Thursday, November 26, 2009

Technology for Society

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public are hosting Tech 4 Society, a conference exploring technology, invention and social change, in Hyderabad, India, in February 2010. Find out more about the conference here. This blog post is an entry in their competition to find the official blogger to travel to and cover the event.

This is a rare post because it is on a subject, regarding which I have negligible exposure, experience and expertise. But there, nevertheless, are other strong forces that make me want to write. Interest, intrigue, inclination and introspection. I’m embarking on this post with the intention of being a part of Ashoka-Lemelson Technology for Society Event. But it is also true that I may have anyway written on this topic sooner or later. In fact, I hope this happens to be the first step towards a series of enlightened posts on this topic. So, what is the topic?

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The intersection of Social Change, Invention and Technology! Doesn’t that show signs of an interesting merry-go-round? If Social Change + Invention + Technology is not equal to a Revolution, I don’t know what a revolution is all about. When I started pondering about this, I picked up a sheet of paper and wrote these terms down in three overlapping circles and stared at them for a while and felt overwhelmed; the intersecting area in the middle of the three circles, I realized, is extremely wide, deep and expansive in reality. I am not sure how effective this effort will be given my unfamiliarity with, and the sheer density of, the topic, but here I go, equipped with nothing more than a few reliable facts and some random introspective thoughts. I hope to make the right connections and hear a few resounding clicks.

One of the more important questions in the context of this topic would perhaps be “Why and how does such a revolution start?” I think the heart of the idea lies in the desperate need for a social change. And, I dare say, it starts with an emotional response to a social challenge rather than a commercial ambition. Another dimension would be the technical wherewithal at the disposal of the source of this emotion. The third important aspect would be the energy put into, and the methods leveraged on for, building awareness (a word that scores over marketing in this context) and increasing the reach (of services). Someone with a passion for making a positive difference to the society and a flair for technology or even just technological possibilities is undoubtedly the hero/heroine we are looking for. One look at the NGOs around the world, entities like Ashoka and socially conscious individuals would give us a lot of reasons to be happy about. The focus on Social Entrepreneurship in top-notch B-Schools is also an important turning point. More often than not, the idea flashes at the intersection of technology and a need of the society. Someone who spots and empathizes with (or experiences) a social challenge and draws a connection between it and a technological concept might discover where the two meet. It could be a flash or a consequence of repeated introspection or discussions (with relevant people).

In Business Week’s recent list of most intriguing start-ups (wherein technology plays a critical role), I noticed that most of the ideas could be roughly classified based on what inspires them – Entertainment (games, music etc) Environment (alternative energy sources etc), and, arguably, Empathy (health, education). In my view, social entrepreneurship is associated with the last. It would be wonderful to see such start-ups cover more areas related to education, agriculture, health, infrastructure, governance, and poverty alleviation in the case of developing countries.

Most revolutionary ideas for social change piggyback on mobile technology, techno-scientific instruments and the Internet. I think the impact lies in the radical changes that technology brings to the way we communicate, create and run communities and provide - virtual - services. Technology is just the enabler, but it drastically changes the scale, speed and cost at which we do things. It signifies doing more with less. Arguably, the quality of governance goes up as well. In order to fully leverage on these aspects for social change, the IT ministry and the government need to play a role. We need to have the ideas converted into project plans, advised by knowledgeable and passionate communities. Teams should be given the freedom for implementation but held accountable. Projects should be piloted and then scaled up after observing the initial impact and benefits.

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As I wrote this post, I recalled that I’d voted for “Help social entrepreneurs drive change” in the Google 10^100 Project many weeks ago. This, I might claim, is my only, however absurd, claim to fame in this context. But I seriously hope to walk the talk and contribute in other ways.

