If only, Lord, if only …

Years ago I used to watch a British comedy series called Bless Me, Father on public television. The setting was a church in a small town in England and the stories revolved around the parish priest and his young curate. In one of the episodes, the curate asks, “Father, why do you spend so much time with the rich in our parish? Don’t you think that the poor need our help more than the rich?” The father replies: “No, the rich need us more. They don’t even have the comfort of the illusion that money is the answer to all their problems.”

It is a common failing. I call it the If-only-lord-if-only syndrome. If only I had x (where x could be money, power, status, gizmos, etc.), I would be y (where y could be happy, successful, good, etc.) Often enough, x is something that is relatively easy to obtain but does nothing towards the goal of y. Sometimes, after obtaining x, one realizes that y is still out of reach. Then wisdom dawns and one realizes that it is not that x leads to y, but rather y leads to x.

Bertrand Russell was very wise. He claimed that “the happy life is the good life. By that I do not mean that if you are good, you will be happy. But rather that if you are happy, you will be good.” Worth pondering, isn’t it?

The use of high technology (x) is highly correlated with high degree of economic growth and development (y). Correlation, as economists never tire of reminding one, is not causation. Furthermore, even if there is causation, the direction of causation is not always obvious. Two variables x and y may be causally linked; but does x cause y, or does y cause x, or are they two connected through some other hidden variable z?

I am sitting in the University of California at Berkeley. (Hi from Berkeley!) The campus is full of high technology tools. Compared to what UC Berkeley has in terms of computers and bandwidth, the campus of a typical Indian university (Nagpur University, for instance) has very little. So it is tempting to believe that if Nagpur Univ were to be equipped with all the electronic gizmos and Internet bandwidth, then it too will attain the level of a UC. But that is patently absurd. What makes UCB is not the hardware (electronic or otherwise) but human and institutional capital. Human and institutional capital is what matters, not hardware. Just to drive home that point, Nagpur University in 2005 has more electronic hardware and internet bandwidth than UC Berkeley had in 1980. Yet, the capability of UCB(1980) far exceeded that of Nagpur University(2005).

It is not how much hardware or software or information one has that matters; what matters is what you do with it. And what you do with it depends on you and not on the thing. An inept author will not suddenly start writing masterpieces even if equipped with the fanciest word processing software. People will not suddenly become knowledgeable just because they have all the information of the world wide web at their finger-tips.

The $100 laptop being touted by some as the holy grail that will emancipate the poor all over the globe is a striking example of the silliness that pervades the development community. But more about that later.

Categories: Information and Communications Technology, My Favorite Bits

2 replies

  1. Having good equipment makes a big difference. It allows to explore, to try out things, to push limits, to learn more than the prescribed syllabus.

    I did my Comp Sci Grad in a small district town in Maharashtra and know it would have made a big difference if the college had more equipment or allowed un-hindered access to the labs.

    I could also see a constrast with PCIT & MCS students in Pune who had PCs at home.

    The same applies to the lack of comptent teachers.

    So, IMO Sir, you are way off the mark here. And the writer’s example is a simplification.

    Santa Clara, CA


  2. Amit, the confusion seems to arise from not being able to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Equipment is necessary but it is not sufficient. And if the sufficient conditions are not met, it does not amount to a hill of beans. Having a writing instrument is necessary but not sufficient for writing.


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