Palliatives Considered Dangerous

Recently the Indian Postal Services have started offering a service which can be characterized as “mediated email services.” You write out a message on a piece of paper and bring it to a post office and they will transmit the information to an email address after any required translation. On the return route, they will print out an email and a postman will deliver it to the addressee who does not have direct access to email.

I subscribe to an email list where matters relating to India’s progress down the information highway is discussed. One member, Mr. S.N.Rao, wrote in response to the postal department’s scheme. I find Rao’s comments very pertinent and with his permission I quote him for the record.

I can see that this is a very useful thing to have and that it benefits large numbers of poor people who cannot afford to own computers or learn how to operate them or speak/write English.

That brings me to the frighteningly palliative nature of this kind of solution. It attempts to provide a workaround – causing the real problems to be ignored along the way. I hope I am not the only one to see the striking parallels between this solution and the “good old days” solution to illiteracy where the postman often read out incoming letters to his customers and scribed outgoing mail on their behalf!

The basic problems that need to be solved are

a. Computers and technology are still bewildering and sometimes threatening in their cost and complexity of use. The platform that is used to develop and test software is basically the same as the platform that is used as a home PC…with all the attendant disadvantages of a user interface geared for essentially production/office environments.

There are some products that make sending email simpler by providing a dedicated email station that does nothing else – but that again is a point solution. There is a sorely felt need for a home platform. Sending email/voice/photos via the internet should be at least as easy as turning on the TV and switching between Z-TV and CNN (if not as easy as switching on a light).

b. Local language support is nearly non-existent despite large cumbersome frameworks and customisation options being built into operating systems. As a result it is almost imperative that the user be comfortably familiar with English. Oh! wait – that’s only true for India and a few other countries – in Japan, the computers, UI, keyboards are all in Japanese (I think you might be even able to select between two different scripts – kanji and the more common mix of katagana and hiragana). Now wouldn’t it be nice for the old man in Alleppy if we had a computer with an interface and markings entirely in, for example – Malayalam?

Band-aids, palliatives, patches, workarounds — are dangerous when they mask underlying problems. They work in the short-run and appear to solve the problem but in the long-run, they indirectly contribute to the persistence of the problem. They often address symptoms rather than causes. I am not advocating the abandonment of band-aids. My insistence is on making sure that even as we are busy putting on band-aids, we should spare some time and effort to address underlying causes.

Computers are complex beasts because of the evolutionary pathway they have traveled. Made by techies for techies. For them to be useful for the unwashed masses (such as yours truly), they have to be transformed into easy to manage domesticated animals. Some people are working on that domestication.

The availability of computers for the masses is of course increasingly becoming a necessity. But that is far from sufficient. For us to have a reasonable shot at development, we need to have a literate population. Palliatives that mask that underlying deficiency should be considered dangerous.