Five important questions technology can’t answer

An hour-long internet outage today made me feel ashamed of myself. I was ashamed because I felt helpless without the connection even for the short period of time. While a vast proportion of humanity lacks basic amenities such as clean drinking water, nutritious food, and proper shelter, I’ve made my life so complex that I can’t go on without something I didn’t have twenty years ago. Is this what life has come to? Is this what I’ve become?

Has my life come to this?

My parents, grandparents, and generations before them were born in villages in eastern India. The walked to school and studied under the flicker of lanterns. They drew water from wells. They wrote actual letters.

In the last few decades, our lives became “simpler” with electricity, running water, and telephones. Sometimes utilities  were available, and other times they weren’t. That was the only thing that was simple.

Then, in the early Nineties, cable television, the internet, and a liberalized economy opened us up to to the rest of the world. Soon we were relying on cell phones, mp3 players and laptops. We were buying Hondas and Toyotas. We were traveling on-site for IT projects and abroad for higher studies. Our BPOs became attuned to the needs of foreign clients in global timezones. Ironically, what was supposed to make our lives simpler actually made them more complex!

Today I’ve identified five technological questions that technology can’t answer.

1. What is the resolution on a television and audio quality on a stereo system that will satisfy us?

The first television my parents had was a 14 inch black-and-white. Once they could afford color, they bought a Sony Trinitron which is still in working order. They bought a VCR and the VHS format was in vogue for decades too. Not these days – in the last decade, I’ve bought a couple of television sets (including one in high-definition), home theater systems, and DVD players. Very recently I became the owner of a Blu-ray player. I am sure all of these will soon be replaced by newer technologies. But does 7.1 surround sound turn an out-of-tune song into ear-candy?  I can sit and watch Transformers II a hundred times in high-definition glory (actually I can’t watch it even once), but I still won’t get the same feeling I get when I watch grainy prints of Pather Panchali. How many pixels do we really need on our screens to feel satisfied?

2. How many redundant devices do we need to feel secure?

I remember the day I got my first digital wristwatch. I was so proud! Flash-forward to the day I bought my first mp3 player (really a hard-drive in disguise). I was pretty happy that day too. I own three laptops, four generations of mp3 players, four external hard drives, and at least half dozen flash drives.  I can safely say I’m not atypical. Decades ago, I used to own music cassettes. Now I have CDs that I never listen to and at least ten copies of each song backed up on my devices. How many copies do I really need to feel secure?

3. How many software updates and patches do we need until we have software we can use?

When you buy a piece of software, you don’t expect it to be perfect. You expect it to do the job that you want satisfactorily. After all, if a software company ever created the “perfect” software it would go out of business, since there would be no need for patches, updates, and support. I understand the need for security updates for programs to counter threats. I understand the need for updated programs that interface better with newer technologies especially in light of Moore’s law. What I do not understand is the need for multiple versions of programs that do simple tasks such as viewing standard graphical files.

4. How many buttons are necessary on a remote control?

Have you ever used all the buttons on the 10 remote controls that you have in front of you? “On/off”, “play”, “pause” and “stop” are probably the ones you use most. I once pressed the wrong button on the remote control for my DVD-recorder and got trapped in a sub-menu filled with symbols that made no sense. It was quite an existential experience since there was no way for me to get out. “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself,” as Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. So, I got up and unplugged the monstrosity. (I admit I have never pushed the “random” button on my Kenwood home-theater system out of fear of disturbing the order of the natural world).

5. How many razor blades do men need for a truly close shave?

My grandfather used to shave using Wilkinson Sword razor blades. I’ve never used a safety razor in my life. I’ve used electronic shavers a couple of times, but find that my skin usually turns beet red, which makes me look like I’ve been swigging the bottle early in the morning. I usually use cartridges. In high school, I started shaving with cartridges that had one blade. Then I promoted my stubble to the “revolutionary” Gillette Sensor which had two blades which was advertised to help lift and cut. Then I flew for a few years with three blades at Mach3. Now, I’m on interplanetary orbit with the five-blade Fusion. How many blades will I end up using to shave? Seven? Ten? Twenty?

Technology can’t answer these five questions. We need to understand human psychology instead.

Text: © 2009-2011, Anirban

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Bt brinjal bharta – a saga of lau and whylence.

I couldn’t fail to be amused. India’s Environment Minister Jayram Ramesh calls for the introduction of a genetically-modified insect-resistant crop plant dubbed the Bt brinjal and the nation goes crazy.

First, I owe my global readers an explanation. What is known in Indian English as the brinjal is also known elsewhere as the eggplant and the aubergine. In many of our dozens of languages, we lovingly refer to it as the baingan (pronounced bangin’) or the  begun (pronounced begun).

Indians have a love-hate relationship with the brinjal. On the one hand, our poets pen lines exhorting Brinjal Kumari. We don’t have Brangelina, we have Brinjalina. The brinjal is India’s most eaten vegetable – shining in bhartas and bhajis and impostors like the tomato are relegated to the second-tier as evident from the moniker vilayati baingan or “foreign brinjal” used to describe the succulent cousin.

On the other hand, some of us can’t stand the venerated veggie. Eating poorly chosen or prepared brinjals can cause throats to itch and swell in those with allergies. Some others that aren’t allergic, find the mushy consistency of the cooked product extremely disconcerting.

The Bt brinjal plant debate underscores the current khichdi. Indian farmers would definitely benefit from crops resistant to insects, a trait conferred by the modification. But there are prominent scientists who oppose the introduction including one who calls it the “single largest disaster.” (I really wish the article had elaborated. “Single largest disaster” since when? The Partition of India? The Second Battle of Panipat? Nader Shah’s sacking of Delhi?)

I propose an alternative use for the Bt brinjal. Let’s have farmers grow the crop and then use it to make insect repellents. I’ve even thought of a name for the baingan spray – Bangon. Yes, I know you will all rush out to thank me.

You’re welcome.

Footnote: Incidentally, a research paper published today by Indian scientists led by Dr. Asis Datta of the National Institute of Plant Genome Research in New Delhi describes a genetically-modified tomato strain with increased shelf life; that one barely made a splash in the papers.

© 2009-2011, Anirban