence that her destiny can be written by herself, and that too by modes of living which are not derived from a middle class model. It is slow, painful (like all interpersonal interactions are!) but ultimately the only way forward.

Process, not a product!

My professor showed me this article, profiling d.light. If you notice, the article talks a lot about pricing and technology (It is an article in Forbes, after all..) Prof had forwarded this article to Harish Hande, who brushed it aside saying what is needed is a process not a product. There have been plenty of products, but very few have set in place a process.

But why is it that so many well-meaning companies (with excellent technical expertise) fail where companies like SELCO succeed ? Issue, IMO, is one of outlook. In the West, a price and advertising will actually work. Take the example of a vehicle. You buy a new vehicle and within a few months all your neighborhood mechanics would have figured out the internals and you no longer have to go to the authorised service centre for repairs. Make a vehicle extremely complicated, and you will see that immediately the acceptance will fall in areas far away from qualified mechanics. Spare parts (real or imitation) will begin to appear in stores nearby. In short, it is taken for granted that you can maintain your vehicle without too much support from the company itself.

When one takes up the arduous task of ‘lighting up rural India’, the scenario can hardly be like the urban one described above. Most organizations who work in backward regions have targets that are similar to government ones: how many lights distributed, how many generators installed. Follow up and maintenance is present on the list, but hardly given too much importance, when this should be the most important criterion. Thus, one sees microhydro stations lying unused, broken solar lighting with no one to fix them, and computers collecting dust because no one knows how to use them.

Thus, the successful organizations are the ones which focus on trying to build up a process by which they can sell (shops, financing), maintain and improve (via local feedback). There was an interesting articleĀ  sometime ago about Nokia hiring an anthropologist to meet people in developing countries to design phones for their needs and tastes, which is one way of doing it, but the focus there is only on design. But one realises that this is a long, probably life-long commitment. Also, institutional or process design is not a follow-the-dotted-line procedure. It requires both intellectual sophistication and empirical depth to understand grass root realities and also to understand it in a larger framework of thought and bring forth sensible solutions. Unfortunately, we find people with only one of these (Planning Commission, former, politicians, latter (if anything)). Mostly people lack both when they go about trying to do ‘development’. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are very few Harish Handes and SELCOs.

So, if anyone has the next big idea to end global poverty, focus on the process. Technology can always assure the product. Most problems facing underdeveloped regions of the world are not technological, but social or economic.

Institutions: reflections

The bad thing about constructive work is that it makes it more difficult to do non-constructive things like reading and writing blogs. After a crazy schedule for almost a month and half (including 3 hindi movies):, finally managed to sit down and finish some documentation and other sundry work.

The world has decidedly gone to hell in the past few weeks. Pakistan is going crazy, so is Kenya, the Middle East, as usual is looking doomed, SM Krishna is returning to Karnataka politics, BIAL is opening (with its interesting user fee concept), a world food crisis looks imminent, the stock market is acting like a cranky kid, so are gold prices, privacy concerns are freaking out people. But one can reflect on Walter Benjamin’s words:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (written in 1940)

In other words, business is as usual. Coming back to the topic at hand, we had an interesting discussion in class about the importance of institutions, their design and management. One of the courses this semester is sustainable rural and urban development, both of which can be made into a course themselves. Though development-oriented courses emphasize on ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, this one has so far touched only ‘why’. We had a few case studies on Pani Panchayat, Ralegan Siddhi, Pabal and Tilonia, touching upon their salient features and looking at reasons for their success.

The question that arises first is why institutions after all? By institutions, one can mean anything from religion to marriage to Archie’s comics. Anything that sets up a predictable behavior pattern in individuals that subscribe to it, generation after generation. Any long term advancement of social life is possible only via institutions. Else, individuals make a great impact when they are there, and their influence vanishes after they are gone. Institutions provide a sense of security and stability to people. This is one of the reasons first time mothers almost blindly believe anything that their parents or grandparents or relatives (preferably female) tell them, however ridiculous it may seem. The process of socialization drives certain institutions deep into us, especially the ones most needed to live in society.

The problem with institutions arises when those that subscribe to it are given no choice. The burqa system is a good example. Many women may want to wear one and feel proud to do so, but why it is considered repressive is that the exceptions who do not want it are forced to wear one, for the sake of preserving tradition. This is an important characteristic of any institution: it carries within it rules to preserve itself. Government, caste, education (by means of recognition through educational qualifications) are other examples which strongly show this characteristic. Betty and Veronica are now institutions: there is no way Veronica can become the sweet girl next door anymore. Any attempt to do so(on a long term basis) will destroy the essence of Archie’s. Therefore, institutions tend to become rigid and ossified as time goes by. The reason for this is two-fold: the institution has a better chance of survival when there are no critics, and no competent people man the institution, and its rules become superstition instead of practical pointers to guide daily life. Only competent people who understand the reasons (if any) behind the formation of the rules laid down are in a position to change them. Trenchant critics as outsiders cannot, dullards running the show also cannot.

About their design. Realising that the longer an instituition survives, the more likely it will tend to establish a hegemony, one should make the basic precepts as accessible and open to debate as possible. Modern science no longer can lay claim to this feature. Even incremental changes require large amounts of ‘specialization’. Since not everyone become scientists and are not really bothered what scientists to unless it has a direct impact on them, this is (almost) acceptable. But everybody lives in a society, and must have a say in how they want to live and grow. The major issue now arising in development circles is the insinuation of western institutions into cultures which are neither prepared nor willing (mentally, physically, culturally) to accept them. Like I mentioned, institutions give a sense of stability and wholesale replacement is usually rejected by the majority. Deccan Herald recently ran an article where the author pities the Nandigram villagers because they rejected ‘modernization’ and was very sure they would regret it. He also called the landowners in Orissa greedy for not parting with their land for mining and other ways to rape land. While such attitude may seem shocking, it seems to be the attitude shared by those with power. ‘My way or the highway’ is hardly the perfect path for institutional reform/change.

