Archive for April, 2012

The Famously Unknown Collingridge Dilemma

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Mint, 11 April 2012

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first Indian-American woman to hold a governorship, has just become the latest victim of the power of Twitter. It took only a couple of hours for an unsubstantiated rumour—that she was facing indictment for tax evasion—that appeared on a little-known blog, to enter tweetspace, and get retweeted to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people by credible sources like Washington Post, CBS News and Huffington Post journalists. For some hours, it became the truth and Haley was forced to issue statements and documents to prove that it was not so.

David Collingridge would have been amused.

But hardly anyone outside the slightly rarefied and academic world of “technology assessment” has heard of the Collingridge Dilemma, which this British academic posited in 1980. Even though this simple and elegant formulation lies at the heart of all reflection on technology and its impact on life and society.

In fact, in its field, the Collingridge Dilemma occupies the same place as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does in quantum physics, except that most of us are aware of the Uncertainty Principle, even if we don’t have the slightest clue of what it means or implies.

David Collingridge was a professor at the University of Aston in the UK, who, in his 1980 book, The Social Control of Technology, articulated his Dilemma. That, when a technology is new (and therefore its spread can be controlled), it is extremely hard to predict its negative consequences, and by the time one can figure those out, it’s too costly in every way to do much about it.

Consider the automobile (as Collingridge did). While Henry Ford was perfecting his Model T, there was no way anyone could foresee the tremendous impact cars would have on the world, including problems like pollution and social dynamics. Today we know the negative consequences, but it’s enormously expensive and difficult to bring about change. One needs only to look at the economic and political knots we have tied ourselves into just on the automobile emission issue. Who could have imagined this a hundred years ago?

Nuclear power, genetic engineering, antibiotics, plastics, automated facial recognition, the list of such technologies is endless. The Nikki Haley-Twitter affair is just the latest—though minor—example.

To avoid the undesirable effects of a technology, “it must be known that a technology has, or will have, harmful effects, and it must be possible to change the technology in some way to avoid the effects,” wrote Collingridge. And reached the conclusion that this can’t happen.

In the 32 years since he posited the quandary, the speed of technology development has increased manifold. Collingridge’s Dilemma becomes both more obviously true and trickier by the day. But what I find quite fascinating is that Collingridge, whose work I discovered entirely by chance, is so little-known.

In a way, the internet—that great and crucial civilisational aid—personifies what Collingridge warned about, since, by its very nature, it’s perfect for errors and misrepresentations to be passed on and Chinese-whispered through the world until they become unquestioned truths that range from benign bunkum to dangerous disinformation.

But the Wikipedia entry on the Collingridge Dilemma has been officially termed an “orphan”, which is defined as “a page with few or no links from other pages. And “David Collingridge” doesn’t even have a Wiki page!

Strange, how the man who saw it all, remains unseen on the world wide web. Will someone tweet about him, please?

The IIT game changers

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Mint, 9 April 2012

Someone has uploaded a scan of the physics paper of the IIT entrance exam, JEE, conducted on 8 April, on an IIT alumni facebook group I am a member of. And the general consensus is something: Oh boy, if we sat for the test today, we never would have got in! Of course, most of those who have commented graduated from IIT at least 20 years ago, so their memory of what happened when two cylinders rolled down a slope, one with most of its mass concentrated near its surface, and the other, near its axis, may be pretty muddled. But still…

The Facebook post got me thinking about IIT, and a book that has been lying with me for a couple of months now (and also appearing in non-fiction bestseller lists).

The Game Changers, by Yuvnesh Modi, Rahul Kumar and Alok Kothari, tells the story of 20 IIT Kharagpur (or Kgp) alumni and their entrepreneurial journeys.

The IITs have always been famous for producing entrepreneurs. In fact, it may be worthwhile for some researcher to investigate why the IITs have been far more successful in this regard than the IIMs. One reason, of course, would be that till some years ago, a large chunk of IIT graduates went off to the US for higher studies, and were exposed to cutting-edge ideas and an environment encouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship. But that could hardly be the only reason, since, though US-based IITian entrepreneurs are more famous and get more media coverage, there’s hardly a dearth of them in India. And the very range of disciplines in which IITians have carved out their own individual niches is fascinating.

Of the 20, some are well-known, like Suhas Patil, perhaps the first IITian to make it big on his own in Silicon Valley; Arjun Malhotra, co-founder of the HCL Group of companies; Vinod Gupta, founder of InfoUSA and friend of Bill Clinton; and Harish Hande, who won the Magasasay Award last year for his work with solar energy in rural India. The authors have also included the outliers, people one does not usually associate with the IITs, like activist Arvind Kejriwal, SPIC MACAY founder Kiran Seth, and Sam Dalal, who set up Funtime Innovations, the world’s largest supplier of self-created products for magicians.

The common factors that bind all these men (and one woman) together are, unsurprisingly, passion, self-belief and persistence. Many of them faced early setbacks that would have daunted lesser humans. A couple of them even faced ruin and starvation, but hung in there, simply because they believed. But for me, the most important takeaway from The Game Changers is that many of these high achievers came from impoverished backgrounds, and used their IIT education to transform their own lives and of countless others around them. This is surely the most signal achievement of the IIT system, one of the fairest in the world, where nothing matters other than raw merit.

Billionaire Vinod Gupta grew in a UP village which had no electricity, running water, toilets or roads. His first encounter with technology, when he was in Class VII, was a transistor radio a friend owned. That device sparked off something that has since defined his life. Ranbir Singh Gupta, founder of Sigma7 Design Group, a leader in mission-critical facilities for businesses, grew up in a Haryana village, which, even today, does not have running water. His father, a struggling businessman, lost a leg to disease, and Ranbir was raised by his grandfather. He heard of the IITs for the first time when he saw an ad for the entrance examination in an Urdu daily. He sat for it, and got through. Praful Kulkarni, founder-CEO of gkkworks, one of the world’s 100 fastest growing design and construction management firms, did not own a pair of shoes till was 11. Looking back at his childhood in a village near Nashik, he told the authors: “I knew I had to study hard to get out of the rural mindset…As far as food was concerned, my family could afford that, but clothing definitely was an issue.”

The founding fathers of the IIT system would surely have been proud of these men, for, invariably, such IITians have given back generously to their communities and alma maters. As far as I know, Gupta was the first alumnus to donate substantial sums of money to an IIT, when he gave IIT Kgp $2 million in 1991 to set up a management school. That opened the alumni endowment floodgates for all the IITs and other Indian institutes.

The Game Changers is informative and may even turn out to be inspiring for many young men and women, who may not necessarily be either IITians or engineers. Of course, the tone throughout is deferential, stopping barely short of awed admiration, but then, I suppose that’s what the book is all about (It would be very unseemly for me to reveal undergraduate memories about a hostel mate of mine who is one of the 20 profiled here). And it’s somehow fitting that two of the authors are still students at Kgp, while the third graduated in 2009. In a way, they’ve already given indication of their entrepreneurial spirits. And of course, they got through the JEE, one look at whose current question papers makes my head spin.