I’d like to dedicate this post to Zephyr who is a brilliant embodiment of the above said topic. Zephyr is the author of Freedom’s Way (a highly inspiring book) and is currently leveraging on technology to help individuals and organizations find their true potential via tools such as Meta-Analysis and Vision Driver. As he so beautifully puts it on his blog, he focuses on "Marrying World Wisdoms, Profound Thinking, and the Latest Insights in Science to the Unique Opportunities of Modern Living". Also, it is a great time to dedicate such a post to Zephyr as it was, coincidentally, his birthday yesterday! :-)


Caveman said...

Well Lioness, i’ll just be shooting from my hip if i say something on the subject of ‘Technology’ and how it effects social change; so i’ll be as succinct in my reply to this post as possible.

I completely agree with the results of your random introspective thoughts. In fact, if the conception of the Industrial Revolution in 18th and 19th century Europe is studied carefully, you’ll find that it started as a result of “an emotional response of society to a social challenge” posed by the religiously imposed dogma of the Church, which assumed supreme power after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and its nexus with European Royalty. The shackles were eventually broken during the period of reformation & renaissance in 16th and 17th century Italy, where society, through art, projected humanism as a higher ideal than mere church driven theological concepts; whose effect over the past 12 centuries, incidentally, was only of making the rich in the ‘church and royalty led’ ‘feudal system’, richer, and the poor, poorer.

Access to Arabic art through trade, after the end of the crusades, and the import of technology from China, provided the artistic and “technical wherewithal” to fuel “the source of this emotion”. The newly acquired printing technology from China, helped in “building awareness and increasing the reach” around Europe, of “the energy put in, the methods leveraged” and the resultant effect of a phenomenal upheaval in the making; which came to be known later as the Industrial Revolution.

I find your post a very well structured and presented write-up on the subject.

P.S. as someone once told me, somewhere else, at some other time, in some other context, “brevity and Jai will never be on the same page.” So, my apologies for the long comment :( But you see, i haven’t given up on the conciseness of communication yet... i’m still a work in progress ;)

Nimmy said...

@Jai: Man! Your example makes me believe I can, after all, think! ;-) Jokes apart, a very thoughtful response, Jimba. I don't particularly have a strong memory - which means I rarely learn from history. So, you know how much I value your comment! 8-)

BTW, I know this might sound very provocative but does this mean that sometimes knowledge derived from "random introspection" is actually = knowledge derived from "historical facts"!!?? Gee...

Caveman said...

Hey, what’s so provocative about it? O Lioness of the zodiac circle, I find what you said very insightful and full of wisdom ;)

I believe all knowledge – past, present and future is held in a reservoir of universal consciousness (sort of like the internet). All one needs to do is to tune into it :)

Mind you, not everyone is able to tap in, and the human mind has a limit to the amount of data that it can hold; which is only because human beings have a limited life span which is not enough to gather all knowledge.

Okay, forget about all that. Try this:-

1. If you were to draw a ‘straight horizontal line’ on a piece of paper and place an arrow-head at its right end, you would have the ‘arrow of time’ (Stephen Hawkings loves talking about this stuff). Let’s suppose you are sitting at the head of the arrow; then everything behind you would be time and knowledge that is past.

Now, draw more ‘arrow-heads’ on the line at random distance from each other – all pointing in the same direction, i.e. right. Imagine that you are sitting on one of the first few ‘arrow-heads’ that you’ve drawn. All segments of the line behind you would be time and knowledge in the past; where you are sitting will be time and knowledge in the present; and all segments and arrow-heads ahead of you are time and knowledge in the future.

The ‘arrow of time’, incidentally, is not a straight line, it is ‘curved’. However, it seems straight to us because our life span is miniscule when compared to the enormous scale that ‘time’ encompasses. (think Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’)

2. Now, draw a circle on the piece of paper. Imagine that the horizontal line you had drawn on top is actually a small segment of the circle. What do you get? You get Time and Knowledge moving in a circle, overlapping each other - over and over again. So what you presume to be the future is also the past, what you presume to be the past is also the future, and what you presume to be the present is both the past and the future.

