Category Archives: technology

The Free Software Movement

Had been to Gnu/Linux Habba today, it elicited quite a good response from the student community, compared to what Im used to from my student days. Gnu/Linux is getting a fair bit of attention, since it is also being viewed as something that can get one a job. The Free Software Movement has grown phenomenally to say the least in the past few years, not least because of events like the Habba.

It is not a coincidence that the FSM exploded with the explosion of the internet. The great levelling power of the internet contributed immensely to the growth of the FSM, and this is well known. If one analyses the FSM, the key features one would find are:

  • Community: pariticipants think (or are urged to think) of themselves as part of a larger community. It is only the mutual give and take that makes Free Software what it is now.
  • Cooperation: Helping each other to solve problems, in whatever capacity possible is a by-product of the feeling of community. Big egos exist, but they are usually reined in ‘for the greater good’.
  • Equity: Notice that Communist also derives from the word community. The reason why the FSM did not end up becoming a dictatorship is the equity among its participants. Any person with a reasonable contribution is welcomed. Communism, for all its hype, never featured equity at the level of the FSM. There is a reason for that, however: most participants, atleast in the development process are of similar skill and background. They differ in terms of ideas and experiences, which makes for the vibrancy in the movement.
  • Communication: members are highly communicative, in one medium or the other. The value of this need not be stated, especially in reinforcing the above three.
  • Zealousness: Firm belief and identification with the goals of the FSM of people from varied backgrounds, skill and intellectual levels keeps the fire alive, at all costs.

The FSM defines a ‘commons’, a shared resource that anyone can use without interfering with anyone else’s rights, especially the right to private property. Noone or, equivalently, everyone owns it. IMO, it is the largest movement of our times which has altruism as a core tenet.

This was one of the reasons for the initial scepticism that it faced from the corporate world, who are taught that everything must be owned by someone (not everyone!). Fortunately for the FSM, the developed economies were rapidly transitioning into service economies at the same time as it was growing and viable business models came into being which put service ahead of the product. The corporates, adaptable beasts that they are, probably saw the value that FSM can bring in a service economy and joined forces. It is quite amazing that two social institutions, one based on altruism and another based on selfishness have managed such a fruitful interaction.

It is not as if only the corporation adapted to the FSM. The other way round happened as well. People who previously talked in terms of freedom also started talking in terms of business models and bottomlines. This is a constant feature of resilient social institutions: they learn other’s languages and develop a hybrid one at the end. With the corporation firmly behind FSM, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and flourish. Thus, the FSM has learnt to value selfishness to some degree, and corporations have learnt a (very little) bit of altruism.

Similar interactions have happened between the Environmental movement and the corporation, leading to environmental economics for the greens and green manufacturing for Wall Street. One of the reasons that I feel the corporation will be the dominant institution for a very long time to come is this high adaptability that it possesses. Religion pretty much disintegrated in the West after the Enlightenment, but the corporation has withstood many assaults from the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Then why is adoption to Gnu/Linux still slow ? the FSM, quite like the environmentalists, had been interacting within themselves for too long. Not anymore. Gnu/Linux Habba was a focussed session on usability, especially in Kannada. Similar outreach activities will continue to push Gnu/Linux to the mainstream. However, its impact will not be as high as the environmental movement until they make a fundamental shift in approach: most interactive sessions focus on the outcome part of using Gnu/Linux. For a person, especially in places where software piracy(!) is not taken seriously, the outcome of using Gnu/Linux is not very different from using MS Windows or Word. Some things cannot be captured by the outcome of using a software product, like the experience of using it. Like the marketing tenet says, sell the experience, not the product. One has to ‘sell’ the status, moral superiority of using Free software. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. This is what the environmentalists are trying to do by asking for labelling of products, and what Apple does when it is selling the iPod, which is otherwise just a box which makes noise.

This is a slow process, but systematic brainwashing will defintely lead to favorable results. Maybe some perusing of marketing literature is in order ;)

PS: you cannot really sell an experience if the product does not work well. However, I think GNU/Linux is almost out of the blocks in this matter (at long last!)

What will we run out of, coal or the atmosphere?

Alternatively phrased, will we run out of sources or sinks?

