God-realization Through Technology

On the launch of the Simputer, a sort of Palm clone meant for the poor, PicoPeta chairman Prof. Vinay said: “Amida allows people to share information, stay connected and bond emotionally. It does these by breaking the fear of technology.”

Damn, now I know what was preventing me from bonding emotionally with people — my fear of technology. Now that Simputer is here, I will get over my fear of technology and bam! I will be bonding emotionally with people. Now I will finally get a life!
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Why Telephones, Radio, and TVs Don’t Make The Conference Circuits

In late February, immediately upon my return from my brief trip to California, I went to attend what is called the Baramati Conference in Baramati. Baramati is a small town in Sharad Pawar’s constituency. The conference was on “Information Kiosks and Sustainability”. I sat through the presentations. After a while it gets mighty boring to hear about ICT-this and ICT-that and all the wonderful things that computers and the internet are going to do for development of poor people. My mind wanders when I get bored. So I sat there wondering what motivates these people who wish to push computers and internet as the solution to all problems. Why?
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Educating India

In the last three posts, I went on about the need to adopt innovations whereever we find them. There is nothing new under the sun. No problem we face is novel. Someone somewhere has encountered and solved every problem we face today. We have to have the smarts to understand what ails us, and then go out and find the solution.

Let’s discuss education. India has the largest collection of illiterates and semi-literates in the whole universe. India is also very poor and therefore cannot afford the luxury of going the traditional route as regards education. The tradition route of having fancy classrooms and well-paid teachers is beyond the reach of the majority. What is the way out, then?

Here is a comment by Bob Wyman which he left recently at Rajesh Jain’s Emergic weblog:

You wrote:”1. Education: Education is perhaps the most important investment that people can make in their future.”

India is *NOT* taking advantage of some very cheap and simple ways to spread education throughout the country. The most glaring example is that there is virtually no “educational television” available in India — even though TV has a surprisingly high penetration in India. For “schools without teachers”, one solution might simply be to install TV sets, hire “teaching assistants” and have the India’s *best* teachers broadcast from a central site. The teaching assistants would then keep order in the classroom, issue standardized tests, etc. This is, of course, not the ideal way to teach. However, it is much better than doing nothing. We have gained, in many countries, a tremendous amount of experience in teaching without teachers. Television, Radio, etc. have all been successfully used provide “distance learning” to students in the Australian outback, the Alaskan wilderness or some of the more remote parts of Africa. The fact that there aren’t enough teachers shouldn’t prevent teaching from happening — it should only change the method for deliverying the teaching. In fact, if one takes seriously the suggestion that only India’s best teachers should be used in educational TV, it is even possible that students “forced” to learn over TV would be better taught than some who had their own teachers.

Rajesh and I have proposed pretty much the same idea in a separate paper which was presented at a conference in Sydney last July. The idea was to create first-class content and then distribute it using the most cost-effective ICT tools, and have the “last mile” delivery done at the village level.

Bob added a very important bit that I am ashamed to say that I had not thought about. I am ashamed because I should have thought of that considering a number of things. I have spent over 20 years in the US, many of which were in university campuses. I am confident that as much as I learnt in universities, I leant a great deal from the excellent public radio and television in the US. I am more than familiar with the content available in radio and TV there — I swear by it. The most logical thing would have been for me to propose that we beg, buy, borrow or steal some of that content and translate it appropriately for educating our people in India. But it was Bob who wrote another comment on Rajesh’s blog and said:

You wrote: “The challenge lies in the creation of content.” NO!, NO!, NO!

Educational Content development is notorious for consuming vast quantities of money and producing little. To get started, with a reasonable budget, you MUST accept that you can not reach everyone on day one. Do first what CAN be done. So, exploit the vast quantities of recorded content (TV, Radio, etc) that exists in English in the US, England, Canada, Australia, etc. Billions of dollars worth of content has been produced by schools, non-profits, and governments and much of it is easily and cheaply obtained. Use this content first to establish the concept and the network and to convince people of the value of the idea. Only after you have exploited this material to its fullest extent should you get involved in the exceptionally expensive process of developing new, original content. While English language content may not be ideal and may not reach the full breadth of students desired, English is the second language in India and there are a vast number of students who would be! nefit from content in English.

With English language content, you could create a real “educational TV” network for India for little more than the cost of a tape recorder in one of the cable-TV head-end offices and someone to change tapes every half-hour or so. The real challenge would be the politics of getting a channel assigned and dealing with those who insist on coverage of vedic astrology… Nonetheless, the cost of such an effort can be kept to such a low level that it should be embarrasing to anyone to oppose it. Start small and then grow. Use English first and expand over time only as your budget allows.