Time and Knowledge move on one and the same plane. This plane is the ‘universal consciousness’. Tap into it and you’ll get unlimited knowledge ;) (do notice the shape of you have just drawn. does it remind you of a number?)

3. Okay, I know you know this one, but here i go anyway: when you see the light of a star at night, do you see the star as it is at this moment, or do you see it as it was ‘light-years’ back? Knowledge flows with ‘light-time’. If you travel faster than light, you’ll see the future. But nothing can go faster than light, right? Wrong. There is one thing that can outrun light and time - “random introspection” or unstructured thoughts. :D


Btw, it is said that ‘true wisdom’ can only be attained in two ways. The first is to collect all knowledge from the universal pool of consciousness. And the second is to live ‘nowhere’ or in the ‘now’ and ‘here’, which is the present ;)


Howz Jerry ol’ boy doing? :?

Nimmy said...

You're a wise bloke, Jai! :-) I am thrilled with all these discussions and your brilliant comments.

I've heard of the circle metaphor before. The bit about tapping into the Universal Consciousness is always fascinating and intriguing. I can see you know this 'stuff' really well and these thoughts come naturally to you! I think you're going to do really well in life....whatever your ambition happens to be! :-) March on and spread the cheer and wisdom! :-)


Jerry boy is doing fine...which reminds me....we are supposed to have a boxing match today. He, of course, decides to break the rules and snap at me once in a while.:-)

Caveman said...

Thank you very much ma'am....... but wise?? Nah... am anything but that. You’ll see...

Ambition...? hmmm. Ambition in India, no matter what people have to say about it, is synonymous with making heaps of money to keep up with the Joneses and eventually using people like doormats to go one up on them. Nothing wrong with it though. As all spiritual gurus say, “there is nothing good or bad in this world; it all depends on how you look at it.” I believe in that stuff too; but i still don’t care much for social status, one-upmanship, show-off tactics or conspicuous consumption. From the time i was a child, I’ve wanted to be Superman, a Gladiator (a la Spartacus), a Commando, an Astronaut, a National Geographic Reporter (i think reading all those Nat Geo magazines as a kid messed up my brain), an Archaeologist, a Geologist, a Park Naturalist (in South Africa or Kenya), a Cowboy in the wild west taking on evil Gunslingers, a Private Eye, a Geneticist, and even a professional Golfer (this one was extremely serious). It’s never been about money. It’s always been about helping someone or for the love of something and never about hurting people so that i can sit pretty. That...... makes me anything but wise...... it makes me stupid...... coz i don’t get the logic that if one person is a winner, the other has to be a loser by default. Why on earth can't everyone be a winner???? If you know of a certain Vijay Amritraj, you’ll know what i mean

Anyway, if it qualifies as ‘it’, then i’d say that my ambition in life is to travel (in fact, backpack) over the next 20 to 30 years, all around the world, with someone i love; and i also want to desperately help an impoverished family in India build itself a home. Now, if that requires money, i’ll work my arse off for it.

I sure need all the blessings i can get to accomplish this stuff. The only trouble is, at 30, i still don’t understand what doing well for myself really means. Forrest Gump once said, “Stupid is as Stupid does.” I told you i’m stupid :(


How was the boxing match over the weekend? Did Jerry manage to bite off a chunk of his ol’ lady???? hehe :D

Nimmy said...

:-) Let's agree to disagree. My definition of wise is different from Society's (or your) definition! LoL. But if you insist...then being stupid is good! ;-) I hope your dreams come true and you go around scaring (:-P) the whole world in the next 20-30 years. :-)


Jerry took the boxing match a bit too lightly and decided to shoo me off with a stern look in not more than a minute. ;-)

Caveman said...

What on earth are you supposed to do when folks keep agreeing with everything that you say!!?? Yuck! what an insipid world it would be, if everyone agrees with each other! I’d rather sit back home and scrap with myself then!! Thank God women are from Venus, and we men are from all kinda weird looking galaxies from the most un-evolved, remotest and stinkiest parts of the universe.

