January 2006

Bytes for All…

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It is that time of the year, when the trials and tribulations of the year that went by are chosen to be temporarily forgotten. Old ties are renewed. New ones are strengthened. You make merry with friends, and enemies tend to be overlooked. It's the beginning of a brand new year.  As the world marks the 1st anniversary of the deadly Tsunami that hit South Asia last year, we at Bytes For All look forward to an eventful year and a Tsunami of ideas on our ever-increasing and dynamic readers list.

Cheap computers: real machines or toys?
Come 2006 and schoolchildren in Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and Nigeria will begin receiving the first few million textbook style computers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) media lab run by Nicholas Negroponte. These small lap-top style, hand-cranked lime-green devices runs on Open Source software (Linux), can set up their own wireless networks and are intended to bring computer access to areas that lack reliable electricity. Hear about “Open Source” and its bound to spark adverse reactions from the custodians of proprietary software. Craig Barrett chairman of Intel Corp. has called this laptop a “gadget”. He further fuels the debate saying, “Gadgets are not always successful”. Barrett elaborates that; people in developing countries would be looking for a full-functionality computer like a regular PC, not gadgets that have to be hand-cranked for power. He said that Intel would work in providing low cost affordable full function PCs, and not handheld devices or gadgets. This sparked off an array of opinions on our readers list. Tom Brough had this to say; the price and capability of a computer does not matter. Cheap computers do not necessarily mean incapable computers. By Intel's standards then, even our indigenous SIMPUTER would be termed a “gadget”! Does the Microsoft-Intel lobby sense a threat to its market?  In Tom's words its very easy for a multi million-dollar industry representative to trample on the sandcastles of a minuscule non-profit organization trying to think out real solutions for real problems, scaring them with conflicting parameters like price and performance. According to Tom we all started with computers with processing capabilities much, much less than what are available today. A personal computer of today may be equivalent to a super-computer of yester years! What is important is not how pricey or powerful a computer is, but the opportunity that it presents to the user to learn new skills. In that sense a “gadget” too is a powerful machine because it has the ability to tickle the gray cells.  Terry King added that obsolete does not necessarily mean “useless”. He gave the example of a version of Linux called UBUNTU, which ran as a complete operating system on even an old PII machine. Satish Jha provided the balancing comments. MIT's $100 laptop is fine, because it passes the moral test of providing cheap computing power to the developing world. However we do not have to get carried away by morality that “what is cheap is good”. But rather focus on whether “what is free is supported” or not. Guess, the perpetual war between “open source” and “proprietary” is far from over.

Read the story of the $100 laptop at

Power of ICT
Our reader, Dipti Kulkarni raised the following interesting questions on the power of ICT. One: if ICT's all over the world are being installed to strengthened democracy, than is the process of installing ICT's itself democratic? What she means is whether all stakeholders involved in the process get a fair say or not. Second: What is meant by “lack of information to remote communities”? Does this information represent what the communities actually needed or what the proponents of ICT wanted to provide? Third: How do technocrats justify the astronomical sums of money spent on ICT, when plans to sustain the infrastructure are not clearly laid down? This even includes so-called sustainable technology like community-radio.

Fourth: Are technocrats pulling wool over every ones eyes by accepting international funding when they are really not sure whether ICT can eradicate the problems of their societies? Fifth: Whether the questions of digital divide are addressed in the social context of caste, creed and gender discrimination. Dipti feels that ICT implementation would have hugely benefited from a healthy dialogue between technocrats and social scientists, and also from active participation from the communities.

These two things are sorely missing in our scheme of plans. Lisa Thurston added to the question mark on ICT saying that we may be investing a little too much optimism in ICT, but at the same time if we focus too much on the negativity of ICT, than we may never be able, to take off. She too seconded Dipti's question whether there is awareness among ICT implementers for the need for proper consultation with recipients and beneficiaries of ICT's. Earl Mardle of KeyNet Consultancy had this to reply: He gave the example of the Jhai Foundation, which built a PC to the specifications of the Lao communities. We can as well say that the Lao communities were the designers of the PC, though the technological know how for the same may have come from scientists in the foundation. The foundations approach was based solely on human relationships. This in some way answers Dipti's fifth question that there does exist in some part of the world communication between technocrats and local communities.