Before answering the question, it is important to understand why we ask such a question in the first place. It has been a long-standing view of a school of natural philosophy that nature has no intrinsic value, and all value ascribed to it is by humans. In other words, what nature can do for us is the important thing to be considered.

Thus, we take things from nature (say, a rock), convert it to something that is valued by society (say, an iPod) and exchange it for something of equivalent value (say, toilet paper). This process of interaction with other people to determine the value of something and exchanging it for something of equivalent value is what is called the market mechanism. Since exchanging stuff is usually cumbersome, we use a common medium to signify value, and we call this money. Money in itself has no value is indicated that you can find it in so many forms, from solid gold to bits in a database maintained by MasterCard.

To increase the amount of money in circulation, one can do two things: print more money, which makes it lose its value, and this we call inflation (which can happen due to other factors as well), or increase the value of stuff we produce, either by value addition (This instead of this) or simply producing more of it. At the end of the day, the value of an economy (what is called the GDP) reflects the value that society places on the stuff we produce.

Producing things essentially means taking things from a natural source, modifying it to a form useful to humans and then sending it to a sink when its utility is over. Therefore, the throughput of resources from source to sink is what (roughly) determines the size of an economy. The rate of change of this throughput is what is rate of change of GDP (8%, in our case).

A source is a stock of some resource, generated by natural processes, like coal. A sink is what breaks down what we dump into a form that is absorbed by natural processes (like decomposition for organic matter, and oceans for CO2). These processes are not usually under our control, and this puts fundamental physical limits to the throughput of material or equivalently, the size of world GDP. We cannot use a stock of material faster than nature can replenish it, for obvious reasons, neither can we dump stuff  ‘somewhere’ faster than natural processes can break it down. These natural processes are known as biogeochemical cycles. If we do change the throughput to greater that what can be sustained, we get effects like eutrophication and global warming.

Many of  the early environmentalists stressed on the finite sizes of the sources like coal, oil, metals which made up our economy and said that we will run out of it soon. Unfortunately, the were proved wrong. Newer and larger stocks were found, and all environmental concerns were brushed off as alarmism. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what ever the size of the sources may be, we may actually be running out of sinks to dump our garbage in. Over and above this, many artificially manufactured substances (especially from chemistry, and nuclear waste) have no known natural sink, and therefore they persist in our ecosystems for large amounts of time, gradually increasing in size of stock. The problem lies in the fact that not many toxicology studies have been done on such chemicals, and we have absolutely no idea how they work in conjunction with each other.

Sources of raw materials have developed over millenia, and will in all likelihood last us atleast another century (in case of fossil fuels). Sinks, however, are usually biological systems which have slow rates of flow. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, material throughput is usually limited by sink flows. Thus, we find the classic sign of sink overflow everywhere: pollution.

Can humanity conform with natural processes ? Yes. One way is to find technological advances which make it possible to increase value without increasing throughput, which is happening everywhere. The main problems with this approach is how fast will humanity react to physical limits – will it be too little too late ? Another is to reduce consumption, accepting a smaller GDP with more equitable distribution of wealth so that all may live better. The problem with this is that it is politically impossible (well, almost!). Ignoring limits that are put on us will result in devastation, like what is happening to the fisheries of the world today. Hope we can garner enough moral strength to preserve our physical strength.

Designing for people: Lessons learnt

A few lessons learnt from my lighting project design and other things happening now, both from a process and target perspective.

Document, document, document!

I’m sure most people reading this would remark – “Yeah, right!”. But learning it the hard way has made the lesson all the more invaluable. It are useful for the following reasons:

  • Forcing yourself to put ideas into words makes it concrete.
  • Writing down fundamental assumptions in your design will give hints as to why the design failed or performed well in a given situation.
  • It makes it easily replicable.
  • Translating a well documented design into the real thing is extremely easy.
  • Testing your work against a detailed design as a benchmark will be always good.

That being said, it is not necessary to mention implementation level details, which will ruin clarity of presentation. Make it modular, use subsections and sub-subsections frequently.

Have a clear idea of the end product

This should have been the first in the list! As far as it is practically possible, you should be clear of the function your product should perform. People have a good idea as to what they want, it makes sense to listen to them. Unless you can say what your product does in 25 words, you are in trouble!