And such issues in a democracy. Imagine what would be the situation in China or Venezuela or Cuba. The problem with such wholesale change is that the population becomes restive and loses its sense of autonomy, and tends to rely on others for direction. That is why farmers make loans knowing they cannot repay them (since the Government will waive them anyways) and new converts to a religion are the most intense. Technologists trying to put a laptop in every child’s, well, lap will inevitably cause similar problems. While undoubtedly institutions like caste and religion need reform, implementing them at a societal (rather than philosophical, where nobody gets hurt) level should be incremental and build on existing institutions, rather than reject them altogether. While this approach may not seem attractive to hot-blooded idealists, it is the path of least pain, which is most important.

iPhones vis-a-vis Open Source: implications

This is a normative view of technology, i.e, what – in my opinion – technology ‘should be’ or ‘should do’. As we know, technology is the means by which we interact with the world around us, and with ourselves as well. However, one gets the feeling that technological developments nowadays are being driven not by the necessity of invention, but the invention of necessity. Addressing people’s needs ostensibly seems to be the purpose of new technological developments, but what is more likely is that technology is pushed down consumer’s throats with relentless advertising pressure.

Complaints and heresies apart, my focus here is how the technology gets developed and what normative view does it subscibe to. Technology, even if may be developed in air-conditioned offices or clean rooms, has a distinct political dimension to it, and it is this dimension that this post deals with. From the time of the germination of an idea to selling it in the market, many aspects of the nature of the consumer and their relationship with the creator are assumed, implicitly or otherwise. A rough genealogy of the development of a product can be given by:

  • Top level design/Wish list (sometimes preceded by surveys)
  • Detailed low level design
  • Implementation
  • Packaging/aesthetics
  • Marketing
  • Feedback and start all over again.

Testing and review is usually there in every part of this list, especially in pharma, chemical, civil works. When this cycle is no longer felt as required, one can say that a technology has been ‘commodified’. It still carries the same politics and relations that were internalized during its development, but one cannot do much about it, since it gets ‘black boxed’. The only time that these politics re-emerge or are made explicit is when things go wrong with the product, or things don’t go according to plan (These two things may not always mean the same thing). While technology is the heart of any product, the role it plays during the product’s lifetime is very small, since it is considered a ‘black box’. To elaborate on this point, one can take the politics surrounding the Apple iPhone as a very good example, which I have been following on (where else!) Slashdot for some time now. The iPhone is a Pretty Thing and all that, agreed, but Apple’s response to active tinkering instead of passive consumption of the iPhone reeks of stupidity and snobbery. The battery is not easily replaceable (as bad as it gets!), people can only buy using credit/debit cards (to ensure a paper trail), limited to two per head, no SIM changing facility, warranty being void if SIM unlocking is tried (which was found to be infringing US warranty laws). None of this actually is concerned with the technology of the iPhone, but more with the control and profits that Apple gets. Where is the user an active participant in how the iPhone looks, feels, performs ? The user cannot even do what he/she likes with the phone after buying it! Though some people may say warranty may go to hell and play around anyways, it is not everybody’s inclination. The power that such blatantly unfair conditions to own an iPhone gives the manufacturer is quite considerable, and the feel-good factor more than overwhelmed such considerations, driving Apple to one of its highest share prices ever. The invention of necessity is extremely important to mask such asymmetric power relations, and the multitouch screen (and supporting interface) practically did this on its own. From a ingenious piece of technology, it becomes an instrument to legitimize the asymmetric balance of power. The iPhone may provide most things a user might ever need, but it precludes the possibility of choice. I fail to see how this is different from the burqa system. A Muslim woman may be comfortable and even proud to wear one, but does she have a choice whether or not to wear it ?

In contrast is the Open Source phenomenon. I did not mention ‘Free Software’, since it brings in its own ramifications, but simply any piece of code that is viewable by a potential consumer. The most important factor that comes in here is choice, like I mentioned earlier (Software is a nice example to take up simply because it is one of the most flexible of technologies mankind has developed). Freedom to do what one pleases with available technology radically flattens the structures of power. Though this is quite a libertarian sentiment (We have made it possible to modify software, but if you don’t know how, too bad!), it has many consequential implications also. Software potentially becomes better, more diverse, responsive to user needs and a person who modifies it to her needs feels a sense of ownership. None of these can happen with the iPhone, API or no API. This is an evolutionary, organic model of growth, while the former is a more totalitarian, ‘silver bullet’ kind of approach. One must however concede that even with the iPhone kind of technology development, large players can still tailor it to their needs. Here, the power structures even out because of the economic backing the client has.

Which one can be more effective ? the participatory model of development, of course. Which is more efficient ? the consumerist model, of course. Which is more important ? here comes one of the major points of conflict in any sphere of human social life: should we let people have a part in shaping their future, or do we do what we somehow know is best for them ? From the conception of the State to planning cities, all questions implicity or explicitly (but quite fundamentally) answer this question in their own manner. Technology, being a product of the social world that we live in, rather than the clean room temples that technologists would rather have us believe, also hinges on this crucial question. Are people mere consumers or should they be participants as well ?

A question that we answer in our daily lives, without ever realising it.