Thank you, Bob, for that excellent recommendation.

I have had the misfortune of seeing what is on Indian TV. There is standard Indian stuff — song and dance and movies (with more song and dance.) Then there is Indian news and some other stuff such as sports. Then there are the imports. Among imports there is news (BBC, CNN, etc) and then there is good stuff such as Discovery and nature channels. Then we have the average American crappy sitcoms such as Friends (although I confess that I really really like Will & Grace, especially the character, Karen in it). But for real disgusting stuff, you have American wrestling. If we have the spare bandwidth for Wrestle Mania, I cannot fathom why we can’t have a 24-hour educational channel.

Like they say on TV, more to come. I will continue this one tomorrow.

Enlightened Reformation

The depth of the Indic civilization is awe inspiring when you consider that it has been around for many thousands of years. The Vedas were composed long before the start of the Common Era. The people of India can claim direct lineage to those who composed the Vedas and the Upanishads. The Rig Veda epitomizes in one of its invocations what I am concerned about: adoption of ideas.

Let noble thoughts come to us from all universe.

The puzzle therefore is why has modern day India been so insular and close-minded? (By modern day I mean the last few centuries, and not the period variously called ‘internet era’ or ‘post-industrial era’.) Other countries appear to have become enlightened in that regard.

(Talking of enlightenment, the most well-known enlightenment appears to have happened in India about 2500 years ago. The fall-out of that event radiated from India to other lands but vanished from ground zero almost without a trace. Fortunately, the echoes from far-off lands can now be heard in India. Given enough time, once again that enlightenment will be back home in India.)

Consider, for instance, the Meiji Restoration:

The Tokugawa bakufu came to an official end on November 9th, 1867 with the resignation of the 15th Tokugawa Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the “restoration” (Taisei Houkan) of imperial rule. The 15-year-old Mutsuhito succeeded his father, Emperor Komei, and the following year took the reign name Meiji (明治) or “enlightened rule,” and signed the Five Charter Oath.

What was the Five Charter Oath?

The Five charter oath (Gokajyo no Goseimon) was an outline of the main aims and the course of action to be followed by the new Meiji era government of Japan after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 during the Meiji Restoration. The oath set a new path in Japanese history with an emphasis on modernization and the establishment of a new social structure.

I draw your attention to the fifth oath which read:

“Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of Imperial Rule.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what transformed Japan and made it strong enough to dream of world domination and to ultimately grow so economically powerful that the US was forced for the first time after the Second World War to do some very urgent soul-searching.

The successes of the Meiji Reformation can be traced ultimately to their thirst for knowledge and understanding from around the world. They used ‘noble thoughts’ from all universe to learn and then out-do what others had done. They adopted and adapted to the modern world — a world that they indeed helped create at least in part.

It is time for India to have a reformation of its own. It has to have enlightened rule if it is to survive. There is no other way.

Adopting Innovations

In my previous post I wrote

As a development economist, I have often asked myself what are the invariants that underlie development. I know for sure that high technology (computers, internet, cell phones) are neither necessary nor sufficent for development. Most of the developed economies of the world developed at a time when all those were not yet invented. I believe that one invariant is the ability to adopt innovations.

People, societies, economies which can successfully adopt innovations tend to do better than those that don’t adopt innovations. The operational word is adopt. Innovations happen all over the place and all the time. Who innovates and how is not what I am concerned about although it is a fascinating subject in itself. What I am concerned about is the adoption of innovations rather than the causes of innovations.

Innovations are primarily discovered or invented by what I call ‘micro-agents’. That is, the suppliers of innovations are individuals or very small groups of people. These are the real smart people who have understood some problem very well and figured out a solution to the problem. This is hard work and it requires truckloads of inventiveness, intelligence, luck, and all sorts of fortuitous circumstances for innovations to arise. Therefore, the number of successful innovators is small relative to the overall population and so is the number of real innovations very small. But what is significant is that any real innovation has a multiplier effect in its implementation when the innovation is adopted by society at large. We all don’t have to invent a wheel or a wheel-barrow. Someone somewhere came up with the innovation of a wheel-barrow and for ever not so intelligent people have been using wheel-barrows to cart stuff around with much less effort than would be required without one.