It is never as easy as it sounds!

Only the most trivial things like say, painting a new color onto a pinhead are as easy as they sound (on second thoughts, even this is quite an issue ): The translation from the space of  ideas to silicon or code or metal is limited by a large number of things, not excluding human stupidity. Like someone once said, “[I]f you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it”.

You are not God…

… and therefore, you cannot know nor forsee everything. Talk to people, pick multiple brains for multiple viewpoints and use the expertise of as many people as possible before, during and after product design. Everyone, from the person who wipes the floor to your boss can have something to offer. This of course means that you will have to swallow your own ego and bear a few unbearable ones, but is a good strategic initiative.

Test what you create

Not everyone will be as stupid as you, and therefore cannot understand the magnitude of your mistakes. Test in all weather, habitations, altitudes, attitudes. This business of “testing teams” is only for large corporations with plenty of money to employ bored people to miss your errors.

Can you do with easily available materials

Ideally, all my designs try to use stuff available on SP road (or KT street in Mysore) or something that any workshop can fabricate. Using off-the-shelf stuff makes it all the more easier to replicate (or as the big boys put it, pirate) and maintain even by local electricians/mechanics with minimal training. The more replicable it is, the more competitive the market can theoretically be, with the beneficiary being the end user (Economics 101!). This is also one of the only ways to beat economies of scale concerns.

High tech is not always best

This complements my previous statement. Most people’s needs can be satisfied by things which are already available, usually in their own village or town. It definitely needs more creativity to make things simple, which is why we have so many complicated gadgets in the market. Simpler usually implies cheaper which, for people living at the margin, usually implies better.

Do not downgrade modern tech, but upgrade traditional tech

Unless you are introducing something which was not part of traditional life (like solid state lighting!), you should look for ways to improve over existing things than making cheaper and smaller copies of things available in the city. I’m extremely cynical about selling toothpaste in sachets when you can make do with the neem tree on your street. The reason why people in rural areas can live on a smaller income is that nature subsidises many of their acitivities. Trying to change that just to sell your product – which was meant for a society that gets no such subsidy and also earn higher incomes – is a trap.

Try and make a significant change in people’s lives

If this is answered with a no – after thinking as objectively as possible – then you are in it for the money. It is definitely possible for products to bring about a huge change in lives, but finding such an application requires networking with people who speak your language and the people’s language (not in the sense of Kannada and Marathi, but in terms of context), or better learn to speak their language.

Point and counterpoint

Finished two books of essentially opposite characters, One was ‘One Straw Revolution’ and the other was ‘In defense of Globalization’ by Jagadish Bhagwati. Was interesting to read one after the other, since it covered the extremes of the globalization spectrum.

To be fair, Fukuoka was not trying to flagellate globalization as much as he was trying to point out an alternate way of life. Bhagwati, OTOH, was quite focused, as the title itself suggests.

One Straw Revolution

The book claims to be an introduction to natural farming, but is definitely far more than that. Though most of the book deals with Fukuoka’s method of ‘do-nothing farming’ (where you let nature take care of most of the work, with minimal intervention from the farmer), it also puts forward a way of life derived from the method of farming itself. Like the author says (paraphrased)

Once I realised that man knows nothing … Instead of talking about my philosophy, I tried to show the same to others by practicing agriculture.

He derives an alternate type of agriculture which uses the variety and complexity of nature to do most of the hard work, like controlling weeds, pests and manuring, with the farmer himself doing very little. Someone who knows a bit of community ecology will be fascinated by the practical usage of the same to make life easier. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, humans spend most of the energy they harvest/mine to modify ecosystems. However, given the complexity of ecosystems, this is usually a ham-handed approach which leads to other issues which need to be patched up, and so on and so forth. Fukuoka essentially tries to observe natural patterns and see how it can be used to his benefit, rather than fighting it. Of course, he builds his method around his philosophy of ‘man knows nothing’, but the method is useful even if you do not agree with his thinking. This book definitely lies in the ‘inspirational’ category and will leave the reader invigorated, if nothing else ;)

However, given modern logic of efficiency, this method is highly inefficient along the time ordinate, since gradually observing and adjusting to natural rhythms is extremely site specific (for obvious reasons) and iterative (Fukuoka himself took close to 2 decades to reach his level of expertise). NPK fertilizers and pesticides win out on this measure while losing out on practically everything else. Natural food is cheaper (those who buy from organic shops in Blore might find this shocking!), easier to grow and maintain while growing, and does not cause farmer riots all the time. Fukuoka also mentions the variety of problems farmers face when growing cash crops for a global market, especially when they are not sophisticated like corporations to hedge against the inherent risks.

