Rambling on about technology and development

This one is a pointless ramble. OK, most blogging is. But this one is only more so.

Invariably during discussions on India’s development, technology is thrown around and often the notion that India will leapfrog some barrier or the other surfaces. I find myself disagreeing with many of those propositions. I think much semantic confusion is caused by not having a clear understanding of the terms.

I think it would be worthwhile to define them to some degree. Technology is embodied human ingenuity. In one word–ideas. Some of it is high tech (PCs and mobile phones, etc) and some low tech (how to use water effectively, etc.) Adoption of technology is entirely a matter that is mediated by the market and requires no government intervention. That is, producers and consumers will make the right choice in what to produce and consume. For example, land line phones will not be chosen over mobile phones when the latter are cheaper than the former in undistorted markets. Market forces alone will guarantee “leapfrogging” of technology. This is not quantum mechanics.

Development is harder to define. Volumes can be written about development without repetition. It is distinct from growth, to begin with. Economic growth is a necessary condition but not sufficient for development. Also economic growth is easier to engineer than development.

Technology is instrumental in promoting economic growth. Economic growth fundamentally is about producing more stuff. More stuff can be produced by employing “factors of production” either more intensively or more extensively. Conventionally these are labeled as labor, land, and capital. Extensive means more of the factor, such as using more labor or more land, etc. Intensive means using the factors more efficiently. That means you use the same amount of land or labor or capital but use it more effectively. This requires better ideas. Better ideas is another way of saying better technology.

So, for instance, using the same amount of water but using drip irrigation, you can increase the productivity of water. That is what is meant by the use of technology. Now if you were to go from flooding of fields to drip irrigation, you effectively leapfrog the “spray irrigation” stage. Or if you go from carrier pigeons to cell phones, you leapfrog twisted copper landline stage of phone communications. This leapfrogging is natural and needs no government intervention for the economy achieve.

Technology that deals with the recording, storage, manipulation, transmission, and distribution of information is very advanced these days, thankfully. Information is a critical ingredient in the workings of a modern complex economy. It is important to understand what information is and to distinguish it from knowledge. Information is anything that is “potentially digitizable” as Hal Varian has defined it.

Photos, music, spread sheets, words, graphs, DNA sequences, prices of goods, books, movies — all digitizable and therefore information. Information can be recorded on a variety of media, from stone tablets to magnetic discs to paper. Knowledge however exists only in the brain of a sentient being. It cannot be communicated directly but only through the intermediate stage of first converting it into information and then reconverting it into knowledge in another sentient brain.

Conflating information and knowledge leads to stupidity. Even the president of India is not immune. Read his writings on PURA and see how silly it sounds when he says Village Knowledge Centers. Centers don’t have knowledge any more than a Physics textbook has knowledge of Physics. Else we should be referring to physics books as “Dr Physics Textbook.” Books have information, not knowledge. So they are Village INFORMATION Centers.

A brain is required for translating information into knowledge. But it has to be a prepared brain. You can give the most advanced information to an unprepared brain and it will do little good. So for information to be useful, it has to be presented in a sequence that cannot be leapfrogged even though the technology that you use to deliver the information can be very advanced and you could have leapfrogged over eons of intermediate technology.
Now back to development. Development is concerned with human beings, while technology is an instrument of economic growth through more effective use of the factors of production. There is a strict sequence of development that a human being goes through. For instance, basic literacy and numeracy are the first stages of education. Whether you are going to be a quantum mechanist or a auto mechanist, you cannot leapfrog that. So also, to use technology, you have to meet some minimum requirements. Simply installing high tech computers in places where they can barely read is silly.

It is undeniable that high tech can be used to promote basic literacy and numeracy and other bits of basic education. It is the same in every aspect of life — you can get nutrition from a diet of filet mignon or from dal-roti. But where one can barely afford dal-roti, insisting on delivering filet mignon is worse than stupid. You can always get there from here in a Rolls Royce. But it may be better to budget for a bicycle when resources are limited.

People who have yet to lose their fascination with high tech gizmos promote mindless schemes for bringing high tech to rural areas without asking whether there are cheaper alternatives. I have seen a depressing number of hare-brained schemes which promote PCs for adult literacy in rural areas, for instance. What you really need is a blackboard and chalk.