Ever been to a construction site or a farm where they did not use wheel-barrows? The answer is: depends. I have seen hundreds of constructions sites in India and they don’t use wheel-barrows. The one right outside my window, where three massive buildings are being built, don’t use use wheel-barrows. They pile the stuff up on their heads and carry small loads. The lever and the wheel (two innovations that form the basis for a wheel-barrow) have been known for ages. I have seen the use of wheel-barrows all over in developed nations. But not in India. In India, it is stuff on their heads. Go to a railway station and coolies will be lugging stuff on their heads for the majority of the loads. If you insist they will get a huge luggage cart but then you will have to wait for a while for them to track down one and they will have to charge you extra for that.

So as I was saying, micro-agents invent the stuff and macro-agents adopt them. Micro-agents have to be very smart to invent clever things. The society at large, the macro-agents, don’t have to be particularly smart: only smart enough to be able to use them. You have to be a veritable genius to invent the wheel-barrow but you have to be a certifiable moron to not use a wheel-barrow after it has been invented.

I am going on about adoption of innovation because that is the important bit. It does not matter who came up with the innovation. What matters is whether a society uses or adopts the innovation. What causes one society to adopt innovations and others to neglect them is a fascinating question and I have my theories about them.

For now, I will continue to explore this topic next.

It’s the Small Stuff, Stupid

An ironic bit of popular wisdom goes

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

In the context of economic development, I totally agree with the latter bit, but strongly disagree with the former bit. If we don’t sweat the small stuff, we don’t have much hope of managing the big stuff since the big stuff is exactly what arises from an aggregation of all those small bits of stuff.
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Growth and Development

Prasad requested a bit more on the distinction between development and growth. Consider the life-cycle of a normal human being. The initial stages are marked by growth and development; the later stages by a cessation of growth but continued development (hopefully). Growth, apart from that required in the initial stages, is neither necessary nor sufficient for development. One can have one without the other.
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Shifting Focus from Bharat to India

Thomas Friedman is a one-man factory churning out outsourcing stories by the dozens. He asks and answers the question below in his latest column.

How did India, in 15 years, go from being a synonym for massive poverty to the brainy country that is going to
take all our best jobs? Answer: good timing, hard work, talent and luck.

I would have asked a slightly different question:

How did India, in 15 years, go from being perceived as a country of massive poverty to being perceived as the brainy country that is going to take all our best jobs? Answer: Spin, racist zenophobia, and ignorance.

Let’s take the last one: ignorance. People are generally ignorant of the fact that there are two distinct Indias. Sharad Joshi distinguised them by calling the urban, rich, educated one India and the rural, poor, uneducated one Bharat. I will borrow that nomenclature. India is small, say about 100 million people at most. India has programmers and BPO call centers and cars and Baristas and McDonalds. Indians get educated at IITs and IIMs and travel abroad and talk to each other in Hindi sentences such as, “mera sleep bahut disturbed ho raha hai these days.”

In contrast to that, Bharat is a huge country of about 900 million, most of whom live in rural areas. They are largely illiterate, poor, have little education, don’t speak in English, do manual labor in farms, wouldn’t know what to do with a computer even if one came and bit them on their skinny behinds, have no illusions about anything shining and are generally ignorant about feeling good.

Ignorance about the existence of Bharat is widespread in India. Examine any magazine published in India and you would learn that the most pressing problems in India include what to do about a waist-line, which car to buy, where the hottest shopping spots are in the world, which movie star is sleeping with whom, and how India is shining.

How foreigners perceive India depends on what they have been fed by the news media. Sometimes the news media concentrates on Bharat and the focus is therefore on poverty and hunger. Then for some reason, Bharat is ignored and India comes into the limelight. The focus is then on the IT industry and all BPO and call center and job loss to brainy Indians. The reality is pretty much what it was before.

The other two factors — spin and racist zenophobia — I may take up later or leave it as an exercise for the interested reader.


This one is to be filed under “INDIA IS A SUPERPOWER” category.

The newsletter from US-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) contained this:

We need support and financial contribution from at least 50,000 Indian Americans by March 2004 to persuade the US government to support India in its fight against HIV/AIDS. The US government has already funded 14 nations in curbing the HIV/AIDS menace. With your support, India can become the 15th country to receive the much-needed US funds for fighting the epidemic.

Begging bowl all shiny and ready, I suppose. What the heck is wrong with these people? Do they have no shame? Begging for their living? Because I don’t doubt that they fly first class from one end of the country to the other shiny begging bowl in hand.
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