In Defense of Globalization

Bhagwati is quite of the opposite character. Man can sufficiently control nature to increase welfare of all, any lapses are just because science is not yet perfected, and this implies the Western nations – given their superior science and technology – must help developing countries to grow faster. His idea to support growth is that

I noticed that the economic profile of all countries, developed or developing is pretty similar. Therefore, the obvious choice is to make the pie bigger.

As opposed to distributing the pie better. One cannot doubt that he is quite concerned with the welfare of all, just like Fukuoka, but supports globalization of trade as the best way out, in direct opposition of Fukuoka’s way out. Judging by the present scenario, Bhagwati has definitely been more influential!

Leaving aside fundamental differences in opinion, I found it quite instructive to read this book since Bhagwati makes a cogent argument about the various faults in the anti-globalization movement, most of which centre around them being more about good intentions rather than solid research. He concedes that globalization does not mean complete deregulation but needs to be ‘managed’ to cope with what he calls its ‘occasional downsides’. The problem that I have seen reading newspapers and such is that these downsides seem to be quite frequently ‘occasional’. One can hardly agree with Bhagwati that culture are environment are not affected, but rather helped by globalization, and that one should eat genetically modified foods because there is not scientific evidence that they cause any problems. There was no evidence that atmospheric pollution was bad in the 1800’s – the only lamenters being poets and artists – but no one disagrees now. Precautionary measures are something that Bhagwati dislikes saying that ‘anything and everything can be disallowed using moral arguments and this is bad for global trade’. If that is the price for precaution, so be it.

One consistent strain throughout the book is North-South relationship and how developing countries must learn from the big boys how the game is played (technology, management practices, financial aid, the whole nine yards!). USA uses 30% of the world’s energy. If everyone in India consumes like the average American, we would need to mine not only Mars but the Asteroid belt near Jupiter as well. If we concede that all cannot be Americans, then why should we follow the path of development that they did is not very clear. Our 9% growth is essentially creating brown-skinned Americans within a sea of poverty. India, like what we did with NAM, needs to chart its own path of development which is not infinitely optimistic about mining asteroids but takes a more realistic and cautious approach which increases the welfare of all.

Timbaktu again

After nearly 5 months of postponement and conflicting schedules, managed to make my visit to Timbaktu last week. This was again with regards to the demo of my (ever!) prototype lighting system, which has somewhat matured now. As always, the takeback from Timbaktu is more than what one expects.

I was accompanied by Arun from the company I work with on this lighting project. He and I share common interests in education, especially at the primary levels and there are few places in the world where one can learn better about this than Timbaktu. This trip had two main takeaways: one in education and another in technology.

A view from the top
A view from the top

EDUCATION:

The Timbaktu school takes in only those children who are from an underprivileged background and those that the Government school rejects as failures. These children, from what I saw manage to do pretty well, atleast getting their 7th standard certificates which is definitely better than having none at all. Subba Raju, who has been in charge of the school program for more than a decade enumerates the following guidelines for providing children with a happy childhood:

  • Good Nutrition is something he seems completely convinced about. On analysis, this seems obvious, but I have not seen many educators speak as passionately about it as Subba Raju.
  • No-fear environment is another stress here. The children are rarely chided or restricted to things that they want to. It is usually difficult to find teachers in the classroom since they are with the children on the floor ! The children easily approach strangers like us and speak to us with what little English they have picked up (The medium of instruction is Telugu). It embarasses me sometimes to notice that small children have picked up English while I have not been able to learn any rudimentary Telugu. Their curiosity levels are extremely high and they will buzz around like bees if you are carrying any interesting looking gadget. Girls play cricket with the boys and are not ridiculed but treated with patience uncharacteristic of children their age. We witnessed a practice for a play which was written by the kids themselves with a little help, complete with songs set to popular tunes. They had been practicing it for 5 days, and one cannot but develop an inferiority complex looking at their proficiency within such a short span of time. Such observations strengthen my belief in the futility of externally imposed discipline and the power of autonomous learning. Remember, these are kids in the age 5-15!
  • Non competitive learning is another interesting feature of this place. One may balk at the idea, but at then end of the day, it is similar to eating wholesome food, whereas competitive learning is like a body-builder’s diet supplement. Picking a few ‘desirable’ traits and encouraging only these is doing a great injustice to our posterity. Such practices are sometimes supported by simple-minded appeals to evolution, but are undoubtedly harmful given our lack of understanding of a phenomenon as complex as human development. One can ask how such children do in the outside world, and unsurprisingly, given their fearless attitude they adapt extremely well. Contrary to conventional wisdom, non-competitive learning creates more creative and committed individuals, since they usually converge to a discipline they are most suited to. Children are given ample choices to occupy themselves with, and choice available to individuals (not only economic) is increasingly being accepted as a metric of how developed a society is. Timbaktu no doubt qualifies as an extremely developed community.

The Timbaktu school is a must-visit pilgrimage for those interested in education of children and also for those who think starting their children on a IIT coaching class in 10th std is the best thing they can do.

TECHNOLOGY:

My association with Timbaktu and Ashok Rao’s lectures have gradually moulded my perspective on technology and its purpose. Technology is undoubtedly shaped by the cultural milieu it is surrounded by, and this is apparent if you listen to technical proposals from different cultural universes. IITB’s business plan competition awarded a 1 crore prize to a group which came up with an idea to make a more realistic simulator for automotive video games. The people in Timbaktu are more enthusiastic about a system that will help detect wild boar intrusions into fields. Like I had mentioned in a previous post,  Liberal thought left purpose for individuals to define for themselves. This sounds good in theory, but ground realities makes social purpose identical to what those with the most money think it should be. Which is why a video game simulator is more valuable than a boar detection system. Since technology has a high correlation to social purpose, it is hardly surprising that HDTVs, iPods, Mobile phones (or whatever they are calling it nowadays) generate a lot more interest, since the reigning social purpose is to pander to consumer preferences. Like a friend puts it “One rupee, one vote”.

With technological virtuosity being the order of the day, it is natural to think of villages as a primitive society where nothing ‘happens’. However, if one cosiders a hypothetical society where conserving the environment or promoting an equitable society was considered good, many of the technological artifacts that we consider as ‘cool’ turn out to be exactly the opposite. Timbaktu may be considered a ‘poor’ place, but will be exemplary in this hypothetical society. Technological development will take place in such a society, but in a direction that does not make too much sense in our present culture. It is my hope to further the technological boundaries of such a society.

The New Industrial State: Review

Halfway through John Kenneth Galbraith’s most famous (and controversial) book, and thought of writing up the main thesis of the whole thing. There are two kinds of social analysis: one based on a set of axiomatic rules, and another is based on empirical investigation. Galbraith is of the latter category, and always seeks to undermine the former, in extremely enjoyable prose (I would put it almost at the same level as Bertrand Russell’s prose!).

I had written some time ago about how liberalisation looks at the ground level, when the gloss of Times of India / NDTV / CNBC coverage is not present. Galbraith’s main thesis is on the same lines, with obviously more content and better form. One of the intentions is to provide a candid view of the Industrial system as it existed in the ’60s, another is to undermine the ‘theology’ of conservative economics and (even contemporary) economic pedagogy.

The reason conservative economists like Hayek get irritated with Galbraith is that he is, first of all, not given to using equations for everything, and often indulges in ‘lesser’ subjects like sociology and psychology to supplement his analysis, and not purely economic theory (with its implicit preconceptions). His broad generalizations can cause his arguments to seem unfounded, but a person with first hand experience with the corporate (like most reading this) will definitely strike a chord with his reasoning and arguments.

