Blabberings on technology, the web, mobile world, India, books, events, communities and everything else (Chautauqua: An old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the participants)

Location: United States

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Tao Te Ching lesson for the Entrepreneur

We join thirty spokes
to the hub of the wheel,
yet it's the center hole
that drives the chariot.

We shape clay
to birth a vessel,
yet it's the hollow within
that makes it useful.

We chisel doors and windows
to construct a room,
yet it's the inner space
that makes it livable

Thus do we
create what is
to use what is not.

- Verse 11, Tao Te Ching

A lesson for entrepreneurs - remember to differentiate between what we create (what is) and what the customers use (what is not).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Of rain, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and PCOs

Out here in Arlington, VA, the dogwood's been out for about two weeks now and yet as I sit here today, I can see the light snowshower from my window. For some reason, I've had India - the colors, the moods, the sounds, the people, the perspectives - spinning through my head today. So, I inserted one of the discs from my Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's qawalli collection into the player, poured a bourbon and let the mood sink in.

Three years isn't that long a time if one thinks about it, yet, sometimes it seems like a long time and college and school in India seems so far behind. I remember strange things from college and even stranger ones from school and then there are those that I could never forget - like the rain...there are few feelings that compare to the elation, the joy that rain brings in Punjab. From the sound of the drops on tin roofs or the excited banter of children gambolling in the rain or the dull monotonous beating of the drops against the cabin windows in Larji, rain enchants, fascinates and mesmerizes people in that part of the world.

...zindagi bhar kay shikvay gilay thay bahut
waqt itna kahaan thaa kay dohraatey hum
ek hichkee mein keh daalee sub daastaan
hum ney kissay ko is taraah mukhtasar kar liya...

The last time I was in India, I just couldn't stop being amazed at the number of PCOs at every corner of every town, every village in India. If there was a corner on a street that was vacant, there was a PCO there. One could talk about technology or the telecom revolution...what I was looking at was a testimony to our fundamental need to communicate. These millions and millions of little shacks connecting the aspirations, dreams, joys and sorrows of a billion people - in a lot of ways the PCO changed India more than anything else. I wonder if the mobile phone will ever do what the PCOs did to India.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Is systemic thinking enough to explain networks?

Weltanschauung is the word Germans use to refer to 'our concept of the nature of reality'. That's only one of the many interesting things I picked up from this interesting essay on systemic thinking by Russell Ackoff. (Thanks to Nivi for posting a link to this essay) I highly recommend that you read the essay and not go with the my little summary of it.

Like a true philosopher, Ackoff draws on the evolution of scientific thinking since Renaissance to build an understanding of why we think the way we think or in his words why we hold a particular "world view", "a concept of the nature of the world" or "theory of reality". The essay makes for interesting reading as a whole, though at moments I thought that he had indeed taken certain liberties in terms of development of his arguments.

To quickly sum up the essay: in the "machine age", our thinking was categorized by three fundamental beliefs: first, complete understanding of universe was possible; second, in order to understand the universe, one had to understand the elements it was composed of and it was possible to break up the entire universe into an aggregation of fundamental elements - and breaking the whole into its parts is called analysis; third, once the elements have been understood, the way they relate together to form the whole needs to be understood, and all relationships can be broken into the fundamental relationship of cause and effect. Newtonian mechanics is a result of this age.

In the age of systems, these three beliefs changed due to various reasons. From Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which first challenged the first belief to Norbert Weiner's Cybernetics and Von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory that finally marked the onset of the systems age, Ackoff presents a series of dilemmas that led to our migration to the age of systems. In the systems age then, the three beliefs changed: first, a complete and total understandng of the universe was not possible, it was an ideal, but not possible; second, the means of understanding changed from analysis to synthesis; third mere cause-and-effect changed into "producer-product" (credited to Arthur Singer Jr.) relationship.

Using systemic thinking, he goes on to describe that the current age is based on automation - automating three key things - observation, communication and thought - the functions of the mind, while the machine age was about mechanization - mechanizing the muscle.

Ackoff wrote this wonderful piece in 1994. However, things have changed since then, and here's some changes - the three parts of this system that Ackoff identified - instruments for observation (measurement instruments), instruments for communicating (telephone, telegraph etc.) and instruments for thought (computer) are competing for survival. The computer is beginning to compete with the phone for resources - something that is not explained in Ackoff's world view. Even if one takes his "organism" argument, "organisms" were a part of a system, and while they had the power to help or harm the whole system, they did not compete with each other for survival in a Darwinian sense because each part of the system performed a specific function that other parts could not. So, while parts could indeed have a "purpose", their "functions" were still mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

However, what happens to the system when its parts compete for survival? Using Aristotle's logic, the above question in itself is incorrect for systems, because by definition, parts of a system don't compete with each other. Are these then not the parts of the system? Or, is this a dilemma for the age of systemic thinking? Are we entering a new age, one of networks, where the beliefs of the system age don't hold?