Author: Atanu Dey


11 thoughts on “Rambling on about technology and development”

  1. I think for the stage that India is in we need more of education dissemination technology to enable the people to convert information to knowledge and again there is no leapfrogging permitted.


  2. hey atanu , the post and last para in particular makes a point why we (India) shouldn go for OLPC ,,,it is right to say tht we have basic development probelms in education rather than a technological one.


  3. Quoting from the post:
    “What you really need is a blackboard and chalk.”

    Very True.
    What will a child who cannot read n write do with a damn computer, and worse still, one who doesn’t know if he will be fed his next meal.


  4. When you say that, “Adoption of technology is entirely a matter that is mediated by the market and requires no government intervention.” You are willfully ignoring the fact that market mechanisms in developing countries are under developed, thus rendering them prone to exploitation. I wish your unshakeable faith in markets and disillusionment with the Government is equally matched by concern for social equity. The kind of leapfrogging “from Pigeons to Mobiles” happens only in the mind. India’s vast postal network system and vibrant media at local and state levels addressed the need for communication for many years. Admittedly literacy limits the access to even these forms of communication to the better-off sections. But again it is these better-off sections that use the mobile phones now too. As you rightly mentioned, growth is easier to achieve than development. But unless economic growth reduces societal inequalities and provides equality of opportunity, the friction in the society will remain. The search for the “better idea” to achieve this should look beyond mere “technology” to the “human ingenuity” with equity as the central concern. Finally when you say that “People who have yet to lose their fascination with high tech gizmos promote mindless schemes for bringing high tech to rural areas without asking whether there are cheaper alternatives”, it is not clear, considering your previous post on OLPC if “DVD Players, TV Monitors and Radios” are the cheaper alternatives you have in mind, or the “blackboard and chalk”


  5. I really liked this post, Atanu… leapfrogging can’t be forced and chalks and blackboards will serve a much better purpose than PCs in many places.

    However, there is something I don’t understand. For me (as someone not so used to the terms in economics), economic growth and development are synonymous — when I say that a company is growing, it automatically entails development in all areas (to different extents). Can you elucidate more on what you meant by the difference between the two?


  6. For me (as someone not so used to the terms in economics), economic growth and development are synonymous—- when I say that a company is growing, it automatically entails development in all areas (to different extents). Can you elucidate more on what you meant by the difference between the two?
    There’s no free lunch.
    Go buy an Economics textbook or enroll yourself in a class.


  7. The VKC thing is happening, at least the money is being mis-appropriated. Apparently Rs 6K crores have been allocated for it. We were asked by one of the consulting groups to work out the solar architecture to power the damn things. Our recommendations were perused and they came back to ask if we could achieve the same results with 1/5 the investment on the solar.In effect reduce your solar investment to 20 % of what you are suggesting and find a way for the hardware vendors to still sell their state of the crap junk. Apparently one of the other vendors has suggested a ‘hybrid’ system that is also grid interactive. This hybrid is a pure con with the solar tacked on to satisfy the RFC conditions and bring down the costs.These cost reductions are so that they can dispose off their inventory on the story that the system will work 9×6. So right at the start there is no way to actually power the infrastructure for the time that they claim.The plethora of middle men seem to have their own physics textbook. They seem to have deep faith in perpetual machines. The vendor knows that once it is setup it will be quietly buried. After all the rush seems to be to garner ‘their’ share of the 6k cr after the babus and netas have dipped their beaks.They are still talking to me as they realize that our numbers add up without having to undermine the RFP by ‘assuming’ x hours of grid supply (which is a joke in bangalore leave alone Jumrithaliah) or P4 class machines that run at less than 200W (with inversion losses thrown to the wind). The world forces me to acknowledge that Atanu is probably right in wanting to disband the FDA. 😦


  8. This is fantastic stuff.
    One resource you might want to look at in the context of ‘village information centres’ is the Sirolli Institute http://www.sirolli.co.uk/

    I worked in mid 80s for AKRSP (Aga Khan Rural Support Programme) in northern Gilgit and the principles we worked to there are closely aligned with Ernesto Sirolli’s ideas.

    Now I’m a business consultant but the principles of using enterprise as a tool for economic development is the most rational I have ever seen. And it works – in the first, second and third world!



  9. Well said about Blackboard and Chalk. Leapfrogging is beneficial to the to only a selected few who have the wealth and want to generate more and who are educated. For the poor and uneducated leapfrogging can never build the capacity to innovate.


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