Profit maximization, pre-eminence of capital, informed choices by a consumer, free markets, firms being subordinate to the consumer by the working of the market mechanism are some of the fundamental notions that any standard economics textbook would try to instill in a reader. However, to say that this represents reality is a matter of faith and not fact, argues Galbraith. He takes the Corporation as a case study to drive home the point.

The structure, behavior, motivation, goals of the modern corporation, when studied without the rose-colored glasses of what Samuelson or anyone else teaches, shows how divorced economics is from reality. Economists have grudgingly admitted to some points, but they refuse to face reality in the face of decades of work going to waste. Galbraith also questions two social goals that we have only recently taken for granted (He analyzed the USA, whom we faithfully copy with increasingly decreasing phase lag) : The pursuit of growth for its own sake, and development of advanced technology. To think about it for a second, growth is a fundamental necessity for any modern corporation, both to keep its stockholders happy and for money to drive further growth. Fast changing technology also, in most cases, is a corporate goal, which contributes to the former goal in no small measure nowadays. Thus, instead of the corporation responding to accepted social goals, the corporations of considerable size actively work to shape social attitudes. This is in part a result of the members of the corporation to feel that they serve some social purpose. Another is of course to ‘create’ markets, which is what planning is all about.

In places like Bangalore, where the white collared elite are no longer in a desperate search for daily bread, alternate (some would like to call it ‘higher’) goals take their place. The corporation, with its immense reach and resources provides individuals the opportunity to influence a larger mass than it would be possible to do individually. Once an individual is persuaded that the corporation can be moulded in accordance with his/her inputs ( This is definitely true, since decision making is fundamentally a group activity and some individuals are, as always, more equal than others), aligning with corporate goals is easy. You would notice that loyalty to an organization increases with amount of time spent in it, which derives from the fact that you ‘matter’. Making sure that the corporation takes care of all the needs of the employee (financial, social, psychological) is an important part of the way a corporation behaves. Once all needs are taken care of within, there will be no need for an employee to look outside.

The past two paragraphs enumerate various facets of corporate behavior, which are driven by the need to reduce unreliability of markets. Any firm will require adequate supply, predictable labor behavior and reasonably reliable consumption of its products. Without these, planning for the future is almost impossible. There is no way a corporation can plan sales targets without all these factors of production and consumption being reliable. Most large corporations are in the habit of meeting or even exceeding previously set targets. This is not possible if the consumer is left to his/her own faculties to make a buying decision and if supply of labor or raw materials are not reliable, ie, left to the working of the market mechanism. Thus, large corporations must try to control behavior of markets if they are to invest large amounts of capital, which is a given in this time and age. A Reliance can hardly invest a few thousand crores in a refinery unless it is allowed certain concessions from market behavior. BIAL wants no other airport around for the same reason. More the competitors, lesser the power of a single competitor, and lesser their capability to plan.

To be fair, there are many markets (like those of clothing, FMCGs) where influencing consumer behavior is difficult due to a large amount of choices. But Galbraith’s focus is on the large corporation, which along with other large corporations constitute an oligopoly. In a corporation, the tenet of profit maximization fails for the simple fact that if every employee looked to maximize  profit, chaos would result. Thus, instead of personal profit maximization, stockholder profit maximization is the aim. This can hardly be called acceptable behavior in conventional terms. Thus, motivations of the corporation and its employees cannot be profit maximization. Similarly, consumer can no longer be called king, since there are various devices employed to bias his/her behavior. The tenets of economics, due to their lack of recognition of power as a fundamental factor in real-life economic behavior, fail quite a few reality checks.

Due to their reliance on high technology and an organised workforce to realise the same, the power now has moved from capital to organization of people and information. Thus, the class struggles of our times are no longer between those who have capital and those who do not, but those who have skills valued by the corporation and those who do not. This essentially boils down to an Engineering degree in Bangalore’s context. Anyone familiar with Bangalore will have seen how those with lesser education, organised in various groups, vent their frustration in the form of cultural and lingual pride.

A joining letter that my friend received from Oracle had the following sentence (paraphrased): “Oracle believes the the faster the employee is assimilated into the Oracle culture, the sooner the employee will be productive”. Oracle obviously does not have many bright bulbs in its HR department, but compliments to their candidness. The only other context where I have seen ‘assimilated’ being used is by the Borg in Star Trek. Obviously, the large corporation is not very different. I had once, on another blog, used ‘The Borg’ in this sense. Intuition, combined with some touch with reality, is always an eye-opener.

