Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Most Important Thing My Father Taught Me

I was inspired to write this after I saw a blog on the same topic.

When I was in 4th class I once scored poorly in a test. I think it was English. I didn't talk about it to my parents with the fear of being scolded. When I finally revealed, I also blurted out why this delay. On this my father didn't react with anger. He merely said that I shouldn't make such a big deal of the score I get in a subject. It's important to understand the subject. Scores fall in line automatically.

The gratification of not being reprimanded and the joy of getting a new perspective had a permanent effect on me. It appeared intuitive to me to see that trying to understand a subject in the same way as the author himself was necessary aspect of actually understanding anything. I started reading things with the end goal in mind of day-dreaming that I was the originator of the work. It needed deep understanding. I got into the mode of asking repeatedly: 'Is there anything I have not understood? Is there anything I seem to be taken for granted?' This day-dreaming style of learning things opened to me joys of learning which are non-existent to rot-learners.

Learning to understand revealed to me why becoming a scientist is such a cool thing. I could see that it's not about being (or proving oneself to be) intelligent. It's about understanding something clearly, asking the right questions till the point where I and the creator of that knowledge are one in our understanding of the topic.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Two Thoughts about Technology

Both thoughts have been languishing in my head for long. Recently they got some space in my conscious mind while attending a very insightful talk about the life-cycles of technologies.

Thought 1 -- Falling into the Chasm
It was about the Tornado theory of how technologies evolve and how businesses get created around them. In that there was one particular concept of a chasm that exists between early adopters and early majority market segments. It says that most consumers are such that they wait for the technology to get proven for its usefulness before they adopt it. They constitute the majority segment of the market. On the other hand, early adopters test out the technology due to its technical appeal, or simply due to its novelty. When a company introduces a technology into the market, it must first hit the early adopter market. Gradually, as the technology matures, the company must adapt its strategy to start covering the early majority market segment. This transition is crucial, as in, many technologies die during this transition as the its proponents make some strategic mistakes at this juncture. This transition point has been visualised as a chasm; the event of failing at this point is called falling into the chasm.

About this, I had one small thought to add. That is, aren't there technologies which are designed to fall into the chasm? In the sense, their not making it into the next market segment may not actually be an accident, but a designed thing. The technology may well be a stepping stone or throw-away prototype or pilot for a more mature technology. The example I have upfront in my mind is pager technology. It was very popular for a short while with the more savvy and business class people. But just when it was graduating into a mature technology, it was promptly taken over by mobile-phones. I don't know the details, but I would say that mobile-phones are a similar technology. Both the technical and business aspects of these two technologies seem to have great overlap. Without really trying to prove my point, I would say that technology-makers must have foreseen that mobile-phone technology, if realised, is a superior technology to pager, and would overtake it sooner or later. But introducing pagers into the market temporarily might actually have helped in many ways. First, it was easier to implement. Second, it created the demand for such a convenience and created awareness. Third, the infrastructure that would be required to set up mobile-phone technology got created to a large extent when pagers were introduced. Fourth, the running of pager business must have acted like a tutorial for the mobile-providers on how to run the mobile-phone business in the short future. In short, pagers were designed to fall into the chasm; it wasn't an accident. It paved the way for mobile-phones to cross the chasm with perfect ease.

Of course, all the above is not rooted in my awareness of how the mobile-technology actually evolved, but it's just a conjecture of how it must have happened. More than that, you could take that as a hypothetical example of the main point I am trying to make: Falling into the chasm needn't always be an accident; but could be a well-thought business strategy to ease the entry of a superior technology into the majority market by sacrificing its inferior alter-ego.

Thought 2 -- Basic Nature of Technology
This was not really part of the talk, but it appears as a nagging possibility. It might be so significant as to be a distinct indicator that our race is actually programmed to self-destruct. sooner or later. The conjecture is that there doesn't seem to exist any technology capable to reduce overall consumption of resources. Mathematically, say, there's a work W that a population P does resulting in consumption of resources amounting to C. The consumption per person is CPP = C/P. Enter technology T. It reduces the consumption per person CPP to CPP'. This makes it lucrative to consumers to adapt T due to their personal gain. However, the total consumption changes from C to C', and ironically C' is always greater than C. This is because, the number of people who consume T is no more P, but P', and P' >> P. That makes total consumption C' = CPP' . P' > CPP . P > C. Moreover, even with all its merit, T would never make economic sense to the businessmen who push it into the market unless the above happens. In other words, there can never be a technology which really reduces consumption. All it will do is to drastically increase the profitability of consumption, thus causing orders of magnitude rise in overall consumption.

As a concrete example, trains cause tremendous reduction in per person consumption of fuel as compared to individually arranged travel. But, the rail business would never be profitable unless large volumes of people travel, resulting in overall increase in fuel consumption.

Another example. information technology has resulted in tremendous reduction in the cost of communication of one unit of information. However, none of the business thriving around IT, be it computer software and hardware, mobile, etc. would have made economic sense unless there had been such manifold rise in the flow of information that the overall expenditure on information handling has grown several times than before.

In fact, the power of certain technologies lies in so altering the behaviour of consumers that they end up spending more resources (count in money) on the same task due to the ease of consumption. For example, even though the cost of travelling per kilometre is perhaps less than before, it's so convenient to travel that we end up spending much more on travel these days than before. Similarly about communication. In other words, human race doesn't seem to have invented a technology that's so powerful that, even after accommodating business concerns, it results in an overall reduction, or at least maintenance, of the consumption of resources in the task that technology aids in. If this conjecture is true, we are doomed to continue inventing technologies because they make good business sense for the businessmen and individual consumers, but which will continue the ever accelerating approach to an ultimate destruction of our race resulting from exhaustion of natural resources.

If someone provides me with a counterexample to disprove the above conjecture, I will bless him/her from the bottom of my heart.