Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What I picked up from "The folly of finding what works"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
“The impact of information technology on the Global Economy” was the title of my research project last semester. 2 weeks into the project and I was still finding newer things to study. Around the same time, my professor in charge advised me that I better stop searching for more topics and better get to work.

I, on the other hand wanted to make this a comprehensive study on the impact of IT. So I wanted to include Overview of the situation today, the booms and busts, the venture capitalists, web1.0, web 2.0, the long tail, Outsourcing, trickle down effect, ICT for development, mobile communications. Phew. No wait, there's more, e-commerce, e-governance, case studies of famous companies, the semiconductor industry, exports, imports, recession. Relate that to GDP, employment, education, productivity, FDI...

Did I leave out anything?

Clearly, if I did manage to include it all, I'd have a PhD thesis, which I would have sold and made money from.

Just one problem.

This would never get finished. In fact, my project wouldn't even start. I'd be so busy finding newer things to study about that I'd hardly put pen to paper and actually document anything. Instead I would just be reading and researching on every single item that was remotely related to the IT industry.

Moving on,

This May, when I started my summer internship, I was fascinated by the health care industry. In particular, primary health care. The numbers were huge and I was overwhelmed by the scale of their operations. So when I had to pick my project, I didn’t want to leave out anything. I tried to include everything, using variety of economic formulas, different theories. My internship coordinator asked me why I don’t stay for a 6 month fellowship. As flattered as I was, I also got the underlying hint. I understood that given the time frame it was unfeasible to carry out the study with so many parameters. Heck, I wouldn’t be able to make sense of all that data. So I picked one or two core areas and focused on them.

As far as personal experiences go, these were the first two instances that came to my mind while I was reading Ken Banks' blog post titled The folly of "finding what works". He brings up a very valid point:
As with the confusion caused by multiple interpretations of sustainable development, the social mobile space is struggling with its own definitions of concepts such as collaboration, empowerment, scale, “enabling environment” and “finding what works”. We hear these terms on a daily basis, yet we never stop to ask what they really mean. What does an “enabling environment” really look like, and do we really need one like people say we do? Who decides what scale really means, and how important scaling really is? We all nod in agreement when people use these terms at conferences, but refrain from questioning them through fear of appearing ignorant.

The “folly of finding what works” strikes particular resonance. Although mobiles for development has only been around for a few short years, surely by now we’ve identified at least a few things that work? Isn’t that the purpose of all these reports, blog posts, tweets, projects, conferences, workshops, barcamps and academic studies?

After six years-or-so of social mobile, we’re surely at the point where we can throw some real resources around at least a few tools? Surely we can pool our collective skills, knowledge and resources into helping at least a few reach their full social change potential? Instead of sitting around talking about our commitment to social mobile, we need to show our true colours and act, regardless of who gets credit for those actions.

Reading this also started another chain of thought in my head, the credit for which has to be given to Stan Thakaekara. In the course of what would turn out to be a vociferous debate on issues relating to the environment, education, caste and equity amongst other things, Stan gave us some gyaan on how he feels that technology hasn't quite lived up to its promise. How technology hasn't quite created an equitable world. How the more answers we try to seek, the farther we seem to move from actually arriving at the truth. And instead we're just making the world worse off.

But then what is the truth anyway?

Coming back, Stan was of firm belief that the divide is getting larger and larger. Technology is giving only a few answers. It's a balloon effect, where squeezing one side of a balloon makes it expand in the other direction. You can't ignore the consequences and certainly can't escape them. So we have to now come up with clean technologies in order to clean up all the mess that we created over the years* **. Jeffrey Sachs also says that it's not that we don't have fossil fuels, we have plenty of it (maybe not oil, but coal surely), its about using it in an optimized manner.

Jeez, I digress again.

When Stan first told me all this, it did strike a chord somewhere but I was still too mesmerized by capitalism. I now realize, I didn't quite understand capitalism. Maybe I still haven't. But after having read works of Jeffrey Sachs, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Joseph Stiglitz, I have been exposed to a whole new way of thinking. These guys aren't dishing out dung. They all emphasize on the same thing, there's little time.

Bottom line being:
The reforms have to take place now, the access to credit/capital for the poor has to happen now
and heck social media for development better deliver now. Because everyday, a kid is losing his life in Africa (and India and Latin America and Bangladesh and...). Like Ken said, we need to stop talking and start doing now.

*Of course there are numerous theories which say that we would have reached this stage anyway even had it not been for the pollution, but lets leave that for another day.

** And then there's yet another theory that says that no matter what you do, we're way past the threshold. So we have to release chemicals in the air such as sulphates to cool our system (remember the TED talk on climate change? No? Here)

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