Finally!!

After months of exams, bad health and miscellaneous distractions, was able to steal some time off to continue my rants. Too many things to write about, and fortunately I have forgotten most of them. Was planning to write this post after my next visit to Timbaktu, which is next week, but got carried away anyways.

The last time time I had discussed the concept of harvesting , be it in energy or any other resource. Energy is something that I no longer need to talk about, since the effects are there for all to see. People always find interest in something only when it matters directly (in terms of Rupees/Litre here), but that is a peripheral issue. Mining is another concept that is more directly relevant to urban patterns of resource consumption. Mining is not just something that happens in Orissa and Jharkhand, but something that occurs in each and every household. Remembering the stock, flow, flux terminologies, we regarded as harvesting that usually taps fluxes. It is therefore highly sustainable as well as unreliable. Mining is the exact opposite: tapping stocks and disregarding fluxes. Think of our urban resource bases – LPG, petrol, diesel, water (from dam projects or underground aquifers), food (intensive agriculture), shelter (glass fronted buildings with AC !) – all these directly tap into existing stocks of resources without much regard to their continuing availability. In other words, we mine water, energy and food.

The direct implication of such a tradition is the necessity for large stocks of resources to be available at any given time. If one looks at energy as a sector, one finds research into new battery technologies, ultracapacitors, carbon nanotubes, with ‘high energy density’ being the key word. Agriculture, high-yielding varieties, storage and processing facilities; water, the ubiquitous deep borewells and water tankers which dot Bangalore’s roads, apartment complexes and IT parks and all contemporary agricultural lands. While it is pragmatic to maintain reasonable amounts of resource stocks so that we can stop worrying about tomorrow, the ways in which we treat and maintain them is completely shocking. The measure of affluence has unfortunately become the rate at which we vaporize large amounts of resources (money, bath-tubs, food, cricket floodlights). Optimists have predicted that our civilization will find ways to do more with less, but it seems to me that this is more of a cultural than technological issue. Even if we forget the matter of energy (we have enough coal to burn for a few thousand years), water, land, food are still being replenished by harvesting technologies and exploited by mining technologies. It is only a sign of desperation or craziness, depending on your point of view, that we need to look at solutions like tapping icebergs for water and using satellites to capture solar energy. All these `solutions’ have the same recurring theme : Find large stocks of resources!

If one examines the situation from a saner point of view, it is not that there is insufficient resources. The problem is of equity. MIT students recently ran a study about the `Footprint of The Man‘, which tried to calculate the energy consumption of the least resource consuming American (A Buddhist Monk), and this came upto 120GigaJoules. India would barely scratch 50. This ranking table should give you some indication.  Mining civilizations like Western Europe and USA required large stocks of resources to fuel their rise, leading to colonization. Once ‘primitive’ countries realized that they should be independent and went on to become so, they realized affluence can only comy by exploiting someone else, and so started internal colonization. Orissa and Bihar are good examples, so is Chamarajanagar right in my backyard. Not satisfied, ‘booming economies’ like India started going global with their ambitions and now Indians beat their chest with pride saying we are doing to the West what they did to us, which is the most childish way to react to the situation. India has absolutely no claim to such titles, considering half of the children in India are still undernourished and female mortality rate during childbirth is obscenely high.

Coming to demographics, mining is the reason cities are preferred to villages – A large and expendable stock of labor that is willing to get vaporized in a short time (retire at 45, remember ?). Another buzzword that betrays our obsession with mining is Data Mining. Information Technology is the perfect tool in the hands of the miners; but its very structure makes it equally powerful in the hands of the people, unlike so many other technologies. Which is why you will hear calls for strict regulation, prevention of piracy and all such things.

While I consider this feature of modern society to be irreversible even with a WW 3, one must consider and deploy policies which can counter its effects at the frontiers, social and environmental. All said and done, to me the next few decades will be monumental in history, almost as important as the Enlightenment itself. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Gandhi Engineering?