Who is that chap who said, “I may not agree with what you say, but i’ll defend to death your right to disagree with me” (or something on that line)??? The dude’s my HERO :-)

Jerry musta thought, ‘Groan! Not her again!!’, and then musta said: “SNAP!! BOW-WOW!! GRRRR!!”

Picked up a roan-coloured Cocker Spaniel about a month back. Zara’s a real live-wire and i’ve already had my fair share of battles with her.... and i sport cuts, bruises and bandages that vouch for that ;)

Nimmy said...

What a sport...this Hero of yours! What a sport! Splendid sport!! Topping! :-) What?


Jerry is always thinking such things unless I limit myself to head-patting, ear-scratching, paw-examining and other such harmless gestures.


Wow!!!!!!! A Cocker Spaniel???? How cuteeeeeeeeeee~! :-) And what a beautiful name, I say! Zara....inspired by Zinta in Veer Zara or what? Here's hoping you and Zara have many more such battles and the latter succeeds in finishing you off sooner than later! *Chuckle* :-) [You inspire me to be open to cuts and bruises. The minute Jerry tries to snap at me, I find myself running at break-neck speed and screaming like Aunt Dahlia (audible in the next country). So, Jerry generally avoids taking the risk, wise fella that he is]

Caveman said...

Wow!! Jerry allows you to exam his paws for ticks???? Unbelievable!! How do you manage to do that without getting nipped at :? ?????


I never realised the Zinta – Zara connection, until now. Wanted to name the doggie “Xara”, but then thought i’d be complicating the issue, esp. since the maid already calls her “Jaara”.... eeeeks!!
Wait... lemme count off all the major cuts/bites:- one 1cm vertical cut on the line that separates the top digit from the middle digit of my left ring finger; one bite mark on the outer edge of the lifeline (towards the thumb) on my right palm; one bite mark on my right thumb; one 1/2cm cut just over my right fore-finger knuckle; and one 1cm cut on my right lil-finger knuckle. All from a three month old teeny-weeny Cocker Spaniel puppy who thinks my hands are some sort of alien creatures that need to be bitten and chewed on like a juicy bone! Zara thinks it’s a game..... boo-hoo-hoo, sniff :‘(


....woke up the neighbours from their peaceful slumber with a piercing “eeeeeeee-yoWWWWW!!!” earth shattering scream when I accidentally poured aftershave lotion on one of the cuts this morning! The cut was RED, SWOLLEN & THROBBING all day long! :’( To make matters worse, my colleagues have been giving the cuts and bites curiously oblique glances :(

What fun :D


P.S. i zink i know the ‘blind men and the elephant’ analogy. have written the poem here on my blog. I zink i won’t comment on the KM parts of your blog (although i find it quite fascinating) coz i’m not equipped to handle the high level of intellectual thinking it requires and in all probability will sink if i even attempt conversation on the subject. So, i’ll reserve my comments to the non-KM parts of your blog, whenever you do write anything on that line.... i zink :)

Nimmy said...

Yeah...! Jerry is a lamb! An awesome lamb. He even allows folks to give him a long bath, dance around him in a haphazard manner, look straight into his eye and recite the Gita in a stern manner etc.


LoL at the maid calling Zara, "Jaara". Don't lose hope. :-) I bet you that you'll get to hear a dozen other versions and flavours of the name in the years to come.


It is a jaw-dropping experience for me to see people who are immune to pain and let their pets sink their (the pet's) teeth into them (the so-called human). I might never learn to be so brave. sniff... :'(


Wow! Thanks for that link! Know what? It is a very familiar story but I don't remember when I last read the poem! Was fantastic to read it again. The impact is so much more! more thing...KM is truly fascinating but I don't zink it needs a high level of intellectual on earth can you explain my survival in the field? ;-)