Coming to Dipti's second question: Earl gave the example of the Jhai Foundation's coffee production and marketing project. Where it involved taking an existing resource and applying new skills and networks to increase its value to the local community. Due to the success of the above two projects of the Jhai Foundation, the local communities came to trust the technocrats. Earl feels that local communities already know their needs, they do not have to be imposed with views on “what they need” by ICT implementers. They require someone who will listen to what they have to say, and genuinely help them technologically to satisfy their “needs”. According to Earl, what ICT implementers need to make their interventions works are, humility, curiosity and a willingness to learn. Without those, we are designing for failure. Ananya Guha of IGNOU also concurred with Dipti's views that there should be a dialogue between technocrats and communities.  She opined that that we should not get carried away with operating ICT at the grass root level. She also pointed out at the aspect of “technology appropriateness”. I.e. which technology should be used where? Subbiah Arunachalam of IGNOU opined that some of the key actors in ICT for development are not necessarily techno-savvy. What is required is vision and insight. And there exist organizations like IDRC and SDC who undertake ICT only after careful study. It's not fair to dismiss all technocrats as too bullish with no knowledge of ground realities! Satish Jha was of the view that unsuccessful ICT projects are seldom because there was no dialogue between social scientists and technocrats. It was more because of “aid” culture practiced by technocrats. Unless technocrats are groomed to market their “product” with value added services for their customers, ICT initiatives may not always succeed. Questions and more questions!

For now most of Dipti's questions remain unanswered. But as Satish Jha put it simply saying it's difficult to answer the above questions unless one has gone through the evolutionary cycle of ICT implementation oneself. 

Have scientific labs in India delivered?
Fredrick Noronha of BFA, posted an interesting item on the theme: “Booming Computer sector seen as a Mixed Blessing”. Many senior scientists in India felt that even though IT had prevented “brain drain”, it was now acting as a “brain sink”, i.e. the cream of talent in the country opting for IT based careers, where they were paid exorbitant salaries. Today's youth no longer wanted to opt for careers in science. Top executives of the IT industry however dismissed this concern as “disguised envy” for the IT sector. This article invited myriad inputs from our readers. One of our readers Mohan Das, seemed to agree with the point of “disguised envy”. He queried whether scientific institutions in post independence India had been addressing the technical issues that the country faced or had they turned into “useless, irrelevant white elephants and ivory towers housing self centered scientists”. Subbiah Arunachalam concurred saying that there was no lab-to-land and land-to-lab flow of knowledge. I.e. there was a communication gap between scientists and communities.

We are reminded of the same view echoed in the thread  “Power of ICT”. Satish Jha enlightened us with his experiences in interactions with top CSIR executives. About our scientific labs (SL) Jha observes as follows: SL's do not believe in management. Trained managers do not run SL's; rather scientists climbing up the ladder run them. SL's do not work to either national or global benchmarks. SL's do not have a clearly defined and workable vision that can translate to goals, objectives and strategies that can be corrected accordingly midcourse. SL's foster the typical bureaucratic culture of “inertia”.

They are inward looking and not open to “change” and “judgment by others”. Those within the system who seek change are up against a dead wall, since they do not know where to begin. Bibek Kumar Anand of “SAMPADA” echoed Jha's views saying; “rule bound organizations are anathema to the propagation of true scientific temper in the society”. Jha concluded saying that, regression in SL's has to stop because huge investment in R&D is made by the govt. every year. Its time SL's access where India stands technologically compared to the rest of the world. Chart out a course and march forward. In conclusion one would say, India and any developing nation does not need a white elephant; it needs a scientific laboratory that delivers.




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