Just as Japan popularized kanban (just in time) and kaizen (continuous improvement), so Tata may export to the world what may perhaps be called a ‘Gandhi Engineering’ – a mantra that combines irreverence to established ways with a scarcity mentality that spurns superfluities.

quote from the article on the Nano, which, given my bias towards the word ‘Gandhi’, caught the eye. This was quite an interesting thing for me to reflect and read upon, and see whether the statement holds water. The validity of the article by and large does not rest on this statement, but the validity of the statement is what interested me. There is a PhD. thesis by Dr. Shambu Prasad, which is probably one of the first few critical assessments of Gandhi’s view of science and technology. Quite an interesting read, and I went back to it to get justifications or rebuttals to the above statement.

Ratan Tata, when asked for the inspiration to make the Nano, referred to the unsafe modes of transport like the two wheeler carrying four people which is so common in India, and wanted to make something more safer. Whether the Nano is the answer (instead of, say, better public transport) is another thing, but the thought in itself seems to be quite in line with Gandhi’s view that technology and technologists must be sensitive to the problems of the people and try and solve them. It was also Gandhi’s view that scientists must immerse themselves in the actually prevailing living conditions of the people and see if they can do incremental changes using newly discovered techniques, which people can relate to, and actively participate in the development and use of. It was his opinion that there was plenty to be learned even from the unlearned villager which could lead to progress in science. In this view, the Nano can hardly measure up. It is a solution “given from above”, so to speak, and cars can hardly be called the daily staple of transport for the majority of the people. The public transport holds that place, and anyone who has travelled in a village bus or the passenger compartment of a train will know how ill-designed these modes of transportation actually are. The way to make public transport attractive is somehow thought to lie in introducing Volvos, which cater to the taste of the people who hardly use public transport (Bangalore, from experience, not included. Mysore is a nice glaring example of AC buses running with 2-3 people onboard, when I have seen women waiting for hours together to get a single bus upto their village, in the unsafe hours of the late evening).

About ‘irreverence to established ways’, lots has been written about Gandhi’s critiques of the Industrial Civilization and Western science. However, the reason behind this is not that he was against industries or science, but what they stood for, and what world-view they imposed. Natural sciences have looked at nature as a mass of atoms clumped together which fortuitously resulted in what we call today as life. Value, or meaning of life, is essentially zero, since we were after all composed by random coupling of matter. This was what irked Gandhi particularly and this facet of his attitude toward western science taken up to show his irrelevance in modern day life, branding him as anti-modernist and anti-progress. However, he was very much impressed by the method of science and the spirit of enquiry that western scientist were imbued with, and lamented at the lack of the same in practitioners of Indian systems like Ayurveda and Unani, whom he perceived to be resting on the laurels of past greatness and were too self-satisified to build upon the innovations of their forefathers. I had commented on what the Nano’s world view was in the previous post, and it is unlikely that Gandhi would endorse such a view by lending his name to what is being called ‘Gandhi Engineering’.

‘Scarcity Mentality that spurn superfluities’. Gandhi was of a scarcity mentality, having travelled across the country and realising that there was not much here in terms of material abundance. He enjoined scientists to voluntarily donate their talents for the upbringing of the masses, knowing that a poor people can offer very little in terms of material benefit but they are the ones who most need the effort of the scientists. Abstinence from superfluities are also something that comes naturally from this outlook. However, one should look at what is being called superfluities in the Nano. One read of the article would tell you that longevity is what is being considered ‘superfluous’, in the author’s terms. One can scarcely imagine how this can be reconciled with Gandhi’s view of cheap, reliable and user-friendly technology. ‘Innovation’ with pure cost cutting in mind, and then spending large amounts on advertising to generate a market is completely crazy to my mind. If a person is willing to endanger the life of his/her family by taking them on one two wheeler, then how spending a lakh on a car that will give half the mileage of his two wheeler and is not expected to last very long is not a superfluity in itself eludes me. The market for the Nano is more likely to be yuppie climbing-the-social-ladder types rather than the family that Ratan Tata so endearingly points to in his interview. If one reads a sampling of the interviews with people, asking them about the Nano, the ones most enthusiastic about the Nano comes from the former group, not the latter.

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.